Build a home recording studio
The first in a new series aimed at the home studio entusiast. Each month a different studio will be featured, outlining construction and highlighting equipment. This month, Martin Sheehan describes his single room set-up in rural Essex.
It's about three years since I bought my Teac 4-track reel-to-reel; the first two of which, leading to a constant choice between recording or sleeping! At that time, the machine was a 3340-S and the system centred around that, together with the hi-fi and an HH 12-into-2 mixer — access to the mixer courtesy of various bands I had been involved with over the past 11 years. During that time we've managed to put together a small 800 watt PA which has always lived at my parents' house — perpetuating the dilemma of either recording or sleeping. You can imagine what my bedroom looked like! Trying to snatch time to record was difficult enough, without the added effort of having to set it all up each time before starting to record — my dream was to have a room to leave everything set up and be able to record at the drop of a hat.
Anyway, now I have a house and a wife, and decorating has proceeded well except for one room! It's not that it's impossible to build a studio upstairs in a terraced house, it is quite possible, but live drummers and whole bands are a problem. You have to depend on a system and drumming at weekends — it's amazing what can be done.
To obtain the cheapest and most effective sound treatment, I read the TEAC Guide to Multitrack, government papers on noise transmission, books on acoustics and a very good company folder on acoustics related to building materials (British Gypsum). All these led to the conclusion that I should go for obvious weak spots where there was noise leakage. Then it would be possible to concentrate on a good sound inside the room.
To instigate matters an old thick carpet underlay was put on top of the bare floor boards and left a foot or so excess at each edge up the wall. Then across the width of the room, 12 feet by 8 feet 6 inches, lengths of 3 by 2 inch rough sawn wood were placed at 2 foot centres, which were not-connected to the original floor in any way (this would have increased sound transmission). Next, egg trays, with the idea that they could be used for sound proofing. The amount of times I had to rescue them from being thrown out, proved to have been a total waste of time however, as their lack of weight and depth, would have had little effect on anything but the highest frequencies of sound. More importantly, they would have looked ghastly on the walls compared to what I envisaged. After all those years of saving egg trays, I could not bear the thought of throwing them out, so I laid them all between the battens! There was now a mosaic of battens and egg trays over which was laid an old velvet theatre curtain and on top of that sheets of 3U inch tongue-and-groove, 2 feet by 8 feet chipboard (good and heavy), which made a fair seal along their edges and are a convenient size to work with. They were arranged in the same pattern as brickwork, with the edge of each board being aligned half way down the previous one for added strength. The edges above the wooden battens were then secured with two-inch oval nails to produce what has turned out to be a very sturdy floor, despite the fact that it floats above the original one. The reason for laying the velvet curtain was because despite the fact that this particular curtain was too big, tacky and ripped to be hung up, it could have had some effect in preventing vibrations of board against batten (some misalignments may have occurred due to slight warping of the battens). As it turned out, this must have been a brilliant idea as no unpleasant buzzing ever occurs in the finished floor.
The excess carpet underlay was rolled up tightly and forced down the gap between the sides and edges of the battens all the way around the wall. The final touches to the floor involved another layer of old underlay and quite a heap of old carpet shops' sample books obtained in last winter's sales (five squares per pound). On top of the underlay these squares were tacked, very securely to avoid getting feet or equipment caught. Not only do they provide a very cheap carpet but also a very colourful one. The whole of the floor so far had only cost in the region of £35.
The bulk of the work was now out of the way and the next most crucial part to tackle was the door. It had already been removed before constructing the false floor as it had opened inwards and would now have been just over three inches taller than the room.
I considered double doors the most economic and least troublesome method of reducing sound travel through this particular hole in the wall. The first step was to replace the 1½-inch strip of wood that the door closes against, with a one inch strip. This was to allow sufficient room for two doors to be mounted within the depth of the door frame. The original door was rehung, this time opening outwards — to save having to re-locate the handle and the hinges on the door itself I just hung it so it opened out from the right instead of inwards from the left as it had been before. A new door costs about £8 and all that was left to do was saw a few more inches off the bottom than usual and hang it where the original door had been. The only problem encountered here was that conventional handles are more than one inch proud of the door. To overcome this problem, on the first door the original handle was left on the outside but the handle and casing from the inside was removed by drilling a hole in the operating bar to accept a narrow, 3-inch long bolt, secured each side of the bar with a couple of nuts to allow operation of the door catch from the inside. This bar and bolt invention, however, now had to be wedged home into the remaining handle with a piece of rubber packing, because although it was now effective in operating the catch, without the other handle it was not held in place. To allow this door to be pulled shut, an ordinary (but less than one inch tall) cupboard handle was screwed above the 'Heath Robinson' catch operating mechanism. There are, no doubt, far better ways of instigating a door handle in confined spaces, but although mine is a bit of a bodge, it does work well. On the new door these problems were avoided by fixing a Yale front door lock which although costing another £8 has the two-fold additional advantage of preventing people barging in on you when you are in the middle of a recording and also of added security when you are out. Finally, sticky backed foam draught excluder was put around the framework for each door as, although a small gap may not seem very significant as regards allowing sound to escape, if you add all the small gaps together you soon end up with the equivalent of a hole in the wall. From this point of view it is also worth noting that the doors should either close snuggly over the carpet or have draught excluders fitted to the bottom of them.
A similar "plugging the hole" approach was adopted for the window. A large piece of chipboard was cut to fit into the window recess and then a frame of 2" x 2" wood nailed flush with the edges of the chipboard so that when it was fixed near the window it left a gap of 2" plus the depth of the window frame between the chipboard and the window. Air gaps such as this and the one between the doors are good for sound damping provided the air is sealed in the gap. This was effected in the case of the window by the use of sticky backed foam draught excluder again, which this time was stuck to the leading face of the 2" x 2" frame around the chip board so that it was squeezed against the window frame when pushed into place. The baffle is a push fit and stays in place under its own weight but a pair of heavy duty handles were screwed onto the face of it so it could be lifted out if ever there's the need for fresh air. This window baffle was finished by tacking more carpet squares over its face for no other reason than I had some left over. Also it looks better than bare chipboard and it is less messy than painting.
That covered soundproofing for sounds travelling from inside to outside and left sound damping from the inside bouncing back in.
The main problem in the acoustic re-shaping of an ex-bedroom is close proximity of parallel walls, since this is an ideal environment for setting up low frequency standing waves. These waves will make certain low notes stand out and ring above others and contribute to difficult balance, muddy recordings when using microphones and cause many strange phenomena on mix-down. If you try to cancel these frequencies with equalisation on the recording you will just end up with holes in the sound when the tape is played back in a room that does not have emphasis at these same frequencies. Another alternative is to cancel these frequencies with a graphic or parametric equaliser between the tape recorder and your amplifier. This technique is often used for slight correction in even the top studios but it is best to do what you can to prevent the problem in the first place, thus leaving as little as possible necessary by way of a cure later on.
Luckily, I obtained, very cheaply, some heavy old velvet curtains from a local curtain shop which occasionally cleared out old pubs and halls that were being redecorated. So, more wooden battens were screwed around three walls just below, and parallel with, the ceiling and the curtains hung by tacking them to the wood on two walls and from a curtain track on the third and longest. This was so the last curtain could be drawn back to make the room more 'live' if required. The further away from the walls you can hang the curtains and the more folds in them you can allow, the more effective they will be at dampening bass frequencies. I left one wall and the ceiling untouched as a certain amount of reflection is desirable.
There are two reasons for this — the first being that if there is anyone else in the studio, invariably I am the one sitting with my head at the apex of a triangle, the base of which is formed by the monitor speakers, and unless there is some degree of reflection anyone else in the room will have little idea of the true balance of the sound being produced. The other point is that in a 'dead' room, you tend to have the monitors up loud to compensate, thus nullifying all your good work at the sound proofing stage.
Building work now complete, I dealt with the small electrical matter of running a cable round the room from the single socket to supply a bank of distribution boards at a point of convenience. This has the advantage of only having to pull the main plug to ensure that nothing has been left switched on.
Using angle brackets mounted first onto 2" by 2" wood, which in turn is mounted on the wall, a shelf was erected for the monitor speakers at a height that puts the tweeters just above ear level when seated at the mixer. The 2" by 2" battens are there to give some degree of mechanical isolation. This is not an ideal situation for the speakers, but it does leave plenty of space for other equipment to be stored below the shelf and in many a home studio, space can be an important concern. I'd got a mental image of where all the equipment should go for ease of access and also to minimise cable lengths.
This is a very important point to consider in home studios as it is very unlikely that you will use balanced line systems as are often used in professional situations. The standard, home studio, two wire, signal and screen system can pick up interference and degrade signals in proportion to its length, so a sensible layout should try to avoid any unnecessarily long cable runs. I used a good quality, low capacitance cable with a conductive plastic layer between the screen and core sleeve. The higher the capacitance of a cable the more it degrades high frequencies along its length — another reason to keep runs short. All the leads except the rather nice phono ones which TEAC supply with their equipment, I made myself. This is much cheaper than buying readymade ones and, although rather time consuming, if any break, you will be able to fix them. This is not the case with some factory made moulded types. Most of the leads run to a patch bay, which was made from old Dexion-type racking with pairs of phono sockets on the back and jack sockets with extra make-and-break contacts on the front. Using these make-and-break contacts all the phonos are normalised as pairs so that any signal plugged into the top one will come straight out of the bottom one unless a jack is inserted into the corresponding socket on the front panel, in which case the signal is re-routed along this path. Therefore, any un-plugging and replugging for mix-downs, over-dubs and bouncing is a simple matter of swapping some of the jack leads on the front of the patch bay coming from the mixer. The patch bay sits very conveniently at hand height on the right side as part of a home-built rack mounting system. The bottom unit of this is the amplifier, next up is the patch bay, then a DUAL record deck and sitting on top at a backwards tilt of 45 degrees is a TEAC 3440. Behind all this, in the corner, is a Great British Spring Reverb, held away from the wall and off the floor by foam rubber to isolate it from vibration.
This is probably not necessary, but what's the harm? On the left hand side is a chest of drawers holding spare leads, non-rack mounting effects and all the things like editing blocks and head cleaning and degaussing equipment which you need to be able to get at frequently but which you do not want getting under your feet or cluttering up the mixer. On top of this chest of drawers sits a TEAC 32-2B ½ track which is used for mixing down onto. Next to this is a Marantz CS 330 three headed cassette deck. In front, is the HH 12-2 mixer and to the left of this stacked one above the other are the 19-inch rack units. An MM stereo 7-band graphic, a Powertran digital delay and a Roland Vocoder. I sit on a swivel chair away from the wall behind me, facing over the mixer towards the KEF monitor speakers. One should avoid, as far as possible, sitting closer to a wall than to the speakers, as this will mean hearing the reflections from the wall at a significant volume - compared with that of the direct sound from the speakers and you would be surprised at how much effect this can have.
With the gear in this position, the doors are in the wall behind me over to the far left leaving a space to the far left in front of me for performing. Even though the room is only 12' by 8½' I have had three others besides myself playing simultaneously and there was room enough provided excessive movement was avoided.
"Willow Number One" studio is currently resplendent as a serious home studio set-up and the whole transformation cost less than £80 to perform. It has been a great success for everyone who has seen and used it with me, so much so that I am currently in the process of lending out my services and private studio to any budding songwriters in the area who want to get their ideas down on tape in a high quality form to present to publishers or bands or simply for their own pleasure. And in between times there's very little to stop me from some self-styled creativity.
For further information on Willow One Studio, (Contact Details).
Feature by Martin Sheehan
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