Home Studio Recordist
Geoff Adams tells us what you can do with a broom cupboard and a little imagination...
This series welcomes contributions from you, the reader, about your home studio set-up, recording techniques and adventures in the studio. This month we feature Geoff Adams, whose home studio happens to be a broom cupboard!
How can you best make use of an 8' x 5' tiny broom cupboard? One thing, if you write stories and articles and are interested in the 'heard' version of creative writing, turn it into a talks studio.
I have been recording for some time now, and Studio BC (BC for Broom Cupboard) came into being not so much from the desire to have a studio as a solution to a problem (that's the right way round I'm assured!...), when I used to participate in a quiz programme for a local radio station which broadcast pre-recorded competitions of mine. Then, all I had was a portable cassette recorder, a cheap electret microphone, a little device I invented for recording sound-on-sound with cassette, a turntable and a sharp razor blade for editing - and cutting my throat if I didn't manage to finish the script before that great juggernaut I could hear in the distance came thundering past my house to be 'immortalized' on tape! You'll know the problem if, like me, you live beside a busy main road.
It doesn't help, for example, doing work where a period background is needed. I cherish a recording which was broadcast where I was acting as an 18th century squire. Picture the soundscape of me lowering my cloak over a puddle for 'M'lady' to walk over to get into her carriage when a very 1980s Honda 50cc motorcycle minus silencer accelerates past us at full throttle from the coach house. Happy days....
But what really swayed the balance in favour of building a studio was when I went on radio 'live' for the first time. I thought my work sounded good until I heard myself in the hands of professional equipment and technicians. I realised then that I wasn't exactly doing credit to all the painstaking hours I put into my work.
Disillusioned, I set about converting this broom cupboard toute de suite.
First of all I sound insulated the window. Because I would be working in the studio for hours at a time, I still wanted to see outside, so I triple glazed it; that is, I added double insulation to the existing window and for the third pane affixed this inside a sub-frame which I spaced 6" inside the frame proper. This is not ideal when the traffic outside is at its noisiest around midday, but it does solve the problem if, over the window, I pull across some heavy drapes.
About curtains, after I'd tiled the walls and stuck carpet underlay (absorbent - not the rubberised kind) over every hard surface, I found I'd got a pretty good working room acoustic, but slightly more reverberant than I really wanted, and curtains seemed to be a good answer.
Instead of having a permanently dead room acoustic which I'd get by using more sophisticated treatments such as panels, I can now vary the studio from live to dead simply by arranging the curtains and microphone to suit. For tighter control I could of course make the acoustic totally dead and use a reverberation unit, but I've always found it pretty uncomfortable working in such environments. A compromise would be even heavier drapes such as those found in old hotel lounges, and, indeed, I'm awaiting my opportunity when a local hotel gets round to modernisation.
Recording the human voice I find a challenge, in that it demands more of a recording system than one might think. Signal-to-noise ratio is a point in question. Whereas with music, sheer quantity of signal can often mask a system with poor noise levels, not so the human voice and drama. With story readings and talks, pauses of two or three seconds are not uncommon for dramatic effect and emphasis and this is where electronic noise really shows itself - against absolute silence!
On account of this my policy is to use as few electronics as possible and direct record whenever I can. The accepted format for talks is ¼" tape recorded at 7½ips, half- or full-track. For this I have a Uher 4200, a stereo version of the popular Uher Report which you'll find most radio journalists use.
A particular bugbear when solo working - that is, operating the controls and doing the voice work - is that the recorder generally has to be within arm's reach, and the mechanical noises with which most reel-to-reel recorders I have ever come across are prone can easily 'break through' onto the signal. Typewriter mats, cloths and felt help, but a quiet recorder is better, and the Uher 4200 Report Monitor is a half-track which makes little more noise than a cassette recorder, the tape-transport mechanism being enclosed in a die-cast aluminium case and lid. Also, it has a near-silent pause control. The times I have had to splice out mechanical clicks from these controls getting on tape....
My workhorse is a Uher SG521 recorder. This has interchangeable tape heads for quarter- or half-track working, although I like to keep to half-track to be able to change tapes with the 4200 for making up small programmes etcetera; and for this, incidentally, I sent the machine to Uher to get it biased so that both recorders acted the same electronically, thus minimising quality loss.
My mixer is a Uher Mix 700, a five-channel affair. This provides me with two RIAA equalised amplifiers for inputs from magnetic cartridges, and it's pretty noiseless, both physically and electrically, and, importantly for me, it has pre-fade controls which not many mixers have around the £200 mark so I can cue in a source before committing it to the mixer's output.
Other equipment includes a Technics cassette deck with dbx noise reduction, plus Dolby B and C, which I use for low level actuality or background effects and music with endless loop cassettes. A cartridge machine would probably have done this job better, but price was a decider when I did not have a cassette deck and it really is a drawback for a studio not to be 'cassette compatible' when so much work, especially by friends and those less 'sound quality' conscious than 'artistic', is exclusively on cassette.
The most important piece of equipment my studio has is the microphone. Since I have been voice-training I find the demands made on a microphone more and more rigorous. Voice projection can mean you blowing out great hurricanes of wind, particularly if you're acting, and you know what that does to microphones - they overload! A solution I've found is to use an AKG D202, which is frequently used in BBC studios, with a thick foam windscreen and position the mic at a sharp angle. This way I can get really close in without adverse effects if I want.
I have other microphones but do stick to just the one for voice work. I know its susceptibility to p-blasting, its cardioid response and how to approach it from a practical point of view, and just what the sound I make is going to come out like at the end of the recording.
I monitor on headphones rather than the small PA amplifier and B&O loudspeakers in my studio. That way I'm never affected by ambience wherever I find myself. I have a pair of AKG K160 headphones for this purpose, and these are a particular boon in that they're non-transparent and when I'm recording out and about I can monitor sounds accurately even at airports and building sites. Besides, indoors I have a line which feeds the audio in the lounge. This is an active crossover system and shows up every nuance and texture in the finished recording (and boo-boo!), and it's here I generally put things into perspective after my labours. (By the way, I call the lounge the 'listening room', but my wife doesn't see it that way...)
At present my output is non paying, for hospital radio etc, but this is a long way from my ambitions. They call artistic pursuits "singing one's song", and there's a lot of ways to vocalise for the aspiring reader and writer from advertising, radio spots and educational tapes to talking books. According to a couple of professional producers my recorded work is technically good. But the big question is whether there's anyone willing to pay to hear the song. That's the real test...
Feature by Geoff Adams
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