Here’s a Grand, What’cha Gonna Do?
Written by Chris McCormack

Let’s relax and indulge for a moment. Here’s a theoretical question for you: What if you had a thousand pounds to spend on some new equipment for the studio. What would you do?

The choice of new software, hardware, synths, drum machines, mics, effects, musical instruments, speakers, compressors and everything else out there is bewildering, not to mention a second hand market full of vintage equipment that can make your choice an even more confusing and daunting one. It’s easy to get completely flustered. As most producers just want something that is going to enhance their music in some way, the question is not always a straight forward or easy one to answer.

Before you read on, stop here, let your imagination run wild, see what choice you make and stay with it...

...So what did you choose?

  • Something that might give your music an edge?
  • Something that would take your mixes to the next level?
  • Something that sounds better than what you currently use?
  • Something that inspires you to create?

It’s a lot to ask of any piece of equipment or musical instrument. But what if you could have all the above and much more for a fraction of the cost of our make believe budget, and at the end you wouldn’t even need to plug it in, switch it on, play a single note, tweak one knob or ever worry about it going wrong? What if it enhanced every aspect of your current set up?

Have you ever considered the environment in which you work in as “equipment”? Ever made any kind of budget for it? It could be done to a good standard for as little as £250 and I can’t tell you what a difference doing this will make to your mixes and your music. I can’t tell you.

With a little online research, it’s easy to learn the basics and thus equipped with the knowledge, a drill, some glue and maybe a little swearing and perspiration, make your own acoustic tiles and bass traps for a fraction of the cost of commercially available products. There is lots of info out there on the web so I am not going to go into the technical side of it here, but check out Ethan Winer or Sound on Sound for some good starting points.

Get the obvious stuff right, experiment with speaker positioning, seating and equipment positioning. Make sure you have some kind of triangular relationship between yourself and the speakers, get the speaker tweeters level with your ears, don’t let any equipment into the direct path of the speakers and your head. It’s all simple common sense stuff that anyone could and should be doing.

Let’s look at a scenario. One that many producers might find themselves in. Previously sat in a perfectly ordinary room amongst a load of boxes with mixes that just aren’t doing it. Imagine you took the plunge, did your research, treated the room and moved things around until finally you were sitting in a room with an accurate and faithful sound. Instead of spending the money on an all singing, all dancing synth or a compressor, you’ve invested in your working environment and stuck with what you have. It might not be fancy or “high end” to you, it might not claim to have the finest analog purity known to man (or indeed it might), but suddenly the room brings into sharp focus the very core of the sound. You can finally hear that the reverb on that synth needs a gentle lift around 8k. It needs a little stereo widening, a touch of compression, the slightest tickle of delay, the merest hint of distortion. Each change now heard and appreciated. You cut the reverb decay and the sound subtly moves forward. You can envelop yourself for the first time in the front to back depth of the mix. You can hear the mix opening out as each sound finds its place in the mix. You can hear that the very top end of the synth is taking something away from the hi hats, so you filter it slightly and suddenly the hi hats groove like no ones business. You can hear the kick and the bass line are subtly clashing, so you nudge the note that plays when the kick hits forward by 3ms, because finally you can. Heck now you’ve just noticed the bassline is tuned 6 cents out, that’s a life saving little bonus that your acoustic treatment has provided for you that will tighten your mix, save you embarrassment, stay in your music forever and never question what went before.

After a day of tweaking you are finally building a sound that is both inspiring and locks the mix together perfectly. You’re on the next level. Then into your head pops a killer idea to finish the track. You wonder how you ever managed before. Isn’t this just common sense?

Let’s take a step back and consider what might be going on...

Making music is an input and output relationship. In its most basic form, the brain feeds an idea to the hands, which interact with the musical instrument, plays back through the speakers, into the room, back into your ears and onto the brain and so the cycle repeats.

Within this cycle there are losses. What you imagine in your head can’t always be played, what you see on your computer screen can’t always be programmed, there will be tiny losses from the cabling/digital and analog conversions/digital summing, even the very best speakers are not perfect by any means. You might lose concentration and forget an idea. There are compromises throughout the loop. But all of this pales into insignificance once the sound has to break out into the real world and travel the path from the speakers into your ears.

Here, the sound is subjected to potentially huge losses, frequency peaks and dips, room resonances, background noise, computer noise, bass vanishing when you tilt your head 2 inches forward, everything that could possibly distort your perception, numb your ideas and break the loop in your music making. And then you have the mixes. This is where a bad room can get really nasty, embedding itself into everything you do.

When looked at from this alternative perspective, spending that imaginary money on an expensive piece of equipment for a part of your music making loop that is working ok, when you have a part of the loop that is leaking all the good ideas out of you, screwing up your mixes and generally causing nothing but problems, most of which you either can’t put your finger on or work out, might be starting to look a little irrational. The speakers are not accurately set up, the sound is bouncing around the room, the door resonates at certain frequencies, when you press stop you can still hear the bass going “donnnng!” half a second later. All the presets and electronic boxes in the world won’t fix this. You cant get “in there” to tweak the sound because you simply don’t hear what it needs. How is that going to inspire either you or a listener?

I recently did consultancy for a couple of my regular clients, in one case just over the phone with some pictures of the studio to go on. Both well established and with a lot of experience writing and producing, lots of very good equipment too in one case. But in my studio the mixes were not coming in good. It just didn’t matter that there might have been a grand’s worth of analog synth going through a 2 grand reverb into a 4 grand compressor. The basics simply were not right. I could hear the sound of the room all over them, weak honky kicks, too much reverb, boomy resonances, bass overhangs, holes in the mids, exaggerated but strangely lifeless high hats. In no way was the producer aiming for this sound on any artistic level.

The mixes needed a lot of correcting to bring them up to scratch, so I didn’t. I got on the phone and started probing. The room quickly became apparent as the culprit, in both cases throwing their producers wildly off course and making the tracks almost unlistenable.

It’s worth going back to the original question once again. The sound of that expensive all singing, all dancing monstro-synth that you might have considered spending your money on that technically has the capacity to produce a beautiful fat tone is rapidly looking like a pointless waste of both time and money when it’s being eq’d to mush next to pissed up drums, honky bass and washed out weirdo hats.

I gave my clients the advice, change this, move that, why is that there? Move the speakers, put acoustic treatment here, here and here. Where are the bass traps? Why is the sub woofer in the corner over there?

In both cases I received a phone call a week or two later, both saying they were simply staggered at the difference. They didn’t know how they had gone through their whole producing life without ever having considered the importance of this. Lo and behold the next set of mixes I had in were a pleasure to work on and just required some gentle correction. They were big, bold and punchy. Problem solved.

There can be no doubt that the simple presence of a new arrival in the studio can in itself be an inspiration and full of those feel good factors we all crave. I would never deny that expensive can’t mean “better” in some way. But the room has to support the equipment, to bring out the very best both it and perhaps more importantly, YOU have to offer. What about the feel good factor of sitting in a well designed room that really looks and feels like a studio? What about a track that just sounds great? That’s inspiring in itself. It feeds the whole music making loop. It’s easy to put a little thought into the design of your room and it doesn’t cost anything to bring a little colour and mood in too.

When was the last time you said “I love this track because it has an expensive reverb and hi end tube compression on the kick?”. I don’t think I have ever thought this, but the last time I just said “I love this track, it sounds great”? All the time. If the sounds lock together in a meaningful way, that’s what counts and that’s why being able to hear whats going on in your mix is the most valuable equipment of all.

As usual, best of luck! As always I am happy to give advice, so don’t be afraid to get in touch.

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