Equipment and Instruments

Home Studio (6): The Desk

Harry built me a desk! It took a lot longer than we thought it would, but it came out so beautiful. Happy birthday to me!

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The design: First, we visualized it. How big did I want it? Where would the monitors go? I wanted rack mounts (the speaker shelves) and a slide-out tray for the MIDI keyboard. Then, we drew it out and took measurements. Harry went to Home Depot and purchased pieces of wood and stain. He cut the pieces in our back room, sanded them and notched them. The edges came out round and smooth. He assembled the desk to make sure the pieces were cut right in the right dimensions. Then he started staining, which was the long part; the plywood was very light and absorbed a lot of stain before it would turn dark. He also took special care with the stain so it would look even and not blotchy. After about 6 weeks of that, he finally assembled the finished desk!

It makes such a huge difference to have all that working surface. I can fit all my speakers on it! And now all the wires are hidden, which gives the whole room a sleek, professional look! I would guess that a similar piece of new furniture would have cost me $1000.

Equipment and Instruments · Home Recording Studio

Home Studio (5): Acoustic Treatment

Ugh. This stuff gives me a headache. Just look at this picture.


It’s a mess, but I have a good reason for trying.

Acoustic treatment prevents sound waves from reflecting against the walls and corners in the room. Unwanted reflections can cause cancellation (or amplification) of certain frequencies. For example: From where you sit, it sounds like your song is lacking in bass, so you compensate by enhancing the bass in you mix using EQ. The result is that when you listen to your mix on headphones or car speakers, it sounds muddy or boomy. It’s because room contained unwanted reflections which fooled your ears, so you over-compensated.

The problem with Google is, anyone can put “facts” on the internet (like me, right now!) So if people have different opinions, how do you know which one is right? I’ll just tell you what I’ve tried so far.

Positioning

Your head should go in the center of the room facing the shortest wall. Being centered is important for a symmetrical stereo image, blah, blah, etc. Google how and where to place your monitor speakers. They should be in an equilateral triangle with your head.

Acoustic Panels and Bass Traps

At first I tried to wing it by slapping up foam everywhere. I poured money into those silly-looking foam pads because I was too lazy/cheap to go for the real panels.

I could talk your ear off about what insulation density to use, how to find reflection points, the difference between acoustic panels and bass traps… but people on the internet have already done that. So again, I’m going to talk about what I did and leave the science research up to you. Google how to use the mirror method to find reflection points.

First, I planned out the room. I drew the dimensions in Microsoft Excel. In the drawing on the left, the red panels were bass traps– thicker corner protection against low frequency reflections. The gray acoustic panels were my second priority, and the blue ones were lowest-priority (not really necessary to get a good mix; these were more for recording a loud drum set, or just aesthetics).

We built the acoustic panels at home. You can buy 2′ x 4′ x 4″ acoustic panels for about $60 each from Acoustimac (right here in Tampa), or you can make 6 of them for around $150 using plywood, foam, a hammer, nails, and a staple gun. You can buy the rockwool insulation from Home Depot or a box of Roxul from Acoustimac (it’s $60 for 6 pieces of 2′ x 4′ x 2″ foam. You can purchase the canvas fabric from Joann’s. To learn how to build acoustic panels yourself, Youtube it. Here is a video that I enjoyed.

When you are done, make loud noises in your room and see if you hear any echoing or ringing. If you do, you may need to move a panel or add more treatment.

I’m very lucky to have a handy man at home. While renovating the panels, we decided to paint the room red. Here are some photos! It’s still not finished, but it’s a lot nicer than it was before!

Before:

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After:

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Equipment and Instruments

Home Studio (4): Microphones – Condensers vs. Tubes vs. Dynamic

I scoured pawn shops and Craigslist, searching for that magical, affordable microphone that would capture my voice exactly the way I wanted. You can do a lot with just a cheap mic, EQ and compression, but I wanted to go to the next level. I have pretty aggressive vocals, and I wanted them to cut through a mix without cutting someone’s ears off.

Choosing the right mic can get complicated. Which type of mic did I need? Again, I’m no technical expert so I’ll speak in the simplest terms.


Dynamic mics are ideal for live performances; they handle aggressive sounds well and they’re good for avoiding feedback. The Sennheiser e835 is my dynamic mic of choice for live gigs. Why? Guitar Center let me test it in-store against a Shure SM58, and I liked this one better. It was the first one I bought and I’ve never had a reason to change.

Condenser and Tube mics are more common in recording studios. For my style of music (mostly pop), they capture a high level of detail that shines through in recorded tracks. If you want to know the difference between a condenser and a tube mic, Google it. Nice tubes have a reputation for being “more musical” because they can handle sudden volume spikes better than condenser mics – in other words, transients are less harsh. This opinion is based on what I’ve read and heard from different people.

Different microphones have different frequency responses. Some mics compliment a high/bright voice, while others might make one sounds hissy or shriek-y. Since every mic and every voice is different, experimentation is the only way to find your true love. For pop music I use a forward, bright voice. I didn’t want to spend over $1000 on any microphone, so that U87 crap was out of the question.

Here are all the mics I’ve tried at one point or another (they are all condensers, unless specified “tube”):

  1. MXL 990
  2. MXL 991
  3. MXL V67i
  4. Rhode NT1-A
  5. Rhode NTK (Tube)
  6. AudioTechnica AT4033
  7. AKG C414
  8. Studio Projects C1
  9. Neuman TLM-102
  10. Avantone CV-12 (Tube, modified)
  11. SE 2200-A IIC

The mics I use primarily use for vocals now are the Avantone and the SE. The SE is my favorite, and was relatively cheap (about $300?) I heard that Amy Winehouse used it once – what other convincing did I need? Out of all my mics, the SE requires the least amount of vocal processing in Logic in order to get the tone and clarity I desire. I adore this mic. Again, what works for me might not work for a warm-sounding male singer.

At Clear Track studios, they used a tube mic on my vocals and swore that tube was the only way to go. So I bought into all the hype and purchased the Avantone CV-12 to try it out. I modified it with a different tube and capsule (actually, Harry did this for me because he has better soldering skills). It’s nice, but the SE still requires less vocal processing in my rookie opinion. I hold on to it because it’s pretty, it’s a tube, and maybe someone else will come over and sing on it. So there you go.

Recording Technique

Singing Lessons

My voice can be so fickle. I depend on sleep, good diet, exercise, hydration and confidence. On any day it can take on a different quality. I spent years forcing my voice when it didn’t want to be forced, and I paid for it later.

I work in a fuming chemical plant every day. My voice isn’t as  elastic as it used to be. The more I recorded myself, the more I realized that I was hurting. Some gigs were 4 hours long, and I could hardly speak afterward. I wanted to preserve my voice for the long run. I also wanted to be able to sing well any time, every time.

So I signed up for singing lessons with Chip Dugan, who is a faculty member at the University of Tampa. He is a phenomenal singer and teacher. He’s also a really nice person. He made me feel comfortable in all our lessons, which is so important. He had a systematic, yet personalized approach to lessons. I would record our sessions on my phone and listen to them again later in the week to review.

At first, it was very difficult, because I had these intense muscular habits and I didn’t know how to sing without them. When singing a high belted note, I would squeeze my throat to create air pressure instead of using my breath and resonators correctly. Working backwards from these habits and “re-tuning” my voice was a painstaking process. Chip taught me to become aware of my tongue, jaw, throat and breathing muscles.

A single habit takes weeks to develop, and I had several habits to work on:

  1. Posture
  2. Breath
  3. Lifted soft palate
  4. “Twang”
  5. Relaxed, mobile tongue and jaw
  6. Emotion


I struggled every day for months. The most frustrating thing is that you can’t just think about doing these things while performing. Chip told me it takes about 300 ms for the brain to respond. Singing correctly is a habit. And if you lack in one thing, all of the others suffer. It was a matter of daily troubleshooting, reviewing, calming myself down with hot baths and starting all over again. My singing definitely got worse before it got better, but it was so worth it.

I hurt less at gigs now. I definitely enjoy singing more, like it’s less work and more fun. I have better control across my whole range, as well as a more relaxed and clear tone.

Recording Technique

Recording at Clear Track Studios

At some point in my recording journey, I wanted to learn from the pros about recording. So I went to Clear Track Studios in Clearwater and consulted with Spencer Bradham, one of their lead producers. I paid for one lead single in a “Top-40 radio-ready” format. This what I learned from the whole process!

  1. Song choice and arrangement: Spencer listened to all my songs and chose the one that, in his mind, had the most potential to sound like a hit radio song. He chose one called Too Slow. It was upbeat and catchy.
    Spencer asked me what I wanted the song to sound like; I’ll admit, at the time, I didn’t really know. I wanted him to produce it for me. We recorded a scratch track from his piano and my acoustic guitar. After forming his thoughts, he assembled some studio musicians to be “my band.”
  2. Band practice: the studio musicians were (are) highly talented. There was a guitar, a bassist, and a drummer. Spencer sent everyone my scratch track. We had a short band practice to hash out the song structure. They mostly followed Spencer’s lead, but I interjected here and there with some ideas. I could hear the song being formed into this Maroon5 pop-rock jam, and I enjoyed the aggressiveness of it.
  3. Recording guitar, bass, and drums: a 2-4 hour block was required for each individual musician to play his part. They selected instruments and positioned mics carefully, then tracked with such perfect tempo that they could have been robots.
  4. Recording lead vocals: my favorite part! The meat and potatoes of the song! We took a 4-hour block to do this. Spencer  selected a large tube microphone for my voice (“tube microphones have a more ‘musical’ quality than condensers,” he explained.) He positioned the mic in the middle of the studio and tested my levels. His positivity helped me to feel comfortable. He told me where I needed to sing louder or with more emotion. We did 4-5 takes of each section of the song, starting with verses, then choruses, then the big finale at the end. I had a lot of fun doing it, even though vocals tend to be stressful for me.
  5. Recording background vocals: harmonies, overdubs, parts to thicken up the whole song. I love background vocals and the dimension they add to my tracks.
  6. Final touches, mixing and mastering: Spencer added some extra arpeggiators, keys and cool effects to make the track pop some more. We modified the intro with a low-cut sweep to make it feel like it was fading into view. When it was all done, it definitely felt like a rock track.
    Only after that did I realize what I had wanted my song to sound like all along. I wanted more soul and less rock. The track was so aggressive. My original song was meant to sound like a snarky comeback, not a tantrum. I had not communicated that. Also, I wanted more swing, more vocal runs, more ‘soul’. This was too heavy on the drum kit, electric guitars… combined with my voice, it didn’t seem to come together for me.I’m not saying they didn’t do a great job – Spencer did a fantastic job! I got exactly what I asked for, which was a popular sounding song and a deeper look into the recording process.
Equipment and Instruments · Home Recording Studio

Home Studio (3): Guitars

I’m a music stuff junkie. The thought of a new solid-wood acoustic guitar makes my palms sweaty. I feel like Tina from Bob’s Burgers.

My first guitar was actually a birthday gift from my dad to my little brother. It was a red Ovation Celebrity. Kyle never played it, and I watched it gather dust in our house, unloved. I stole it from him and practiced in college from time to time. I started playing regularly (for gigs) after college. I have since traded in the Ovation for different guitars.

So here’s a few instruments that I’ve owned at one point or another:
Little Martin LX
Taylor 114ce
Taylor GS Mini
Martin Custom Series X1-000E (used)
Little Martin LX
Taylor 414ce
Breedlove Atlas (used)
Ibanez concert (don’t remember the model because I ended up disliking it)

Here are the guitars I own now:
Larrivee OM-02
Tanglewood TW-45 WOPE

I knew it was ridiculous to own so many. I never owned more than 4 at a time. I traded or sold them off each time I wanted to try a new one. I could usually make my money back for used equipment.

Larrivee is my current choice of guitar brand – balanced and beautiful, it just makes me want to sing with it. The Tanglewood body style is nice and small (like me), and the pickup cuts through an ensemble nicely. It was so cute, I used it in a photoshoot.

Taylors and Martins are wonderful but they’re so expensive! You can get something just as good for half the price from Larrivee, Breedlove, or even Yamaha. I’ve also considered Blueridge and Seagull. I guess I enjoy wearing a brand name that’s not so mainstream.

 

Recording Technique

First Recordings – Lee

Eventually I recorded an original song: Ta-dah!

The more I tried to record, the more I realized how difficult it was. I didn’t know the first thing about recording, much less mixing. This was an example of me “winging it”. I knew enough to turn everything on, and how to use a little EQ and compression and reverb.

I never focused in on my singing technique until I had to listen to my own voice on repeat . I hated it! I felt like I couldn’t summon power without tension, couldn’t sing across a wide enough range, and most importantly, I couldn’t get my song’s message across because I was worried about all that.

Singing lessons over the last couple of years have helped me immensely. Getting enough sleep, eating right and avoiding alcohol are also good for my voice- surprise!