Archive for the ‘studio’ Category

studio buildout series part 1: the room

Building out home studios has become de rigueur for musicians of all kinds of levels. Some people are building out new rooms, converting garages, spending lots of money and basically going the pro route, often without expecting to make any money at all. If you have that sort of dosh: well done.

But if you don’t, the good news is that you don’t have to spend that much.

First, start with the room. You need to make your room sound good. I can’t stress this enough. In fact, I already have, back in June, in a big post how rooms affect sound. If you missed that, you should check the link. Go on, we’ll wait.

Back? Good. For those who cheated and didn’t click, the picosummary is simple: if the room isn’t quiet – if it’s reflective, if it has angles and does weird muddying things to sound – all of that will show up in the recording, and no amount of good equipment will fix it.

In fact, as Jeff Bohnhoff is fond of pointing out, good recording equipment will make a bad room worse, because your better equipment will pick up all the flaws and present them to you in perfect clarity.

Don’t record here

So start by finding the least bad room you have. It should be quiet, and not strangely shaped. Play music in it – what you want to record, and existing recordings that sound like what you want to record – and find the room in which it sounds as good as it can, given the equipment you’re using.

Then you have to realise that even your best room won’t actually be good for microphone-based recording. Walls and ceilings are reflective; they add reverb, echos, strange sound bounces, all sorts of artefacts in the sound. In playback, that sometimes can make things sound better! And sometimes, you’ll capture a room’s sound on purpose. Great Big Sea did a bunch of recording in a Louisiana chapel for parts of their last album, to capture the sound of that room.

But you’re not Great Big Sea, and most of the time you don’t want that. Particularly on our kind of budget, it’s best to get “dry” recordings.

“Dry” recordings are recordings that sound only like a capture of the instrument. No reflections, no room-reverb, no sound wave interference, no anything else. It should ideally sound as if the instrument were played in an infinitely large room with no reflections at all.

The reason you want to do this is that it’s simply much easier to add room-like effects in software than take them back out. A dry recording lets you add reverb and phase shifting and such with ease, and also with whatever flexibility your digital audio workstation will afford you. A wet recording – well, you’re just stuck with it. Want less reverb? NOT FOR YOU!

Therefore, most of your room prep should involve dampening the room’s native sound down as far as you can. Part of that is eliminating all noise sources, of course (including your computer’s fan and your cell phone’s RF noise), but just as much, it involves damping down all kinds of sound reflections within the room.

The expensive way to do this is line the room with sound-absorbing foam.

We can’t afford this, either.

That sort of thing is great, but expensive, so I go with movable sound baffling panels that I can build instead.

Sound baffles are semi-rigid panels that absorb sound. They can be fairly expensive if you buy professional studio versions, but, of course, that’s not how we roll here. Conveniently, I already have a video on how to make ultra-cheap sound baffles! Enjoy:

I also don’t try to panel the whole room. Instead, I semi-surround myself with large sound baffles, positioned opposite and around me, with the mic between me and them. I’ll have another panel behind me. If the first thing your primary sound waves hit is a sound-absorber, there’s dramatically less left over to bounce around the room, and another panel directly behind tends to finish off the remainders. Your milage will of course vary, dependant upon how your individual room behaves.

If you’re having problems with bass reflectivity and standing-wave effects – common in corners – you can make highly effective bass traps. Bass traps are bass-specific sound baffles, and can be really important in corners where you get weird standing-wave action going on.

It can manifest all sorts of ways, but if your low end sounds distorted or wibby or just odd? It’s probably manifesting, and you need to dampen it down until the room sounds good.

Jeff has a recipe for cheap bass traps: buy some Corning 703 rigid fibreglass and wrap it in a couple of layers of thin, non-reflective fabric. The fibreglass itself is pretty rigid, so holds together well without the necessity of a frame. Place these in corners, whereever walls meet.

This is one approach:

Again, click the image for more math

Another approach is to make columnar bass traps and stand them vertically in the corners. They’re more work to make, but easier to set up and move around. Pick your approach based upon your circumstances.

In the end, this will take some experimentation. You’re customising for the room you have, and that’ll just take some fiddling. But eventually, you’ll find you’re starting to get recordings that sound right. Then just keep dampening and improving until you have the room sound – or lack thereof – that you want.

And voila! You’ve built a really good foundation for recording. It’s a bit tedious, but it’ll pay off in saved time and better sound throughout.

Next time: studio monitors! Which is to say, speakers for your studio. You don’t want to do all your mixing on headphones, kids, and we’ll talk about why, and how you can DIY yourself up some pretty damn good monitors.


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.

rooms and sound

Let’s talk a minute about rooms and sound.

I’ve mentioned spending a lot of time last week on the studio. While at it, I finally set up some proper monitor speaker pairs. I had a pair of AFCO minispeakers, but they weren’t set up right, and I only had the one pair. Mostly, I was working with headsets.

I’ve now fixed that. The AFCOs sound much better, properly placed. But I also wanted a second pair for higher-fidelity monitoring. To do that, I puled my 1982 Bose units from the living room, where they’ve been part of a home stereo.

Bose 301 Series II; three cones, three directions!

Here’s the thing: in that living room, these speakers have always sounded kind of muddy and terrible. Nobody listens to that stereo since we moved. I imagined something was broken – I’d already rebuilt the amp and it sounded great now on headphones – but I thought I was going to have to rebuild the speakers, too.

However, after hauling them upstairs, I found there wasn’t anything wrong with them at all. They’re fine. In my studio, they sound like the speaker version of my studio reference headphones – nice and clean, with good separation and a nice even low-end. Not the most precise speakers in the world, but that’s why I have headsets. Plus, you want variety in monitors; that’s why you have multiple sets.

This behaviour difference shows how rooms matter. My studio is essentially a sound-dampened squarish box. By contrast, our living room is long and narrow, and has this slanted ceiling that’s one storey up at one side, and two at the peak in the middle on the other side, with skylights, and at one end, there’s a giant dormer, and in the other, kind of a box window.

There are angles everywhere. See?

Our ceiling, lying down, looking up. No, really.

The Bose 301s were built for squareish rooms that might need a lot of sound-scatter. (Bose is kind of famous, or infamous, for this, depending upon your opinions of scatter.) Their individual elements are angled in multiple directions intentionally, to defeat the rectangular-room problem of heavily localised sound loudness, and poor imaging.

If your room is scattering your sound to hell and back already, just by having many weird angles, you end up with far too much scatter. Everything ends up sounding like mud, because everything is going everywhere and you start playing wave cancellation games. There’s no distinction or isolation.

Not that bad

So, studio sorted! But since I still needed something for the living room, I dug a pair of early-1980s Realistic Minimus 7s out of the closet. I know, Radio Shack mini-speakers; my excuse was that nobody used that stereo anyway. I remembered them fondly, but, still, minispeakers.

Turns out these are sought-after classics. I had no idea how much until this weekend – look up the mod kits and the GearSlutz articles and stuff, it’s kind of amazing. So, surprise!

Despite that, in most objective terms, they aren’t nearly “as good as” the Bose in lab conditions. They’re quite precise, but being tiny, don’t have so much in the low end, and can’t handle too much higher levels of output. Response curve is good, but below 100hz…. well, let’s just say bassheads need not apply. And all the drivers face straight out, so there’re sound-concentration problems; they don’t fill a room of any size. It’s very uneven.

one of the 18 million variants

Or, turns out, they don’t fill a normal room. In this room, with a little bass boost, they sound significantly better than the Bose did. There’s better staging, a better sense of place, lots more depth, and the muddiness is gone. They do fill the room, even at pretty low volumes, and the sound is very even – if a bit shy in the low end.

Why? Because the room matters. This room doing all the scattering you could ever want. As a result, the tight focus of these speakers is perfect.

So the moral of the story is simple: Figure out the room first, and then go buy things. You can do a lot more with a lot less if you pay as much attention to to the environment as the equipment, and all the speaker budget in the world won’t fix a mismatched room.

For those curious, a pair of late-70s/early-80s Minimus 7s will run you $35-$70 on eBay, depending upon condition and any mods. Crossover mod kits vary from $15-$30, depending on type.


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.

wires wires everywhere

LAST DAY FOR LEANNAN SIDHE’S KICKSTARTER! They made minimum goal but have not yet made stretch goal! They have like 10 hours to go as of this morning so GO NOW!

Cool part about building a studio is that you’ve built a studio! Uncool part is that you’re never finished, because even if you don’t want to add anything, all the parts you switch around all the time end up turning into WRITHING PILE OF INFINITE RUBBER SNAKES, by which I mean cables, and you get crosstalk and loud and and and.

Also, you bring stuff in and take stuff out and you already had too much in there* and now EVERYTHING IS IN THE WAY. Everything. IN THE WAY. All of it.

So once in a while you have to take it all apart and put it back together, and then you get ideas, and then you’re in for it because now it’s a project. Now I have a new shelf out of scrap wood so I can use some previously wasted space in the closet**, I got better power into the closet and built a charging area for battery devices, a bunch of stuff is GONE GONE GONE, I fixed most but not all of a noise problem (only affecting monitor speaker playback, and only really loud, so not actually a work-stoppage issue), AND!

…improved my speaker monitor setup so much omg you guys.

Seriously it is so much better. I have speaker output now that sounds like reference headset output, only, you know, the speaker version. I have no idea whether this sounds important to you, but totally is.

Also it’s kind of a demonstration of how good my baffles are because the sound comes from ONE DIRECTION ONLY. ONE. NO BOUNCING. NONE FOR YOU.

Which is a little weird. But cool.

The only kinda silly part is that Reference Speaker Set A are along one wall and Set B are along a different wall so you have to spin around in the chair to get stereo comparisons. SHUT UP IT’S THE ONLY WAY IT FITS. If I turn them all on and spin around fast enough maybe I’ll get surround sound.

Now all I need are to add are shelves for the good monitors and also some shitty computer speakers on the desktop, since that’s sadly what most people use! Maybe I can use something off a old CRT monitor. Remember these?

Man, those sucked


**: No really this helped so much, because now I have a place for gig bags. It was a really tall empty space.
⁂: I love weird typographical symbols.
‱: Like, is this just a box for you, or do you see it?

diy video: making cheap acoustic sound baffles

I’ve posted the DIY video on making cheap acoustic sound baffles up on YouTube! Two lessons:

  1. iMovie is seriously not capable of handling videos this long (50m, from a 1h37m rough-cut) – everything takes literally 2-7 seconds to select or move or anything. So it’s CLICK wait 3 seconds [highlighted] MOVE MOUSE TO DRAG OBJECT wait 7 seconds for object to move partly there wait 4 more seconds for object to move further to the wrong place RAEG.
  2. YouTube takes forEVER to process videos this long, omg. I still don’t have preview graphics. XD

I wanted to do looping and sync sound but had to abandon that idea and do live sound because iMovie choked too hard. But the live sound is okay. Plus, birdsong! I was working half-outdoors.

Beta listeners, if you’re listening, please let me know about those recordings – thanks! Everybody else, don’t forget the show on Monday. Have a good weekend, everybody!

This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, all on building out a home recording studio.

video editing

Working on a DIY video for how to make your own studio sound baffles the way I do. I needed to make a new one (or two, or three…) for nwcMUSIC next year if I want to do that “Find your Instrument” workshop again, so it seemed the time. Who knew editing the video would take almost as long as both shooting it and actually making a baffle?


thrift and pawn shop spelunking

I want to talk about kitting out on the cheap, but first, an update: I’ve heard from Meg Davis, and the fundraiser has met its goals! She has an iPad and is already working with it, learning about software. When she wrote, she was having what had been a bad day – the kind that would keep her from doing anything – but thanks to this device, she was catching up on business and email, and seeing how Garage Band works. Seriously, way to go, you guys. o/ Well done.

Now, on to cheap equipment!

I’ve been pawn-and-thrift-store spelunking again, this time for good camera tripods. I started at UW Surplus (no), then hit Goodwill and a local pawn store near Goodwill, and came up with two tripods – one that just needed cleaning and its camera pad re-glued, and one – a Slik U-210 – that needed a bit more work. I talked about that a little on Thursday here, if you’re curious, but the details aren’t really important. The U-210 is a heavy-duty no-fucking-around professional’s tripod; the successor is the U-212, which isn’t as tall. It’ll hold up a small building.

U210 on the left

I don’t need that much; to be honest, I’m probably fine with a generic $40 “prosumer” model made in China, with a 10% junk/return rate. But I hate doing that, and mostly just won’t. So if you don’t do that either, and you’re trying to kit out, here are a few key things I’ve found important to know.

  1. Learn to judge quality in a general sense. That’s not easy to teach, frankly, but you can avoid loose fittings, cheap rivets, overly-thin aluminium, flimsy or brittle plastics. Heft is no guarantee, but it generally doesn’t hurt, either. Similarly, learn to identify excessive wear. If there’s a moving part, make sure it still fits well with the parts it’s moving against. Broken is almost always easier to fix than worn out.

    If you have no idea where to start here, try watching a bunch of back episodes of the old late-90s BBC show, Bargain Hunt. Pay attention to the experts on that show and try to pick up on how they think.

  2. Talking of broken, be willing to fiddle with things and take them apart. If you’re not at least a bit of a DIYer, or interested in being one, don’t waste your time on this approach. But if you are, and are prepared to apply it, you can make off like a bandit. Recommended reading: The Readers Digest Fix-It-Yourself Manual. Not for any one repair, tho’ it’s good for that, but for a general idea about how you approach these kinds of problems.
  3. Be willing to see past dirt. Thrift stores in particular get a lot of estate-sale leftovers and storeroom cleanouts. Great grandmother finally passed on, and the kids aren’t photographers, and now I have a serious business tripod – a tripod that sat in a crawlspace by the furnace for 20 years, getting coated with grime. Now? Cleaned and lubricated, it’s ready to go.
  4. Recognise what’s out of place. If a pawn shop has a lot of something, it’s probably not that good a deal; they know it, they recognise it, they go through a lot of it, and they can price it with confidence rather than searching the internet and hoping. Guitar amps are a perfect example of that; they know crummy guitar amps, and they move well. DJ equipment, too, to a lesser degree. But if they have only one of something, and it doesn’t look like the other things? That’s the interesting item. Particularly if it’s dusty.

    (There are exceptions, of course. If you need an SM-57 or SM-58 microphone, those don’t stand out, and they know what they are, but they’re such commodities that the price will be good, and the damn things are nearly indestructible. Knowing when it doesn’t matter is a lesser skill, but a skill nonetheless.)

  5. Play with stuff in the store. Plug it in, bring in your equipment and use it. If they won’t let you, go somewhere else.
  6. Pawn shops always negotiate. Never pay what’s on the label, always bring cash, and if you get it out, make sure you don’t have enough to pay the label price anyway.

Examples: A: My PA’s board/amplifier unit met rules 4 and rule 1, spectacularly. The pawn shouldn’t ever have taken it. It’s not DJ equipment, it’s not a guitar amp, it’s not a car stereo. Few of their customers know what it is, and almost none of them know how to use it, or are even interested. It was missing a knob, which I replaced easily without even taking the unit apart, so I’m not counting it as rule 2, but that didn’t hurt, either. B: My speaker main, an old-school Crate, met rules 4, 3, 2, and 1. It was some arena-band-wanna-be’s stage monitor, and a total monster, and more than I’ll ever need for primary PA. It was dirty but would clean up well; it had a bad coil in the tweeter horn ($26 total repair cost), reeked of quality despite that, and it was totally out of place.

I got them both for dirt – seriously, like 90% off new retail – and for about 60% of the pawn’s asking price in both cases, because they didn’t want them around anymore. They stood out, saying, “this doesn’t belong here,” and were idle too long on the floor.

You can even find instruments that way, occasionally. They know guitars of all kinds, but they’re much less sure about anything else. I have a student violin for which I paid $40, including tax. It’s not a good violin, but it holds tune just fine, is complete with bow and case and all parts, and the screwed-up part wasn’t even broken, just, you know, screwed up. I put it back together correctly and saved it from a junk pile. Now I have my viLOLin. Tremendously useful? Eh, probably not. Fun to play around with and maybe even learn on? Oh yeah.

When the turret says, “I’m different!” – sometimes it is.

You got any suggestions for putting together a kit? Leave them in comments!

some answers, and another question

I’m going to round up the indie maker recommendations from the Recommendations Post, in a minute. But before that…

I have another question! It doesn’t work as a poll, so let’s just go for answers-in-comments again. Specifically:

Who inspires you?

Artistically, musically, engineeringly, whatever. Shit is all fucked up and bullshit, as the sign said, but people keep going anyway. Some of that’s determined ignorance, but not all of it. So: who inspires you? Not what: who.

Leave comments. Others might take notes.

And as promised, indie recommendations-from-fans time! These are all from comments:

And, of course, I recommend my own studio album, Dick Tracy Must Die, which is about as handmade as CDs and digital recordings can be. Buy the studio album for someone, or just for yourself! Short on cash, as so many people are right now? Download Cracksman Betty and/or Espionage: Live from Mars for anything you can afford, including free, and give as stocking stuffers.

G’wan, take a look. ^_^

Finally, I have SOLVED THE LINUX PROBLEM! o/ For details, see comments in the original post. Thanks go out to several people, but particularly to criacow on Twitter who pointed me at a sane explanation for how to swap out kernel images cleanly. I’m now running Linux kernel 3.1.5 underneath Ubuntu 10.4, which is vaguely hilarious, but which fixes the crash bug and gave me room enough to get the hardware running. Yay! My tiny studio is now somewhat less tiny! SIX CHANNEL RECORDING WOOOOOOOOOOOO! 😀

any linux kernel people out there


If so, I need their help. Please forward this around, I have a problem and I’d really like a workaround or fix.

THIS IS INTENSELY GEEKY. You have been warned.

I have a shiny new USB 2.0 Audio-compatible device, a TASCAM US-800. It validates as a generic USB 2.0 Audio device under OSX, and all the I/O ports are available. With drivers, it works also under Windows XP, to which my studio system can dual-boot. (Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-G31M-ES2L MB, BIOS version FI 2010/08/12.)

I plug it into my studio system when booted to Ubuntu (10.04 LTS (Lucid Lynx), 2.6.32-35-generic, all patches applied) and the Ubuntu machine falls over dead right after acknowledging the USB device. If I’m in Gnome the whole thing dies almost immediately; if I’m in a text console I have more time. The task queue fills because CPU0 soft-hangs.

Again, the exact same machine in exact same configuration, booted to Windows XP, works fine.

What appears to happen is some sort of interrupt fuckery (“ata3: lost interrupt (Status 0x58)”) and the USB hub controller loses an interrupt and doesn’t realise it, or, looking at the call stack and audio.c, maybe has an extra interrupt mapped to it somehow? With predictably hilarious, by which I mean disastrous, results.

Here is a syslog dump from a boot-through-dying session. It’s pretty typical. The adventures start at 15:41:29. Note the call stack. Note also “BUG: soft lockup – CPU#0 stuck for 61s! [khubd:29].”

This appears to be the most closely-related kernel bug report. It’s acknowledged as a bug but hasn’t been touched in a year. 🙁 I am not convinced it’s identical, in part because the workaround described down at the bottom (booting with noacpi) does not work for me.

I really, really, really want to be able to use this hardware on my Linux DAW. I can, yes, use it with my MacBook and Garage Band, or CUBASE on the same hardware as the Linux DAW, and shuffle files over. But both of those options kinda suck.

Anybody have a workaround? Or a dev machine that can analyse this? Pretty-please?

videos and hackery

Thanks to Zorp, who was in the audience at the Gypsy last month, I have a couple of live videos on my YouTube channel! If you’re reading this on the band site, you might notice a new videos tab, to match. Guess what it does! XD Here, have a video:

Live at the Gypsy Cafe; Video courtesy Zorp

That’s “Something’s Coming.” I’ve also posted the first recording – from the same performance – of “World Trapped in Amber,” which will appear on Din of Thieves.

I celebrated Seafair Weekend by rebuilding a 1978-era Pioneer power amp. I’ve had this thing kicking around for a while, and have used it as a monitor amp in the studio, but it’s always been noisy and kind of cruddy, and I was going to replace it until I found out that audio fidelity in my price range has actually been going downhill for the last 10-15 years as more and more money gets put into remote-control/iPod and iPhone interfacing/digital output/etc and less into basic sound quality.

I’ve never thought much of this amp, really; I picked it up used, for no money to speak of. Turns out replacing a whole fleet of really old capacitors makes it A GOD AMONGST AMPLIFIERS. Well, okay, not really. But – re-capped – it has one of the cleanest transistor preamps I’ve ever heard. Cranked all the way up to maximum output on all drivers, the preamp noise level in studio reference headphones is ZERO. You hear nothing. It’s fucking inaudible. And silence on speakers, too. It’s kind of shocking.

I still have some more work to do – I’ve got distortion on channel two on speakers only (headphones are pristine) caused by me trying to hack together the correct replacement cap value when I didn’t have it, and the tone control board is still a noise fountain and still needs the other half of its caps swapped. (Right now I’ve got it bypassed, and you shouldn’t be using that shit in a studio anyway, but I like having all the functionality of a piece of equipment available.) If finishing the rebuild doesn’t solve the tone board noise issues, I’ll leave it bypassed. Or maybe add a switch, to cut it in and out. ‘Cause this amp sounds great now. Seriously, I had no idea.

It’s no Dynaco ST70, don’t get me wrong. But I never knew it was capable of really sounding good. Turns out, in fact: fuck yeah! And that’s the kind of surprise I could use a lot more often. If you have some hackery in you, and see an old Pioneer (or similar) amp hanging out in a garage sale or thrift store or something, and it powers up at all – buy it and recap it, it’s probably worth the rebuild. This one was.

That’s what I did with my Seafair weekend. What about you?

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