Yes and no. Audio perfection is never attained through cutting corners; to work exactly like the pros takes resources. But for those on a budget who have to record in odd places like box rooms, cellars, and garages — at crazy times of the day and night — there are ways to improve your sound without draining your bank account. Whether you are tracking in a rehearsal space next to a cement works, or you’re mixing in a bright box room that seems to be giving you tinnitus, you can make the best out of an imperfect environment. And these quick tips and tricks can aid you in getting the best sound possible from a worst-case scenario.
#1 CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY NO
Before you make the mistake of nailing egg boxes or carpet to your walls, take a step back and be realistic about frequency control. As Rich the Tweakmeister [www.tweakheadz.com] points out: “Egg cartons don’t work. It’s one of those urban legends that people repeat over and over. They don’t make any discernible difference at all.” Ethan Winer, musician/writer/co-owner of Realtraps [www.realtraps.com] agrees: “Small room ambience is always bad ambience. So the only practical solution for a room that size is to make it as dead as possible. You can add a much higher quality ambience electronically during mixdown if needed, and that’s the only practical approach with such a tiny space. Using only thin materials like 1- or 2-inch thick acoustic foam or, even worse, carpet, is a recipe for disaster.”
Lack of absorption of high and midrange frequencies is generally the cause of a room’s undesirable “pingyness.” But, thankfully, these issues are fairly easy to sort out. Start by clapping your hands and listening for reflections from the walls. If you get some pingy reflections, your best bet is to pony up and invest in some acoustic foam (ideally a couple of pieces that measure approximately 4' x 4'). Start moving these pieces around the room while continuing to clap until you identify the room’s problem areas, and then place accordingly. [Note: A good way to measure the effectiveness of your foam placement is when the “cracks” from your claps sound crisper and reverberate for a shorter period of time than they previously had.]
Lack of low frequency absorption, unfortunately, is a bit trickier of a problem to solve. But Winer further warns against shoddy soundproofing practices, claiming that bad soundproofing is worse than no soundproofing at all when it comes to low frequency absorption. “Thin materials absorb only high frequencies,” Winer says, “so the result is a room that’s too dead — yet it’s ‘boomy’ and ‘boxy’ at the same time. For DIY types, I recommend rigid fibreglass, 4' thick, wrapped in fabric, covering most or all of the room’s surfaces including the ceiling.” For folks with a sufficient budget, investing in broadband acoustic panels and bass traps is the best course of action (Figure 1). But for the truly broke, a rug on the floor, a bookcase on the wall, or even a strategically placed sofa between the source and the walls will help dampen the room.
No matter what your budget is, it’s important to do something — anything — to help control these frequency demons. Rich the Tweakmeister reminds us: “The most important thing for me, when recording of listening critically when mixing, is to have a good sounding room that enhances what I am doing. Let’s not forget: Listening is for pleasure too, so your pleasure factor is your best guide. A bad room really grates on the nerves in a short period of time. Your ears get tired and you can end up with a headache. It’s like eyestrain for the ears. Anyone who has ever painted the walls in an empty room knows what an extremely annoying room it sounds like. But as you start moving furniture back into the room, it starts sounding better. For your studio, you want to do this in a more exacting way, to make the room actually sound pleasant and friendly to the ear.”
#2 IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Headphones are generally scoffed at by pros, being tolerated only moderately when used by recording musicians for monitoring during tracking/overdubbing sessions, or for giving a different perspective while mixing. But for someone with a bad sounding mixing area, they can be incredibly helpful. Karl Coryat, author of Guerrilla Home Recording [www .backbeatbooks.com], suggests using them when you are forced to listen in a poorly treated room. “Every serious home recordist should have a good pair of headphones,” Coryat says. “Investing in a good pair is, in my opinion, much more effective than spending the same amount on acoustical room treatments, or to upgrade your monitors. For one thing, in terms of monitoring, headphones are a way to take any bad aspects of your studio’s acoustics out of the equation. I’ve also found them very effective to check out the finest details of your recordings, as well as to analyze pro productions figuring out how they’re made and what makes them sound so good.”
A decent pair of headphones will do three things. First, they will block out unwanted background noise. Second, they will provide you a complete stereo image of your studio’s output regardless of where you are. Third, in the case of having a poorly soundproofed room, the endless playbacks of that guitar solo/beat/or eerie synth pad will no longer have your neighbor looking for his shotgun. But beware: Don’t rely too heavily on your headphones. As Coryat says, “The psychoacoustics involved with wearing headphones make it difficult to gauge the relative levels of elements in a mix, particularly in the low end, so you should always double-check mixes — in your car, on a boom box, and/or on consumer home speakers.”
So that leaves us with the crucial decision as to what type of headphones to invest in. Some say closed-backed headphones compromise sound quality, but they block out much more external sound, making them a good choice for, say, monitoring a loud guitar band. Open-backed headphones, on the other hand, may give you a better sound quality, but leak more audio into your immediate environment. Regardless of what you decide works best for your situation, Coryat stresses that you “look for headphones that aim for clear sound and true bass and avoid anything that intentionally colors the sound or attempts to improve the listening experience. For instance, if the box touts ‘turbo bass’ or something similar, steer clear.”
#3 MAP, MONITOR, SURGE
It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s incredibly important that you set your monitors correctly in your mixing space (Figure 2). Winer recommends the following: “In a rectangular room, the loudspeakers should always be set up so they fire the longer way down the room. The goal is to put the mixing position furthest from the rear wall behind you because that’s where the inevitable peaks and nulls are worst.”
“The ideal mix position puts your ears 38% of the way back from the front wall you face while listening,” Winer continues. “Then place the loudspeakers in an equilateral triangle. Anything outside that magic equilateral triangle and you could be throwing sound all over the place, really compromising the performance of a good set of monitors. If your room size is a problem, as a rule, monitors being too close together are better than them being too far apart. This will leave you with a massive ‘hole’ making panning and placement difficult, to the point of being impossible.”
Set up your monitors roughly at about head height; mount them securely and at the same level. Please don’t be tempted to put the monitors on their sides either, unless the manufacturer recommends it; they won’t give you a true, balanced sound. If you are in a box room, having issues with high end reverberations and overall clarity of sound, fixing absorption panels on your side walls at the same height as your ears will help iron out a lot of these problems.
#4 THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
“I find it kind of funny that some people will spend thousands to treat their room yet never quiet the stuff inside the room itself!” exclaims Rich the Tweakmeister. “You walk in and hear a noise coming from computer fans, hard drive whines, ZIP drives, SCSI drives for samplers, fans in samplers, fans in amps. This is no way to work on music or produce audio, as this racket masks other problems in the studio — like 60Hz hum at the console outs, or poorly setup gain on mics, synths, and other instruments.”
It’s true, all that gear that you have begged and borrowed could be a big part of this very problem. All you need is a computer with a dodgy fan and a few antiquated amps to mess up a recording. And, if you’re recording every track in the same noisy area, you can count on your problems multiplying in the mix.
So what can you do? “I tried putting the computers in a closet and ended up creating a second furnace for the house,” Rich the Tweakmeister says. “It got way too hot in there! You could also get a sound enclosure box, but they are pretty much out of the home studio budget. For me, the solution was moving my industrial strength PC and Mac into the next room. What an amazing difference!
“The simple answer is to get all of that stuff outta there,” he continues. “Drill a 4" hole above the baseboard going into the adjoining room. Make sure there is space in the next room for your computer and a rack unit. Then make an inventory of the cables you are going to need to pull this off. [Hint: If you have a FireWire or USB audio interface, this makes life much easier.] Get a few powered USB hubs for stuff like your mouse and keyboard. Perhaps the hardest are cables for the video monitors: VGA extension cables are easy to use, but avoid the cheap ones as they may cause ghosting on the screen. Digital video extenders are available too, but if you map things out carefully before you drill, you might find a way to get the stock six foot cables on most LCD monitors to make it into the next room and into the back of the computers.”
If you simply don’t have the space, you could always set up all the noisy gear on a trolley and when it’s time to record, wheel all the gear outside the room, close the door, and get on with the work.
“This was, without a doubt, the best upgrade I have made in my studio since I started using hard drives,” he concludes. “I can once again hear and pinpoint troublesome noise at my mixer and take steps to get rid of it. When I am doing sound development work, I don’t have to crank the gain or wear headphones to hear subtle nuance. Thanks to the lower levels of monitoring I can compose and mix all night long without disturbing neighbors or roommates.”
#5 SO CLOSE TO YOU
In the world of the truly acoustically awful, there is but one sure-fire last resort: Close mic it all. As Winer tells it: “The only viable approach to recording in a small room is to put the mics as close to the instruments and amplifiers as possible. This captures more of the instrument’s sound and less of the room tone. But there are a few things of which you need to be aware. First, cardioid mics increase the level of bass frequencies when they’re placed near a source, so you’ll probably need to use the low-cut filter on your microphone preamp. Another possibility is to use omni microphones that don’t have this proximity effect — but then the risk is that by being omnidirectional, they’ll pick up more of the room tone you’re trying to avoid.”
Rich the Tweakmeister concurs: “My first advice is to fix the room. But if you can’t, try using a quality dynamic mic rather than a condenser. Most dynamic mics are less sensitive to reflected sound. Condenser mics, however, can be extremely sensitive and can pick up every little sound in the room, including those outside your house if you crank the gain enough. The Sennheiser MD421 and Electro-Voice RE20 are both great mics given that you have a quality preamp to boost the signal . . . but so is the Shure SM57.”
But, with some instruments, there is a problem recording only with dynamics. Cellos, violins — even acoustic guitars — require a different approach, as they have frequencies emitting in multiple directions. As these instruments need a little bit of space and some of the room’s ambience to capture their full range, your best bet is to start close in and work outward from the instrument until you find a nice balance between the sound of the instrument and the room itself.
Another potentially problematic instrument is the bass, with its major low frequencies and window rattling waves. Coryat, a bass player himself, reckons the most direct approach is the best. “I can think of only one time that I miked an amp to record bass, and that was years ago. All other times, I’ve recorded direct — which completely eliminates the room factor. If I want distortion or color, I supply it electronically. If you record bass this way, it will sound the same whether you’re at a million-dollar studio, at home, or in an old VW bus. With the tools that are available today, if someone hears your recording, it’s unlikely that they’ll know you recorded direct. They’ll just hear a great bass sound.”
“The same goes for guitars,” Coryat adds. “For some of us a decent space to mic up a great sounding vintage amp is an unheard of luxury. A good direct box can get fantastic results, or, dare I say it, going directly into the desk or soundcard and using a good plug-in can sound awesome . . . and keep your neighbors happy.”
#6 GONE IN 60 SECONDS
This seems ridiculous, but is simple, cheap, and very effective: Get a sofa or a futon and stand it on its side, placed in the corner of the room so it creates a hollow (Figure 3). Get in with your microphone and voilà, instant vocal booth. An engineer friend who wishes to remain anonymous (he’s a pro that fears this sort of knowledge made public could end with him being burnt at the stake) says he actually recorded an entire album’s worth of vocals for a successful hip-hop album this way. “I had no studio time, a deadline hanging over me, and this was the only way of getting the job done,” he says, apologetically. “I got the MC in question to come over and we nailed it. Nobody has ever suspected that this was done in anything other than a bona fide vocal booth.”
So you don’t have an extra sofa just lying around? You’ve got to get the vocal tracks down now, and the room is making them sound like they were recorded by the girl down the well at the end of The Ring? Coryat suggests this trick: “My favorite secret weapon is a toilet paper tube. Anytime I want a filtered, bandpass ‘telephone’ sound — which is also a way to improve intelligibility — I hold the tube about an inch from my mouth while I sing, pointing the other end a few inches from the mic. This usually results in a somewhat ‘peaky’ sound though, as your voice tends to hit resonant frequencies in the tube; so some after-the-fact compression and EQ is going to be needed to keep the track seated in the mix.”
#7 THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HUMMM
Whilst not being strictly an acoustic issue, buzz is something that, like poor acoustics, can hamper every stage of the recording process. Causes of the dreaded hum fall into two main categories, according to Winer: “One is solid state light dimmers, and it’s especially a problem for apartment dwellers because the buzzing dimmer could be in a neighbor’s apartment over which you have no control. Another cause of buzzing is ground loops that develop when using pieces of gear plugged into different AC power outlets. First, as long as the gear’s current consumption doesn’t exceed that of the outlet you want to use, you can plug all of your gear into the same outlet. You can use power strips if you have many devices to power. Second, if using one outlet for everything is hazardous or not practical, the next step is to use audio isolation transformers.”
Other factors could include the proximity of the instrument to your computer. “For guitars and basses that buzz, don’t sit too close to a CRT-type computer screen, and before you record, be sure to rotate your position while you play quietly to find the orientation that causes the least buzz,” Coryat says. “When you find the position that’s least noisy, take note of something in the room that the instrument’s headstock is pointing toward, and be sure you’re in that position immediately before every take.
“In a home studio there will always be a little buzz, hum, or hiss to contend with,“ Coryat admits. “I recommend running all but the quietest sources through an expander, set to a low threshold and a gentle ratio, between the source and the recording medium. Set the expander so that it sounds like it’s only cleaning up the spaces between the notes; if you’re hearing it do its thing, or if the sound is cutting in and out, use subtler settings (a lower ratio and/or threshold). In most cases, expanders and compressors are like live soundmen and umpires: They’re doing their job best when you don’t notice them.”