Music 265B Week 04 Studio Setup
PDF Version available HERE
By this phase of the project, our song is finished, the instrumentation is set, the music has been prepared, the band members know their parts (or they are excellent sight-readers), and the studio facility has been booked. We are finally ready to work in the studio. Before the band gets there, the engineers & crew need to prepare the studio for their arrival. This task has a lot of complicated parts, so we will break it down into several sections. In this section, we will concern ourselves with preparing the Soundstage, Tracking Room, and/or Isolation Booth: the places where the musicians will play during the recording. While these rooms are being prepared for the musicians, other members of the crew are preparing the Control Room for the engineer – this will be covered in the next lesson.
Before the session, the engineer consults with the clients and determines the best way to run the recording session. In order to figure this out, the engineer asks a number of questions that address the concerns and limitations of the recording session.
What is the Deliverable result of this session? In other words, what does the client realistically expect to get at the end of the recording process? This may be vague and abstract, but it can affect the production value of the recording. For example, is this an amateur band trying to record their first Demo? In this case, while we still want to capture the best possible recording we can get, the band may simply give their best “live” performance, complete with flaws & imperfections. It may be faster and easier for everybody involved, but the overall quality of the project may suffer. On the other hand, if these are professional musicians trying to record an album or a film score, then the clients (or record label) may not accept anything less than a flawless recording. It’s not necessarily the engineer’s fault that the musicians can’t get it right in one take, but it does mean more time will have to be spent recording and overdubbing musicians during this phase – we can’t always fix it in Pro Tools.
What is the Instrumentation and what are the featured instruments? How many musicians are there, and what instruments are they playing at any given time? While the drummer may just play the drum set for the entire session, other members of the band may Double on another instrument. The keyboard player might have a piano and several synthesizers as part of his rig. The guitarist might switch from one type of guitar to another during a song. The sax players might pick up a flute, clarinet, or other woodwind instrument as well. In order to account for this, the engineer will either have to set up some additional microphones, or have the musicians overdub those instruments later on. It is also important to know what featured instruments and soloists are. For quality’s sake, these players may sit out and overdub their parts later on.
What are the musicians’ playing ability? Can they play to a Metronome, or do they need visual cues from the Conductor or Band Leader? Who needs a pair of Headphones, who do they need to hear in those headphones, and do they need a Talkback Microphone to communicate with other players? Are these amateurs, live players, or professional studio musicians? Amateurs and seasoned live musicians are used to playing a certain way: as a band, they rehearse and perform onstage in a set configuration – in their comfort zone. They may or may not be able to follow a metronome, or count for that matter. Instead, they may rely heavily on visual cues from the other musicians, or from the conductor/band leader. Whether we are recording a small band or a massive orchestra, the musicians will need to be arranged differently than they are used to playing when they’re on a concert stage. Otherwise, when the singer stands in front of the drummer as they would onstage, the drums will bleed heavily into the singer’s microphone. Studio musicians are used to playing in different configurations, or isolated in another room. They may still receive visual or audible cues from other musicians through headphones or through a window, but they can also typically follow a metronome. Depending on the band’s ability, the engineer will need to alter his plan to accommodate that.
What kind of space and equipment does the studio have available? How big is the recording room? Can the entire band reasonably fit in there, or can they only fit one section at a time? How many microphones, inputs, and recordable channels are available in the control room? Is there enough equipment available to put at least one microphone on each instrument, or does each section need to share a microphone? Does the studio have Baffles or Gobos to help block sound leakage and isolate the instruments? Can noisy amplifiers be placed in a separate room or iso booth?
And lastly, what is the project’s timeframe, budget, and deadline? In other words, when can everyone get together in the studio, when do they need the project completed, and more pragmatically, are they going to reasonably compensate you for the time and effort it will take to record the project?
The Setup Sheet
When these questions are answered, the engineer uses those limitations (and the information covered in the previous lesson) to draft a Setup Sheet: a layout of the recording space that includes where the players, chairs, instruments, and stands will be placed, along with the kind of equipment used to capture their sound. Much of this information is covered in Chapter 3 of Basic Audio Recording Techniques, but it does need to be covered here in context.
Every setup sheet contains a few key pieces of information. At the top of the page, we have Identifying Information: the name of the project, client, artist, engineers, as well as the location of the studio (e.g. room A, B, Iso), the date of the session, and the recording format used to capture the audio (tape or Pro Tools session name/location – discussed in the next lesson).
A scale drawing of the Room Layout takes up the majority of the setup sheet. This includes the location of doors, electrical outlets & extension cords, microphone panels & snakes, and other important fixtures. Within this layout, the engineer sketches the locations of Players & Chairs, Instruments & Amplifiers (like the drum set, piano, and speaker cabinets), Music Stands, Microphone Stands, Baffles/Gobos, Microphones & Direct Boxes, and Headphones.
The microphones & DI’s have a corresponding Number to indicate which Channel they will connect to on the microphone panel/snake. Headphones will have a similar designation, which we will discuss in a moment.
Beneath the room layout (sometimes on a separate page) is a numbered list of the microphones and other equipment used in the setup – one number per-channel on the microphone panel. Each number designates what kind of microphone is used (brand & model), what sound source is being captured (Guitar cab, stereo room, kick drum, etc), any special settings used on the microphone/channel (pads, roll-off, etc.), any other relevant notes (placement techniques, etc.), and the track(s) used to record the sound source.
There is typically a separate list for headphone setups. This includes the number of headsets used, which player wears them, and what separate Headphone Mixes they receive – these will be discussed in the next lesson.
Drafting a Setup Sheet
Refer back to the list of questions that the engineer has to discuss with the clients. Because there are so many variables and constraints that will affect the recording session, every setup sheet will be different. Ultimately, the engineer has to find a nice balance between sound isolation, the musicians’ comfort, and efficiency. Recording and overdubbing every individual instrument in isolation may provide the best sound quality, but if the musicians aren’t comfortable playing alone, their performance will be terrible. A symphony orchestra, a jazz big band, or a rock band may be more comfortable playing together in their live concert configuration, but trying to record an album in that kind of environment will usually result in unusable tracks, full of leakage, mistakes, and other problems. Instead, we may break up the band into their individual sections.
Since the rhythm section (drums, percussion, bass, guitars, and keyboards) usually serves as the core part of any band, they may need to record together first, without the extra members of the band, in order to get the best possible performance. They may record together in their normal live configuration, with a few modifications. Baffles will usually be placed between each instrument to cut down on some of the leakage. Baffles are arranged in a way that blocks the sound of one instrument from leaking into another, while still allowing the players to hear one another: even if the guitarist is sitting next to the amp, a Short Baffle may be tall enough to block the amp, but the player’s head & ears will still be high above the baffle, able to hear the other musicians.
The lid on an acoustic piano or the guitar’s amplifier cabinet may have a heavy Packing Blanket draped over it in order to help isolate the sound. If separate spaces are available, the amps may be set up in a separate room for further isolation. In an ideal setup, the drums will be the only source making sound in a room. That way, if the guitarist makes a mistake, the error won’t compromise the drummer’s recording. If the amp, or another instrument were making noise in the room, that mistake would leak into the other microphones, effectively ruining that recording for everyone else.
Depending on the size of the room and other limitations, the other sections of the band, like the strings, woodwinds, or brass, may overdub their individual sections afterward for better isolation, and more flexibility. Featured musicians like singers and soloists almost always overdub their parts afterward. If the entire band has to play together at one time, each section will typically have baffles isolating them from the other sections.
Beyond that, careful and effective microphone placement must always be used to achieve isolation. More often than not, this means using microphones with Cardioid pickup patterns pointing at the sound source, and away from other instruments.
Example Setup Sheets (Handouts will be available in class)
4-piece amateur rock band demo on a budget
8 channels available
Drum set, bass, guitar, and one vocalist
Everybody needs to see each other’s visual cues
Everybody needs to play together: minimal overdubs, if any.
Drum tracking session
16 channels available
5-piece drum set: kick, snare, 3 toms, hi-hat, ride, 2 crash cymbals
Recording with a bass player
10-piece jazz band
16 channels available
Drum set, bass, guitar, piano, 1 trombone, 2 trumpets, 3 saxophones
Full jazz big band
Drum set, percussion, bass, guitar, piano & synth, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 5 saxophones w/ woodwind doubles, 1 vocalist.
8 channels available
2 Violins, 1 Viola, 1 Cello
– Woodwinds: 2-4 Flutes (1 Piccolo double), 2-4 Oboe (1 English Horn double), 2-4 Clarinets (1 Bass Clarinet double), 2-4 Bassoons (1 Contrabassoon double), 1 or more saxophones
– Brass: 4-8 French Horns, 3-6 Trumpets, 3-6 Trombones (1-2 bass trombones), 1-2 Tubas, 1 Bari horn/Euphonium)
– Percussion: Timpani, Snare, tenors, bass drum, cymbals, gong, percussion toys, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibes, marimba, chimes
– Keys: Piano
– Strings: 1 harp, 30 violins (16 v1, 14 v2), 12 violas, 10 celli, 8 basses
A Capella Vocal Group
Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, Bass
Choir with Accompanist & Conductor
Large SATB choir, Piano
Following the Setup Sheet
Once we have a useable setup sheet, the crew can get to work. First, we prepare the layout of the room. Chairs, Music Stands, and Baffles are arranged to accommodate the band. There needs to be enough room between each chair for the musicians to hold and play their instruments comfortably. Typically, the drummer, bass, and guitar are given two music stands, or one large conductor’s stand to hold all of their music. Remember to arrange the chairs & baffles in a way that isolates one section from another, while allowing the players to see one another.
Next, the crew positions the Microphone Stands in place. There are many types of microphone stands to choose from. Straight Stands are simple telescoping poles with a thread & microphone clip on the end. These can be used to hold room & vocal microphones, but they are usually too impractical for most instruments. Boom Stands come with an extra telescoping arm that allows us to crane the microphone into the right position around the instrument. They are the most common type of microphone stands that we use in the studio. Heavy-Duty Stands come with a large, weighted base, a larger boom arm, and a heavy counterweight. These are ideal for holding heavier microphones, and for overhead microphones that need to be suspended high above the instrument. If heavy-duty stands are unavailable or impractical, Sand Bags or other heavy objects can be attached to the base or boom arm of a regular boom stand in order to act as an effective counterweight for heavier microphones. Low-Profile Stands are miniature boom stands, ideal for fitting microphones into tight spaces, like the kick & snare drums.
With the chairs, baffles, and microphone stands in their relatively correct positions, the crew runs cables next. A Snake is a portable bundle of cables and plugs that connects to the Microphone Panel on the control room wall. The crew connects the snake to the wall on one end, and places the other end in the middle of the floor. The crew then runs Microphone Cables from the snake to each microphone stand, starting with the 1st position listed on the setup sheet. As they work their way down the list, the crew runs the cables in tidy bundles toward each section of the band, rather than create a tangled web of cables around the snake. Eventually the loose end of the cable rests on the microphone stand, with the extra slack coiled into a loop at the base of the stand. Take care not to braid the cable around the stand. Instead, loop it around the end of the stand once in order to hold it in place. When needed, the crew also runs Extension Cords and Power Cables from the nearby outlets to wherever they are needed. Take care not to run the power cables alongside the microphone cables: it can cause unwanted buzzing and interference in the recorded signal. If the power and microphone cables have to cross one another, make sure they run perpendicular, at a 90-degree angle in order to make as little contact as possible. If needed, the crew runs Headphones and Cables from the wall panel to wherever they are needed.
Finally, the crew places Microphones & DI’s on the stands once everything else has been moved into place. The microphone Clip or Shock-Mount gets threaded onto the stand first, followed by the Microphone itself. Once the microphones are secure, the crew plugs them in, turns them on, and configures any additional settings, like Pads, Roll-Off, Pattern adjustments, and so on.
Before the band arrives, the crew performs a Mic Check. When the control room is ready (discussed in the next lesson), one crewmember claps, talks into, or gently scratches the grill of the microphone, while the engineer listens for that sound in the control room. If the engineer can’t hear the sound or see the signal, the crew troubleshoots the problem, usually by checking the connections and replacing a cable as needed. When the microphone and signal chain are working, they move on to the next microphone on the setup sheet.
With everything in place and functioning properly, the studio is finally ready for the band to arrive and set up. The musicians arrange their instruments, stands, and music to their liking, and move into their playing positions. The engineer moves the microphones into their proper positions around the instruments. By this point, the studio is ready to record: they just need to wait for the engineer to finish setting up in the control room – our next lesson.