And so peaceful until…

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.

We're buying a stairway to Scotland

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.

Until I meet these men I am unable to get into the studio.

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…

Shower Thee People

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.

Remember the holes that Artis drilled for the cables?
Remember the holes that Artis drilled for the cables?

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

A guitarist mic'd up with an SE100 condenser in the dry room.
A guitarist mic'd up (with an SE100 condenser) during one of the Widcombe project song sessions.

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…

Tom does some drum tracking in the dry room. An unusual drummer - no rack toms.
Tom does some drum tracking in the dry room. An unusual drummer - no rack toms, and two hi-hats.
Vocal and guitar take in the control room.
Chris puts down a vocal and guitar take in the control room.

Techno Techno

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)

Buy the original on iTunes

I will try… to fix you

The sync panel from the ADA8000 - my nemesis, until today.
The sync panel from the ADA8000 - my nemesis, until today.

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.

  1. Faulty ADA8000
  2. Dodgy optical cable
  3. 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.

Headphone amp, ADA8000 and Joe Meek MC2 – gaffer taped for the moment.
Headphone amp, ADA8000 and Joe Meek MC2 – gaffer taped for the moment.

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.

Next… drums!

We’re off to see the Wizard…

He got legs. He knows how to use them.
He got legs. He knows how to use them.

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)
  • XLR-XLR – 6M (2)
  • 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

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.

This is Howard's full patchbay layout plan.
This is Howard's full patchbay layout plan.

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…

Cable trays carrying the looms under the desktop between M1F and patchbay.
Cable trays carrying the looms under the desktop between M1F and patchbay.
Wot, no cabling?
Wot, no cabling?
The looms go into the top patchbay.
The looms go into the top patchbay.
Headphone amp, ADA8000 and Joe Meek MC2 – gaffer taped for the moment.
Headphone amp, ADA8000 and Joe Meek MC2 – gaffer taped for the moment.
Top rack in progress – DBX compressor and ISA220.
Top rack in progress – DBX compressor and ISA220.

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.

PlansHe’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!

Every time we say goodbye

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!

Three dodgy blokes, loitering outside a garage
Three dodgy blokes, loitering outside a garage
Shiny happy people holding hands!
Shiny happy people holding hands!
Artis is using 'eccentric facial expression 17b' - one of thousands in his repertoire
Artis is using 'eccentric facial expression 17b' - one of thousands in his repertoire
Latvian t-shirt. It reads 'By the way - I'm a CARPENTER'
Latvian t-shirt. It reads 'By the way - I'm a CARPENTER'

Reasons to be cheerful (part 3)

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.

Here's the original (too large/resonant) tabletop, before Artis cuts out the ergonomic curve...
Here's the original (too large/resonant) tabletop, before Artis cuts out the ergonomic curve...
And here's the curved area. The straighter part on the left is deliberate - it's cut to the width of the M1F desk.
And here's the curved area, with a larger cable hole at the back. The straighter part on the left is deliberate - it's cut to the width of the M1F desk.
The basic rack frame, with an angled top for the compressors and patchbays, and a straight lower rack for DVD burners etc...
The basic rack frame, with an angled top for the compressors and patchbays, and a straight lower rack for DVD burners etc...
Artis is making another standalone rack unit, which I won't need yet, to future-proof the studio in case I get more rack equipment. For now it will sit empty under the M1F.
Artis is making another standalone rack unit, which I won't need yet, to future-proof the studio in case I get more rack equipment. For now it will sit empty under the M1F.

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!).

The final desktop shape and design, with the newly-constructed sand-filled speakers stands in place. Lovely!
The final desktop shape and design, with the newly-constructed sand-filled speakers stands in place. Lovely!

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!

We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

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.