Archive of the Robair Report Category
(This was originally posted at emusician.com on June 24, 2010.)
Black Sabbath is one of the most influential bands for young, aspiring rock musicians for two simple reasons: their riffs are heavy and they are easy to play. Like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, but unlike Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” “N.I.B.”, and “Paranoid” take moments to learn, but provide the gateway drug to a lifetime of rock guitar playing. Or drumming. Or bass playing.
I’ll let others debate whether that’s a good thing.
I had a reawakening to the charm of these riffs after hearing “Fairies Wear Boots” on satellite radio a few months ago. It wasn’t difficult convincing my bandmates in Pink Mountain that it would be the perfect cover song (we only play one) for our West Coast tour last year. “Fairies Wear Boots” has it all—a driving rhythm, awkward tempo and feel changes, and impenetrable lyrics.
Watch Sabbath play the song live in 1970. Merely a year or two before this performance, they were still a boogie band. See what a bad influence the blues can be?
Black Sabbath’s most influential album, Paranoid, is the subject of the latest installment in the Classic Albums series (distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment). If you are unfamiliar with the Classic Album documentaries, queue a couple of them up on Redbox or Netflix. The albums covered so far include Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon, Steely Dan Aja, Queen A Night at the Opera, Bob Marley and the Wailers Catch A Fire, and Frank Zappa Apostrophe (‘). Metallica, Elton John, Steve Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Lou Reed, Nirvana, Meat Loaf—the list of artists covered in the series is long and varied.
The documentaries are based around interviews with the main players of each album—musicians, engineers, management, label execs—with some critics and younger rock stars thrown in for whatever reason. But unlike the MTV or VH-1 take, which fixates on the sordid details behind depraved lifestyle choices, the DVDs in this series focus on the music itself—how it was created, what the band was trying to do, and who did what, when. Okay, there are some juicy bits, too, but they’re tastefully downplayed.
Often the individual musicians demonstrate their parts from a hit song or two, talking you through what went into creating it. This may sound like a “for musicians only” affair, but the pacing and editing keeps things moving nicely.
For me, the highlight of each DVD is when the engineer, sitting at the mixer, solos tracks from the multitrack master tapes. You’ll hear parts that didn’t make it into the final mix, or the individual components of a difficult-to-discern submix. Anyone can dig up grainy photos of a band when they were slogging it out in the clubs. But to locate and playback each of the basic tracks for the first time in four decades? Priceless!
In this case, engineer Tom Allom walks us through a handful of tunes that were originally recorded to 1-inch, 4-track tape at Regent Sound Studio, but were later filled out with guitar doublings and final vocals at Island studios. Thanks to Allom we get to hear Ozzy improvising lyrics as the band does the basics. It was Ozzie’s penchant for singing along with the guitar riff in Sabbath that nearly killed the concept of melody for a generation of rock musicians. Yet Osbourne’s delivery is outstanding: He may have become a rock-and-roll clown through media overexposure, but the man can deliver hard-rock lyrics like few others.
Overall, these documentaries are very well shot and have excellent sound—particularly when the musicians are demonstrating their music. Watching Tony Iommi play his riffs close up is a revelation. And you’d never know by hearing him play that he has prosthetic caps on two of the fingers of his fretting hand—the fingers he severely injured in an industrial accident. It was after he heard Django Reinhardt, and learned of the jazz player’s own hand injury, that Iommi realized that he could play guitar again.
At one point, he walks us through the various riffs in “War Pigs.” If I was 12 years old and into music, that section alone would inspire me to take up the guitar. Unfortunately, it’s not included in the documentary itself: Some of the most interesting playing is saved for the extras part of the DVD. I realize this series is intended for general broadcast and not meant to be instructional videos, but come on—who doesn’t want to hear their favorite guitar player play a killer lick!
For that matter, who really cares what Henry Rollins has to say about Black Sabbath? Let the people who were there tell the story. (Rollins would be just as pissed off as I was to have to sit through a gratuitous rock-star cameo before hearing more from the band members themselves.)
And listening to Chris Phipps, “Music Historian,” state the importance of the band so emphatically that his jowls shake reminds me of how easily critics and historians can suck the enjoyment out of music with their exaggeration. Do we really need someone to tell us how important a band like Black Sabbath is to rock history? Why else would there be a documentary about only one of their records?
(Beatles + jazz) x tritone = proto-metal
Although I’m a bit tired of hearing Ozzy Osbourne go on about things in general, his take on the early days of Sabbath is pretty entertaining. But the tales from the other band members are far more enlightening, such as learning that the lyric contributions were often from bassist “Geezer” Butler.
After Ozzie and the gang tell how the Beatles inspired each of them as young players, drummer Bill Ward and guitarist Tony Iommi relate their jazz influences—something you definitely hear (at least in retrospect) on Paranoid. “It really is like Swing, with power.” Ward says, describing the rhythm section. In fact, it was Ward’s jazz-inspired feel and his triplet-based fills that knocked me out as a young drummer. It’s those subtle swing and shuffle feels in the drumming of many of the early British rockers such as Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr that makes it difficult for modern bands to convincingly cover the music of that era.
As a drummer, my reaction to Ward’s technical abilities reflects what I’ve written earlier about the playing of Starr and Watts: the music is most compelling when these guys are playing at the edge of their ability. And Paranoid has some of the roughest drum parts of nearly any hit record. (The album was number one on the charts, shoving aside Simon and Garfunkel and the Rolling Stones to get there.)
Not only is Ward’s time all over the map, the band can’t quite agree on where the downbeat is after a few of the drum fills. (Granted, they disagree by only a few milliseconds.) Where John Bonham’s playing of the same era was solid, often behind the beat, but with a clockwork feeling of the Big Ben variety, Bill Ward—raised on the same music as Bonzo—pushed and pulled, stretching the time like a wad of gum. His fills might tumble around like tennis shoes in a dryer, or he might race to cram as many hits into a roll as he could, sometimes cheating them into the down beat. (There’s a bit of that in the video clip above.) But it’s the feel, musicality, raw energy, and risk taking that makes Ward’s drumming so exciting. I can’t think of another drummer who has taken as many chances on a hit record since then. Keith Moon comes closest.
Sabbath at the Star Club
All of that is a reminder that there were no magazines that covered the techniques of rock drumming, or that focused solely on the latest guitar and bass technologies. Musicians at the time fumbled through things as they developed their sound. Those were naïve times when it comes to the music and its tools. It’s interesting to hear the band explain that, after flying their PA over for their first U.S. tour, they learned the hard way that our power mains are at a different voltage level than the UK’s.
Like most of the major acts coming out of Britain at the time, Black Sabbath cut its teeth playing live, including a stint at the Star Club in Hamburg doing eight 45-minute sets per day. It’s the classic regimen that worked for the Beatles and many other bands, who not only honed their act but used it as a way to develop new songs. At the beginning of their booking in Hamburg, Sabbath’s repertoire was so meager that Ward would be given an entire set to work out on the drums, just so the band could save up enough tunes for later sets (as well as renew their buzz at the bar in the meantime).
It’s a reminder that the bands of that era had places to play on a regular basis. Where can bands go these days to play three sets of originals in front of a crowd, several nights in a row, in the same venue?
“Nobody but the public digs Black Sabbath.”
I can’t recommend the Classic Album series enough. The episodes will be far more interesting to gigging and recording musicians because of the layers and nuance in every scene, whether it’s about how the band wrote a song, hearing the engineer talk about the psychology of doing multiple takes, a record exec explaining the importance of sell-through, or the manager describing how the band name and the sound need to be aligned for a group to have serious commercial potential.
That’s the hidden value of the Classic Albums, but the rockumentaries in this series merely hint at what’s possible. I wish that somebody would take the genre a little further. Imagine a DVD about [your favorite record] where every person involved—musicians, engineers (mixing and mastering), manager, booker, publicist, label, etc.—gave you the details on what really happened to help make a certain album take over the world. No doubt there would be juicy tidbits, too. Just ask the roadies.
(This was originally posted at emusician.com on November 25th, 2009.)
“Jump or Die!” — a phrase composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton uses when he talks about going onstage and sight-reading his highly complex charts. Like a paratrooper dropping behind enemy lines, you have no choice but to play in a take-no-prisoners way. The band and the audience experience the music for the very first time together. There are no second chances in that environment.
Artists of the caliber of Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Tom Waits know that exciting music is made when you take musicians out of their comfort zone. For example, it’s common for Waits to roll tape while his players are figuring out their parts, and then keep the sound check rather than have them do a “real” performance. It’s the first-take rule, where the energy and vibe that comes from not quite knowing what you’re doing lends the performance a vitality that you can’t get through comping or multiple takes. It can be messy, but it’s musical.
I bring this up in light of Douglas Wolk’s commentary “The Death Of Mistakes Means The Death Of Rock” on NPR.org. The article is about a topic that many of us have thought about for years: that technology can be used to suck the life out of music if it’s overused. It’s a complaint that is as old as technology itself, and there is some validity to it. However, it’s not something that we can suddenly blame on Pro Tools or Auto-Tune.
But does a tool such as Beat Detective lead to the death of rock?
Decades ago, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was chastised by the classical-music community for editing together perfect renditions of his performances of Bach. These days, of course, comping (short for “compositing”) an instrumental or vocal part (essentially, creating a perfect take out of bits and pieces of previous takes by editing the good sections together) is a regular part of the recording process, even in the classical world. Gould used the technology of his time the right way and for the right reasons: he was a virtuoso who had a vision of perfection. That’s quite a bit different than some multi-national corporation’s vision of pulling the wool over our eyes by making a pop band out of supermodels (another trend that goes back decades).
But Wolk is definitely onto something about the big-league rock productions of today: anything that’s off-the-grid—whether it be pitch or timing—is going to be fixed or removed. You won’t hear an accidental 6/4 bar (like the one in The Beatles’ “Rain”) happen these days by a major band, because the producers and managers, not to mention the musicians themselves, won’t let it fly. It’s embarrassing. Today’s listeners can hear “mistakes,” because they’re used to hearing pitch- and time-perfect performances. Flub a drum fill today, and you’ll be pulling espressos at Starbucks tomorrow.
Consequently, that sense of danger that happens when musicians play at the edge of their abilities—like nearly all the bands of the ’60s and early ’70s did when recording—is missing in today’s overly quantized productions. (I highly recommend Geoff Emerick’s tell-all autobiography Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, where he notes that, at times, the Fab Four were playing well beyond their capabilities.)
If you want to hear an egregious example of bad playing by a major recording artist, check out Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts on “Sway” from Sticky Fingers. In particular, listen to the drum fills. As the song progresses, they get more and more tortured, the triplets scrambling to find the downbeat. When I first heard the song, I was convinced that a non-drummer in the band (Mick, for example) was playing the kit. It’s probably the first take, but the drumming is as awkward as a first date. And yet … it is just as exciting. Thankfully, one of the biggest bands in rock history released that performance. They wouldn’t do that now. Does that mean rock is dead?
Cheaters never prosper?
If by cheating you mean that big-name acts are playing live to a click (and with dozens of pre-recorded backing tracks) while having their vocals automatically tuned, yeah, the cheaters are prospering. So what? Why should we be angered or feel let down when we find out that a singer we love is using pitch correction? Even a parody artist like “Weird Al” Yankovic, who himself has made fun of Auto-Tune, admits to using it on his own records.
When we watch Jurassic Park, we don’t honestly believe that those are real dinosaurs, do we? We don’t really believe that a star cruiser makes a low hum in the soundless vacuum of space? So why do we feel duped when we find out that that the pop star doing cartwheels on stage while singing uses a backing track? Big deal, the vocals are canned. That’s show biz.
When Wolk suggests that rock is dead, and Bob Lefsetz bemoans a world that takes Taylor Swift seriously, I suggest they follow the lead of the rest of us and look elsewhere for our entertainment. The people complaining that “no one makes music like that, anymore” are as clueless as the major labels. There are thousands of bands out there, with real musicians and honest lyrics, who perform without trickery.
And get this: they sometimes make mistakes and keep them. Because they’re going for it—pushing the boundaries and playing without a safety net. If you judge rock by its mistakes, the genre is alive and kicking once you look beyond the mass media.
Mind you, these are the bands that the Gate Keepers would completely miss, because they’re not writing songs that everyone will like. Does a band have to sell 100,000 units before you’ll take them seriously? If so, you’re missing out.
The most vital music being made these days is not going to be found on an arena stage or on Saturday Night Live. It’ll be found almost every night of the week in a club, bar, pub, or warehouse near you. It’s a gig you might only learn about from an alternative music site, because the local music rags don’t cover local scenes anymore. But the bands and the shows are out there, in every major city.
So to the curmudgeons I say: Get off your lazy asses and find the lesser known bands in your area. Support them. Go to the dives where they play. Buy their merch. Give them the attention they deserve. Take advantage of the Internet to find up-and-coming artists.
Put plainly: stop whining about how technology has supposedly killed music, and support the music that is really out there. If you can’t find it, ask a college student…
This week’s assignment
No, you don’t get to stay home because it’s a holiday. Take that $250 you’d spend to sit a mile away from Bono’s image on a giant screen and use it to see 10 local shows, where you can meet the bands (and maybe go home with a cool t-shirt). Jump or die! That’s an order, soldier.
With Akai Pro, Alesis, Numark, Alto Professional and other well known names already in its portfolio, InMusic has just added M-Audio and AIR, as Avid divests its “consumer” lines. However, Avid fans shouldn’t let the departure of these two brands worry them; the parent company of Pro Tools is using this opportunity to increase its market share while maintaining a link to both lines:
“The AIR Software Group will continue to develop and maintain technologies for the Avid Pro Tools family of digital audio workstations, and a number of M-Audio products will continue to include Pro Tools software. Select Akai Professional and Alesis products will also now include Pro Tools, bringing the leading professional production software to a whole new audience of musicians, producers, and engineers.”
With new product announcements in the works from both M-Audio and AIR, there’s finally a reason to pay a bit of attention to the NAMM Show this summer. In the meantime, check out the InMusic Sales home page, if you’re unfamiliar with the company. Will this acquisition be a good thing for the M-Audio and AIR brands? Let us know your thoughts.
Recently, there’s been a confluence of articles about the obsolescence of everyday electronics (whether planned or not), thanks in part to last week’s announcement of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Check out the article at Wired.com by Kyle Wiens, “The New MacBook Pro: Unfixable, Unhackable, Untenable”.
It reminds me of how quickly music-making technology changes, often right out from under our hands and feet. Remarkably, an article addressing this very subject appeared a few weeks earlier in the Classical music section of the New York Times, “Electronic Woe: The Short Lives of Instruments” by Allan Kozinn. In light of Apple’s announcement, it’s also worth your attention.
Near the end, Kozinn writes “If I were a period-instrument maker looking for expansion ideas, I would keep an eye on this. I’d buy up and recondition old-fashioned metronomes, Farfisa organs, Buchla and Moog units, Atari computers and every generation of Mac I could find.”
Kozinn is seemingly unaware of the current resurgence in DIY electronic music, whether it’s through hacking and circuit bending or working with a perf board and an Arduino, not to mention the renaissance of analog modular analog synthesis. The Arduino platform, alone, continues to introduce curious artists of all ages to electronic instrument design (among many other things). And if I were to meet Mr. Kozinn, I’d suggest he spend some time with Nicolas Collins’s excellent book, Handmade Electronic Music. It’s a refreshingly down-to-earth guide to exploring sound with everyday materials. If you don’t already own it, find a copy immediately and give yourself the gift of a weekend afternoon to rediscover the joys of manipulating electrical current for its own sake.
A Studio Reflects How We Work
(The twelfth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at emusician.com on January 27th, 2011.)
If you can judge the health of the economy by the NAMM show, our industry seems to think we’re moving towards recovery. I base my own judgment on the schwag I get: In a good economy, the inside of my suitcase resembles a NASCAR when I come home, with tons of branded goodies that I pass along to my kids and students; When times are tough, I’m lucky to leave the show with a guitar pick.
This year, I flew home with a dozen t-shirts, several cloth bags, and, yes, a handful of plectrums. But looking at a more realistic set of measures, this year’s NAMM show was a biggie. Attendance was an all-time high and there was no shortage of new product announcements.
Remarkably, I didn’t come home with the post-NAMM depression I usually feel after several days of non-stop hype and hyperbole. First, it didn’t seem like the usual race to the bottom, where companies announce tons of me-too products at ever lower price points. Instead, there seemed to be a move towards innovation and quality, with an increase in startups and smaller companies showing useful and well-built gear.
More importantly, I felt there was a renewed emphasis on creativity—music making, engineering, songwriting—rather than just collecting or upgrading. Many people talked about how they work and what they can improve upon with what they have. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re no longer dazzled by talk of 192kHz sampling rates or pure analog signal paths. People are making great music—and great sounding music—on an iPad, for goodness sake: That’s a wake-up call for many. As Frank Zappa once said, “Shut up and play your guitar,” or whatever your main axe may be.
As a tech journalist, my main interest has always been the educational side of things. I like helping people get the most from their gear, rather than promote the seasonal upgrade cycle. With that in mind, I was honored this year to be invited by EM Editor Mike Levine to be on his NAMM panel “Maximum Output from Your Home Studio” along side Carmen Rizzo and Alessandro Cortini. Twice nominated for a Grammy, Rizzo is a producer/engineer who has worked with Trevor Horn, Seal, Coldplay, Alanis Morissette, Supreme Beings of Leisure, and Paul Oakenfold, among others. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Cortini has collaborated with Nine Inch Nails, Ladytron, Muse, and Christina Aguilera. I was in impressive company.
Levine had prepared a list of questions that covered various aspects of the personal studio, such as setup and workflow, and near the end of the hour we took questions from the audience. What struck me most about the discussion was how much each of the panelists differed on basic subjects like mixing, the use of DAW templates, or the sound conditioning and isolation that we have in our studios. It was a clear reminder that a personal studio is, well, personal. Each of us sets up our space based on what we need and how we work. If everything comes together, the workflow and ergonomics successfully support our creativity.
Rizzo’s studio, which is no longer in his home, is far from soundproof, but that doesn’t bother him. He said that if a vocal take is interrupted by sirens or a fly-over, he simply waits for the noise to subside before starting again. He’s fully prepared to track and mix in that room, even though it hasn’t been designed for either purpose from the ground up. He set it up so that it sounds good to his ears, based on his years of experience, and then he gets to work.
Cortini’s home studio is even more humble. In the interview I did with him for EM, he noted that he sold his Fender Rhodes because he didn’t have the space for it—his basement studio at the time was too small. He had boiled everything down to the barest essentials, getting the high-quality sound he wants in the least amount of space. For example, he uses a small, lunch-box size set of Tonelux modules as the front-end of his DAW.
He and Rizzo are comfortable mixing their own projects inside the box, using controllers rather than a mouse when they need to move faders and knobs, and neither of them uses DAW templates when they begin a song. Both of them said they were interested in starting fresh with each project, which is clear when you look at the innovative artists they’ve worked with.
By comparison, both Levine and I use templates in our DAWs when we need them, because they help us quickly capture a musical idea before it disappears. That way, we don’t have to start from scratch and create the various tracks and effects buses we normally want. Of course, a template goes out the window if we work with someone for the first time, but otherwise it comes in quite handy.
I definitely share the overall aesthetic that Cortini and Rizzo have of being open to inspiration and not getting set in your ways. Ironically it was the fact that I had recently built a studio that seemingly put me on the opposing side of our discussion.
After answering questions about the design elements of my new space, it started to feel as if I was advocating for purpose-built studios with expensive features like custom windows and wall treatment. But in my case, I had the rare opportunity to piggyback a tracking room onto a general remodel, so I decided to fulfill my specific needs rather than follow the dominant studio paradigm you see in all the books about designing your own studio—tracking room, mixing room, vocal booth, storage closet.
(Fig 1: The tracking station and laptop table move easily anywhere in the room, allowing for maximum flexibility.)
Flexibility is a priority in my space, as is isolation from the outside world. Unlike the others on the panel who work primarily with electronic sources, much of my interest is in capturing acoustic sounds, and the prevalence of leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and UPS trucks in my neighborhood made it tough to track the quieter instruments without some sort of motor noise sneaking in.
And although I’m just as happy to mix in the box on projects that I need to get out the door quickly, I would rather mix the releases I care the most about in a well designed, sonically tuned studio, preferably with a second set of ears that I trust so I know the results will translate on any playback system.
But when I started this project, I wanted to be able to both track and mix in my studio, which is why I chose the path I did. At this point, the main gear areas are on wheels so I can move them anywhere in the room, such as my mobile tracking/monitoring station and laptop table (see Fig. 1) and portable preamp/effects rack (see Fig. 2). All I have to do is unplug the power and audio cables from the stand-mounted speakers and wheel the mobile station to where it’s convenient or out of the way, depending on the circumstances.
(Fig. 2: In the modular-synth corner, you can see the small rolling rack where I’ll install my preamps and effects processors.
Although I have yet to figure out which angle makes the most sense in terms of positioning my gear for mixing (so that I get the least amount of room-related frequency artifacts), I have some ideas on how to make it work. Once I find the sweet spot for the monitors and any conditioning required, I’ll attempt to make things as portable as possible, so I can set it all up at precisely the right position when needed, then put it away when it’s time to start the next project. As you can see by the empty racks, I’m still in the unpacking and wiring phase.
Table of Contents
Let me leave you with a bit of advice I took away from our panel discussion. The topic of hard-drive storage came up during the Q&A: The more projects we do, the more drives we seem to accumulate. Consequently, you need to find a way to easily identify what’s on the drives. Carmen Rizzo’s excellent suggestion is to print out a screenshot of the drive contents and tape it to the outside box. That way, as you’re looking for something, or if you were to find the drive won’t boot up, you’ll be able to ascertain its contents easily.
Tips From A Pro: Installing Tie-Lines
(The eleventh installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at emusician.com on December 9, 2010.)
My studio inched closer to completion around Thanksgiving when the tie-line panels were wired up. Everything went smoothly, thanks to quite a bit of pre-planning.
Before the structure was even framed, I consulted with Ann Dentel, a musician and composer who currently teaches at the Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, CA (see Fig. 1). Ann has 15 years of experience installing wiring in studios, and I asked her early on in the remodel to help me figure out the best way to connect my studio with other parts of the house.
(Fig. 1: Ann Dentel prepping a cable before she solders it onto the panel. The red device is for heat-shrinking the tubing.)
I took a gamble in picking the rooms where I wanted to direct the tie-lines. I was betting that the newly raised ceiling in the living room would provide a decent live space when it was done, and that the garage and adjacent storage room would be good echo chambers (or, at the very least, would provide interesting ambient spaces for re-amping). So far, I’m very happy with the way the living room and garage sound with acoustic instruments, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to get the panels installed and start recording.
When I first started talking with Ann, she suggested I install a 1-inch-diameter PVC pipe in the wall between the upstairs studio and each of the three rooms we were linking to below. She was happy that we had a straight run and that there were no bends or curves (she will explain why in a moment). And by thinking ahead, I was able to keep the pipes at a reasonable distance from the AC lines.
Because the panel in the living room is going to be visible, I didn’t want it to be too conspicuous. So I kept it to 10 channels—eight XLR and two TRS connectors. Same with the garage. I figured I would be using an 8-channel interface for most of the recording I do. (The storage room has a simple 2-channel panel.)
By the time Ann arrived last week, the openings for each PVC pipe were easily accessible and the panels were waiting to be soldered up. In a few hours, everything was wired and ready for installation.
Because many of you will want to do the wiring yourself, I asked Ann to share some tips for installing audio cables between rooms in a house or studio.
What’s the first thing a person should consider when running tie-lines?
If you’re running cable from one room to another and you’re putting it through a pipe of some kind, you have to make sure the cable can be pulled through the pipe. That means you don’t want squishy, soft jackets around the cable. You want a hard, smooth jacket. You can feel the difference just by holding the cable.
How many cables can you can get through a tube that size?
You can easily run a couple of 24-pairs [a snake or bundle containing 24 individual cables], or maybe four 8-pairs. But it depends on the cable, among other things. I don’t think it matters how many you put in there, as long as there’s room for the cables to pull through easily.
Is it easy to maneuver the cable through a pipe that has bends in it?
No, it’s not. Try to have a straight run whenever possible. What you don’t want to do is run pipe that has 90-degree turns in it, because it’s harder to pull the cable through.
What do you do if you can’t avoid having a bend in the pipe?
It’s critical that you use cable that has a smooth, hard jacket, because it’ll pull through easier. If its soft, it’ll get stuck, and it’ll tear the jacket. Then you have to pull it out and buy a new cable—not something you want to do.
The best thing to do when you install the pipe is to put a string through it. Tie the end of the cable to it, and then tape it down with electrical tape or gaffers tape so that the string that you’ve tied around the cable doesn’t come off. Then you pull it through.
If you’re pulling three 8-pairs through the pipe, do you use several strings?
Use one string. You just hold them together and do all three at once. There’s a special knot (I don’t know the name of it) that I learned long ago where the harder you pull, the tighter the knot becomes, so that the knot doesn’t come loose. You can do the research to find a knot where the tighter you pull, the tighter it gets.
Then you tape, with electrical tape usually, the three cables together in one big bundle that hopefully doesn’t have a blunt end—it should have a sort of pointy end where the string comes out so you can pull it.
Are there specific things to avoid when running cables in a wall, such as running parallel to power lines?
(Fig. 2: Eight XLR jacks wired. Notice the tubing that keeps the wires from shorting against each other. Also visible are the white cable ties used for strain relief, so that no single solder point has pressure on it.)
People run audio cable parallel to power cable all the time and get away with it, but it’s kind of a dangerous game. Even though it’s in a separate pipe, you could potentially have a capacitive coupling and get noise induced into your audio from the AC. So if you don’t have to do that, don’t do it. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, but it’s better to avoid it because once your audio cable and AC are in, trying to fix the problem is expensive.
And absolutely do not run the audio cables in the same conduit as the AC.
You also have to think ahead and plan the size of panel you’ll need. The more cable you have, the larger the panel, right?
Not only do you have to determine how big the panel is, but how much space you’ll need behind the panel for the wiring to come out of the hole and be able to spread out to connect to the different jacks. You need two inches free behind it, for the full size of the panel, so that when the cable gets broken out to different points, there’s room.
Can you recommend any parts or cables that are stellar?
Standard, pro-audio cable. Belden and Gepco products are made in the States. They make industrial cable that has the smoother outer jacket that I was talking about, which you can pull through conduit without a problem. Canare and Mogami are both excellent companies, both Japanese, more expensive, but they make really great cable. They don’t have the same hard outer jacket, though, so you have to be a little careful.
In your studio, we ran Mogami and Canare, but we were running one 8-pair (Canare) and one 2-pair (Mogami) in a 1-inch pipe. There was lots of room and it was a straight run.
Don’t buy something you’ve never heard of, in terms of the cable or the connectors. Buy standard, well known brands. The ones you don’t know about, you don’t know about for a reason. Neutrik and Switchcraft connectors are both quality connectors, for example.
(Fig. 3: The finished panel with the cable going through a hook in the wall for strain relief.)
What other suggestions do you have for musicians who want to install audio cable between studios?
Get advice from contractors. If you’re going to put a pipe in a wall, make sure that you know what you’re doing. Don’t just run a conduit through a wall without finding out what’s in the wall. That seems somewhat obvious.
Measure things carefully, especially the length of the cable. Make sure that you don’t cut a cable that’s too short—measure long, keep it long. You can always cut it down. If I measure a 14-foot run, I’ll cut a 17-foot cable. I’ll add three feet, total, for a short run. Some people will add more.
It also depends on what you’re doing with it. If its just going to a panel that’s right there, that’s plenty of slack. But if you’re talking about going from a pipe over 10 feet in a room to a console, then you want to really be careful. Make sure the cable can reach the console and that you can break it out the length needed to connect it to whatever it’s connecting to. So add five or six feet.
Can you share any tips on soldering and assembly (assuming that we already know how to solder)?
Obviously, the solder points need to be good solder points, otherwise they will fail. That’s always where stuff fails—at connection points.
And always think about strain relief. You don’t want a situation where there is any strain on the solder points on the connectors, because that’s a failure. It may not happen tomorrow or next week, but it could happen next month.
If it’s an 8-connector panel, I take tie wraps and tie the wires together where they come out from the connectors (see Fig. 2). It’s not really tied to anything, but because the cables are connected together in this way, when you pull on the cable, the strain is dispersed.
You’re pulling on all eight connectors at the same time, instead of just one.
(Fig. 4: Close-up of the strain relief for the 8-pair and 2-pair cables.)
Exactly. So if you unscrew the panel from the wall and pull it out, it’s not going to put strain on any specific solder point. I also put a hook in the wall behind one upstairs panel for strain relief because I was worried about the weight of the cable pulling it down (see Figures 3 and 4).
At the end of our chat, Ann reiterated the importance of consulting with or getting advice from somebody who has done the work before. Among other things, they can show you ways to prep the cables and keep things from shorting against each other so that you don’t have to learn those lessons the hard way.
(The tenth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at emusician.com on November 24, 2010.)
Balancing sound and functionality—that’s the trick when you build a personal studio. In my case, the room needs to be an inspiring place to rehearse, record, and compose, as well as serve as a comfortable place to write and hang out (hence, the windows, because I like natural light).
Windows take a bit more work than walls when it comes to sound isolation, but we overcame that hurdle. Now, I can watch the neighbor mow his law from my one-story perch, and just barely hear the low-end sounds of the motor. It’s well below the ambient noise level for recording, and that makes me very happy.
We put a lot of wall and floor mass between the inner studio and the outside world for this very reason. So even though the room is not yet in a state where I can move in, we’ve met at least one of my criteria: a high degree of sonic separation from everyday noise pollution.
In Bobby Owsinski’s upcoming book, Studio Building on a Budget, he asks you to imagine that water will seep in anywhere a space or crack appears in your studio. That’s because sound works the same way. You can put as many layers of drywall up that you want, but if one of the seams isn’t sealed properly, or if there’s a gap at the bottom, sound will leak in. This is a concept I’ve been aware of throughout this project, and I’ve been reminding the tradesmen at every turn to make sure they seal all the gaps, even the ones that no one will see (the idea being that, in case of a failure in a caulked seam, there is redundancy built in). They’ve been on top of it, and the results are obvious.
A couple of days ago, however, I stepped into the studio where my contractor was installing bookshelves and he greets me by saying “I can hear everything you say downstairs in the living room.” He points to the small hole in the wall where a PVC pipe, loaded with cable to create tie-lines, leads downstairs. The pipe is wide open at either end.
Great. We haven’t even wired them up yet, and already the tie-lines are trasmitting sound.
We’re finally at the stage where the tie-line’s jack panels can be soldered on to each end of the cable snakes in the PVC pipe and then mounted on the wall. But before we mount them, we’ll have to add some acoustic conditioning in the pipe, as well as try to further isolate and decouple the PVC from the building itself.
But I notice a pattern that has appeared; the time of tweaking has begun.
In fact, it started two months ago, when I was playing an electric guitar through a tube combo amp a full volume in the dining area. At that point, we had just moved in and I was exploring the sound of each room.
While I chugged away on an E chord, something started rattling—something high up in the kitchen. At that point, I was too distracted by the fun of hearing an Orange amp cranked up in the living room to investigate the source of the noise, but I made a mental note that I’ll have to do so in an organized way before I can do a real session downstairs.
First I have to give the studio upstairs a rumble test, to see what rattles, which I hope to do over the long weekend with an amplified electric bass. The air exchange vents were recently installed, and although they’re set in there tightly, I want to see if they’ll make noise.
(Fig. 1: The diffuser, ready to be filled with books and LPs.)
Returning to the sound vs. function discussion, the 12-foot bookshelf on the north wall is meant to act as a diffuser, once it’s filled with LPs and books (see Fig. 1). The north/south walls are parallel, with windows on the south wall directly across from the bookcase, so any reflections from the glass will get diffused by the uneven surfaces of all the treeware I’ve collected.
But with the wall and ceiling design, there’s plenty of absorption and diffusion going on around the room, as I’ve explained in earlier chapters of this blog. In Figure 2, you can see the fabric-covered walls before the wood was attached. That part of the installation only took about a day and a half.
(Fig. 2: Fabric on the walls covering the insulation.)
Putting up the wood, however, took nearly two weeks. In Figure 3, note the three different widths of the wood, which is a pattern we kept consistent throughout the studio. We started with a stack of 1×8 fir boards, which were then cut to width and length as needed. Installing the ceiling boards was particularly tricky, as you can see from the opening shot.
(Fig. 3: Ceiling detail of the wood installation.)
At this point, the room has a fairly short decay, with a slightly longer resonance in the lowest frequencies. I’m already wondering what kind of bass build-up I’ll get in the corners (of which there are seven) once I get a band in there.
The to-do list now includes finishing the electrical outlets and installing the tie-lines (next week), then installing the lighting tracks and finishing off the surrounding part of the doors (the following week). Once that’s done, I can start plugging things in and checking for line noise in the AC, and exploring the sonic characteristics of the room itself. I already have a couple of projects queued up, and I can hardly wait to get started.
The Sound of Near Silence
(The ninth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at emusician.com on October 28th, 2010.)
(Detail of how the wood slats are arranged on the studio’s walls and ceiling.)
That was weird!
Suddenly the studio was dead—no audible sound reflection whatsoever.
Last week, two-thirds of the room treatment was applied to the walls of the studio. Up to this point, the room had been exceptionally reverberant, and I was getting used to the sound as I played various instruments in there at night when the builders went home.
It took a day and a half to install the wood framing that would hold the Owens Corning 702 insulation to the drywall (see Fig. 1), another day and a half to secure the insulation (see Fig. 2), and a final day or so to install the Guilford of Maine FR701 panel fabric using a staple hammer (see Fig. 3).
Fig. 1: The frame the holds the insulation. Notice how it outlines the complex shapes in the ceiling.
The result is a nearly anechoic space. Remarkably, the five windows don’t add that much reverberance when judged by ear. Of course, if I was to do a computer analysis of the studio at this stage, I’m sure it would show the effects of the windows in various frequency ranges. But at this point it sounds dead. To quote the cartoon character Cathy: “Ack!”
Fig. 2: Here’s how it looks with the insulation added.
The next step in the process is to install wooden treatment to the walls, which will add acoustic character to the room. I chose fir because of the look and price, and because it’s relatively easy to work with.
Note that there is a 2-inch space between the alternating 1×4, 1×6, and 1×8 slats, where you will be able to see the light-green panel fabric. The result is a combination of diffusion and absorption that should create a balanced acoustic signature.
The main purpose of the studio is to provide a space for recording and rehearsing. I purposefully didn’t design it to be a multi-room studio with separated mixing and tracking suites because there wasn’t enough overall space available. Once you slice up a large room into smaller ones, and then put in the sound isolating walls, the multi-layered flooring, and the ventilation, you can easily wind up with several walk-in closets that require a lot of acoustical treatment to make them sound good.
My interest is in having an open space that is sonically isolated from the outside world so I can record acoustic instruments as quiet as a koto or shakuhachi, yet have enough space to track a set of drums or loud guitar amp and be able to place a room mic a few yards away.
At this point, with the newly treated walls, I still have a distance of 18 feet from wall to wall, and approximately 29 feet from one corner to the other, yielding a maximum of 37 milliseconds of time difference depending on where I place the room mics.
To the left of the entrance is a 7.25 by 9.25 utility closet that has untreated walls and, consequently, very live sounding. I plan on using it as a miniature control room on those occasions when I need to be out of the main tracking space, but I’ll also experiment with using it as a reverb chamber.
Fig. 3: Finally, the fabric is stapled on.
And after spending a few full days in different parts of the house, I’ve come to the realization that I can use the hallways and stairwell as alternative live spaces: we have wood floors throughout the house, which offer up a number of really nice room tones. It’s also fairly quiet in this place, as long as one of the neighbors isn’t using the leaf blower or lawn mower. Fortunately, the studio successfully blocks that kind of noise pollution.
Today the wood is being installed, and I’ll have photos of the process in my next blog.
A closer view of the insulation.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
(The eighth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at emusician.com on October 14th, 2010.)
It has been eleven months since we tore down the original garage/studio and began building. Last November I thought the entire project would be completed by May of this year. (We were originally told March, but in my mind I added a two-month cushion. Yeah, I know—wishful thinking.) Of course, it didn’t help that we had one of the rainiest winters in recent memory. The discovery of dry rot in other parts of the house delayed things further.
The new garage and in-law unit are now done, the addition is tied in to the main structure, and the house is in a livable condition, so we’ve moved back in after a four-month forced hiatus. Our contractor can, once again, turn his attention back to my favorite room—the studio.
The best part of moving in so far has been getting to know the sonic personality of each space. For example, with its vaulted ceiling and wooden floor, the living room has a lovely, live sound, even with two sofas and a rug in the middle. The room is big enough to track a full band, but the acoustics are remarkably balanced enough that a strummed acoustic guitar sounds great in there.
The garage, when it’s empty, has a long, bright decay—perfect for use as a reverb chamber. This potential use will also act as an incentive to keep the garage uncluttered (I’m a notorious packrat).
Next to the garage is a storage room that I had also envisioned using as a reverb chamber, though it has since become home to several filing cabinets. As a result, the room is less reflective, though it does have an interesting sound. The floors in the garage and storage room were treated with a water-based, 2-part epoxy coating from Rust-Oleum (think automobile show room), which seems to have enhanced the reverberance in each space.
All three rooms have tie-line channels extending from the studio above them, and we’re just about ready to install the cabling and jack panels to the walls. I had custom panels made with eight XLRs and two TRS jacks for the garage and living-room, and a pair of XLR jacks for the storage room. Down the hall from the studio is a highly reverberant bathroom. If I want to use it as an echo chamber, I’ll just run the cables on the floor.
What’s The Buzz
Besides checking out the acoustics in each room, I’ve also begun listening to the ambient noise level in the house, focusing especially on the appliances and how their voices sound in each space. The kitchen, which opens to the living room, presents the biggest potential problem. If I do a session in the living room, I’m going to have to figure out a way to deal with the hum from the refrigerator’s compressor. It won’t be a big deal if the music I’m tracking is loud. For quieter sessions, I imagine I’ll use iZotope Rx [http://www.izotope.com/products/audio/rx/]to remove any unwanted artifacts that do show up.
So far, the washer and dryer can’t be heard in the studio, despite being directly below the studio closet. The one thing I haven’t been able to test yet is the studio’s electrical outlets. I’m curious to hear if the circuits pick up any noise from the appliances or the neighbors.
Floor to Ceiling
Fig. 1: Three levels of the flooring can be seen (L. to R.): CDX, paper, and oak.
In July, Gyp-Crete was poured as part of the studio floor, which provides a layer of strength and sound isolation. A few weeks ago the rest of the flooring was installed—a layer of 2-inch Owens Corning 703 insulation, followed by a 1/2-inch of CDX plywood with Green Glue, a layer of paper, and then the oak floor itself (see Fig. 1). These final layers were kept 3/8-inch from the perimeter walls, where backer rod and caulk will be added to isolate the floor from the outer structure (see Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: Floor installation complete.
We managed to recycle enough of the house’s original wood flooring to finish off the studio closet, which is large enough to store amps and instruments, as well as cables and stands (see Fig. 3). I wanted to reuse more of the original floor, but it proved difficult to pull up during the initial part of the renovation and most of it was damaged.
Fig. 3: A view into the closet showing the recycled hardwood floor from downstairs.
At this point, the windows have been installed and their perimeters sealed. Although the studio doors haven’t been installed, the traffic sounds from outside are almost fully attenuated. So far it feels like we have achieved a good deal of isolation from the outside world, and we’re not even done. When the doors are hung and the final wall covering is attached this week, it will only improve matters.
As I mentioned in earlier posts, the room treatment was designed by Rod Gervais. It calls for a layer of Owens Corning 702 insulation to be attached to the drywall, and then covered with Guilford of Maine FR701 panel fabric. This is topped by a pattern of 1×4, 1×6, and 1×8 wooden slats, with a 2-inch gap between each. Gervais has designed a number of tracking rooms like this, and the setup is intended to offer a musical combination of diffusion and absorption that doesn’t require further acoustical treatment.
FR701 was chosen because it is fire-retardant panel fabric that adheres to the ASTM E-84 fire-test standard for construction materials that are installed directly upon a surface (e.g., without an airspace between the surface and the fabric).
Once the wall and ceiling treatments are up, the lighting, tie-line cables, and HVAC vents will be installed. Then it’s time to test the electrical system, as well as see what the finished room sounds like when recording. I can hardly wait!
Cool Link: 10 things you didn’t know about sound.
(The seventh installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at emusician.com on August 26th, 2010.)
As the interior walls of my studio were being packed with insulation, my contractor began installing the fresh-air ventilation system. One factor that many people forget to consider when designing a studio is airflow. It’s not just about how quiet a system is, but how efficiently it works.
You may find it surprising—though it’s obvious upon reflection—that in creating a nearly soundproof room, you are also creating an airtight space: Wherever air can enter, sound will enter as well. If you were to install and run a heating/cooling system in an airtight studio without supply and return vents, you’d pressurize the room in a dangerous way very quickly. Therefore you must find a quiet and efficient way to move air in and out of the room so you can work comfortably.
But there are a number of issues that need to be addressed as you determine the climate-control requirements of your studio. Space is an important one, because HVAC systems can eat up a portion of your wall and ceiling area if you need to enclose them in soffits. Of course, you could get a portable air-cooling unit, but they can be relatively loud, while taking up floor space and requiring you to connect a duct to an exterior vent.
Factors you’ll need to consider when figuring out the proper size for your system include the number of people you will have in each room of the studio, the amount of space (and money) you can devote to the HVAC system, and, of course, local weather conditions. During my brief tour of the southeast this month, I was reminded of how hot and humid it can get in certain parts of the country. Consequently, the HVAC requirements for a studio in, say, Birmingham, Alabama, where there is high humidity during much of year, are much different than in Reno, Nevada, which has a much drier climate.
And consider that it’s not just humidity from the outside that you’ll battle. Humans expel water vapor when they breathe, and the more people you have in your studio, the greater the humidity you have to deal with. A five-piece rock band doing take after take of a song will quickly raise the temperature and humidity in your tracking room, and that’s not even considering the heat coming from the gear.
The same goes for your control room and vocal booth. Despite having fewer people in these rooms, they can become hot and uncomfortable quickly if you don’t have a way to bring in fresh air.
The best scenario is to install a system that is quiet enough that you can leave it on while you work, rather than sweating it out when you track or mix, and then turning the A/C on during the breaks.
On the Wall
Although my studio was being constructed from the ground up, I wanted to lose as little space as possible to ductwork and avoid soffits. I also wanted to have my climate control system completely separated from the rest of the house, both sonically and structurally.
The Music Technology Center at Diablo Valley College, where I teach an Intro to Pro Tools class, installed wall-mounted, single-room air conditioner/heaters that connect to an external fan. They’re surprisingly quiet, very efficient, and relatively affordable for personal studios. And all of the venting and duct work are tucked away in the ceiling.
A number of companies make these types of units, but for my studio we settled on the Mitsubishi Split Ductless system, which attaches to the wall (though there are systems that attach to the ceiling as well). Because the room will be airtight, we added two fresh-air ducts in the ceiling, each placed about 3.5 feet from the highest point in the room. A Broan HRV90 Fresh Air System, which will provide 75 CFM of airflow, connects to the studio using spiral metal ducts lined with Casco Coated Circliner II duct liner to keep the system’s sound to a minimum. (You can see examples of the lined ducts in the photos on this page.) The supply and return vents have Shoemaker 90-series double deflection grilles (10 x 10), which should be large enough to permit the required amount of air to flow without creating any whistling noise.
Installing the duct work turned out to be a bit tricky because insulation had already been placed in the ceiling and the layout of the trusses is complicated (to say the least). But after it was installed, the system was completely hidden from view.
Once the final finishing layers are added to the walls and ceiling, we will attach the A/C unit and complete the fresh-air outlet boxes by adding the grilles. Then we can fire up the system as I load in all my gear and begin the process of locating the various sweet spots in the room for recording drums, amps, and vocals.
Close-up of lined ventilation duct.
The corner ducts.
A bit of the lining on its own.
Navigating the duct work through the trusses wasn’t easy.
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