Posts Tagged ‘ Studio ’

How to tell if you need more gear

Isn’t new gear great? Don’t you love that feeling of getting stuck into a new piece of gear – exploring the range of sounds, cooking up new dimensions or additions to your usual sound, feeling inspired to make music?

New gear feels great – it’s almost like a hit. So much so that it even feels good to browse for gear. You know what I’m talking about – Blogs posting news of the latest gear announcements. Hi-res images and manuals from manufacturer’s websites. Youtube videos of gear demos. Forum discussions about picking the ‘best’ of each category.

The internet is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a colossal waste of time. And new gear can be a huge waste of money if you don’t use it to its potential. And if you get caught up in GAS (don’t pretend you’ve never heard of it…), it actually gets in the way of making music. It’s a trap. Really. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

To avoid getting stuck in the gear trap, it’s important to know when you need new gear – without anyone (especially gear manufacturers!) telling you.

Knowing when you need to gear doesn’t start on manufacturer’s websites or forums or blogs. It starts in your studio. Nowadays music technology is so available that you’re probably not lacking in tools. Whatever you need, you can probably find a version for cheap or free (in the case of plugins). The real deciding factor is workflow. Pay attention to your workflow and pay attention to any tasks that can be streamlined or improved. More specifically, look for these:

  • Tasks that are time-consuming or repetitive. This is where you need to improve first. New gear is sometimes the solution, but not always. For example, if you always waste time fiddling with an eight-band fully parametric EQ, maybe you need to learn to listen, or maybe you need an EQ with fewer controls (My regular track EQ doesn’t have many controls). Similarly, if you find yourself getting bogged down drawing notes in a piano roll editor, it’s probably time to buy a MIDI controller.
  • Tools that make it difficult to express yourself. You’ll know this if you feel like you’re battling with a particular tool (or set of tools) and you never really get the sound that you’re after. Obviously, you should first make sure you’re using your tools to their full potential. Buying more compressors isn’t going to help you if you simply don’t know how to use the ones you’ve got. But if you’ve pushed your current compressor to the limit (no pun intended!) and you still don’t get the smack you’re after, you probably need a different compressor.
  • Gaps in workflow. This one’s pretty easy – it’s when you want to use tools that you don’t have, and you make do with what you’ve got. For example, if you’re frequently running guitar samples through amp simulators, it might be time to buy a guitar and learn to play. Similarly, if you’re always using sampled drums or pianos, it’s probably worth saving up for the real thing.

Ultimately, this is about deciding what you need, based on your actual work. It sounds simple, but how many times have you caught yourself dreaming about gear that you don’t actually need? When you know how to decide when you need new gear, you’ll find it easier to resist the urge to waste time daydreaming or waste money indulging.

And that means you can make more music.



How to convince yourself to invest in acoustic treatment

You need to acoustically treat your room.

You know it. You’ve read the articles, you’ve had people tell you. You already know that it’s holding you back.

The problem is that you haven’t done it yet. Despite you knowing how important it is, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe you’re not sure how to do it, maybe that money has mysteriously disappeared into more plugins or instruments or other hardware.  Maybe it’s just not sexy.

If you’re not quite sure how to do it, relax. It’s not that hard. For a basic studio, you should start with some wall panels and some bass traps. The wall panels absorb and disperse the first reflections from your speakers. Imagine mirrors on your walls – anywhere you would see the reflection of your speakers when you sit at your mixing position is where you should put a wall panel. The bass traps hide in the corners and edges of the room. That’s it. That approach will get you decent results for the first round of treatment, and will most likely be a noticeable improvement on your current environment (you can get more sophisticated if you want, but wait until you’re designing your next studio for that).

If the money keeps mysteriously disappearing into more plugins or other gear, take a good hard long look at your setup. Chances are, you’ve already got plenty of gear. Chances are, you’ve got enough gear to last you the next few albums, at least. Don’t kid yourself. How many more analogue-modelling synths do you need? How many more kick drum samples do you need?

Chances are, you need a new chair more than you need more music gear.

Despite what anyone else will tell you, acoustic treatment is sexy. It adds more sex appeal to your studio than any plugin or computer upgrade. Acoustic treatment impresses people who don’t even know what it is, or why it’s important (you’ll recognise them as the ones who call it ‘sound proofing’). Acoustic treatment is how people instantly know you’re serious about your studio – especially if it’s a modern computer-based studio which isn’t necessarily brimming with hardware.

It’s also how you know you’re serious about your studio. Acoustically treating your room will motivate you and make you work more than you expect. It will make you excited to listen to music, it will make you excited to work on your own music. It will actually make you more productive.

And besides, there’s nothing quite like telling people you spent $600 on foam!


How to reduce computer noise in the studio

Get an acoustically-designed computer

An easy way to do this is to use a Mac. The latest Macs are already whisper-quiet. And you can also run Windows on them if you prefer to use Windows-only software.

If you don’t want to use a Mac, another option is to use a purpose-built PC. There are companies that build these, but they tend to be quite expensive (and cost is usually one of the biggest reasons not to use a Mac).

If you’d rather build your computer yourself to keep costs down (or to get more value for your money), keep in mind that parts specifically designed for quiet operation can get quite expensive anyway. You’ll be able to build a quiet computer, but it won’t be for rock-bottom prices.

The bottom line is: expect to pay more for a quiet computer.

Isolate the computer

The next thing to do is to isolate the computer. How you do this will depend greatly on the physical layout of your studio. The best solution is to have the computer in a separate “machine room” (studios that record on tape often have the tape machine itself in a separate machine room). If you do this, make sure you get the highest-quality shielded extension cables you can find. Depending on your audio interface, you might be able to get by with only three cables:

  • Firewire – dedicated to the audio interface
  • USB – for mouse, keyboard, MIDI, storage devices, etc
  • DVI – for your screen.

Failing that, try to place the computer in a separate enclosure. Here the trick is to balance quietness against airflow. Too little airflow may result in the computer malfunctioning from overheating – especially on hot summer days. Not a good look with clients! For home studios, you might try using a cupboard or cabinet. For professional studios, custom-made enclosures are ideal – especially if they include acoustic dampening, easy access to CD drives, managed airflow directed away from listening/recording areas, etc.

Obviously, the more you can start with a quiet computer, the less you need to physically isolate it. Likewise, the more isolation you can provide for the computer, the less you need it to be quiet.

Avoid recording it…

…by following these tips:


Reducing the distance between idea and output

The purpose of a studio is to create or record music. Hence, it should foster creativity. Certainly, a lot of creative work happens in the studio.

A lot of non-creative work also happens in the studio. Some of it happens ‘out of session’ – upgrading equipment, cleaning the ashtrays, backing up files, getting to know new gear, etc. Some of it also happens ‘in session’ – routing signals, setting up microphones, tuning up, auditioning sounds, etc.

Creativity is an enjoyable – and sometimes fleeting – state of working. In order to get the most of it, you should try to reduce the barriers to creativity. That means taking a good hard look at the non-creative work that happens ‘in session’, and moving as much as you can ‘out of session’. Technology works best when it stays out of the way.

The options available to you depends on your studio setup and your style of working. Try to reflect on what sort of non-creative things you have to do in order to be creative. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Physical Arrangement

  • Keep instruments such as guitars, keyboards, percussion, etc on hand. Within reach, if possible.  You don’t want to have an idea for a part and have to get a keyboard out of storage in order to realise it.
  • Have front-ends ready for instruments – preamps, channel strips, even cables. Set up your studio so you can plug in a single cable to your instrument and be ready to go. Of course, you can adjust things if you want, but at least have something ready to capture that idea! Ideally, have instruments always plugged in and switched on – that way if you have an idea you can simply arm a track and start playing.
  • Remove obstacles that you have to step over or walk around. You’re less likely to grab that mic or patch that effects processor if you have to wade through piles of junk in order to get to it.
  • Make sure your studio is a dedicated space. Having to share a space can make it difficult to get working when inspiration strikes.

Software Arrangement

  • Set up a custom template for your DAW software, so when you start up a new project you already have your favourite synths loaded up (if you use soft synths) and you have channels already available for recording from external sources.
  • If you use presets, make sure they’re organised by sound category. This is especially important for samplers, which often have a tendency to group sounds by library instead of sound type. That means if you’re looking for a piano sound, you might have to look in many different places to find the right one for the song. It’s faster and easier to work if all your pianos are together, all your basses are together, all your synth leads are together, etc.
  • In the same vein, make sure your plugins are organised by category as well. If you’ve got several compressors from different companies, you’ll find it easier to work if they’re all together.
  • Reduce your choices. You’ll work faster if you only have a few filter plugins instead of a few dozen. You’ll choose a sound and get on with making music if you have one or two main synths and one main sampler instead of ten or twenty synths and half a dozen samplers with their own libraries.
  • Keep your projects organised on your hard drive and move the finished projects to a separate folder. It’s easier to find the project you need if you don’t have to wade through a bunch of irrelevant files to get there. This is especially important if you’ve got multiple projects active at any one time.


Tips for quiet recordings

When recording, it’s important to control the sound that you’re trying to capture, but it’s also important to control the sounds that you’re trying not to capture. Background noise can reduce your ability to process the sound appropriately and can frustrate your efforts to create a convincing mix. At worst it can ruin a recording.

It’s important to deliberately consider noise, because it’s easy to become accustomed to it and ignore it. Remember – even if you ignore it, the microphone will still capture it! There are two approaches to consider when attempting to reduce background noise:

Avoid the noise source

This is done by either removing the noise source, recording away from the noise source or recording when the noise source is quietest. Internal noise sources are often machines – computers, guitar amps, air conditioning systems etc. Turn them off as much as you can. Sometimes you can’t turn them off – studio computers are an example of this. In these cases you should record as far away as possible – either place the computer in another room (with cables going through a hole in the wall, or under the door) or record in another room (with long cables for microphone and headphones). Sometimes the noise waxes and wanes – studios in busy neighbourhoods will be subject to traffic noise, for example. Learn the times that traffic is strongest, and schedule non-critical activites for those periods. Backups, organisation, cleaning and general maintenance can all be done during these periods. Schedule critical recordings for the quiet times – especially quiet or delicate sounds such as whispered vocals or finger-picked acoustic guitar.

Reduce the noise being captured

Once you’ve done as much as you can to avoid the noise sources, you should then focus your attention on reducing the extent to which the noise is captured on the recording. Start by identifying the direction in which the noise is coming from, and find the position in the room in which the noise is quietest. You might have to find a trade-off between a quiet position and a good room sound (sometimes the quietest position doesn’t have a good room sound!). Then, if you can, put up barriers between the noise source and the microphone. This is easiest if the noise is actually in the room (such as a computer or climate control). Then consider mic positioning. Most microphones have a weak spot directly behind the microphone. Some microphones have different patterns that can be selected – these patterns change the sensitivity of the microphone at different angles. You’ll get the greatest signal-to-noise ratio by positioning the microphone so the weakest spot of the microphone is pointing toward the noise source, and the strongest spot is pointing toward the sound you are trying to capture.

On the other hand, sometimes background noise is useful. It might be desirable to capture the background noise if it’s part of the vibe of the recording. And outdoor vox pop and a live band both have (mostly uncontrolled) background noise that are part of the sonic identity of the sound.


What to do when you have too many plugins

The easy availability of plugins makes it easy and tempting to ‘collect’ plugins – resulting in a plugin folder with many different compressors, reverbs, EQs, delays and other effects (not to mention synths!). This can actually slow down the mixing procesess because of a perceived need to try out all the different options.

Rather than collecting plugins, a better approach might be to choose one plugin for each category or processor – one compressor, one reverb, one EQ, one delay etc. Be sure to choose a plugin that is reasonably multi-talented – a general all-rounder. Use it for a few projects. Get to know it – really get to know it. Through this process you’ll get to know your own taste in processors. You’ll get to know the full range of each processor, and you’ll know where you’re pushing the device to its limits. By this stage you’ll understand your requirements.

At this point when you start looking for another plugin to compliment your existing set, you’ll know precicely what you’re looking for. If it’s a compressor, you’ll know if you need something smoother or something more agressive. If it’s an EQ, you’ll know if you need something more flexible or something with more vibe. Same for reverbs, delays and other effects.


Dragging out the tools

There’s only two reasons to drag out the tools:

(1) To play with them because you don’t know what you’re doing.

It is necessary to do this in order to learn your tools. Whether your new tool is a reverb processor, a compressor, a guitar, a new set of speakers or even a new studio chair, you need to spend some time with it alone without the pressure and obligation of working for a client. Pull apart some old projects – grab the drum tracks, the vocals or guitars and try to recreate the same sound using the new tools. Twist some knobs, explore the range of the tool. Explore it, see what it can do. This is important and necessary – just don’t do it in front of a client!

(2) Because it’s the right tool for the job.

This is what you do when you’re on a job. You pull out your tool because you already know it’s the right tool for the job. You already know what settings you’re going to use and what the result will sound like – before you’ve plugged anything in. You get here by spending a lot of time doing (1). It’s called practice.