Sometimes, leakage from the outside to the inside is just what the doctor ordered for a serendipitous event in a track. Like, for instance, you’re recording a song about leaving on a jet plane, and one happens to fly over your bedroom while you’re tracking the vocal line about the jet plane… When circumstances don’t smile on this kind of serendipity, soundproofing might be an asset. Similarly, it’s four o’clock in the morning, and you wake up from the recurrent dream in which your identity has melded with the spirit of Jimi Hendrix- you were playing your Strat through your Marshall stack, the melody is stuck in your head, the amp is right by your bed, your computer is turned on….
Unfortunately, your neighbors, and for that matter the civic code, would most likely view an embodiment of your inspiration as a citable incident of disturbing the peace. You go back to sleep… Or (at least in my humble opinion, even more tragically) get out the Pod. Soundproofing a room is no mean feat. I’ve always been led to believe that you can’t hear anyone scream in outer space. This is because sound travels in AIR. If you’re trying to record at home, the first thing you do is close the doors and windows, the biggest source of air/sound leakage in the average home. As you strive for more and more isolation from external sounds, you start to notice internal ones- the refrigerator cycling on and off, the heater cycling on and off, the phone ringing, and even with the doors and windows closed you can still hear planes passing overhead, dogs barking, birds chirping, cats meowing, children playing, cars and trucks passing by. More immediately, in your bedroom with the door and windows shut, the refrigerator, air conditioner/heater turned off, phone unplugged, dog muzzled, children banished, etc., etc., you come to the ugly realization that the fan on your computer is REALLY LOUD, You start to sweat. And no, it’s not because noise is driving you to psychotic breakdown, it’s because with all the doors and windows shut and the air conditioner turned off, locked in a bedroom with a bunch of electronic equipment which is generating a fair degree of heat, the room temperature starts skyrocketing. Welcome to the wonderful world of home studio recording! And yes, that was a plane that just flew overhead.
Room with a Sound
Often, rooms that were never designed to be recording environments have really interesting and useful sonic attributes. More often, they have serious acoustic problems that cause poor decision after poor decision to be made in the recording/mixing process. Bona fide studios don’t always have a handle on great sounding rooms, either. I’ve mixed in a couple of expensive rooms only to learn after the fact that what I was hearing in the control room wasn’t even close to what was going to tape. I had to remix those projects elsewhere. Ultimately, the best defense against being victimized by bad-sounding rooms comes from training your ear to understand how a room affects sound, then altering your strategies to accommodate.
I’m not an architectural acoustician. Having watched a really good one (Michael Blackmer) design my room, I don’t even want to begin to profess much knowledge in that direction. Regardless, some understanding of the physics of sound is critical to making intelligent decisions on room treatment, no matter how involved you choose to get about it. Tacking egg cartons to the wall isn’t going to cut it. I have seen some compelling advertising from sonic treatment manufacturers, and I’ve worked with numerous people who’ve used this kind of product and been at least somewhat satisfied with the results. All I can tell you is that having watched the process a couple of times, there is a HUGE amount of intelligence, a wide variety of materials, and bucket-loads of money that go into building a really great room for recording. Once your room is treated to the extent that it will be treated, in the control room, choosing good-sounding monitors and placing them intelligently is extremely important. In the studio, microphone choice and placement and the conscious choice of subsequent elements in the recording chain are critical to minimizing the negative effects of a bad-sounding room; or if you’re lucky to have a good-sounding room, critical to enhancing your recordings with the room’s attributes.
To the tune of Monty Python’s “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spammity Spam”, Gear, Gear, Gear, Gear…. Sadly for those of us otherwise imbued with relatively Zen-like leanings, you can’t ever have enough of the stuff. One of the things I like best about working in a great studio is having immediate access to mass quantities of obscure, expensive equipment. If you’ve never been in the luxuriant position of having more great gear than you can use, you haven’t yet fulfilled your destiny as a recording engineer. Gear to the recording engineer is fresh organic vegetables to Alice Waters, buckets of color in the palette of Jackson Pollock, and radiation-proof clothing to the would-be sightseer in Chernobyl. I’ve been fortunate to spend some time working with great engineers like Tchad Blake, Mark Needham and Jack Joseph Puig. The best of the best use the best gear. And there’s a good reason for it. That’s why I’d rather have two channels of world-class gear than 16 channels of contemporary semi-pro gear. Even if it means that I can’t record everything I need to record with my own gear.
Controlling Sound Leakage
You have to pick your battles. I’ve chosen to equip myself well (enough) for recording individuals or small ensembles, overdubbing, editing and mixing because I spend the majority of my time involved in these pursuits. When I need to record larger ensembles I go to a larger studio. I’m incredibly lucky to have a soundproof studio, so I don’t have to be concerned with bothering my neighbors when I want to crank a guitar amp, or for that matter, record a trapset. For those who don’t have the luxury of a soundproof environment, before succumbing to retiring your amp and speakers, realize that there are a few ways to get a good electric guitar tone without inspiring homicidal behavior from your neighbors. Personally, I’ve yet to hear a signal processor that adequately models amp/speaker/air/microphone behavior. I’m glad I don’t have to record guitar direct; I don’t even particularly enjoy mixing guitar tracks (recorded by someone else) that have been recorded that way. Before I had my soundproof studio, I actually found one of those horrible “soundproof booths” at an auction. After doing a poor job of packing it into the back of a rented pickup truck, then nearly dumping it on the freeway on my way home, I set it up in my garage and ran cables under my house. It was awful looking, gargantuan and not great-sounding, but it worked better than any modeler my ears have ever heard. Some possible apartment dweller guitar recording solutions:
1) Use a power soak (see your favorite guitar shop- they’ll know of at least one brand) to reduce the output of your amplifier and/or try to record when your neighbors aren’t likely to be home.
2) Make (or somehow acquire) a soundproof (or at least relatively soundproof) enclosure into which you can place your speaker cabinet. There are companies that manufacture (the above mentioned) soundproof booths, but I’ve never seen one that specifically manufactures a speaker cabinet enclosure. There are two fundamental attributes to making something soundproof- making it airtight and making it massive. I’ve never actually tried to do this myself, but if I were to try, I’d probably consider making a frame from 2 x 3, then from the inside, working inward, cover the frame first with the thickest plywood you can afford, caulking that, then covering the plywood with soundboard, then caulking that, then covering the soundboard with sheetrock, then tape the sheetrock. Each layer should be glued and screwed. The inside of the box should be fitted with fabric-covered rigid fiberglass on at least one of every parallel surface, more to taste. Stuff the frame with fiberglass, then treat the outer skin the same as the inner skin- from the outside of the frame, outward, adding a final layer of plywood so that the whole box (which will weigh a bloody ton) can be moved without damaging the box/leaving a trail of sheetrock. Design it so that the lid fits into a recess defined by the sides, and use weatherstripping to make its fit airtight. When fitting the cable that allows hooking the speaker cabinet up to an amplifier, caulk around the cable to maintain an airtight seal.
3) If you don’t have the time, space, or inclination to do either of the above, then get a really good direct box such as Avalon’s U5, or an Evil Twin, or a vintage Neve, Telefunken, API or competitive preamp which has been fitted with instrument level inputs. Record the signal straight into your digital audio workstation, then plug-in one of the ghastly amp modelers to approximate a real guitar amp sound so that at least you’re monitoring a relatively satisfying tone as you record. Then save up your pennies and plan on taking these tracks into a real studio where you can “amp” the signal and record it with all of the fixins- as loud as you want it, into good air, into good microphones, into good preamps.
4) Use a Line6 Pod, Sansamp, or any number of the other such boxes and hope that St. Peter isn’t a guitar tone snob.
Workarounds to Recording Live
The other particularly hard case for apartment recording is trapset. Drums require a lot of space, they’re noisy and they require a large number of high quality channels, if the close-mic’d sound is what you’re after. If real drums are necessary for the sound of the track, then good luck. Do the best you can do. Personally, whenever possible, I like recording basic tracks with at least drums, bass and other rhythm section elements playing simultaneously with a keepable guide vocal. Generally this is where groove and inspiration comes from- again reference the Motown Sound! But this type of recording is difficult if not impossible in a bedroom or apartment, given the amount of space and gear in most home studios. What are you going to do when: The guitarist wants a different mix, there’s too much drum leakage in all of the other mics, you need to set up one more mic than you had anticipated, but you’re out of mics, cables, stands, preamps channels and I/O interface inputs…? If you can’t afford to go after it in a real studio, then I have found that sampled drums are often a satisfactory substitute. The number of high quality samples both of loops of whole drumsets, and of individual sounds is staggering. MIDI implementation even in Pro Tools has developed to the point that if you can think it, you can most likely make it happen. But of course this means giving up the “live” basic tracks feel.
The moral of the story is that unless money is not at all an object, you have to be smart about how you pursue producing music recordings. Recording equipment manufacturers are offering an ever-wider array of reasonably priced tools. These tools can go a long way toward freeing the music producer from the need for pricey professional studios. But don’t forget that in the big picture, big professional studios still serve many needs better than most home studios. Let’s just hope that with their huge investments in equipment and facilities, the big studios can weather not only the general economic malaise, but more specifically the downturn in the music business and the attrition in the higher echelons of the recording business brought about by companies like Alesis and Digidesign, and studio weasels such as myself.
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Bruce Kaphan is a freelance engineer/producer, composes and produces music for CD (Slider- Ambient Excursions For Pedal Steel Guitar) and film (most recently Bob Dylan’s Masked and Anonymous), and as a multi-instrumentalist specializing in pedal steel guitar has appeared or recorded with American Music Club, David Byrne, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., John Lee Hooker, The Black Crowes and others. For more information, go to www.brucekaphan.com.