Blinded by the light

The 30cm high strip above the doors runs the width of the building, letting natural light into both rooms.

The 30cm high strip above the doors runs the width of the building, letting natural light into both rooms.

The phrase ‘studio tan’ will be familiar to many musicians. It refers to the pasty, underfed, hollow look that engineers, producers and players have after a long studio session. And it’s based on the idea that, being sound-sealed boxes containing lots of nickable kit, many studios don’t have exterior windows. The need for daylight for us humans (and most animals) is pretty basic, evolved over millions of years out of the basic logic that there’s a survival advantage for our metabolisms to know the time of day. The pineal gland apparently secretes the sleep hormone melatonin (more about this here) when it’s dark, making us feel drowsy. Put simply, dark studios don’t make you feel good!

This balance between soundproofing and musicians’ sanity has long been acknowledged by studio designers. Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box has a huge glass-walled control/live room called the Big Room, which all those who’ve worked in it (including my colleague and occasional collaborator Chris) have described as inspirational. So it’s always desirable to get natural light in there if you can get round the technical hurdles of soundproofing, security and air handling.

The control room window frame - the black areas shows where natural light will come in.

Control room window frame - the black area shows where natural light will enter.

And I’m pleased to say that the garage studio will have natural light in both rooms. Jeff, Howard and I have been chewing over this problem since the project began. We’ve discussed sunpipes, skylights and daylight light bulbs. But once Jeff saw the angles created by raising the roof, the solution was clear – a strip window running the length of the east side of the building, letting in daylight above the old garage doors’ location. It’ll be behind and above the mixing/Mac area, creating lots of light without screen reflection (Apple are doing some very nice LCD monitors at the moment but many of them include highly reflective glass screens). There are two walls at the back of the control room (interior and exterior) creating a natural air gap of around 5cm, and meaning that the two window panes will be around 25cm apart, giving ample opportunity for angled triple-glazed panes (the angles serve to avoid sympathetic low-frequency resonance between panes from traffic noise).

Do these holes look innocuous? They are the result of 2 hours of heavy-duty Latvian drilling!

Do these holes look innocuous? They are the result of 2 hours of heavy-duty Latvian drilling!

Artis has now drilled a cable hole through from the control room to the live room. This is easier typed than done; it involved making a 4cm wide hole through several layers of plasterboard, rockwool, OSB chipboard, an air gap (this bit was quite easy actually), a 10cm thick concrete wall, another air gap, and then the rest of the plasterboard/rockwool/OSB layers on the other side. Why didn’t they make these holes when they were building the walls (I hear you ask)? The answer is that the two floating rooms need to settle on their bed of rockwool/membrane/screed etc – and the concrete wall itself will settle very slightly because of its weight. So the only way for the cable holes to line up is to drill them after the structure is complete. This, as with all parts of the construction, preserves the all-important principle that there is no physical contact between the two floating rooms – even the plastic pipes (see picture) that line the holes don’t go all the way through – they are three separate sections which are split across each air gap. We’re still working out what do do with cabling – we could have a standard XLR wall plate in each room, or just chuck loose cables through the hole to the live room as needed, and then fill the hole with a rag to seal it sonically. This might seem like a bit of a bodged working method considering all the detail that’s gone in to the planning and build, but actually it might be the most practical solution because it will allow really simple re-amping, and will reduce the length and number of required cables. Still pondering this.

A real door (the wooden one on the left) partly concealed by a fake door (the garage door is going to be scrapped).

A real door (the wooden one on the left) partly concealed by a fake door (the garage door is going to be scrapped).

And.. we have a door! It’ll have interior plasterboard and chipboard lining, plus sound-sealed hinges, which has the added bonus of making it more secure. It was fitted this morning, and will eventually be disguised as one-third of the mock garage door that Jeff intends to create out of MDF, white paint and deviousness.

True colours

Don't mess with the Sandworms - they can bite your arm off.

Don't mess with the Sandworms - they can bite your arm off.

Firstly, a quick thank you to everyone who’s made suggestions about bringing the studio and phone box projects together (see ‘categories’ on the right hand side). The best suggested studio-related uses for the phone box include shower for sweaty musicians, vocal booth for agrophobic session singers, and banjo booth (need not contain an XLR socket).

The aircon tubes have gone in (the silver snakes that look to a man of my vintage like David Lynch’s sandworms from Dune). These will carry cooled air in from the refrigerated lobby area along the side walls, inside the baffles, and into the live and control rooms respectively. Today also (day 2 of phase 2) Jeff and Artis have constructed the front wall that will eventually have the fake garage doors stuck to them. The original plan was for this exterior wall to be made of concrete, but we learned that the asphalt driveway outside the original garage doors has no foundations under it – so eventually a concrete wall would, er, sink!

Jeff told me a story about a client to whom this had happened a few years back – the guy had assured him that the foundations were sound, so Jeff dutifully constructed a heavy exterior wall. After a few weeks, it sank ever so slightly during one of the client’s studio sessions, preventing the heavy acoustic door from opening and locking the client and his musicians inside. Jeff was called from another site to come and let them out – he had to cut through the door to get in; they were stuck in there for around 7 hours, and apparently got really bored (lightweights – I can spend that long editing a vocal!).

So, if I’m to be potentially imprisoned, what colour should my cell walls be? Now that we’re well on the way to choosing a sofa, here’s another chance for you, dear reader, to influence the design of the studio. Essentially, we have two colour decisions to make (walls and ceiling) and four colours of hessian to choose from (these are rough photos of the fabric rolls, and the colours don’t come up great, but you get the idea – for info the green is slightly deeper than this). The walls and ceiling have to be different colours – a single block of colour will look ‘orrible. Scroll down, and vote now!

Light grey

Light grey

Red

Red

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Light blue

Light green

Light green

Aircon pipe feed on the left-hand wall of the live room, seen here from the lobby.

Aircon pipe feed on the left-hand wall of the live room, seen here from the lobby.

Garage to studio in 3 months

img_0802I moved house this year, and the new place has a double garage. Not being a car lover, and having no garage-mechanic skills whatsoever, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to build a ‘proper’ home studio to replace the family-unfriendly spare rooms and attic hideouts I’ve used so far. So here, for posterity, and for fellow studio nerds who take an interest, I’m going to blog the building of the studio as it progresses.

The design

I’m using the StudioWizard organisation, who designed the MusicLab at Bath Spa, which has proved to be the most tutor-friendly teaching studio I’ve ever used. The design is taken care of by Howard Turner. These are the initial CAD pictures – live room and studio.

Working methods and tech

I tend to work purely at the Mac with the minimum of outboard apart from mic pre-amps. The studio is based around a Digi002 and an Intel Mac running Pro Tools and Logic Pro. The most important consideration was not tech (I already have most of the kit) but ergonomics – how would I move around the working environment. Typically I’ll be working on my own for most of the time, with one other person (session player, collaborator or co-writer). After much discussion, Howard and I decided we would try to squeeze in a tiny live room – just enough for a minimal drum kit. Live drums is the one thing I’ve always had to farm out, and although I don’t actually play kit, it’s going to be great to have the option of real drums for projects; once you factor in the time it takes to program (and produce) sampled drums properly, it can often work out cheaper simply to hire a kit player – and most of the time it sounds a whole lot better. BFD is great, but it’s like any other virtual instrument – it sounds amazing right up the moment when you compare it to the real thing! All of my projects (guitar teaching books and songwriting stuff) are based on creating a ‘live band’ sound in some form, and I don’t expect to get inspired by Techno any time soon, so having a live room (albeit an acoustically dry one) is going to be a real plus for future recordings.