Yes, I know the blog’s been a bit quiet lately. The studio has actually been quite busy with the Widcombe project and a couple of small freelance things, but mainly I’ve been preparing for a lot of commitments and events outside Bath in November. I’ve started the songwriting PhD (at Surrey) and had an initial meeting with my supervisor, Prof Allan Moore. The working title of the PhD is ‘investigating creative interactions in collaborative songwriting’ and I’ve been reading background materials for my initial literature review. I’ll probably post some more detail soon about the PhD for any interested songwriters or other musicians & academics – I’m hoping that the blog will be useful in this respect, because I want to (continue to) amass a comprehensive list of songwriting-related contacts, publications and interviews etc. So it’s always great to hear any recommendations that people may have for songwriting books or analyses – or, for that matter, any experienced collaborators who want to find out more about the study. There seems to be only one book that deals specifically with collaborative songwriting – Walter Carter’s The Songwriter’s Guide To Collaboration. Not that the PhD is going to be exclusive academic – it will involve interviews with songwriters and a lot of actual co-writing (it combines musicology and composition).
Part of the work involves investigating the psychology of creativity, in musicians and others, so it’s fortuitous that there’s a conference next week at Surrey about this very subject.
And I’m gearing up for a week in Scotland at the end of November working on the Burnsong project. Burnsong is a Scottish (Arts Council) organisation that promotes songwriting – not the songs of Burns himself, but of the values and beliefs he expressed in his work. They run an international songwriting competition, and the ten winning songwriters spend a week writing and recording at a remote farmhouse in Dumfries. We’re then going to perform the songs at a one-off gig (on 30th Nov) at the Scottish Parliament building, which will be broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland. Apparently we’re setting up the whole band on the staircase pictured – I’m intrigued!
Producer Chris Blanden and I worked on the Burnsong project back in 2007 (the songwriting venue was the same, but the 2007 gig was at BBC Glasgow). For 2009, the whole Burnsong event promises to be larger in scale, due partly to the fact that 2009 is the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. We’ve already heard the winning songs, and there’s some good stuff there, from traditional Scottish folk music to acoustic singer-songwriters, and (I kid you not) a plate-smashing song. I’m planning to blog the project every day anyway (as we did in 2007), and as before will try to get as many MP3s and lyrics online as possible; it’s possible that the project will generate 50+ songs (10 writers, 7 days) and Chris is pretty adept at producing good-quality acoustic demos from the first playback sessions.
And now some bad news. I’m locked out of the studio! Rainwater found its way into the wood of the exterior door, which has now swelled so much that I can’t get it open. Hoping for some dry weather, and that it will shrink a little, so I can book a Man With A Plane. And a guitar recording project came in this week with a 7-day turnaround. So I’m going to do this using Chris’ help and a mobile recording setup. Which, as he says, kinda proves the point that we, er, don’t need studios any more…
The studio has been busy since its completion. Or rather, its near-completion. Everything is sorted technically so I have 16 simultaneous inputs available, 12 of which have valve pres via the M1F. Howard will be returning soon to fit the XLR wall plates and do the relevant soldering.
So in the absence of wall plates I’m just poking XLRs through the holes in the walls (which are now the only route that sound can travel between the rooms – a pretty clear example of how effective the studio’s soundproofing is).
The studio will have three main functions – a recording/co-writing space for commercial song projects and work relating to my Songwriting PhD; a production facility for the CDs that go on the cover of my guitar books (e.g. the next book in the Complete Junior Guitarist series); and, er, everything else – i.e. whatever other musical opportunities arise that sound fun or interesting. In this third category I’ve undertaken three projects recently – a Techno remix of a James Taylor song, a community-based recording of some local people’s original songs, and (mainly to test out multiple drum mic-ing) a prog-rock drum session for a couple of CM graduates, Chris and Tom.
The Guitar book
The Complete Junior Guitarist was published in Sept 2009 and early indications are that it’s doing OK in the shops. The people at Music Sales tell me that there’s a dearth of good-quality guitar teaching material aimed around ‘Key Stage 2′ (i.e. junior school kids aged 8-11), so this is the book I’ve tried to write – not patronisingly full of pictures of anthropomorphic cartoon animals as younger starter books can be, but not based on particular bands, styles or artists, as more teen-focused books often are. So the book ended up quite ‘serious’ but I think this matter-of-fact editorial tone is what a lot of kids this age like to read. What I’ve avoided (I hope) is ‘dumbing down’ of the audio (there are 52 tracks on the cover CD including backing tracks for all the pieces, and I used live session players for bass and drums rather than compromise by programming the kit part). The book also focuses on short melodic pieces, as opposed to chords, which are much more difficult for the beginner – I’ve never understood why some guitar books do this.
I’m hoping to write book 2 in the series during 2010, and the home studio will enable me to try out ideas for the next book’s cover CD without worrying about the ‘meter running’ pressures of hired studio space or players’ time (although, as before, there will always be a pro drummer on the final session – I’m not going to be a good enough kit player any time soon).
Thanks BTW to everyone who helped me to choose the title for the book (see previous blog entry) – Complete Junior Guitarist won the day, which has the added advantage of making this book the first result when these three words are typed into Google.
Song for Widcombe
In an earlier post I mentioned the Song For Widcombe community project, and the song I submitted ‘Widcombe Rising’. Since then I’ve gotten to know the lovely people involved in the Widcombe Association and become generally more interested in Mummers‘ plays and songs. The association wants to put together a CD of its top 10 ‘finalist’ songs, and I listened to some of the original demos, which were varying in quality depending on the kind of recording kit each songwriter had access to (some only existing in sheet music form). Given my views on Performance vs Songwriting, it seemed only fair that none of the other songs on the album should be compromised by a technically poor demo – so I agreed to run some studio sessions for those writers who didn’t have access to decent recording kit. The motive for this wasn’t entirely altruistic – I need to test the studio as much as possible to check the signal paths and get to know the patchbay, layout, ergonomics etc… plus the sound of the room, mics & speakers. And given the varied collection of instruments that Mummers’ songs may include (concertina, fiddle, melodion/accordion, piano, recorder, flute, piccolo, bass drum, bodhrán, guitar, upright bass, banjo, and multiple male and female voices) this was the perfect opportunity.
Here are a few descriptions of the ensembles we’ve done already – there’ll be a playback session of these and others in Widcombe in a couple of weeks. I won’t post MP3s for now, as I don’t have permission from the writers to do so, but hopefully this will be forthcoming once the project is over; you may also be able to download the tracks from iTunes at some point in the future.
- 4-part male voice folk choir and bass drum
- G&S-style piano and male voice
- Piano, guitar, sampled Tuba and male voice
- Folk band including concertina, piccolo banjo, floor tom, snare, recorder, fiddle, guitar and multiple voices
- Folk band including programmed kit, electric bass, sampled fiddle, accordion and tin whistle, guitars, multi-tracked male voices, handclaps and tambourine
At the other end of the musical spectrum (or certainly some distance along it) I did a session yesterday for a couple of Bath Spa graduates who needed to do some drum tracking for a ‘prog’ album. We did a deal – they get a day’s free recording time, and I get to use their (excellent) drummer Tom on a future session for no fee. Traditional community bartering… perhaps all this olde worlde folky-ness is affecting me more than a little…
Finally, here’s a mix of a track I did a couple of weeks ago with a old mate from my days at Future Publishing. He’s a fan of classic Techno (and knows much more about it that I do) but has always had a soft spot for James Taylor (the songwriter, not the jazzer). So here’s our remix-in-progress of JT’s Shower The People (You Love With Love). It’s turned out a little more ’70s Disco than ’90s Techno – I blame the off-beat handclaps on the intro. The track is, of course, doomed to unreleased commercial obscurity, considering its obvious and constant use of uncleared samples of a well-known recording, but hey – it was fun. And James – if you’re reading this, hope you forgive us for timestretching you up to 130BPM.
Shower Thee People MP3 (JB & DR remix)
The ADA8000 problem has been solved! Josh came round and took a look at the studio (and also, I might add, gave me an excellent idiot’s guide to tuning drums). We pondered the reasons that the ADA8000 was chucking out digital crackles and pops on input channels 9-16, and narrowed it down to three possible causes.
- Faulty ADA8000
- Dodgy optical cable
- Something we haven’t thought of yet
The ADA8000 was acting as a digital slave to the Digi002 using the ADAT protocol for digital sync, so the Digi002 was to provide audio input channels 1-8 and the ADA8000 channels 9-16, giving me the option of 16 simultaneous inputs (albeit with only 12 of them through the M1F, it being a 12-channel analogue desk).
After various attempts to fix the clicks & pops problem, including rebooting everything with the ADA8000 acting as master, we decided, as a last resort, to try swapping the optical cables. The Digi002 was firing the sync information down its Optical Out, and the ADA8000 was firing audio signals back into the 002′s Optical In. And swapping the cables over completely cured the problem. It turns out that the clicks and pops were not syncing errors – they were corruptions in the audio data coming back into the 002. So it was option 2 all along. Soon I’ll get another (high-spec) optical cable, because although the master>slave info is being carried accurately by the weaker cable, it’s not desirable to have it in there permanently. This is not an uncommon problem, according to Josh – optical cables are not as reliable as some people assume they are, even though they carry digital information.
So even if you’re not a studio geek (I was actually quite excited writing the two techy paragraphs above), the result of Josh’s intervention is simple – I can now have 16 live mics in the studio during a take instead of 8. To test the studio I’ve tentatively agreed to record one of my grads’ bands in September. They get a free demo, and I get to try out all the inputs properly before I need to use them on a time-sensitive project.
Phase IV. The Studio Wizard is here. Howard is spending a couple of days living with us, doing the wiring and kit install. He has caught conjunctivitis from his pony (now there’s a sentence you don’t hear every day) so he’s in a lot of eye-drop-related discomfort, but is struggling manfully through. He’s also on a deadline (to retrieve the pony from the animal hospital) so is running on 4 hours’ sleep to get the job done in time. Hero!
Here’s the full list of hardware. This is added to the Mac & Digi002 setup I already use, plus the mics I already own (SE Z5600, AKGC3000, Rode NT4).
- BEHRINGER ADA8000 – AD converter to provide 8 extra inputs (combines with Digi002 – so studio total is 16 simultaneous input channels)
- TLA M1F – valve desk
- PROKEYS88 MIDI controller keyboard
- DBX 266 stereo compressor
- FOCUSRITE ISA220 preamp
- JOEMEEK MC2 stereo compressor
- EXT DVD SUPERDRIVE (DVD burner so I can keep the Mac in the cupboard)
- BELKIN 2X FW / 6X USB COMBINED HUB (remote hub on the desktop so the Mac can stay in the cupboard)
- BEHRINGER HP AMP HA4700 – 4-way headphone amp
- SE 2200A x 2 (cheap but excellent large-diaphragm condenser mics)
- SE1A (pair of small condensers)
- BEYER M201 (2 mics)
- SHURE SM57 (2 mics)
- AUDIO TECHNICA ATM250 (large-diaphragm condenser)
- FOAM WINDSHIELD FOR LARGE DIA VOCAL MICS 2
- BOOM STAND TALL (8)
- BOOM STAND SHORT (2)
- XLR-XLR – 6M (2)
- J-J FABRIC COVERED GUITAR CABLE 6M (4)
- HEADPHONE EXTN CABLE (2)
- SAMSON SDIRECT DI BOX 3
- SMALL SHELL DRUM SET:
- SONOR 507 SERIES COMBO DRUM KIT – 8″ x6″ bass drum, 0″ x 8″ &2″ x 9″ toms, 4″ x4″ floor tom, 14″ x 5.5″ snare drum (steel), 2x TA 503 tom holders, 9-ply covered basswood shells, tunesafe tension rods. 00-series 4-piece hardware set containing HH-174 hi-hat stand, SS-177 snare drum stand, CS-171 straight cymbal stand & sp-273. Single bass drum pedal. Cymbal set: paiste01 series brass set 3 -14″ hi-hat, 6″ crash and 20″ ride. Extra cymbal boom stand. Set Remo pinstripe skins
- PATCHBAYS AND DISTRIBUTION BOARDS
There was quite a bit of ‘cost engineering’ when we realised how far over budget we were originally. For the drums, I bought some decent Sonor shells (drummers, correct me if I’m wrong!), but decided to save on cymbals and get a budget set of Paistes. Drummers reading this – I do realise the importance of good quality hammered cymbals in terms of harmonic balance etc, but don’t actually play drums (although will now start to learn), and figure that if I hire a kit player for projects s/he will bring their own cymbals to a session. So cymbals will be upgraded to pro quality one day when I become a good enough drummer to justify it.
This principle, BTW, I reckon applies to lots of music kit purchases – there’s no point in having gear that’s substantially better than you are. It’s why our MusicLab at the University is usually only used by third year students – it takes time for them to develop the quality songwriting and performance skills that mean the subtleties of room design make a difference to the quality of the track. A piece of music is as good as its weakest link, so there comes a cost point where you get diminishing musical returns if the kit outstrips your skill at using it. In my case, the weakest tool I have is my singing voice, which is why I prefer to work with proper singers.
We’ve worked out how the rack will work ergonomically, with the things I’ll use the most (ISA220 and patchbays) in the top rack, and the things I use less often (DVD burner, headphone amp) in the lower one. Howard’s pre-made all the looms, and has added a cable tray under the desktop, to which they are attached. The only thing we didn’t account for is that the M1F (being a project studio desk) doesn’t have stereo insert sockets, so Howard has rewired the insert points to two jacks so we can get all the channel inserts coming up on the patchbay.
The only thing we won’t get done in this phase (before Howard’s next visit) is the tie lines through to the live room. This is not a problem because I can physically throw XLRs through the the hole in the wall for now. I’m also proud to say that after a quick refresher session with Howard on soldering skills, I’ve made up my first stereo lead – the first soldering I’ve done, in fact, since about 1987 (a difficult teenage phase where, for reasons now unclear, I decided to resolder my Strat so all the pickups were wired in series. I blame Adrian Legg).
So everything pretty much works OK. We have 8 simultaneous input channels instead of 16 (the ADA8000, which supplies channels 9-16 to Logic via the Digi CoreAudio driver, still needs configuring so it acts correctly as a digital clock ‘slave’ over optical to the Digi002 – BTW if you’re reading this and have any tips on optical-syncing these items, get in touch!). But given that I’m only one person, I’m unable to generate more than 16 simultaneous musical sounds, so this can wait until I get bands or drummers in.
I’m also going to need to adapt my working methods to encompass more handshake between the analogue and digital worlds. After years of doing all the dynamic processing with Waves plugins, I’m going to make an active effort to use the outboard gear, so that when both methods (on-screen and analogue) become equally transparent ergonomically, so I can then make musical decisions between digital and outboard. Today I mixed the first track (a Techno remix of James Taylor’s ‘Shower The People’) and took stereo output pairs from Logic into the M1F so I could EQ and mix using the analogue input channels of the mixing desk. There’s something pleasingly perverse about mixing Techno using 1930s valve technology…
And that’s the end of phase IV. Howard will be back sometime in September to ‘sort out the room’ (spectrum analysis and speaker configuration etc), wire in the tie lines and XLR plates to the live room, and fix any wiring faults I find in the next few weeks. He’s now off to pick up a pony from a geezer in Norfolk.
He’s done an amazing job (he also did the overall design of the whole building) and I’m really pleased with the intelligent decisions he’s made on my behalf about the patchbay layout – and studio usage in general.
Coming soon – rugs, sofas and drums!
The build is finished. Jeff and Artis have done an amazing job and I’m completely delighted with the building. Wiring and electric install goes ahead next week with Howard. For now, it’s beers, hugs and handshakes all round. Great job, fellas!
And that’s it! Phase 3 of the build is now completed, so the studio is now ready for the wiring to be installed, which will be happening early next week. Howard and Jeff sorted out a few details on the phone. The original large panel tabletop had too much mass, risking creating sympathetic resonance, and also making the space under it into a resonant cavity. So Artis chopped even more off the back of it, and added a vertical support underneath to take the weight – the M1F being the heaviest item. I also learn that all-valve desks have a slight acoustic resonance (being made partly of very thin glass valves) which has to be taken into account in studio design – it’s important to ensure that no sympathetic vibrations make it through to the body of the mixer.
On seeing the photos and videos, Howard still wasn’t convinced that the desktop would be acoustically neutral in the room. So he phoned through some more info & suggestions to Jeff, who got Artis to cut the desk down even more.
The holes in the tabletop were cut to the size of Howard’s speaker stand design. There are various ways of making studio speaker stands (including buying them commercially) but the rule seems to be simply to stand your cabs on something as dense as possible. Artis was telling me that sometimes they just stack concrete blocks then paint them or cover them with hessian. In this case, he’s made tall rectangular vertical wooden ‘boxes’ out of chipboard, which are then filled with sand to provide the density (ensuring no transmission of vibration to the floor or desk).
So my tabletop is a completely unique shape that no other studio has – it’s been cut to shape to take account of the M1F, Digi002, over/under rack, and all of course at the right knee height for a short bloke in a swivel chair. They even cut it to ensure the smoothest ergonomic travel for the mouse (so I can’t work with any left handed co-producers!).
Now that everything’s in, I can get back to sofa purchasing. The consensus seems to be that ‘wipe-clean’ surfaces are best for studio sofas (euwwww) so I’m on the look out for antique leather ideally – second-hand of course. So if you see anything, send me those ebay links!
Tabletop half built. Howard has some reservations about the potential resonance of the cavity underneath due to the size of the MDF top. It’s going to be cut down, so I’m sending him updates via video as Artis makes the cuts. Here we are pre-cutting…
And here’s some kit placed in situ for discussion of cable runs etc.
Jeff and Artis are back. And we’re into the final phase. The basic studio is now built, so there are just three things still to do.
- Door seals (it’s amazing how much sound can leak through a 1mm gap!)
- Build the aircon exterior heat exhaust
- Build the studio furniture
They have two other jobs on at the moment – a listed building house in Suffolk (a rare non-studio-related job) and a suite of several studios for Coventry University. Jeff also has his wife with him, and they’re doing some tourist & family stuff around Bath. So Artis is on his own for now. Luckily for Artis, the studio now has broadband and a phone line fitted, so he has real-time streamed audio of Latvian radio – nice and loud through Genelec 8040As, no less. We did take a moment to put on some Sepultura, Machine Head and Metallica this afternoon. Just to test the soundproofing, of course. It works.
I forgot to mention that while the guys were away I’ve been encouraged to set up my gear and try out the ergonomics of the space in readiness for their return. So the plan, apparently, is for Artis to use Howard’s drawings as ‘a guide’ – so I think some negotiation between designer and builder might still be needed. I’ve now taken delivery of the M1F and it looks enormous in the room, so we need to work out carefully how I’m going to reach to the gain and high EQ of a fairly deep analogue desk.
Here’s a pic of my makeshift setup (garden table with a blanket thrown over it).
Jeff dropped Artis off with a van full of kit, including the (Sonor) drum shells, all the mics and stands, Behringer ADA8000 converter and some of the outboard rack kit. In my young and excitable teens and 20s I would have ripped open every box to look at the goodies inside (actually it still took great restraint not to do this) but in the interests of tidiness I’ve left everything boxed up until the furniture is built.
So the first job for Artis today was to sort out the aircon. We found that if we just switched on the aircon unit in the room, its cooling power was cancelled out by its heat exhaust. So we need to get the hot air outside – without, of course, compromising soundproofing. The answer? Power tools and a big hole in the wall.
So the plan, tomorrow, is to lay out all the gear (keyboard, Mac, Genelecs, monitor, M1F and Digi002) on the floor and work out furniture design around the 2 racks (one under, one over) that we’ll be building.
That’s the short-term plan. The long-term plan is to, er, learn to play the drums…
In other news, Artis is teaching me origami. Here’s the Peace Crane, the first complicated one that everyone learns, apparently.
Well done for those who’ve completed the MJ quiz. Highest score so far is 14 out of 19. If you’re new to the blog and want to catch up, here’s a download link to all the quizzes I’ve posted so far; the latest one is at the bottom of this post.
- Beat The Drum quiz MP3 download (drum intros – name the artist and song)
- Backwards Quiz MP3 download (backwards audio – name the artist and song)
- Michael Jackson Quiz MP3 download (MJ song titles – name the artist)
- There’s a Place MP3 download (lyrics with place names – name the place)
Post answers on my Facebook page, or via the contact form below. So here’s a new one. This has already run at the pub in London, so it’s OK for general release now.
Copyright note; given that all these quizzes contain tiny excerpts of copyright audio, I would love to do these legally and pay a small PRS royalty for use of this material in the (online non-profit-making) context of this blog. But if PRS can’t reach agreement with Google about YouTube, I can’t believe that their various licensing schemes will be flexible enough to support downloadable MP3 major-label content in mangled 1-second excerpt form! So here’s a disclaimer for any (major label or artist) copyright owners who might be reading this. I want to get all these excerpts licensed legally for the 100 or so people that will download these quizzes (which technically infringe both copyrights – recording and publishing), but can’t find a mechanism. So these non-profit-making excerpts are used without permission, and I will take them offline (or pay the going rate) on request – OK?
So, to business! This quiz is entitled ‘There’s a Place’ and each example is a song lyric with the place names bleeped out (the bleeps are diatonically correct, naturally). No Googling the lyrics, now – you’ve got to promise!
There’s a Place MP3 download
(place names lyric quiz – name the bleeped-out places)
Technical note for audio geeks. Most of these quizzes are done using Logic Pro, with some limiting and multibanding applied using Waves Gold plugins (L1 and C4). In some cases the examples are re-gained in Logic’s audio editor or automixed, and many of them (e.g. the MJ quiz) use very quick/subtle crossfades. The ‘There’s a Place’ quiz was done when the studio was being built, so had to be compiled on a Macbook Pro laptop using Garageband while all my studio kit was temporarily mothballed. The reason I’m explaining this is that the ‘bleeps’ masking the place names here are provided by a Garageband soft synth on a square wave preset. As such they don’t quite have the ‘classic bleep’ sound, which is of course a sine wave. Now the studio is back online I have access to the blank EXS24 no-audio patch setting, which defaults to a sine wave. Future bleeps will be more authentic.
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On the last night before Jeff and Artis left to go to the Coventry job, they called me down into the studio (I think we can call it that, now – doesn’t seem right to use the term ‘garage’ any more). They’d got me a little gift, they said.
And it was – a remote controlled Dalek. I’ve been a bit of a Whovian for some years now (since about 1975, although now I’m a parent I’ve got more of an excuse) and the guys had noticed the DVDs and other such fandomery around the house. Dr Who fan + laminate floor = Dalek invasion opportunity!
Thing is, they got me the silver one with the blue spots. Which, as I’m sure you know, operates at a radio control frequency of 27MHz. And there’s only one thing more embarrassing than being overjoyed to take receipt of a 27MHz Dalek. And that’s being overjoyed to take receipt of a 27MHz Dalek when you already own exactly the same model.
Now, I’m no expert on radio transmission, but… I wondered what would happen if we used two Daleks and only one controller.
With a Genelec 8040A playing the role of the Mechanoids.
I was expecting to write a post this weekend to the effect of “all the walls are now covered with hessian”. This is great news sonically, but doesn’t necessarily make a very interesting blog entry, considering that you probably now know (more than) everything you ever wanted to know about frames, fabric and sound absorption etc. I’ve just been away at a camping weekend with the family (also playing bass for a blues scratch-band – kinda DIY music festival for a couple of hundred people). Before we left I had a quick look at the studio in progress and asked Artis if there was anything he needed while we were away overnight. He asked if it would be OK for him to cover the air ducts in the live room with ‘interesting shapes’. He suggested that the room was starting to feel a bit austere (when someone says the words “like a dark prison” very slowly in a Latvian accent, it is difficult not to think of Count Dracula). Given that Artis has a real craftsman’s eye, I figured that whatever he had in mind would be tasteful, and way cooler than any suggestion I would make – so I left him to it.
When we returned it was blisteringly hot day so I went straight down to the studio, partly to see what Artis had done, and partly because it’s really cool in there: the sound isolation is so heavy that the building’s interior temperature is pretty much unaffected by the weather.
He’d completed all the hessian frames in both rooms, plus all the window frame pieces, and had made the MDF/hessian panels to covered the air inlets as planned. And… he’d made them all in the shape of guitars!
I’m speechless with delight. Here are some pictures while I calm down.
And in the live room, here are the works of art…
On the opposite side of the live room is the warm air outlet, and this time Artis has gotten really creative…
I can’t say how delighted I am with this development – it’s not only beautiful in its own right but it’s made the studio really personal, referencing some instruments that have been with me most of my musical life.
So, to sound recording issues. I had a long chat with Howard (the ‘Studiowizard‘) over the weekend (all our chats are long – when two geeks collide it’s always the way). Obviously the whole of the live room is ‘dry’ rather than ‘live’ due to the small dimensions involved – it’s too small to get a useful room reverb going, and anyway, it’s always easier to add reverb to a dry signal than to try to dampen a lively room. But wooden floors can still be great for acoustic guitars and drums, even in an otherwise damped room (a while ago I took a recording tip from Davey at the University, which is to record acoustic guitarists on wooden boards for extra reflections). So for the best of both worlds, the plan is to lay high-quality wooden laminate on a bed of fabric (to prevent squeaking floorboards), and then to buy a large IKEA rug on which to put the drum kit; the laminate is pretty tough, but I don’t want nasty bass drum spikes spoiling my nice wooden floor.
So, the important question. Which rug? Here’s an IKEA search to get you started. This isn’t a poll, it’s a free choice for readers of this blog, so you can suggest styles and colours. Please add comments on this post, or via my Facebook page. You will of course be asked for your opinion on matching drum shells when the time comes…
“I’ll be there before you close the [soundproof] door, to give you all the love [...ly recording isolation] that you neeeeeeeed…”
We have light! The electrics are live, the lights and dimmer switches are installed, and it all works great. My wife is deeply suspicious of my need for intimate mood lighting, of course…
In the live room we’ve gone for the flying saucer look, with low-energy bulbs to reduce the carbon footprint and also to avoid the generation of heat (once the door is closed no heat will be able to escape from the building, so it’s important for me to remember to power down ever time I lock up).
The control room lights are now also fitted – these are the heat-proof boxes we saw Artis building a while ago. They can be angled front to back, and there are eight of them in two strips of four.
Now that all the hessian in the control room is fitted, and the doors are at full thickness, it’s possible to get a feeling for how the room ‘feels’ sonically, combining the effect of the hessian, rockwool, room design and bass traps. And I’m delighted to report it’s completely ‘dead’ – just what you want in a room used for mixing. It has that curious quality of anechoic environments – being so quiet that you can hear the blood vessels in your ear, and you feel like your voice can’t be heard by others because there are no early reflections. Jeff says this (the feeling of airless isolation) is why he hates being in studios – he loves building them but as soon as they’re finished he can’t wait to get out! Personally I can’t wait to see exactly how loud my Genelecs will go when I turn off the bass lift.
And it means I won’t have to practise my banjo in the garden any more.
We’ve had our first setback today. The pane of glass which we were going to use (the one that was recycled when we had the catflap fitted) shattered while it was being moved. Not a huge disaster – it was an opportunistic plan anyway – but it does mean we’ll need more glass!
Artis is now working on fitting the other frames. The problem with double-glazing (or in this case, quadruple-glazing) is that once the unit’s sealed you can never open it up again. This means that the glass has to be clean to NASA-like standards before the next pane is fitted. So he’s shining halogen lamps at each pane from both sides so he can see to clean any speck of dust or grease.
Today the lobby floor went in. The lobby is primarily a utility area, so we’re not going for hessian walls etc – just plasterboard walls and a chipboard/carpet-tiled floor (plus a doormat so we can leave muddy boots in the lobby when coming in from outside). The principle of floating rooms has been maintained throughout – neither room actually touches the lobby flooring, so no vibration can be transmitted between the floorboards.
I took my first measurement this afternoon of the amount of SPL (Sound Pressure Level) reduction the building provides. There are still a few panes of glass to go in, so actual performance will be better than this. On the main road outside, the reading is around 88dB. Inside the studio it averages around 40dB – though some of that might have been my own breathing – it really is quiet in there. I’m using the rather limited iPhone Decibel Meter and will be testing the levels with pro equipment soon, but it’s already clear that I’m going to be able to record whispery vocals or delicate unaccompanied acoustic guitar without any discernible traffic noise on the recording.
Artis is working on windows today, building the frames, beads and hessian linings inside the glazed sections. The control room and live room will both be quadruple-glazed – the outer panes are vertically angled, and the inner two are parallel – this combination stops low frequencies from leaking (because it prevents sympathetic resonance in the glass).
We’re nearly at the stage where we need to start thinking about kit. The studio will centre around a Mac Pro running Pro Tools and Logic Pro through a Digi002. Monitors are Genelec 8040s although I may upgrade these to a system that provides proper sub-bass.
I work digitally in the Mac environment, but now that I have a proper, decent acoustically treated space for the first time, I’m going to go the extra mile and get the best possible quality of input signal – which will mean a valve desk. With Howard’s advice, and having spent a lot of time with the TL Audio VTC in the MusicLab at the University, I’m going for a small version of the same thing – the TL Audio M1F. We’re still working out the signal path – the Digi002 has a rather odd collection of inputs – but I’m basing the planning on the principle that I can have up to 12 simultaneuous valve input channels.
And today, the Latvian ‘cellists are playing… A-ha’s Take On Me.
The electrics are going in. The control room will have a fan speed control so we can adjust the flow of cooled air into the room. The lights will have a dimmer – for those ‘Barry White’ sessions, I imagine. The control room lighting will consist of eight directional spots, flush-mounted into the ceiling. We don’t quite have enough ceiling height in the live room to do the same so we’re going for three flush circular dome lights in a line along the centre of the room – you can see the location of the furthest one in the picture below.
We ran out of green hessian to do all the walls in the live room – we could easily order more, but the batches might not have matched perfectly, and it would have held up the project. So we’ve decided to go with all-green walls (including the bass traps, but maintaining the claret ‘V wall’) in the control room, and choose a different colour scheme in the live room. The live room walls will be blue-grey, and the ceiling will be the same light blue as in the control room.
Jeff’s away setting up their next job, and Artis is finishing more of the frames of the interior walls. Here’s one under construction – this is the grey-blue colour we’re using for the live room walls.
The frames are made in situ, up against the wall, then once they’re the perfect shape & size they’re removed and the hessian is stapled to them. I was on my way to the shops today and asked Artis if he needed anything picking up. He requested sticking plasters, as the friction from hessian-stretching had scraped several layers of skin off his knuckles. He had been using gaffer tape as hand protection. Very ‘rock’, but I imagine quite painful. We got him the most cushioned plasters we could find.
The cool thing about this kind of commitment is that the guys don’t have to do it – they could stretch the hessian much less, and it would still look OK. But they know that over time the fabric will settle, and eventually the walls will start to look wobbly. I’ve seen this look in a few studios so it’s great to know they’re future-proofing the interior so well, albeit at the expense of their knuckles. Ouch.
The Mac void has a miniature door now (double-thickness MDF), meaning the computer can be isolated behind the control room wall, so no fan noise can escape into the room. This means I’ll be able to use the control room as well as the live room for tracking. Today we agreed to add another hole, between the lobby and live room, so we could at a pinch use the lobby for tracking too, giving us three fully isolated recording spaces – not bad for a garage!
Artis has added a slab of MDF to the inner doors for extra density to improve isolation, meaning each door now weights 50KG or so. And today, for the first time, we sealed the building – the exterior glass went in. It’s currently double-glazed (albeit with 10mm thick panes) but each interior floating room will also be double-glazed. It’s almost completely silent in each room with the doors closed – even with HGVs going past on the main road outside.
Today’s Latvian import is Linda Leen – Beyoncé-style pop/R&B. Which is nice, but unremarkable.
But I know what you want – you want more ‘cellists playing hits of the 80s, don’t you? Here’s Melo-M with guest artist Intars Busulis performing ‘Ghostbusters’. What’s the best adjective for this cover version? I’m favouring ‘unnecessary’. Great video effects though…
We’re now at day 29; Artis is working on the door seals, and building more hessian frames for the walls. I’ve called BT today and worked out how we can get a phone line in there for broadband – and also got some excellent Ethernet cabling help and advice from Robin, the Comms Analyst at Bath Spa. Those guys really hate Wi-Fi because the signal is so prone to interference and loss of data – and TBH I don’t have much confidence that a Wi-Fi signal will get through all of Jeff and Artis’ rockwool/plasterboard work unscathed, so we’re going to run an Ethernet cable round the building, from the aircon area in the lobby through to the Mac hole in the back of the control room.
Artis’ work on the frames is beautiful – each frame is crafted to the shape of a section of wall, so it fits perfectly together with the fabric-width of space in between. The hessian doesn’t actually touch the rockwool inside each stud wall, being raised 12mm away by the MDF frame. And the carpentry is magnificent, even though it’s just MDF. I learn that back in Latvia, Artis’ carpentry business almost exclusively built beehives!
Here are some pics of the hessian frames being constructed, and some more of the door seals.
I’m still learning more about Latvian artists from Artis – recent highlights include Linda Leen (pop/R&B), Brainstorm (pop/rock/electronic), Melo-M (three ‘cellists doing arrangements of cheesy 70s and 80s pop songs), ‘daina‘ (Latvian traditional folk songs) and S’T'A’ (rap/hip-hop). You know which one I’m going to play here, don’t you?!
Thanks to everyone who voted in the polls. I’ve also collated some views from the ‘analogue’ world – studio users and muso mates etc (plus a few Facebook comments) – and the verdicts are as follows.
- Sofa – second-hand leather. It will age gracefully and be, er, wipe-clean. Many a studio sofa smells of old ganja and stale sweat after a year or two. Or maybe I’m too used to working with students.
- Colours – light green walls (restful), light blue ceiling (sky-like) and deep red ‘claret’ for the monitor/baffle wall area. As some have pointed out, this will make the control area look worryingly like I’m an Aston Villa fan. I’m still not sure about the claret at the monitor end – this, after all, is the wall I’ll be staring at for hours at a time. On the other hand, it’s a beautiful colour. Grey is also an option. Comments welcome…
The newest addition to the structure is a hole for a soon-to-constructed Mac box, made to measure, which will serve two functions – extracting hot air from the Mac into the void behind the baffle, and isolating the control room from the Mac’s fan noise (the Mac Pro fans are pretty quiet anyway, but it will be great to have the option of perfect silence in the control room for vocal/guitar takes etc). The guys are going to build a mini-door at the front of the Mac box ‘cupboard door’ so visiting musos can plug hard drives straight into the Firewire socket on the front of the Mac. So now that we’ve got a custom-designed computer area built into the architecture, I’m hoping Apple don’t change the design of the Mac Pro any time soon!
Jeff’s away for a couple of days, checking on other jobs and doing some family stuff. Artis is pushing on with more rockwool, the power sockets and the green hessian wall coverings. It’s a blistering hot day in Bath, but the wall/ceiling insulation is so extensive that the studio interior is a good 10 degrees colder than the summer’s day outside. The Mac hole is currently working as an improvised fridge – it has preserved a tub of Co-op coleslaw for two days now…
Day 7 of phase 2. Today Jeff went out hunting and managed to capture an air-conditioning unit. Meanwhile back on-site, Artis took time out from his heavy schedule of banana-drawing (see photo) to construct some lighting boxes. And the lights are going to be fantastic. There will be eight downlighters in the control room – four built into the baffle above the monitors, and four across the centre of the room. There will be a dimmer switch in each room, and each light is built into its own cube-shaped box, ensuring that the bulbs don’t touch the rockwool, and allowing hot air to escape safely into the ceiling void. The light fittings are moveable so each 35W lamp can be angled as needed.
Both interior doors are now fitted. They’re pretty dense as they are, but the guys will be adding an MDF layer to the lobby side of each door to add density (the door and its hinges being potentially the weakest point in the room in acoustic isolation terms). The art and craftsmanship of pro door-hanging is truly a thing to behold. There’s a perfect coin gap all the way down – a £1 fits snugly and a 50p rattles around. This is a pretty phenomenal achievement when you think about it – fitting a 40KG 2m high door within less than 1mm tolerance. I once tried to hang a bathroom door at my previous house. I did such a bad job that I had to move house to avoid the embarrassment…
On the music front, we’ve temporarily stopped listening to Skyforger and have now moved on to Jackyl – AC/DC blues with live chainsaw solos. Oh yes!