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February 1, 2005

TRIP THE TUNING FANTASTIC


--BOB HODAS (rhymes with YODA’s) knows more about tuning rooms than any one individual has the right to. He’s analyzed and corrected studios for everyone from Sony Music Entertainment to Abbey Road Studios and his most recent projects include an acoustic renovation of The Record Plant’s SSL-4 and Flea’s home studio. He had wanted us to call this “6 Cheap Sirloin Tips” but we decided that while they were free they were in no way cheap.

1. Build your room around the best speaker/listener setup for your space.

Why are you in this business? Audio! A studio should be a listening space, not a gear showcase. Clients will not come back to you if you have the coolest gear but their CD does not translate when they take it home. Many of a room’s serious bass problems can be solved just by getting the speakers and listener in the right position. Finding the proper positions can be difficult and time consuming even with good measurement gear, and the process is too long to explain here. An inexpensive alternative ($100) that can achieve, at a minimum, a 75% solution is RPG Inc.’s Room Optimizer program. It can help calculate the proper speaker placement for rooms with parallel walls (your basic home studio).

2. Symmetry.

If you don’t set your speakers up symmetrically in a room, they will wind up with different frequency responses due to speaker/boundary interference. Your speakers are fairly omnidirectional below 200Hz. So a lot of low energy is coming off the back and sides of the speaker. The signals that bounce off the walls and ceiling are going to mix in with the direct speaker signal. This delayed bounce will cause comb filtering. The time delay and thus, frequency of interaction is dependent on the speaker distance from the walls. If the left and right speakers are different distances from the walls, the cancellations will occur at different frequencies. Different frequency responses means that the speakers will sound different and also mess with your imaging. Bass is the foundation of building any mix so it has to be correct, and boundaries significantly affect a speaker’s bass response. Symmetry also applies to your equipment setup. Low frequencies are sensitive to gear placement. For example, if all of your gear is piled up on the left side, the left speaker will have a very different bass response than the right. So try to distribute your gear evenly around the room.


3. Find and treat your first order reflections.

High frequencies will act the same as the bass described in Tip #2. The difference is that they are more directional and above 400Hz will be subject to simple geometry. This means that you can use a mirror to find the reflection points. Invest $30 in a 2'x2' plastic mirror. Have a buddy sit at the mix position while you place the mirror flat against the walls and ceiling. Move the mirror around until your buddy sees the left and then the right speaker reflected in the mirror. Have your buddy slide side to side across the console to cover the entire mix area when looking in the mirror. Mark these areas so you can treat them. For the side walls and ceiling an inexpensive solution is a 6 lb. density, 2" compressed fiberglass, such as Owens Corning 705. The fiberglass should be covered with a fabric that is acoustically transparent. Go to a fabric store and pick out something with a very open weave. You should see some light pass through and if you hold it over your mouth you should be able to easily blow through it. Only treat the areas where you saw the speakers, or slightly larger, and don’t over do it. An over-damped room will sound like the life has been sucked out of it since you will disproportionately damp the high-end reverb time.


4. Put your speakers on stands, not on the console.

At this point I want to mention the evils of console reflections. The console and worktable are subject to the same reflections as your walls. Now I realize that you can’t do this if you have one of these all-in-one workstation pieces of furniture, but you should be aware of these tight reflections bouncing into your face. If you have the freedom, move the speakers back on stands. Use the mirror again for this. If you sit at the console and can see the tweeters in the mirror, you’re in trouble. Move those speakers back so you see no reflection in the mirror (usually about 8" behind the console).


5. Bass traps can help or hurt you.

There is no rule of thumb for bass traps. Many times trapping a corner is just what you need to control a room bump, but I’ve also seen corner traps put big holes into a room response. Sometimes you would do better to cut the corner off with a hard surface or leave the corner as is. In some cases the trap should be in the ceiling and in some cases on the back wall. I personally believe in measurement and experimentation to get the best results. I don’t think you can do it just with tones so I’ll recommend renting an RTA and a flat microphone (don’t use your favorite vocal mic). Experiment with treatments and do some listening too! The ears are the final judge in all of this.

6. Gather as much knowledge as you can.

This space is too short for any in-depth advice. The NARAS Producers & Engineers wing just published a guideline for setting up 5.1 mix rooms. While not perfect, there is a lot of good information in there. Read the articles on my website at www.bobhodas.com. I am way behind on getting current articles up there but I’ll be putting more up as we get into the new year. Read your trade mags. You may get frustrated by conflicting opinions in the studio design trade the deeper you get into this, but hey, it’s not a perfect world.

7.Get a leg up on it.

There are probably certain setup things you do with any sequencer each time you use it. So why do them every single time you start a certain kind of project? Outside of bad home training? Use a program’s “template” feature, and if it doesn’t have one, then just save certain basic projects according to type.

8. Pre-patch.

Nothing kills inspiration like waiting for the engineer to set up the recording chain (or taking time to patch things in yourself, if you’re wearing the artist and musician hats). So plan ahead. If you’re going to be overdubbing electric guitars, set up any DIs, re-amping boxes, tuners, and so on, ahead of time, so all you have to do is plug in and hit record.

9.Run and get back up.

If you have a piece of hardware with an internal fuse, you know that it will go at the worst possible time. Make life a little easier by attaching a replacement fuse inside the case, so that when you open it up to access the fuse, there will already be one there. If the equipment doesn’t run too hot, you can just tape the fuse to the side with duct tape. If you’re concerned about the fuse coming lose and wreaking havoc, then drill a hole, attach a dummy fuse holder with a screw, and insert the replacement fuse into the holder.

10.Scratch out a password/authorization code file.

If you lose a password or authorization code for your software, don’t expect much sympathy from the manufacturer. Create a file that contains all this crucial information, along with info like passwords to user update areas, then place this file in a folder that contains any other needed files (like HTML files used to register software). Make this folder “Copy Protection Central” with all the data you need to install and authorize software. Save this to CD, and buy a USB thumb drive that’s dedicated to holding this data. Print out the file of passwords as an additional safety measure. You’ll be glad you did.

11. Do some dry running.

During a mix or recording session with the client sitting over your shoulder is not the time to learn how a new piece of gear works. Take time in between sessions to practice with it — run a variety of tracks (drums, guitar, vocals) through that re-issue “vintage” compressor at different settings, feed a guitar cab with a direct “reampable” signal while repositioning a new microphone, or whatever, and be sure to record the results so you have an audio record of how things sound at different settings.

12. Power up older gear periodically.

We all have them: Those pieces of older gear we once loved, don’t use, but can’t bear to sell. However, if you want them to continue to exist, power them up from time to time, work the controls, plug things into the jacks, you know: do the do. Moving parts like to move, and corrosion can build up in connectors unless they get some exercise.

ALEX OANA’S TRIBUTE TO
THE PAINFULLY OBVIOUS

Well when they say “somebody has got to say it,” pretty often it goes unsaid. Call it the fear of the obvious, the fear of the redundant, or the fear of the nose on your face. ALEX OANA (Mudvayne, SPY MOB), it could be said, is absolutely fearless in this regard. Forthwith his FIVE tips on stuff you probably know (but can’t hurt to be reminded of).

13. Know your bands.

Not frequency bands either. Get to know the artists as well as you can. Collaboration is about people — the better everyone knows everyone the more honest everyone can be in the process. If you’re on an out-of-town session, stay with the band. Share toothpaste.

14. The buck stops here.

Going back and forth over decisions can be a huge time-suck. Figure out who the producer is to avoid any power struggles. One person calling the shots can streamline any process. Stiff upper lip, soldiers.

15. I mix alone.

Mix the song until you love it, without anyone looking over your shoulder. Then email an MP3 to all the band members, A&R, and so on. Have the band elect one member as the liaison to communicate their wishes to you. Tell the A&R to get a real job.

16. Computers make music.

The biggest blessing and curse is the ability to endlessly rework a song. Make sure it’s a good song in the first place — that’ll save time!

17. And to cynically simplify, remember to:

not get creative, develop presets for your recording, mixdown, and mastering phases so you can get through a lame project as quickly as possible, and if the band is no good and you’re not looking forward to the session, get someone else to do it. These might make me sound horrible, but they are eminently practical.

18. Get…Ouch! Custom cables!

Do you have a piece of gear that depends on some weird cable that’s made by the manufacturer and no one else? Buy a replacement, now, and put it in a safe place.

19. Replace batteries.

A battery that’s leaked all over your gear will likely ruin it, because the chemicals inside batteries are highly corrosive. If they just attack the battery connectors, that’s bad enough; but if a PC-mounted battery (e.g., for backup) leaks over the board, that board will die a premature death and will be almost impossible to fix. When equipment isn’t going to be used for extended periods of time, remove the battery. Your gear will thank you for it.

20. If you’re not going to paint the town, at least paint your plugs.

Buy a set of enamel paints with a wide variety of colors at a hobby store, and put a dab of paint on each end of your patch cords. Ideally, each cord would have its own color. This makes it sooooo much easier should you need to troubleshoot which connections are going where.

21. So how old is that battery?

With battery-powered gear (including remotes), write the date you replace a battery on a removeable sticker, and affix it to the outside of the gear (preferably somewhere near the battery compartment). This gives you an idea of how often batteries need to be changed, but more importantly lets you know if a battery is really old and should be replaced just to make sure it doesn’t leak or cause other problems.

22. Got PDF?

A lot of companies post their manuals online as PDF files. Download these and save them to a CD. Not only will this let you get rid of the paper version if you need to save space, but the document will probably be searchable — great when you need to look up a specific term to remind yourself of how it works.

23. Realize that NONE of these tips will help you. At all.

JACK JOSEPH PUIG (John Mayer, GREEN DAY, Goo Goo Dolls, NO DOUBT) says “none of these tips matter. They matter but they don’t matter. There’s a balance. A perfect example is I once did a session in a studio I had never worked in before and I wanted to prove to myself that it didn’t matter what gear I used, but that the real talent was in being creative, breaking the rules, thinking out of the box and trying something you may have thought would never work. We were tracking drums and I told the assistant to grab the first 12 mics on the left and put them up . . . it ended up being the most amazing session and the song went on to be a massive hit. The SM57 is the most commonly used mic on a snare drum or guitar amp. But it’s more about what you do with that microphone. These tips are important, if they inspire you to go down creative paths. Hopefully your interpretation of these tips will inspire you and that is what really ends up making the difference.”

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