Between albums, producer/MC Thes One of the L.A. hip-hop duo People Under the Stairs (also including MC/DJ Double K) got married and bought a house. But the house wouldn't be a home without a real studio to record the group's new album, Stepfather (2006, Tres), so Thes and a few inexperienced friends took on the challenge of converting a spare bedroom into a high-level project studio. Here, he relays what he learned.
The first step is to have the proper tools; that was the first mistake we made. We went to Home Depot probably 10 or 15 times the first couple of days. We were like, “Wait, we don't have a crowbar? Oh wait, we need a sledgehammer.”
Next, it's good to draw a diagram of where you want your audio and electrical plugs to pop out. Once you put the walls up, you're stuck with it, so it's really important that you're comfortable with where your plugs are. Visualize how your studio is going to be laid out based on the gear that you have. If you're going to have your computer or console in one corner but your rack or vocal booth in another corner, you have to envision how you want your wires running. For instance, we turned our closet into a vocal booth, so we made sure to put XLR female plugs and TRS stereo plugs in the wall for plugging the microphone and headphones into the wall. That wire should run behind the wall to the other end of the room where it pops out on a faceplate near my microphone preamp.
Then you have to find your electrical breakers for the studio room. Turn on everything in the studio room, including all the lights, and plug things into all the outlets. Then have a friend go to the breaker to figure out which switch turns everything off in that room, and turn it off. If you're not sure about it, you could turn off the whole panel and kill all of the electricity. At some point, you're going to need to turn on something for power tools, a vacuum, etc. We turned off just the room we were working in and ran an extension cord from another room to plug in a radio or whatever we needed, so we could keep the electricity off in the studio room.
TEAR DOWN THOSE WALLS
Basically, you just go at the dry walls, man. You could cut it with a blade and pull it off, but there's no easy way around it. Just get in there and rip those walls out so you only have the studs of the framing. We ripped all the walls out, and there was mold behind it. The opposite wall was all cinder block, which had been letting water seep through and get into the insulation, becoming this festering pile of mold behind the wall. If you're creating a studio in a basement, mold is definitely a reality to deal with when ripping the walls out. It's very likely that if one of the walls is touching cinder block and there's earth behind it, you're going to have moisture and most likely mold, which typically happens in a basement, lower-level room or other humid place.
The quick solution to that problem is to weather-seal that wall with a solvent-based foundation coating (a company called Henry, among others, sells that), so it doesn't continue to let water through. The foundation coating is like a really thick paint. Slather about two coats on, and it basically moisture-proofs the wall.
We had to add extra electrical boxes around the studio, and you want to do that when the walls are down. It's very simple to move a plug once the wall is down; it's just a little box screwed to a stud. Unscrew it, move the wire and put the plug somewhere else. I was deathly afraid of electricity from getting shocked by ungrounded DJ mixers and that sort of thing. But it turns out that an electrical plug is the simplest apparatus of all time. You need to connect three wires, and the instructions are on the back. Just go buy one at Home Depot, and it'll tell you what to do.
If you don't feel comfortable with the wiring, once you have the walls down and everything is open, it's very simple for an electrician to come in. If you want the electrician to put in a subpanel of breakers just for your studio, it won't cost more than $100 or $200 dollars because everything is already exposed.
I ended up putting in a subpanel for my studio — extra breakers that are not on the main box. If you have a lot of big gear — tube gear, a console, etc. — that's something to think about. If you're using computers and digital gear, it's probably not necessary. But do not think that putting in a Furman power conditioner is going to solve any problems you have down the line. I've opened one of those up, and it looks like an extension cord inside. There's an RF filter, and that's about it. Those 1U Monster power conditioners have a lot more going on inside of them. That's something someone might want to throw at the top of their rack. But there's a lot of voodoo in electricity and cables. It wasn't until this project that I realized the truth behind power conditioners and audio cables.
Any person doing a project like this or just getting more into studio stuff needs to get comfortable with making cables. Cables are a huge racket. Companies are making enormous amounts of money selling premade cables, but you can buy very high-quality bulk cable for dirt cheap. In L.A., there are three or four places where you can buy bulk cable for 13 or 14 cents a foot. In a project like this, you need spools of bulk cable. It doesn't matter what plug you put on the end, whether it's XLR or TRS. As long as it's balanced, you can run that cable through the studs. We bought two bulk 8-channel cable snakes with color-coded wires that we labeled on both ends. To get through the studs, we drilled through them with a large drill bit and then fed the wire through. String the bulk cable behind the walls where you need it to be, and after the walls are up, pull out the cable and attach whatever kind of plug you want.
Before you put the walls up, you need to buy faceplates for the audio cables coming out of the walls. Certain pro-audio shops sell faceplates with plugs built into them. Those screw into standard electrical boxes, which come in sizes such as 1-gang, 2-gang, 3-gang, etc. (one gang per electric plug). Say, for example, you needed a box with four XLRs on it in the vocal booth — that's a 2-gang faceplate. So in the wall, you have to affix a 2-gang box. It's a little blue box that you nail to the stud. You have to have that so you can screw on the faceplate. Your audio cable comes out of the wall and sits in the box. When everything is said and done, you solder or attach the audio wires to the faceplate and screw it into the box.
When I say soundproofing, I'm not talking about treating the room acoustically. This is not a matter of putting foam up on the walls. Foam will stop the high frequencies from bouncing around within a room, but it won't soundproof your room. I'm talking about something that won't wake up your baby if you have to work at 4 a.m. The only effective way to soundproof your room is to add more mass to your walls.
With the walls open, you need to put something inside that's going to make it thicker. The best thing to use is mineral fiber. You could put freakin' sandbags back there, but mineral fiber is good because it's thicker and much denser than insulation. It's not expensive — about the same price as buying a batch of insulation. But it's more difficult to find because it's the nastiest substance ever created by mankind. Basically, it's a 2-by-3-foot slab, and you buy a package of five to 10 of those stacked. This stuff feels almost like fiberglass, but it's particles of mineral blown into a patty. If you get it on your skin, it itches like you would not believe, and it turns your skin red. You don't feel it right away. It can even get in your eyes, so you need gloves, goggles and a hat, and be sure to cover your whole body. And — I'm not just being funny — if you're putting in mineral fiber, and you go to the bathroom, be very, very careful when you touch your private regions. It is some nasty stuff, but it's absolutely the best thing to use. You can't get mineral fiber at Home Depot, but you can get it at a more high-end construction-supply place or high-end studio retailer. It shouldn't cost more than $100 a pack. We spent $200 — 300 on it for the whole room.
After all the wiring is set, put the mineral fiber in over or around the wires. It sits in between the studs and is malleable. You can bend it or rip a chunk off and put it in a small area. In the photos, you'll see the framing and the mineral fiber in between the framing. We put it behind the walls and the ceiling. If you were on the second floor, and there were beams going across beneath you, you could put it in the floor as well. It doesn't have to be too tight, it just has to be in there. When you have to rip it up and jam it in, that's when the stuff starts flying and getting all over you, and it becomes miserable. It is not toxic; it's just irritating. And once you get it in place, it's not like asbestos, which releases into the air. Mineral fiber can rub off on you only when it's disturbed.
Now it's time to start on the floating walls, which means that the wall itself is not touching the wooden studs framing the house. The wall is set off so that when it resonates and vibrates with the music, it doesn't transfer the vibration to the framing of the house or to the outside or other rooms. Without floating walls, the soundwaves of the lower frequencies will travel into the wall, into the stud and then throughout the whole house. By pulling the walls forward, you stop the transmission of that energy, and it stays within the room. It also gives you a better listening environment, because the whole house isn't resonating on certain notes. It really sounds different, and it takes a little getting used to because you're accustomed to listening to sound in an untreated environment.
We had no experience with floating walls. I bought all the parts in a kit from a distributor, and the kit is nothing more than some metal rails and rubber, neoprene padding stickers. You have to buy the dry wall separately.
The first thing you do is put up the long metal rails along the vertical studs. They run horizontally across the studs. We had to cut some of them (see Fig. 1) because they come in 3- or 6-foot lengths. At some point, you'll get to the end of the wall, and it won't even out.
In Fig. 2, you can see the mineral fiber in the wall. Through the ladder, there's a blue 3-gang box with an 8-channel snake of bulk cable coming out. And up on the ceiling, you can see that we've put up some floating wall rails. So first you put the rails down spaced apart like that along all the walls and the ceiling. Then you put the black neoprene strips from the kit across the railings. Now there's a rubber cushion on top of that rail. Then you take green board, which is like 5-inch dry wall, and lay that against those rails. Screw the green board into only the rails and not the wood so that it's literally hanging off of the ceiling. That's the essence of the floating-walls system. If you put your hand against the wall in this room, it won't move, but it's not touching the frame of the house; it's kind of floating off of those rails that are isolated with neoprene.
The black squares shown in Fig. 3 are the neoprene rubber — just stickers, basically. You put those stickers all over the first layer of wall. Then you put another layer of wall — the final outer layer — up against those stickers on the green wall. So there are actually two walls: The wall you see in the room is sitting on top of rubber cushions, which are on top of the green wall, which is on top of the rails, which are on top of the studs. In creating floating walls, you lose about six or seven inches off the width and length of your original room's size.
In Fig. 3, you can clearly see that every time we put up a new layer of wall, we had to cut out the hole for the faceplates where the electrical and the audio were going to reside (to the right of the ladder). The console was going to be placed right where that ladder is, so we wanted all the audio from the room — the vocal booth mics and the stuff from the rack on the other side of the room — to pop out right there as a faceplate of plugs.
No matter how well you make the wall, the windows are always the Achilles' heel of studios. I didn't want to build this beautiful studio and then have complaints from the neighbors late at night. After consulting a lot of people, the best solution was to take a hammer to the original window, and then put up two layers of glass block, which is like a wall. We did one layer from the outside and one from the inside. Glass block has very similar acoustic properties to a wall, and it's excellent for letting in natural light and stopping sound from traveling out of the studio. Glass block was also cheaper than building a solid wall because it would have cost too much money to finish the wall on the outside of the house. There are two layers of glass block because by soundproofing the room, we created a thicker wall.
In Fig. 4, you can see half of the first layer of glass block sitting in a plastic track. Wherever you buy glass block, you can get the track and the spacers as well. All you have to do is screw in the track around your window opening, and the glass block sits in the track. Make sure the blocks fit evenly — your measurements have to be precise. You can't cut a glass block when you get to the end and there's room for only half a block. Put the plastic spacer down, then pour the cement mix in and put the blocks on top — that helps you keep things evenly spaced. I thought that process was going to be difficult, but it's not. It's definitely something that a home-improvement person could do. You just have to use a little foresight.
The room is now soundproofed, but that doesn't mean the inside will sound good. Acoustic treatment is a whole separate issue, and the last thing I wanted to do was buy a big purple foam kit to put up on the wall. That's not going to look so hot. Instead, I bought 18-by-18-inch squares of superthin, light wood at Home Depot, and I cut foam to the size of the wood. I sprayed the back of the foam with spray adhesive and stuck the foam to the pieces of wood. Then I went to a fabric store and got a light green burlap fabric that I thought would look nice in the studio. I wrapped the fabric over the foam and stapled it to the back of the wood with a staple gun. Then I bought industrial Velcro at Home Depot and affixed these nice, 2-inch-thick burlap squares to the wall.
That's my poor man's acoustic treatment. It's enough to stop the high frequencies from bouncing all over the place in the room, and it still looks okay. It works well for the high frequencies, but it doesn't do jack for the low frequencies — they are a bigger problem. There are products available to fix that, but this is still a small bedroom studio, and I don't have space to put in a big carpet tube or something like that. But the great thing is I can overcome any acoustic problems with volume. I can just crank it crazy loud and not bother anyone.
PEOPLE IN THE STUDIO
I'm definitely happy with the studio, although we got way behind schedule on the album because of it. But there was a point when I was mixing, and I had been up for literally 30 hours. I was sitting there, and Double K was next to me dozing off. I had the air conditioner pumping, it was 5 a.m., the sun was coming up through the glass blocks, I had the music loud and my wife was asleep. I thought, “You know what? This was all worth it, just to be here at this moment in time.” For someone who tried to put a little bit of every piece of money I got into gear so I never had to depend on a record label, it meant a lot for me to be sitting there like that, enjoying my own studio.
The saga continues. Click here for more photos and Thes One's advice on lighting (stay away from dimmers)... air conditioners and other power concerns. Also, Remix talks to Thes about the People Under the Stairs' Stepfather album and how the new studio helped advance the group's sound.