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Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 6

Hit the Floor Running
(The sixth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at on July 22, 2010.)

In his book, Home Recording Studio: Build It Like the Pros (Cengage), Rod Gervais explains that no room is completely soundproof. All you can really do is minimize sound transmission by decoupling the structures, sealing any and all gaps, and being sure that your surfaces—walls, ceilings, floor, doors—resonate at little as possible (and at as low a frequency as possible).

Cheap to do? No. But it’s not outrageously expensive, either.

My room is being designed for tracking and rehearsing, rather than, say, mixing. Consequently, I’m working towards a space that is pleasing to play and record in—one that maintains a high level of isolation from the outside while keeping the sound of the drums and amps from annoying the rest of the house as well as the neighbors. So rather than spend the money on acoustical treatment once the room is built, I’m investing in the structural aspects. If you’ve looked into the cost of high-quality acoustical treatment, you know that it’s pricey, and treating a room adequately can begin to feel like a remodel once you get the bill.

This Old House
Meanwhile, construction continues—and what a difference six weeks can make. Since my last post, we found dry rot in parts of the house we hadn’t planned on remodeling, so the scope of the project has expanded, slowing the studio side of things down a bit. The good news is that the electrical in the rest of the house will get an upgrade, which will make recording in the older rooms much easier. (The house dates from the ‘50s, and much of the original, ungrounded wiring was still in place.)

In Part 5 of this blog, I showed how the double walls looked after they had gone up. At that point, my contractor’s team was about to begin sheet rocking the ceiling, which turned out to be an exercise in patience. It wouldn’t have been so much of an issue had the ceiling been flat, but this one is vaulted in a quirky way, with angles added to the surface area as a result of the layout of the walls (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1

The ceiling starts with three layers of 5/8-inch gyp board, with a layer of Green Glue between each. The sheetrock was attached using 20-gauge, steel-hat RISC-1 clips. Fortunately, once the pieces of sheet rock were cut into the various shapes for the first layer, the rest could be fashioned more easily by simply duplicating the cuts. In Figure 2, you can see the pre-cut pieces. Once installed, the seams were filled and caulked, just as they were in the walls.

Figure 2

Soon, the space between the wall and ceiling will have backer rod installed before being caulked. Similarly, the space between the bottom of the drywall and the floor will have backer rod added and get finished off with caulk: The drywall is not allowed to touch the existing deck in order to prevent coupling with the floor.

In the last few days, we’ve begun building up the floor, starting with a layer of Gyp-Crete being poured onto the plywood deck. Gyp-Crete is relatively lightweight and used frequently for fire and sound control in homes, apartments, and hotels. I was surprised to see how quickly it was applied (the crew was done in just over an hour) and how quickly it dried (by the end of the day). The next morning, I returned to find a layer of protective paper on it, with workmen using my empty studio space to air-dry painted doors from the rest of the house. Figure 3 shows the floor before the pour, and Figure 4 is a close up of the metal rail at the base that separates the Gyp-Crete from the walls. Figure 5 shows how the Gyp-Crete looked a few hours after it was poured.

Figure 3

However, adding a layer of Gyp-Crete over the plywood deck is only the beginning of the sound-control measures we’re taking with the room. The studio floor straddles part of the garage, as well as a half-bath, a mudroom, a hallway, and a bit of the laundry room. (Yes, the laundry room!) Consequently, extra measures have been taken to keep the first-floor ceiling and the studio floor as physically decoupled as possible.

To help isolate the floor further, a layer of 2-inch Owens Corning 703 insulation is put down on top of the Gyp-Crete. Next a layer of 1/2-inch CDX with a full application of Green Glue is added. Both layers are kept 3/8-inch from the perimeter, where backer rod and caulk are added to isolate the flooring from the walls. The final layer will probably be an oak floor. We had it in the former living room, and it sounded great with the drums.

Figure 4

The finishing layer for the walls and ceiling will be made up of a layer of fabric covered Owens Corning 702 insulation, which is then topped by a pattern of 1×8, 1×6, and 1×4 wooden slats, with a 2-inch gap between each. The layout is designed to offer a combination of absorption and diffusion that should yield a pleasantly musical space to work in. Gervais has had great results with this design in tracking rooms, and because of the unusual shape of my studio, we’re both confident that it will make for an exciting room. I’ll post some photos as things develop.

Figure 5

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Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 5

Walls Within Walls
(The fifth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at on June 10, 2010.)

You know the routine. When life is crazy, a lyric or phrase will suddenly pop into your head. Today, it’s the voice of George Jetson shouting “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!”

I’m in the thick of the remodel.

Figure 1

Of course, I’m thankful that things are moving so quickly. However, my studio’s timetable is intertwined with the long to-do list for the rest of the house, so I no longer have the luxury of pondering over any decisions that need to be made. If the electrical is being done in two days, that’s for the entire project and I better get my list of needs to the contractor or there will be delays.

For example, now that all the windows are in and the plumbing and electrical is nearly finished, our thoughts have turned to the insulation and drywall. Not a problem for the rest of the new structure. “It’s just a box,” my contractor, Tom, likes to say. The studio, however, is not just a box.

What you see here are the outer walls (see Fig. 1). Soon, there will be a separate structure inside of it, with an air gap in between, in order for the studio to be acoustically decoupled from the outside. The room has a number of corners, which is good in terms of studio acoustics because you don’t want to have a room with four parallel walls. The corners came into being through a combination of exterior aesthetics (the studio is above the garage facing the street, so it needs to match the rest of the exterior) and allowable room size (we’ve maxed out the amount of square footage we can add to our property, so I literally had to cut corners in the studio to have enough room for other household sections). In any case, Tom can handle the corners.

The floor won’t be too much of an issue because we’re not floating it. Instead, we’re pouring a layer of Gyp-Crete, over which Owens Corning 703 insulation, CDX plywood, and a hardwood will be added. Below the studio are several rooms, and the first-floor dividing walls offer plenty of structural support for the flooring we’ll install.

Then there’s the ceiling (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2

Tom smiles when we talk about the ceiling. It’s the kind of smile that a Buddhist monk gives when you try his patience.

We both know the ceiling is going to be a lot of work. No, it’s actually going to be a pain in the ass. It’s pitched in many directions (again, to keep the upper floor from looking like a shoebox when viewed from the street) and it took a lot of work just to frame it.

In order to build the room-within-a-room, all of the different angles will get a triple layer of sheetrock, with a layer of Green Glue between each one. That means Tom and his men will sheetrock this complex surface three times.

Big smile. Long silent pause.

Yeah, I know. That means extra man-hours, which translates to more money. Tom has been great about keeping the expenses down whenever possible, and I think it pains him to know how much work and money is involved in doing the ceiling, not to mention dealing with all of the special decoupling gaskets, firestops, and calking. But he’s set on doing it right, and there are a few steps before we get to that point.

In Fig. 3, you can see that an extra layer of drywall has been added between the studs of the outer wall. Insulation will be put between the studs, but the surface will be left open. The interior wall that faces it will also be left open, so that insulation faces insulation. This is a technique of studio designer Rod Gervais, with whom I consulted and eventually hired to create the design. (In part one of this series, I mentioned his book, Home Recording Studio: Build it Like the Pros. It’s a must-read if you’re planning a personal studio, no matter how modest or complex.)

Figure 3

Although one would assume that simply stacking layer upon layer of drywall will continue to increase sound isolation, that’s not really the case. Gervais has found that it’s better to have the sheetrock stacked on the outer sides, leaving a large area of non-resonant surfaces with an air space in between. The Gervais book gives STC ratings for several different drywall/insulation layouts, and the results are surprising. The book also shows the structural details of each part of the wall, floor, and ceiling—including the part numbers of specific isolation components.

Once the interior walls are finished, the Gyp-Crete will get poured between them, the floor will be built up, and then it’s time for the ceiling. I can’t wait to see that go up—I’ll post the photos on this blog once the process begins.

Meanwhile, Tom has installed the wiring conduit for the tie-lines that will lead from the studio into three of the lower rooms (see Fig. 4). This may look like any old PVC pipe to the average person, but to you and I, it’s a chance to create a real echo chamber. Now it’s time to source the connector panels.

Figure 4

PS: After I wrote this week’s blog, I went home to find that the interior studio walls are already being framed (see Fig. 5). You can see the 2-inch gap between the studs in this view of the inner airlock door.

Figure 5

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Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 4

Tying the rooms together.
(The fourth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at on May 13, 2010.)

Things are moving quickly with the renovation, as you can see in the attached photo, and our contractor has been great about keeping his crew busy. For example, when rain held up the delivery and installation of the trusses for the roof, he had them put up siding and install the plumbing. The fast pace is keeping me on my toes.

As I continue to sort out the electrical details for the studio, it’s time to address other issues, such as ordering interior windows and flooring, and coordinating the installation of each element with my contractor. Because the studio is only a portion of the overall remodel (which includes an in-law unit and garage), I have to balance my room’s needs with that of the overall project. Where it gets tricky is in coordinating each major installation, such as the insulation and sheet rock. My room has to be included with the rest of the house in order to keep the project on time and within budget. That means all of the little details that pertain to the studio have to be sorted out ahead of time.

With the exterior walls up and the roof being framed, I am finally getting a sense of the room’s dimensions. The studio is neither square nor rectangular, so it won’t have the typical acoustic anomalies of a bedroom or basement studio. And its vaulted ceiling will give me additional air space to work with if I want to record loud instruments. However, the initial square footage will shrink once we build the room-within-a-room—it’ll add roughly 6 inches to each wall and ceiling surface and about 3 inches to the floor.

For those times when I need extra space for tracking a band, or even just a set of drums, I’ve decided to install tie-lines from the studio to other rooms in the house.

The inspiration for this came from Guidotoons, the Nashville-based personal studio owned by Joe “Guido” Welsh. I visited his place after a Summer NAMM show a few years back, primarily to check out his analog synth collection. Guido had recently finished the first Thelonious Moog CD, “Yes We Didn’t: A Switched-On Tribute to Thelonious Monk” (Grownup Records), which remains one of my all-time favorite CDs—and I’m not even going to qualify it as a “synth-project.” It’s a joyous and smartly arranged collection of songs—a la Esquivel and Moog Cookbook—that will immediately put a smile on your face. I have two copies!

Consequently, I was dying to see what his tracking situation was like, because the drum sounds on that CD are big and vintage sounding. Although his upstairs control room is spacious and well designed, he was crafty enough to add tie-lines to several rooms of the house, including the great room, which is big enough to host a full band as well as a grand piano. It’s this large room and its vaulted ceiling that helped him get that killer drum sound. That night I added tie-lines to my wish list, if I should ever update my own recording space.

Fast forward to today.

Now that the walls are up and still open, I have the opportunity to see exactly where I want my various cable drops to go. Because the studio is upstairs and located over a portion of a 2-car garage, it’s fairly easy to send a set of cables (eight microphone and two TRS) down into the lower room. I realize the garage won’t be sound proof, but for those times when I want the extra sonic space, I’ll just have to make sure my music is louder than any outside sounds that might creep in.

I also plan to drop a set of cables down the wall that adjoins our living room. The remodel will not only add square footage to that space, but we’ll get a vaulted ceiling out of the deal. Again, I’m shooting for eight microphone and two TRS cables, finished off with a solid panel discretely positioned on the lower part of the wall (possibly hidden within a bookshelf).

Two additional rooms will get tie-lines: a half-bath and a storage room behind the garage. I hope to use these as reverb chambers, so four mic lines will be sent into each.

At this point, the tie-line project seems pretty straightforward because the cable drops don’t bend or curve, and the length of each will be less than 12 feet. The cables will be bundled into snakes that are run through a PVC pipe, so that they’re easy to pull through, and the diameter of each pipe will be wide enough to accommodate additional cable if we want to add some later.

In addition, each set of cables will terminate in off-the-shelf panels (I don’t want to shell out for custom work) that will be solidly attached to the walls, so that they won’t get pulled from the sheet rock over time. The PVC will go in just before we do the insulation and sheet rock, but the cabling will get finished off and the panels mounted once the walls in each room are done.

At least that’s the plan at this point! I’ll post photos once we begin the process.

Meanwhile, check out this fun link:
How to Build Your Own Echo Chamber

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Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 3


(The third installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at on April 22, 2010.)

One of the biggest issues in any studio, whether it’s for personal use or for hire, is the electrical setup. For many of us, the home studio is relegated to whatever room (or part of a room) is not being used by other inhabitants of the house. Consequently, we share the electrical panel with the household appliances and other sources of line noise. It’s not always easy (nor inexpensive) to isolate our gear from the noise pollution in the electrical system, so usually we just live with it.

Before we started our remodel, my studio was in a small in-law unit behind the garage. Besides being uninsulated, and therefore nearly uninhabitable in the middle of winter and summer, it didn’t have grounded power when we moved in. I eventually had a ground-rod installed and wired into the electrical panel, but the house’s electrical system remained underpowered overall, and the results could easily be seen and heard. But that’s about to change.

Now that the framing has begun and the project is steaming forward, I wanted to get some general advice that would help me get the best performance from my studio’s electrical system, from the ground up, so to speak.

I decided to call Garth Powell, Senior Product Designer-Engineer at Furman Sound [ ], to get answers about any potential issues and pitfalls, from an engineer whose job it is to mitigate them.

Powell was adamant that before you begin considering the kinds of products that a company like Furman makes, you want to make sure you have as clean of an electrical system as possible, depending on what you have to work with. That means your audio and video equipment needs to be isolated from the rest of the household’s circuits.

Of course, the best option is to have a completely separate power line coming in from the street, but Powell says that solution is cost prohibitive or impractical for many people.

“The easiest thing to do is to create a parallel subpanel from your home’s main 240V, split-load panel,” he explains. “One side of it, L1, will have a bunch of circuit breakers versus neutral that create the 120V in one phase. L2, will have another set of circuit breakers with 120V on the other side and phase.

“It’s important to keep all of the studio equipment on a different phase than the one that lighting and appliances are on in your main home,” Powell continues. “The electrician may argue that you’ll want to balance the load (current draw) to the extent that you can: it’s hard on the transformer, and it can be hard to get a uniform 120V, if one part of the phase is eating up 80 percent of your capacity [the appliances], and the other phase is eating up 5 or 10 percent [your studio gear]. They want it a little more matched than that.

“But I’m always willing to let go of perfect symmetry there,” he adds, “in favor of making sure that all of your gear is on the same phase. So that as you have even slight brown-outs and surges, everything is coming up and down together. And ideally, everything is referenced to the same voltage versus ground, so that you don’t have ground (current) loops stemming from voltage drops between different grounds—when referenced to neutral and line. This is what causes 60 cycle hum and buzz coming through everything.”

Once the panel is in place, and I have my a/v gear on the same phase, Powell recommended that each outlet, or duplex, should be a dedicated 20 amp circuit, using high-quality, hospital-grade, orange-colored outlets, such as the ones sold by Hubbell. He suggests that I have them wired with 10×3 Romex, rather than the 12×3 Romex that is usually used for 20 amp circuits.

“Although 10×3 Romex is used with 30 amp circuits, the resistance will be lower when you use that gauge of Romex with a 20 amp system,” Powell notes. “The lower the resistance of the ground, the less of a chance you’re going to have a large differential between two separated components, and therefore, breaking into a circular ground loop. The second thing is that amplifiers love a low-impedance path. If you raise the impedance path, they’ll current compress, and you’ll have instant mud and decreased dynamics.

“You have three wires—line, neutral, and ground. For it to be a truly dedicated 20 amp line, those three wires must connect, using Romex, from the duplex straight back to that panel’s circuit breaker. It shouldn’t share or touch anything else.”

When I asked if the panel causes any issues, he added “The circuit breaker itself is not going to add resistance or affect performance. The only thing that’s really going to affect the performance is the quality of the outlet and the quality of the wiring, and making sure the electrician used good techniques and everything is tight, and so forth.”

Star Ground
But even with dedicated lines to each outlet, he recommended I use a star-ground system for my gear, where everything is ultimately connected to one outlet.

“The gold standard is a star ground,” explains Powell. “For your power or for your signal, every ground comes to one point.” That means, all of the gear should be plugged into one duplex, with a series of power strips branching out, in parallel, from one source. That suggests a metaphor!

“Think about the trunk of a tree,” Powell suggests. “It doesn’t matter if one of the branches is a lot longer than the others: As long as they’re both coming to one trunk, you’re okay. And that’s your star, because even as voltage is fluctuating up and down, everything is coming back to one potential—all the grounds are coming to one place. One can’t modulate the other.”

Won’t I run out of power from that duplex, once I plug everything into it?

Powell says not to worry. “With today’s digital audio workstations, plus a couple of computers, a small mixing console, a bunch of processors, and a couple of powered monitors for listening, the whole thing is probably going to be well under 20 amps.”

“And if they are low-resistance, dedicated lines all going back to the same phase,” he adds, “and you’re fairly careful about this, the chance of having a ground loop is very, very low. You’ve done everything you possibly can that’s reasonable.

“If you still have a problem, you can go into exotic things like isolation transformers and ground strappings, to try and lower the resistances.”

Go to the Pros
If you plan to have any major electrical work done for your studio, Powell says it is imperative that you use an electrician who fully understands what a studio requires and who respects the needs of a recording engineer or musician. He recommends looking for one who has done work in a broadcast environment, and suggests contacting an engineer at a local radio or television station and asking them who they use.

An electrician who has experience with wiring studios will also be the person you’ll want to consult with before you sink a ground rod. Soil composition and local climate conditions play a big role in the effectiveness it will have on your electrical system, and the person doing the work should understand what’s at stake. I recommend reading this interview with Arthur Kelm of Ground One AV, Inc., where he talks about the issues around treated ground rods and related topics.

“If you have a really good, professionally installed ground,” explains Powell, “you can see your noise floor go 20 dB lower than it would be with the conventional ground rod that the average electrician is allowed to do by code. Remember that code was never meant to have anything to do with the quality or performance of electronics. It all has to do with meeting fire code, which comes from the insurance industry.”

I want to thank Garth Powell for his time and valuable insights. Check out the links below, which cover a variety of electrical issues in greater depth:
Knowledge and Power by Eddi Ciletti.

On Solid Ground
by Neal Brighton and Steve Oppenheimer.
Battling Medusa: A professional approach to studio wiring by Karen Stackpole.
Planning Your Ideal Recording Space by Larry the O.

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Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, Part 2

(The second installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at on January 27, 2010.)

Today, I’m reminded of the evil scientist’s quote in the Looney Tunes episode “Water, Water, Every Hare”:

“Delays, delays, nothing but delays!”

No one is surprised that this adventure will take longer than expected. For example, our holiday gift from the county was a 100-day wait for a set of building permits—all because of an internal door. In the meantime, my son has launched a flotilla of paper boats on Lake Robair as we wait for the rains to subside. His next big scheme is to promote our impromptu reservoir as a “semi-rural spa with mud baths,” hoping to charge $5 a customer. “Lemons into lemonade” is how he puts it.

Meanwhile his father is coming to grips with the issues of creating a work environment that keeps residential sounds out while keeping musical ones in. Anyone with a personal studio knows that leaf blowers, trucks, and airplanes provide a formidable opponent in terms of sound isolation. But this studio owner also likes natural light, so I’ve been thinking long and hard about the windows. The permitting process has bought me a bit more time.

Recently, I was introduced to L.A.-based designer Vincent Van Haaff of Waterland Design. In the past 30 years, he has created a range of musical spaces worldwide, including clubs, professional facilities, and home studios for clients such as composer David Sardy and ex-Chili Pepper guitarist, John Frusciante. When I learned of his design work for the world-class Conway Recording Studios in Los Angeles, which utilizes natural light effectively, I decided to ask him a few questions related to my more humble needs.

My issues begin with the look on the outside: I want the exterior studio window to match those on the rest of the house. I also want to be able to open it and air out the space when we’re not recording. (You know how stinky music making can be.) So I asked Van Haaff to give me a run down on my options.

“To begin with, the studio will have an exterior structural shell and an interior acoustical shell, which are independent from each other,” Van Haaff explains. “There’s a dead-air space in between, and wherever they intersect, there is a frame and a rubber gasket to allow the two to move independently. In a residential situation, it’s not necessarily fully framed inside the building’s existing structural shell, but rather, a buildup of some kind that has some kind of gasketing and resilient channel, perhaps.

“One option is to create a custom window frame, and then insert a sealed, secondary pane of glass that can be removed fairly easily, inside of the existing windows” he continues. “That’s approach number one. When we do a full professional recording studio/control-room situation, like at Conway for example, it will be a fixed piece of glass—actually a control-room window, except that the exterior is waterproof. The trouble is, as soon as you have an air pocket in between two pieces of glass, there will be a tendency for condensation to build up, and you need a way to draw out the humidity between the glass layers.”

“And if I want a window that opens?” I ask.

“If we have double-stud walls, then it becomes possible to have a sliding window on the exterior and a in-swinging window on the interior, so that you can vent the air between them. Besides allowing you to let fresh air in when the studio is not in operation, it alleviates the problem of fixed-pane condensation buildup. Because most window manufacturers these days strictly adhere to all kinds of energy regulations, there will be a lot of gasketing and you’ll get a fairly good seal. It’s not the ideal super-isolation window, but for residential applications it’s quite adequate.”

I’m also interested in having a skylight on the north side of the roof. I already know that it won’t provide adequate sound isolation on its own, so I ask Van Haaff how he would approach it.

“With skylights, you have to drop a secondary ceiling because the interior glass needs to be on a gasketed support so that there is a disconnect between the roof and the interior pane. In all cases, you’ve got a dead-air space between two pieces of glass. With a regular bubble skylight, you’d have the acrylic on the outside and one or two additional layers of interior glazing. Ideally, you’d want two, or for that matter, an insulated glass to get the lowest possible sound transmission between that whole assembly.”

Sounds doable. But I suspect that I wouldn’t be able install one that I could open.

“It would be a fixed skylight,” says Van Haaff. “You’d need to do a lot of engineering to figure out a way of making a skylight open on both sides while solving the problem of condensation at the same time. I’d stay away from that, although it can be done at a certain cost.”

Ouch. Yeah, I think I can deal with a fixed skylight. I’d rather spend that “certain cost” on creating a great sounding room. But at least this discussion gave me some clues as to where to direct my research.

My thanks to Vincent Van Haaff for sharing his time and expertise with me for the Robair Report.

Lake Robair

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Gino’s Big Adventure: Building a Personal Studio, part 1

(The first installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at on November 12, 2009.)

In doing our part to stimulate the floundering US economy, my wife and I have decided to rebuild our garage. It wasn’t such a hard decision because the structure, which dated from the late ‘50s and had an in-law unit attached, was somewhat flimsy and heading towards uninhabitability. And, frankly, it’s a great time to do a remodel: Because of the building slump, it’s easier to get uninterrupted work from tradesmen.

The in-law unit has been my studio for the past 10 years. However, during the coldest days of winter and hottest days of summer, it was impossible to spend much time in there because of the lack of insulation. (Running a large fan or heater while trying to work with audio does not make critical listening any easier.) So my motivation for remodeling was to get a new room that I could outfit as a personal studio, literally from the ground up. And that’s where this series begins.

Every few weeks, I will file updates in the Robair Report about the building and design process, with discussions of the various topics that musicians have to consider when they’re preparing a room for studio use. I will also interview others who have gone through this process, getting a range of hands-on tips and advice—what to do, what not to do, and the most valuable advice of all, “if only I could do this again, I’d…”

Tear it up!
Of course the easiest part of this particular job was the demolition (see Figures 1 through 6, below). Easy, that is, when the pros do it. Although each of us in the household took our turn with the sledgehammer—how many of you wished you could smash in a wall when you were a kid!—we left the real demo to the T-Rex-sized, house-gobbling machines. Within an hour, the 400 sq/ft building was down, and within the next three hours, it was removed from the site. Local laws require that a major portion of the debris get recycled, and our contractor was on top of that. Additionally, some of the fixtures went to a salvage/reuse facility.

The next two days were spent removing the concrete slab, which was exciting to watch… and feel! When giant pieces of concrete were dropped from 10 feet onto the ground, it literally rocked the house.

The next step was to dig a building-shaped hole where the new foundation will go. Because we’re in earthquake country (aka Northern California), there are plenty of extra building requirements that come immediately into play, such as 60+ supports that are planted a dozen feet into the ground. Depending on how much rain we get in the next few days, we’ll see how long this step takes.

Meanwhile, the contractor and I are already discussing three of the most important aspects of the studio: AC power, HVAC, and wall construction. Fortunately, he’s very open-minded about the high tolerances that a studio requires.

The overall design plans are already in place. Because this is part of a residence, the studio’s shape and external appearance, not to mention limited funds, play a major role in what I can get away with in terms of sound isolation.

Getting Schooled
There are a number of books about building a personal studio that are geared towards musicians and recording engineers, and I have found most of them to be good, but not always 100-percent satisfying. They introduce the topics of acoustics, room modes, and wall treatments, followed by examples of what the pros have done, and ending with anecdotes and abstract advice. I’m usually left wanting something more—details!

At the recommendation of Larry the O—a long-time contributor to Electronic Musician magazine, who has recently built a new personal studio of his own and has built several in the past—I bought the book Home Recording Studio: Build it Like the Pros (2008, Course Technology) by Rod Gervais. What makes this book stand out from the others is that it is exceptionally detailed when it comes to the actual building materials and how they should be used. It also warns of the kinds of problems you will have when builders cut corners, or if you skimp on any of the materials. It reads like you’re in the room talking to a guy who has gotten his hands dirty building a studio. Even if you’re just setting up a bedroom studio, you’ll want a copy of this book—it’s a winner.

For me, Gervais brought up a lot of issues in terms of the electrical and HVAC problems I potentially face with this project. It’s great to have these questions come up now, when we’re starting, rather than later, after the building has gone up.

In the meantime, stay tuned to the Robair Report: I’ll share the details as the project develops, as well as post some video of the construction and interviews with people who have gone through the same process.

One last look at the garage, the morning of demolition.

One of giant house-eating machines, mid-meal.

In just over an hour, all that’s left are the bones.

Scooping up the remains for recycling.

Time to remove the concrete.

Finally, a level playing field. "Now dig this!"

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From Vinyl to Ice with sound artist Ben Gwilliam

Thanks to the work of artist Ben Gwilliam, we can now add “ice” to the list of materials used for storing and playing sound.

For his work Molto semplice e cantabile, Gwilliam created a mold from an LP of Beethoven’s Sonata No 32, which he used to make ice casts of the record that he could play from a turntable. In his blog, Manchester, UK-based critic Tony Trehy describes how Gwilliam manages the feat while maintaining the solidity of the slowly melting record by adding “fine spray as the records play, subtly lubricating the disc, the grooves refreeze the new droplets creating microscopic intervention.”

To bring the project full circle, a limited-edition vinyl 10-inch of the performance was pressed last year. To get an idea of what the results sound like, check out the review by Richard Pinnell from his blog, The Watchful Ear.

I think it’s about time I add a subcategory to the Robair Report that deals with playback formats and how they filter audio.

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Mr. Smith Goes to San Francisco

Dave Smith of Dave Smith Instruments
Who can resist a party that involves vintage gear, a pool table, and Italian food?

Last week, Dave Smith Instruments opened the doors of its new San Francisco offices to a few dozen Bay Area friends and neighbors. The company recently relocated from Napa Valley to a trendy part of North Beach, the Italian district that is home to some of The City’s most well known eateries.

Besides putting the DSI staff near some of the best espresso in town, the company is now only a few blocks away from the shop where its instruments are assembled and tested. A roll of stickers at the party announced that DSI’s products are “Made in San Francisco.”

A workbench and a few CAD stations took up one end of the tastefully designed office. The work area was flanked by a pool table and large windows overlooking the bustling restaurant district. At the other end was a mini-museum/showroom where a Tempest, a Mopho Keyboard, and other DSI instruments were displayed among synths from Dave’s personal collection. The latter included his first Minimoog, which reportedly inspired him to get into this biz in the first place.
Dave Smith's Minimoog and Prophet 10.

Other keyboards on hand included a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, a Prophet 5, and a Prophet T8. Many of the instruments were running through the PA and ready to play.
The Prophet 5 and T8 you wish you owned.

Among the partygoers where Don Buchla, Roger Linn, and Tom Oberheim, with whom Smith regularly meets for breakfast near UC Berkeley. Other notable attendees included Keyboard magazine editor Stephen Fortner; Mark Vail, author of Vintage Synthesizers, the classic reference for gear geeks; Michael Winger, Executive Director of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy; Peter Nyboer of Livid Instruments; and mastering engineers Michael Romanowski and Piper Payne of Michael Romanowski Mastering.

Yeah, a pool table at work. Dang.

Yes, there is a pool table in the office. Apparently the Sequential Circuits headquarters had a basketball court. Ah, the good old days…

It’s not all fun and games, though. A few shots of espresso and it’s time to design some synths!

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Poetic Wax

See and hear early analog technology in action.

Continuing with the topic of using recording devices as filters, it’s time to relive the glories of early analog recording and hear how it transformed sound. The video clips within this link are from a recent AES-sponsored educational event where Suzanne Vega had the chance to record to wax cylinders at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. Seeing and hearing the recording process reveals a number of things that might not be apparent otherwise.

First, check out how far into the horn she has to sing. Granted, she doesn’t have a particularly loud voice, so she probably has to put her head farther in than, say, a gospel singer who has more projection.

Then, listen to how the resonance of the metal horn insinuates itself into the timbre of her voice. Basically, they’re recording her singing into a resonant can.

Finally, check out the second half of the second video where they play the cylinder itself. We get to hear her song with all the scratchy, hissy, warbling artifacts one would expect from the wax format.

But what we’re really treated to is an A/B test between a digital recording of Vega singing (albeit, one that was synchronized to video and data compressed when it was posted online) and the wax cylinder playback (similarly digitally recorded and compressed). Notice the frequency bandwidth reproduced from the cylinder, as well as signal versus noise. Will future generations similarly listen back to our data compressed recordings and marvel at how lo-fi the sound was in the early days of web delivery and satellite radio? You’re darn right they will.

In the last few decades, a number of artists have recorded to wax and transferred the results to digital for aesthetic reasons, such as They Might Be Giants.

However, one of my favorite artists working in this realm is London-based musician Aleks Kolkowsky, who regularly records musicians to wax cylinder. Have a look and listen to what he’s done at

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Mics as filters, and whether having too much gear is a distraction

Since the end of the NAMM show a few weeks ago, I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of microphone comparisons on a variety of subjects (vocals, acoustic guitars, drums, amps, reeds, electronics, percussion), and I’m continually reminded that mics are, in fact, filters. In other words, transducers provide a seemingly endless way to alter sound (when you want them to, of course).

Last night’s session involved solo acoustic guitar—a Recording King RNJ-16—miked up with a Cloud JRS34 active ribbon mic, an Electro-Voice RE320 dynamic, an SE 2200a II large-diaphragm condenser, and a Grundig GDSM 200 stereo dynamic mic from the ‘60s. Much of it was sent through a Universal Audio 4-710d preamp/converter, which offers the ability to dial-in a mix of solid-state and tube preamp sounds for each channel. This setup offered seemingly endless tonal variety, which I would’ve explored if it weren’t for the time limits in getting the job done!

While I go into a bit more detail about the subject of mics-as-filters in the upcoming print version of the Robair Report in Mix magazine, I wanted to point you towards a few online examples worth considering.

First is a quintessential Led Zeppelin track, “Houses of the Holy,” which showcases a couple of unique guitar tones captured by Jimmy Page. You don’t have to be a fan to notice that the intro is one of the strangest guitar timbres ever recorded.

Is this the sound he reportedly recorded by lowering a mic into a bucket? I keep hearing that anecdote but I can’t find the source. Anyone know for sure?

The other link I want to share is of the American Mavericks interview with composer Pauline Oliveros, whose imaginative uses of sound in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s extended to mics as well as electronic music generators. Here she discusses how she used cardboard tubes with mics to filter sound, as well as using her bathtub to generate ambience.

I have yet to hear an impulse response of a bathtub, but I imagine someone has created one.

10,000 hours vs. 15 minutes

These days, with so many reverb and delay plug-ins available, adding ambience to your music is trivial. In fact, there is so much low-cost music-related gear, that it’s hard to find the time to really exploit it all. Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so in the software realm: As we’re forced to upgrade our platforms more frequently (annually for Apple users), some part of our system will become legacyware with each OS upgrade, whether it’s because a DAW or plug-in developer isn’t able to offer an update or because it has gone out of business.

So, there’s a lot of fun stuff to explore, but less time to do so. For example, iOS apps are often so inexpensive that it’s almost impossible to avoid downloading them. But is having access to an enormous amount of inexpensive stuff a distraction from actual music making? How many people do you know who buy new gear on a regular basis—soft synths, hardware processors, whatever—but don’t put in the 10,000 hours required for virtuosity on any of them? Is that model even viable anymore?

It wasn’t that long ago that pro-quality gear was prohibitively priced for non-professionals. Consequently, budding engineers and musicians built their own equipment or found creative ways to explore sound without spending much money (hence Oliveros’s method of filtering and obtaining reverberation). You designed or reworked something to fit your aesthetics, rather than purchased something built around someone else’s tastes, which you might share to some degree. Today, much of the DIY craze is a result of a market that is saturated with predictable and bland sound devices. And simply putting a chain of stomp boxes after a ROMpler or SM57 is not enough to create a unique sound. Circuit bending or hacking into the hardware, however, gives you a fighting chance to find something of your own.

Now imagine building an instrument from the ground up that sounds exactly the way you want it to and fully serves your musical imagination—for decades. How many guitarists can you think of that have played the same homemade instrument their entire career?


April 2014
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