Keep Everything: Audio Hording

When magnetic tape was the only available medium, recording was a deliberate action, even within the realms of the experimental. Hard drives may be finite devices, but even at high resolution, terabytes of storage can allow the user to feel otherwise. Years ago I would have a stack of DAT tapes ready to pop in and leave running throughout sessions to capture the action on the mixbuss in case of a missed gem, however compromised its quality. In writing this I’m wondering whether I ought to dust off the old DAT beast and reinstate this system.

What brought this to mind is a recent editing session for the Ghost Smoke album. Funnily enough the ‘magic’ was caught on tape, which I then transferred to digital when the chance arose. The end sectiIMG_5746on of the song Redrum has a multi layered vocal that I felt needed some brash distortion, and having dismissed a selection of distortion/fuzz pedals I settled on a LEM Baby (Univox) solid state mixer which does a fine line in ear-torturing distortion. It also has a tape echo attached, but this was left off for the mix and substituted by a delay pedal at the input (an Electro-Harmonic Memory Boy). The vocal parts needed editing so, spotting an opportunity for sonic oddities, I left the tape echo running and removed the erase head that normally wipes the tape loop ready for a fresh echo round. IMG_5768The LEM Baby tape loop is very long, taking around a minute to repeat. The editing lasted a good few minutes, leaving the tape saturated in the massed vocals, devoid of any synchronous aspect. On top of this, the tape loop is knackered and the moving parts in need of lubrication, which causes hideous slurring (traditionally called ‘wow and flutter’).

Once I’d finished editing I listened back to the tape and found a slurred, blurred and fuzzy mash of vocals, well worth capturing for some other purpose. In fact it quickly became obvious this would become a useful textural enhancement within the song. Boom! Very little effort and a whole new, somewhat creepy, mix element. With a dash of filtering and reverb, here is the tape loop noise in question…

GHOST SMOKE: a mix diary part 2

Sequence BoardBefore mixing for the Ghost Smoke album started in earnest we created a provisional sequence which, at the time of writing, still stands. As with most albums, there are tracks that have definite roles: openers, enders and the ‘big’ one. The opener, ‘THEM’, is a no-brainer here as it’s sort of the title track; the chorus contains the lyric “Them were the Ghost Smoke”.

Having cracked open the mixing with ‘DRMs’ (see part 1 of this mix diary), the third track in the sequence, I decided to go back to the beginning and mix from there. It seemed as good an approach as any, especially as the narrative that runs through most of this record is established in this first song. ‘DRMs’ was mixed entirely digitally, with the exception of a touch of tape echo on the vocal courtesy of my beloved 1965 WEM Custom Copicat, but this is so far the exception. Having cleaned up all the edits for ‘THEM’ I zoned in on Tom’s vocal TQ Compsand played around with a few options to set the tone. The digital options weren’t satisfying me so I quickly ran it out through some outboard gear in search of better/different. Sure enough, after a bit of routing on the patchbay I had the vocal running through an EQ and two compressors, both nibbling the dynamic range by a couple of dBs each either side of the EQ (for the geeks it was a JDK Audio R24 EQ, an ART PROVLA valve compressor and a solid state BSS DPR402 compressor/limiter).

DE200In mixing ‘THEM’ I set a routine that has continued throughout he following mixes (at time of writing this I am five tracks in) which revolves around a few pieces of outboard equipment. Firstly there’s an 80s digital delay (a Boss DE200) which is perfect for helping a vocal sit out in a mix without having to necessarily lifted in volume. It distorts easily, has very limited high frequency response and is simple/fun to use – less is definitely more. At the other end of the fidelity scale is the Kurzweil K2600, a true behemoth of a synth/sample/effects unit. To use it requires digesting two enormous manuals, which I did many years ago and haven’t looked back (well, occasionally when I get lost in the operating system). This provides, in this context, 8 channels (or 4 stereo channels) of plush effects, the highlights of which are the reverbs. These beat the pants off any plugin reverbs I have and has now become my ‘go-to’ space-maker. The mix for ‘THEM’ created a template approach for all proceeding mixes with the K2600 providing a room for the vocal, a different room for the bulk of the instruments (drums, percussion, guitar, bass, piano, etc.) and a large hall/chamber type for occasional spacey elements (music box, strings, spooky vocals and the like).

FX RackThis record has been created over a long period in small blocks and so nothing has been recorded in parallel, with each instrument being added as and when musicians could be convinced to play for us. This piecemeal approach can make it difficult to create a cohesive sound, and it is during mixing that any lack of coherence becomes painfully obvious. I like to think we have managed to produce a core ‘band’ sound on each track, whilst being able to adorn the basic track with all the twinkly bits we wanted to bring the songs, and especially the narrative components, to life. Often this was achieved in reverse as songs, such as this one, started off with sampled drum loops and some scratch instrument tracks to record the vocals to, but along the way we added things like strings (violin and viola courtesy of Sarah Anderson) and piano (Benji Bower and Ian Ross) long before recording the backbone drums/bass/guitar. The drums for ‘THEM’ were tracked at Babyhead’s rehearsal space with Alex Lupo in a series of sessions in which we made him play increasingly bizarre setups (one included a snare drum covered in pasta to be struck with a giant lollipop). This track was a little more straightforward with only a knackered old marching bass drum representing the freaky side. A few old ribbon mics were thrown up and boom, we were done. It was probably a year before I got around to adding the bass, two electric guitar parts and lap steel (I also added a zither played with teaspoons for good measure). The trick was to make this sound like it was really some people in a room, playing off one another. I hope it achieves that.When starting a mix I like to imagine where it is taking place, or where the listener is. It may be something as simple as a church hall or a swampy shack, or it can be a series of different perspectives shifting throughout the song. Having set the basic vocal sound, along with a little Boss DE200 delay tucked in behind it, I look for a suitable place to put it, focussing on where the voice is in relation to the listener. For this track I used a simple room simulation, keeping it small and personal during the verses, but (via means of automation) expanding the space around the voice for the choruses to support a more grandiose delivery. As with ‘DRMs’, the mix process lingers on the vocals for quite some time before I pull in any other elements, seeing how far I can get the vocals alone to work as a song. Once it feels no further progress can be made, a few basic instruments are pulled in and sculpted to form a suitable bedding for the vocal. If there are backing vocals they will be in the mix before any other instruments, as again the voices are the most important parts, even if they occupy a background placement. The last section of ‘THEM’ features Ellee, Tom’s wife, singing a reprise of the chorus. This sets up a female counterpart to the male voice throughout the record, though it is not always Ellee. The role calls for a spectral quality, a voice at some remove from the real; ambiguous in age, purpose and corporeality. This required shaving out some mid frequencies that we use to judge distance, but without creating a shrill top end, a problem alleviated by using subtle distortion and compression. As well as getting sent to the Kurzweil big room reverb (along with a zither, accordion, lapsteel, piano, music box and a multi-layered Brian singing ‘Them’) the Ellee vocal was passed through an Eventide Modfactor, a stereo guitar effects pedal that I have semi-permanently patched in for mix purposes.  This gives a shimmering tremolo effect to further enhance the spectral quality. Most of the subsequent mixes have featured this pedal strapped across stereo back vocal groups for either tremolo or rotary speaker effects, as this helps them catch the ear without taking over the foreground which needs to be kept clear for the lead vocal.

The key sound, aside the vocals, is the music box. Tom had created the music box parts included in the bulk of the track long before any of the other recordings were made, and these really set the tone for the record, like a short form for childhood nightmares and hallucinations. The intro to the song takes a mashup of the drums, some twisted bits of Ellee’s later vocal and the winding up of the virtual music box that is the Ghost Smoke album. I also have to credit my Mum with recording the music box sounds used in the into which she captured on her iPhone when visiting an acquaintance who collects the damn things – yay Mums.

I had intended to write about a few mixes in this post, but instead I’ve blathered on about the opening track, so without further ado here is a sampler of sounds from ‘THEM’, in isolation and from the final mix.

RIDE: their part in my upfall

Once upon a 1988 I moved from Norwich to Oxford with my Mum to study for A-levels (and get out of Norfolk!). I was obsessed with music and had been playing bass in a jangly guitar band called Gutter Reaction until I left ‘Narch’. One of my first orienteering missions upon arrival in Oxford was to find record shops (these were the days of Manic Hedgehog and Green River I think). On one such search I happened across a free music paper called Local Support which carried a callout for contributors. The next meeting was to be held at the Jericho Tavern, a pub with which I was to soon become intimately acquainted. This is where I met Local Support lynchpin and future Ride manager Dave Newton whom, despite being older, I felt some form of kinship – it might have been the absurd 80s hairstyles we both sported, but most likely it was his obvious drive to get shit done. Whilst I halfheartedly stumbled through my A-levels I continued to write for Local Support and then Gig, as it became in 1989.

After a somewhat underwhelming response to the Local Support showcase at the Oxford Apollo Theatre (headlined by the awesome Shake Appeal who split not long after, eventually spawning Swervedriver) Dave set about trying to recoup the lost money (I think it was his own!), which turned out to involve putting on regular gigs upstairs at the Jericho Tavern. I spent many, many nights sitting on the door, stamping hands, taking money (if we were lucky), telling bands where you could buy chips, drinking beer, and of course watching bands…so many bands. As with all such endeavours the majority were dull or plain awful, but in amongst it we’d find jewels. As a reputation built we managed to bring in bigger bands culminating in a fire-capacity-bursting show by Primal Scream (for that one I went and got the chips, only to get harassed by the crowd waiting outside as the band were inevitably late).

Everything changed when we put on local thrash outfit Satan Knew My Father (featuring ex-Shake Appeal, soon to be Swervedriver members) supported by Dave’s mate Steve’s band, Ride. The show had omens to start with as Christian groups had been taking down our posters and generally making noise about the band name – annoying, but funny. I have no recollection of how many people showed up – it’s probably one of those gigs where the people who say they were there far exceed the capacity, which was 150 or less. Anyway, whatever expectations we had about Steve and his three Banbury Art College student friends were pleasantly exceeded as Ride turned out to be really rather good. Having seen so many average bands file through the Jericho, you couldn’t help but notice the rare ones that were the real deal. What happened after that for Ride has been, and surely will continue to be, well documented.

(I recommend watching Jon Spira’s film Anyone Can Play Guitar all about the Oxford music scene from the 80s onward)

For me the gig nights carried on with the associated late-night flyposting, worrying that no one will turn up and comforting young bands that had just soundchecked with Mackie the in-house engineer and disturber-of-the-timid. I was also writing pieces for Gig, which included getting a press pass for Reading Festival ’89 – I felt sooo grown-up wandering around backstage – I was 17! I was given the first Ride demo tape to review, which reading back now makes me cringe and smile – you can tell I was becoming opinionated about recording, which I was doing at home with a pair of tape recorders and a hook-up wire I had soldered.

I wrote part 1 - you can tell!
I wrote part 1 – you can tell. Obviously they never heeded my professional opinion and put Close My Eyes on the first EP – no wonder they never made it!

The band were building a local momentum and in Autumn 1989 they played at Oxford Poly, maybe as headliners, I can’t remember (Mark Taylor, writer of the Ride The Network fanzine will), and it was here that two things happened for me. Firstly Dave Newton had asked me to interview the band for Gig; at this stage I think he had taken on the manager role. The 2 year age-gap between us felt significant to me and their growing reputation made me a little in awe of their ‘cool’. Of course they were happy to talk (I think this was their first ever interview), but I remember finding Steve a little intimidating as he had that ‘doesn’t-suffer-fools’ thing down pat, a quality I came to respect and which has no doubt served him well over the years. As with the tape review, the interview is a cringe-fest for me, as it may well be for the band if they ever read it again.

Ride Interview Comp

The second, and more significant event was that someone asked if I’d stand at the side of the stage and deal with any string breakages, etc. for the band. It’s funny, as I can’t recall telling people I played bass/guitar, but I must have done to be entrusted with the task. In retrospect it seems strange that I never joined a band in Oxford; I jammed a few times with others, but always became frustrated by their lack of musical ability – picky bugger! Luckily the gig passed without any real call for my limited roadie skills, but over the coming months I was asked back, travelling with the band when I could. A guy called Tommo did many of those early dates and I remember being gutted that I missed the opportunity to be roadie when they appeared on Snub TV, a BBC 2 music show – I probably had some educational reason for not being there.

On the subject of other road crew, during 1990 I was often joined by mate of the band ‘Breezy’ who had no technical skills whatsoever and rarely seemed to lift stuff, but he could score pot anywhere and so earned his place with the band. Dave was less enamoured and at one ULU gig he was fired by an enraged Mr Newton and told he could walk back to Oxford. I felt that same embarrassment I felt as a child when a friend’s parent would tell off their kid whilst you were having dinner at their house, often referencing your own good manners, further impacting the embarrassment. Having returned to the fold Breezy topped his previous efforts (!) by telling German immigration officers that he planned to score drugs when he left the airport – the proceeding hold up didn’t go down well with anyone.

I worked on and off through their first support tour with the Soup Dragons (you had to feel for the headline act – blown-off-stage), through their first two headline tours, European Festivals (Bizarre in Lorelei, Germany and Roskilde in Denmark) and finally Reading Festival 1990, my last date with them. At this point I had only gained one satisfactory A-level and needed to choose between life on the road and an education. Everyone advised the latter, which is what I did, though maybe they were secretly trying to tell me I was a shit roadie. It was a great way to end, soundchecking Steve’s Musicman Stingray whilst looking out across the crowd. There is footage on YouTube of that gig where I can be seen bobbing at the side of the stage keeping an eye on Steve and Loz.

With Ride coming back together this year a mass of memories have unearthed themselves, making me realise how formative these experiences with the band were. We never bonded as friends as such and it was only Dave Newton with whom I sporadically kept in touch, but they exerted a huge influence on my development in relation to my future career. They exposed me to so much great music via mix tapes (mostly Andy’s) in the back of the van. I saw the workings of the music industry from pretty much the moment they entered it: from lawyers meetings to photo shoots to visits to the Creation offices (eye opener!) to ending up in Bobby Gillespie’s (or was it Alan McGee’s?) flat in Brighton thumbing through a truly phenomenal vinyl collection. What really inspired me were the studio visits. I went along for their second Peel session at Maida Vale, helping set up the gear and then sitting in the control room as tape rolled watching Dale Griffin somewhat begrudgingly manhandle the seemingly huge desk (I think it was an SSL as I have a vague memory of the green screen automation monitor). I had seen Dale’s name on the Peel session records in my collection, but the reality was something of a disappointment. At one point the band left the studio and I was on my own tuning guitars or something with Dale miking the drum kit. He hit the 2nd floor tom, made some exclamation and started to complain to me about how dead and slack the head was (he drummed for Mott The Hoople so it was all rather un-drummerly to him). I informed him that Loz had it like that for certain tracks and that he ought to just hoof some reverb on it like they did live – that was the effect – ‘BOOOOFF’. Christ, he grumbled about that and then barely acknowledged me again – I don’t think 18 year olds were welcome in his world! I have carried that experience with me, always striving to be personable and supportive to clients in the studio, knowing how a bad attitude like that can really sour the atmosphere (I don’t how the band perceived it – maybe they missed it – I doubt it though).

The most significant studio experience was visiting the band during the recording of their first album, Nowhere, which took place at Blackwing, which sadly is now closed. My visits were brief, but my eyes were on stalks the whole time; I was particularly taken with the Depeche Mode and Yazoo gold discs on the wall near the MIDI suite, which is something you’d find in studios back then. I was there for the string recording on Vapour Trail, which was a troublesome session as far as I recall (involved a sampler in the end…maybe I shouldn’t say that…ahem), but it was good to see how tricky things get when you’re on the clock. I loved the stone room that gave Loz that enormous drum sound (Dreams Burn Down), and this opened my mind/ears to the acoustic possibilities of studio spaces. Some years ago when I started to really learn about studio design I came across a book by Philip Newell (Recording Studio Design) which became my bible, and lo and behold in it he talks about the very same stone room (see below). One other studio that piqued my interest was Porky’s Prime Cuts mastering room where I sat through the recut of the Play EP (the first lacked top end), watching the engineer work the lathe. It was all an education and inspiration that I never consciously followed, but after my degree in English and Religion it was the only logical conclusion to the choices I made.

Blackwing studio stone room, where Loz was holed up for the Nowhere sessions (photo from Recording Studio Design by Philip Newell) Blackwing studio stone room, where Loz was holed up for the Nowhere sessions (photo from Recording Studio Design by Philip Newell)
Blackwing studio stone room, where Loz was holed up for the Nowhere sessions (photo from Recording Studio Design by Philip Newell)


When I finished university I had £500 left from a combination of my grant (remember those?) and prize money (English and overall academic achievement prizes), so I headed to Denmark Street in London and got myself a black Musicman Stingray like Steve – I’d coveted his ever since I first plucked a note on it. Though I ended up playing in a funk based band from the mid-90s until 2008 I always carried musical lessons I’d learned from Ride, seeing them write, rehearse, record, refine and perform their songs, and in recent years my musical direction has moved ever more steadily towards those formative experiences. Alongside my older brother these guys are my major musical influence. Not only did I witness their early musical development up close, but touring with them and getting regular guest list passes years after I got to see a great many bands (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Cure, Teenage Fanclub, Pale Saints, Pixies, Nirvana, Public Enemy….). I got to see how people in the music industry worked, and that taught me a great many lessons – in fact, I was often baffled as to why people would come up to me backstage asking where ‘so-and-so’ was whilst looking furtively this way and that – ahhh, such an innocent!

I have no idea whether I was any good as a roadie and I tend to remember the problems, not the successes, such as sending Mark onto stage with an oddly tuned Fender Jaguar (I think I’d had a few beers/smokes too early in the proceedings), staring at a festival audience whilst Loz’s cymbal stand flopped over, and desperately trying to restring Andy’s 12-string Rickenbacker before the next song whilst a smoke machine made it impossible to see my own hands! For the sake of balance I’m sure I fucked up something for Steve, but I can’t remember it right now.

Just before Ride announced their reunion I met Mark at a show in Bristol where he was touring as support for Thurston Moore; he gleefully informed me that they’d be breaking the news the following week. It was lovely to see him again after all these years and as I walked home it seemed like a floodgate of memories from my brief time with them opened up – I couldn’t really sleep that night as a result. The next day I put on FYT by This Mortal Coil, their original intro music, and sure enough it brought back the same old butterflies I’d feel before they hit the stage.

Seeing them recently at Camden Roundhouse I thought hearing FYT would set me off again, but actually I felt satisfied that things were somehow right with the world (they’re obviously not, but that’s the magic of music). What followed was no mere nostalgia trip, despite the very particular age range of the audience, and I was treated to the kind of show they might have only dreamed of back in 1990. Fuck me, it was awesome and I’m so glad I got to enjoy it from in front of the PA and not standing at the side tuning guitars (no disrespect to their current roadcrew who are better qualified than I ever was). They played with a strength and surety I’d never seen the first time round, and yet without losing that essential Ride-ness that was in evidence even in 1989 – no mean feat. Though Vapour Trail is without a doubt a great song, I’d never had any emotional attachment to it, but hearing it live again just weeks after a tragic loss leant the words a poignancy that damn near floored me. Briefly catching up with a few of them after the show reminded me of why it had been such a positive experience all those years ago, but there was no way to articulate how much that experience had shaped me in the intervening years; I think I’d have appeared even more nuts than I probably did as I’d had a few pints.

So, after all these years I’d like to say thanks to Andy, Loz, Mark, Steve and in particular Dave.

GHOST SMOKE: a mix diary part 1

Some years ago a friend of mine (Tom) played me some songs he was tinkering with on his laptop. I think he was angling to get me to record them properly, but with no budget he had to resort to (un)subtle methods. Maybe it was just good timing. The few songs I heard were completely different to those he writes with his band Babyhead, with whom I had produced a couple of albums. I had not been creating music for a while since my band had fizzled out and was looking for something to get my teeth into aside from the usual audio work. I was also starting to build a new studio (Sandpit) as well as embarking on the journey into parenthood. Tom’s music drew on themes of childhood nightmares and English folklore, his rough demos were layered up with sampled acoustic instruments, and the long poem-like lyrics were delivered in a fragile melodic style I had not heard from him before. I offered to help produce this work and see where it lead. Quickly our joint musical buddy Brian joined the fray, adding a necessary counterbalance to the rather dark tendencies Tom and I share (musically that is) as well as working as a vocal producer while I became busy being a dad and studio designer/builder.

The Ghost Smoke project, as it has been known, started off with an aesthetic framework based on acoustic instruments, no samples or synths, and a bias towards the atmospheric over the musical. The other major point was that mine and Tom’s joint adoration of Tom Waits would not overtly influence the work.

Cut to the present. The tracking for the Ghost Smoke album was completed at the end of 2014. We blagged loads of excellent musician friends, recorded in bedrooms, rehearsal spaces and basements, wrestled with arrangements, and inevitably compromised on nearly every single intention we had! Yep, there’s electric guitar and bass all over it (my bad!), a sampled Mellotron appears on one track (couldn’t blag a real one, and it’s been processed to fuck anyway!), and there’s no hiding our love of Tom Waits (luckily I’m an average guitar player so I can’t pull off a full Marc Ribot impression). Most importantly we have loved making it, however drawn out the process or far off the completion, and we hope others will share our enthusiasm, especially as that might be the only payback we get from this personal indulgence.

Tom, Brian and I managed to find two days in December 2014 where we could sit together in the Sandpit control room and edit down the bulging multitracks for the twelve songs on the album. We then scattered to the four winds with the agreement that I would get the mixes up to scratch for a final run through and tweak before moving onto mastering and distribution. Building the studio, as well as trying to earn a basic living, left me scant time to do any such thing, and the longer I left it the harder it became to sit down and start mixing. More than a little conscious of this I decided to set myself a gateway task to kick things off, hoping that things would gain momentum and confidence from there. The latter point is an important one as I’ve not mixed an album of this kind for a long while, and mixing is all about confidence for me. I picked a track where the vocal is, for the most part, coupled with a simple acoustic guitar. In fact, it’s set against a double tracked recording of ‘The Dog’, a crappy japanese nylon string acoustic that I love despite its honky tone, terrible action/intonation and its dog-chewed headstock. I have to credit my long time friend and guitarist dude Roger Watson for managing to record the guitar part with the Dog – I tried and failed as I just don’t have the finesse, being a bass player who mostly abuses guitars. Anyway, I wanted the vocal to feel present and intimate, but be able to fly off into the wind during the second verse as the blowing of the North wind and the crashing of the sea fill the moonlit scene set out in the lyrics. We haven’t gone for the rather corny and literal foley approach and used crashing waves and whooshing wind, but there’s plenty of modulated tape hiss, verbed out guitar and breathy bass clarinet to set the scene. I’ve been mixing in lunch breaks and the odd hour when I’m waiting for sealant to dry, so progress has been sporadic, but a momentum has begun to build. I etched away at the aural picture created by just the acoustic guitar, tape hiss and vocal in the verses, leaving out the explosive choruses (wailing theremin-like female vocal, drum kit, double bass, electric guitars, harmonium and bass clarinet) until I was happy with the main lyrical balance.

The tape hiss comes from the harmonium overdubs I made on a Tascam 34B 1/4″ 4 track I’ve had in for repair. As it hasn’t been calibrated I thought it would the ideal candidate, along with some old 3M tape stock that shed oxide like a shaking wet dog, for re-pitching the early 20th century church harmonium I have (it’s almost a semitone sharp of A440 pitch). Though it’s only played in the choruses I recorded throughout the verses to get noise and hiss, as well as some creaking and breathing sounds as I sat at the harmonium occasionally tapping keys, shifting in my seat and pumping the bellows. A double track of this stuff, panned hard left/right, really sets the scene. This technique was used on a few tracks on the album. Here are some audio examples so you can hear what I’m on about…

First, just the harmonium/tape track (‘tapemonium’)…

Next, tapemonium with the ‘Dog’ acoustic guitar and electric guitar buss…

Finally, the same section but with the whole mix in to give an idea of context.


And here’s some photos from the sessions.

Church harmonium mic'ed by a single Coles 4038
Church harmonium mic’ed by a single Coles 4038
Tascam 34B
Tascam 34B 1/4″ 4-track winding away. Don’t be fooled by the Ampex 456 spools – I put on some old 3M/Scotch 250 that left oxide piles after every take – keeps you from playing too many takes though.

At the time of writing I have mixed 4 of the 12 tracks for the album and will try and write some more about the process as it has been scary, fun and deeply satisfying.

So what’s going on?

It’s been well over a year since the last post on here. I have been meaning to write up what has been going on at Sandpit Studio most weeks in the intervening year and a quarter but there always seems to be something more pressing. Today is no different so I shall make it brief and in no way chronological.

The control room build is (mostly) complete and I have been working in here since December ’13. The final acoustic control layers were fiddly and time consuming, particularly as I was reticent to be too exact in the initial design, knowing that the building prior to their installation would throw a highly detailed plan askew and waste much time/effort. I shall put up some photos soon to detail the work, but here is a quick rundown of what went in…

Resonant absorber bulkheads: significant depth at the front and back of the room was used to create a light timber frame housing a series of rock wool lined recesses fronted with light plywood (4mm and 6mm) boards acting as diaphragms for a resonant absorption effect. Some are rectangular and some are more complex shapes with a variety of depths to produce a general, or at least not over focussed, low frequency absorption. These have proved very effective and have helped produce an RT60 (or whatever you call it these days) of around 0.3 seconds in the 50-100Hz range – I have so far only managed to carry out a basic acoustic test to check nothing was too awry, and once a few final details have been finished and I can spare a day I shall carry out some proper tests to find any peaks/troughs and tweak some of the resonant absorber panels to adjust. Though I cannot effectively change the depth of the recess behind the plywood diaphragms to alter their resonant frequency, the plywood can be mass loaded and damped to make adjustments, though this is not a quick job – I’ll have to find a doozy of a low frequency dip to want to do it! So far, to my ear and the basic acoustic test carried out the low end seems pretty much free of any wonkiness, honkiness and ringing – franky it sound wonderful in here and has made me hyper-aware of how shit the outside world can sound!

Wideband absorbers: At the front of the room (behind the mixing desk and monitors) is a 1m high strip of cloth fronted wideband absorbers. These are rock wool lined recesses (again) fitted with a series of fanned out vertical fins made of plywood with a thin layer of rockwool on one side (held on/covered with cling film) and then wrapped in needled wool felt (used for furniture stuffing). There are a corresponding pair at the rear of the room either side of a bench seating recess, which has been dubbed the ‘Meat Baffle’ as it’s absorption/baffling will be a function of the presence of meat…human meat…or clients as they’re often known. Anyway…these absorbers are primarily to remove a wide frequency band of early reflections from all seated and standing listening positions, which they do well. Bloody cheap too. A final note on the bulkheads that house all this absorption: the light timber frame is mounted to the inner isolation frame of the room (there are two independent frames) and do not directly contact with the floor – all joins are buffered with rubber foam. The timber frame was lined with deadsheet (called SBM5), a mass loaded vinyl matting that weighs 5kg sq.m. whilst being 2mm thick. Terrible to work with, smells like rubber and Amaretto combined (simultaneously pleasant and unpleasant), but forms a heavy limp-bag affair within the recessed chambers that helps reduce low frequency transmission.

Diffusers: Two types of diffusion have been created in the control room. The first, and most visually striking, is a set of three timber Quadratic Residue Diffusers mounted to the front wall. These remounted over the wideband absorber strip. These were based on a prime number base of 23 to create a diffusion range that extends down into the low mids. It uses 47mm x 47mm planed timber lengths ranging in 10mm steps from 10mm to 220mm. In all there are 667 pieces, which took forever to cut (an hour everyday for a week or two). There is a mistake in the final layout chosen (I made a spreadsheet that plated the lengths according to the quadratic residue of modulo 23 and could then move it about to get the least regular spacings) as my only visual reference was a sheet of numbers (0-22) and so didn’t spot the satellite dish shape in the centre which acts, at dead centre, like a beam of mid-frequency – sounds great on a vocal, but not what you want in a control room. Adding a few pieces of timber (swapping four 20mm for four 240mm) will cure it. Apart from the beam the diffusers work well in keeping the mix position really monitor focussed. The second type of diffuser is on the side walls and is what used to be called a phase grating, which I saw in an old sound engineering book. For this I used a Primitive Root sequence (another mathematical system for generating pseudo-randomised patterns from prime numbers) to arrange vertical strips of plywood (9mm thick) over a felt-like material covered timber frame, itself partially filled with rock wool and lined with deadsheet. This has given the wall treatment a kind of mixed absorption and diffusion effect to reduce reflections and prevent resonances without over-deadening the space so that it is pleasant to be in – nothing worse than trying to be creative in a semi-anechoic chamber. The effect is also aesthetically pleasing with alternating strips of wood and white material, each a different width to the next (there are six widths from 20mm to 120mm), and the two walls have opposing material in the same patterns so wood is always opposite material, thus making sure there are no discrete standing wave opportunities.

More wideband absorption: The ceiling also features a light timber frame lined with deadsheet and covered in white felt-like material panels to form a nice light space above your head (the ceiling is about 2.6m). Inside the frame are a series of absorber fins like the wall recessed ones, though a lot less deep. I think there’s over 30 of them up there – I forget now as it took hours to cut, line and wrap the bastard things. Anyway, the minute they went in the effect was immediately, and pleasingly, obvious. This means my lovely parquet floor can bounce sound into the ceiling without it causing flutter echoes and the like.

The air extraction/inlet system in buried in the bulkheads with the grates mounted into a few plywood diaphragms. There is also a standard A/C unit mounted up above the rack gear area which barely ticks over to keep things nice and cool in here. I wouldn’t say the whole HVAC system is ‘whisper quiet’, but definitely quiet enough to ignore and inaudible as soon as you playback over 70dBA.

I made a three bay rack unit on one side of the room from leftover timber and fitted it with a simple hinged design so each section can be folded out to get to the rear of the gear, a feature that makes cabling and maintenance nice and simple. Two more rack bays form the mixing desk stand, one of which houses the five bantam patch bays that are immediately full. There is space for a sixth patchbay which should be enough if I ever fill the remaining rack spaces. The mixing desk, the late 70s Midas PR I have mentioned in other posts, is in place and semi weed in, but not ready for action as I have yet to build the custom centre section (mix buss summing and controls, and monitoring) and finish some of the channel refurbishments. All wiring in the control room, as well as tie lines to the live room, are installed and ready – I cannot count the number of solder joints I made, but its in the thousands. It was a little nerve wracking testing the patchbays, but I found no mistakes…that is until last week when I couldn’t get an output from one of my interface outputs (a 32 channel I/O Antelope Audio Orion) and discovered outputs 23 and 24 were the wrong way round. Glad it happened when I was on my own and not with a client during tracking – chasing faulty routing really kills a session. I love my patchbay and I get a peculiar satisfaction from seeing it at the end of the day looking like a rat’s nest of multicoloured wires – a real sign of work done. Having all my outboard to hand at last is such a pleasure. I’ve also made a wee pedal patch area at the end of the rack bays that sees a lot of action with reamping as well as guitar/bass tracking I’ve been doing in here for the Ghost Smoke album project that I’ve been working on sporadically with a couple of friends. It’s almost time for mixing on that, and I have been hoping to make it the first thing to come through the Midas PR, but we shall see as that’s a load of work. More on the whole Ghost Smoke thing in another post.

There is so much to say about this build, so more posts will hopefully follow soon. What’s left to do is mostly cosmetic – some final lighting pieces, the meat baffle seating cushions (sewing covers), and some painting/varnishing. I am at last getting around to the live room build, which is less complex, but a bit more ambitious in scale as the ceiling is just over 5m up – time for a proper scaffold tower and a winch (I’ve always wanted a winch).

A final piece of the sound puzzle here was supports for my monitors (Event Opals). I had initially hoped to build my own, but time and energy were at a premium when I moved into the control room so I bought some sand-fillable Quiklok monitor stands (2nd hand of course!) and blagged a review for IsoAcoustics L8R200s, which are short decoupling stands. They sounded like the perfect addition as the Quikloks were a bit of compromise as my own deign had a more comprehensive decoupling component. The IsoAcoustics are superb and provided the extra low frequency decoupling I needed – though the Opals are immensely heavy and well damped, there is still some serious energy there to try and keep from going through the floor and further. I thoroughly recommend them to anyone (they do a whole range of sizes) and they are worth the money (around £100 depending on size). Not sure I can justify any such solution for my old Auratones though, which now have bespoke wood platforms attached to the mixing desk stand/racks – some spikes or foam should see them good. I did build the platforms for my trusty NS10s, but as soon as set them up and switched them on I realised I just didn’t need them anymore as I really trust what I am hearing in this room with the Opals, a situation I haven’t had for along time (or ever really). The NS10s used to be great for a second opinion on mixes, but now they just felt like an added complication, and they also took up too much space in front  of my lovely homemade QRDs. The great thing is that I sold them for more than twice what I ever paid for them – I hope the new owner appreciates them and the accompanying Quad 405-2 as much as I did. Oddly the Auratones are staying as I still find them useful for focussing on the mid range and switching out the extremities of a mix – I’ve always liked listening to stuff on them quietly anyway, which is probably a little odd. The great thing is that now I can bash out a rough mix and it translates fine. I have yet to complete a full mix down in here, but if current results are anything to go by, if it works in the room it’ll work outside. It has been a hard time building this room (with occasional help from my partners in crime Roger and Brian), especially whilst trying to keep some work coming in and becoming a Dad, but when I get to work in this room it all feels worth it. Next stop: live room.

Triple rack bay on the right with Primitive Root 'phase grating' treatment behind - Quadratic Residue Diffusers behind desk mounted over sideband absorbers
Triple rack bay on the right with Primitive Root ‘phase grating’ treatment behind. Quadratic Residue Diffusers behind desk mounted over sideband absorbers


Midas PR desk flanked by Event Opals with Auratones tucked in the middle..bless 'em. A few guitars on duty at the moment.
Midas PR desk flanked by Event Opals with Auratones tucked in the middle..bless ’em. A few guitars on duty at the moment.
The rear of the control room – resonant absorber plywood fronts, sideband absorber covers in grey, white absorber panels to the left covering the door to the boiler (with a hatch through the outer isolation frame). The yet-to-be-cushioned ‘meat baffle’ currently home to pedals and mics.

…and window too…

The window has been in for a while, but now the woodwork has been painted, along with the basic door frame. The doors and frame have been fire lined and the acoustic seals are almost finished, though the doors have yet to be bolstered (acoustically – it’s cheaper to get basic fire doors and add treatments to them). The seal is pretty damn good so far and some rudimentary tests have confirmed that the basic shells of the room are performing as expected…phew!


I am in the process of finalising the acoustic treatment layers (wideband absorbers, diffusers, bass traps, etc.) and should start fitting them over the next couple of weeks – first off some space needs to be made in the other room as it is now full of offcuts, tools, half empty boxes, etc.


It’s all go at Sandpit in between chunks of sample and recording work. The parquet floor is down and finished, so here’s a couple of photos of it – mmm, yummy!

IMG_1616 IMG_1614

At the time of writing I have made a bit of a mess of this lovely shiny floor as the final acoustic treatment layers go in, but nothing a bit of a wash won’t sort out. I have ordered new soft rubber casters for the Herman Miller Aeron chair so it won’t gouge chunks out of the finish, though I’m sure in time a certain weathered quality will come to it anyway. Just have to make sure the decor tempers the current village hall/school gym vibe.

Winter Progress

The build continues at its own glacial pace with doors and ventilation getting a look in as the seemingly endless pile of parquet flooring blocks gets trimmed ready for laying.

Parquet Jenga tower

Myself and Roger have spent many an hour in gloves and masks working our way through the parquet and have got past the halfway point (~400 blocks). This is a picture of the blocks being dried after sponging off the sanding dust.

The air extraction fans have been plumbed into the exit box on the roof and I have dropped insulated ducting through the control room ceiling to test the custom silencer. It’s a simple chipboard box lined with acoustic plasterboard, which makes it a weighty bugger, to create a split with two direction changes to maximise absorption through reflecting the sound waves around as much as possible. The cross-sectional area also increases from inlet to exit (which is the opposite to the extracted air flow). The box was then lined with various acoustic foam materials I had lying around. As the box is split I could alternate linings to test which worked best. The final lining was then glued in place and quickly photographed with a variety of Sylvanian Family toy dioramas…because it seemed like a good idea…

The basic extraction silencer box

Extraction silencer with lining

Sylvanian Families hanging out in the silencer inlet

Completed silencer propped up for testing

Once the silencer was sealed up I managed to lift it onto some saw horses and plug in the ducting to check it performs as I planned. The result is a complete loss of the air rush and fan noise except for the lowest frequencies which are only audible if you put your ear to it. Considering the unit will be installed just below the ceiling that won’t be a temptation.

The control room doors have now been hung and are awaiting handles and sills. Though they are basic fire doors, they still weigh more than I’d like when fitting them. Now they’re on their ball bearing hinges they seem so light…bastards! They’ll still need to come off again before the final fit as seals need to go in yet.

Inner control room door hung

Outer control room door hung








And finally…the distribution amplifiers I mentioned in the last post have been tested and despite the ‘not-exactly-hifi’ spec of the initial buffer IC (UA727) they sound great and at minimum gain punt out a respectable balanced line level, but the gain trim pot allows for another heft which I couldn’t measure as I was just testing it through my Fireface line inputs, which on the Lo-Gain (i.e. above +4dBu reference) setting clipped before the distribution amp even sweated. I think driving up to 10 metres of cable to the monitor mixers in the live room shouldn’t be a problem then! They sound great, or at least transparent, so headphone mixes will be nice and crisp. Lovely.

Double glazing

Two panes of Optilam Phon hanging out in front of the harmonium

Today the glazing turned up – two 1m x 1.5m panes of Pilkington Optilam Phon, a name reminiscent of a Thai noodle dish. One is 10.8mm thick and the other is 8.8mm. They’re both made of two glass sheets bonded to an extra thick (0.8mm) laminate layer. I hope my calcs for matching the wall they will be sat in are about right; if not I shall be inserting a third panel between them in the frame (I am planning the frames to have a gap for such an event – nothing worse than having to take the whole lot out.

Optilam Phon – 10.8mm and 8.8mm



Whilst waiting for the glaziers to turn up this morning I continued the kind of obsessive task that makes building a studio suicidally long-winded for someone like me: drawing out the schematic for a distribution amp module. Years ago a friend and I bought two 3U racks of eight amps that drive 10 balanced outputs (600Ω) from one balanced input. I have decided to put one rack of them to use as the drivers for the eight channel headphone monitor mixers I shall be making for the live space – these suckers will be able to send to 10, which is 5 more than I think necessary for the space here. I can’t take any circuit for granted and have an Abbey Road approach to gear as I must know how it works and thus how to fix it. There aren’t any schematics available for these so I shall draw them out myself, which means lots of holding it up, flipping it over, prodding with hte multimeter and scrawling on a notepad. I’m most of the way there and will no doubt come up with a modification or two to make for a slightly better signal path (they’re a little lacking at the top and bottom, or a little midrange heavy depending on how you look at it). Here’s one now…

1×10 balanced distribution amp module

The large black box is a mains transformer as each module is self contained, thus no overall PSU problems, and having spare modules means I can swap them out mid-session if any futt-out. The input transformer is a cute little Beyerdynamic number. The UA727 dual op-amp that follows this is not a great delight on paper so I shall do some tests to see if (a) it sucks and (b) how to swap it out if it does.

So near and yet so far

It has been a while since I last scribed anything here, though I have often thought ‘ah ha, blog time’…but nothing. It’s late, I’m still awake and home alone so I might as well bash out a quick update.

The build of the control room at Sandpit Studio has been coming along, though my time spent on the project has been split with working (mostly making samples for Future Music and Computer Music, as well as the odd review/article thing and even more rare recording sessions) and being with my baby daughter. As of this moment the two isolation shells are up and sealed, the basic floated floor is in (rock wool, plasterboard and T&G chipboard) and the air extraction system is going in. The final floor will be parquet which has been reclaimed and is currently being trimmed of its old bitumen layer, which is probably the least pleasant task of the build so far.

One of the four piles of parquet

The parquet trimming booth

Tomorrow the glazing will be delivered, which is two 1m x 1.5m panes of Optilam Phon laminated acoustic glass – one 10.8mm thick and the other 8.8mm thick. The tricky task is to build the two angled frames that will hold them along with all the decoupling shenanigans that goes with studio windows. It’s time to get the router out and cut some super straight channels. Alongside this ‘beyond-my-paygrade’ job I will be installing the two door casings for the partially glazed fire doors, again keeping the decoupling techniques to the fore as well as trying to get it all millimetre perfect. In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of the room as it stands…

Control room and window aperture

Control room boiler access hatch

Though I won’t be using the boiler in my unit it needs to be left running for the unit next door and accessible for servicing, thus the hatch. The photo above show the two hatches in the first isolation layer – I have yet to make and install the inner isolation hatch, which will be a hinged door. The whole room will be fitted with a control layer frame to house and support the various acoustic treatments (diffusors, bass traps and absorbers), storage and recessed bench at the back of the room, air extraction/inlet ducting and mains/audio cable runs.

My absurd plan is to have the floor finished, the A/C and ventilation fitted and running, the mains AC dropped in and the doors/window fitted by Christmas so I can move the desk, workstation, monitors and some outboard in. This will allow me to have a couple of weeks off before starting the acoustic testing that will decide the exact treatment that will be fitted. I have a basic plan, but I really need to hear/see how my basic modelling predictions work out before continuing, as I could be a total dunce and have just not noticed. I am also desperate to move out of my daughter’s bedroom-to-be as it is now almost impossible to move around in due to the piles of desk modules, guitars/basses, pedals, rackmount gear, patch bays, monitors and computer stuff. It is also the room that the reusable nappies are dried in…mmmm, a fragrant accompaniment to editing and mixing.

Obviously a few bargains have been had since I last posted here, and here are some highlights.

Eventide ModFactor, 80s Arion Distortion & Compressor pedals

LittleLabs Redeye DI/reamp, Boss DE200 delay, BSS DPR402 compressor and JDK R24 EQ

The Eventide ModFactor is a whole bag of fun, as well as offering up a massive range of modulation effects, from the subtly tasteful to the completely f*@$ed. The fact that it has independently switchable I/O levels (instrument or line) makes it a useful stereo DI/reamper too. I have been using an Arion Stereo Chorus (the oddly sought after SCH-1) since I somehow managed to sneak it off my brother two decades ago and I love it, so recently I decided, like all pedal addicts, to collect more of the range. For a total sum of £21 I have added the SCO-1 stereo compressor and the SDI-1 stereo distortion. These are by no means hi-fi, but they have already proved themselves useful for guitar, synth and reamping duties. You can never have enough pedals. Never ever. On the subject of reamping, I managed to pick up, for a criminally low price, the Little Labs Redeye DI/reamp box. This is a top quality passive box that has seen constant usage since I got my grubby mitts on it (grubby from trimming bloody parquet flooring!). The adjustable reamp output makes feeding pedals a doddle, especially things like my Mu-Tron IIIs, EH Poly Phase and Doctor-Q which are amplitude dependent. In the photo this is sat on top of the 12-bit beast that is the Boss DE200 digital delay. I bought this off a friend who was downsizing his collection without hesitation as I have been coveting it since it was in a studio we shared some years ago. It’s crunchy and cranky but you can dub-out with it for ages in a way that posh delays and fiddly virtual ones never do. I may give it an overhaul soon as most of the LEDs only work when you hit it, and that’s just not a nice way to treat a unit. I have always wanted a BSS DPR402 compressor and as usual I have waited years for a bargain, but when it appeared I snatched it right up. As most of my outboard is packed away in storage this has been my analogue path comp for drums, guitar and synths (it’s not a great choice for bass). Below that in the photo is the JDK Audio R24 EQ, which I reviewed when it first came out under the shortlived API ‘Arsenal Audio’ brand (JVC claimed copyright on the name for some car radio bullshit – like people were going to get confused?!). Anyway, I really liked it but couldn’t afford it at the time. Sure enough one winked at me at less than half price – what could I say? Also I am lacking in outboard EQ so it’s needed – I have a Gyraf diy Calrec EQ in the pipeline as well to start filling this gap.

The other significant purchase was a Coles 4038 ribbon mic in mint condition which can now keep my refurbished original STC 4038 company. I used them on a drum recording for the Gallow Birds’ Ghost Smoke album project the day after I received the Coles. They were on overhead duty whilst a Royer R121 captured the kick and a Sennheiser MD441 nestled in with the snare. The two 4038s on their own sound beautiful, but rolling in a touch of the Royer kick fattens things up nicely and the 441, again just rolled in a tad, helps pick up the snare. Dust with a little compression (or imperial shitloads) and a sprinkle of HF and there you have it. The excellent drumming also helped (thanks Alex Lupo).

Enough of this, I don’t want to come over all Gearslutz…I’ll be A/Bing my pants next and talking about how Rupert Neve always darns his socks with transformer winding wire or something…