Acoustic Treatment? Hell yes!

I recently renewed my 2 year sub to Sound on Sound magazine.  Each month they have a column entitled Studio SOS where they go into someones home studio and make it better.  Without fail, one of the main things they do is apply some kind of acoustic treatment.  I have been reading this for over two years now and done nothing myself.

Sure I'd been thinking about it.  Even talking about it.  Even promising myself not to buy anything new until I did some acoustic treatment.  But it was work.  I'm a messy guy and this involved some cleanup, some money, and some time.  All major impediments.

The mess before
My room is fine, I'd tell my self.  This is a hobby.  I don't want to deal with mineral wool or fibreglass.  Auralex is really expensive.  Bass traps are even more expensive.  And did I mention my room was fine?

Chatting with some friends online, I learned of a green insulation alternative called Ultratouch made of recycled denim.  Hmmm.  Some searching on the Intertubez led me to a supplier within semi-sane driving distance.  Their website listed a bag of the stuff containing 5 sheets of 24"x48" (x8" thick) for under $90.  This started the wheels turning...

So over the holidays, while my fellow Canadians rushed around insanely looking for Boxing week deals on TVs and other crap I finally got my ass in gear and went to visit Eco Building Resource to have a look at this Ultratouch stuff.  (Apparently, I 'm not the only musician type to have come through there)  Wasn't long before I had a big bag of the stuff in my truck.

Next stop, a fabric store.  After wandering around like an idiot, I asked somebody for the cheapest black cloth and ended up with $15 worth (5m of black broad cloth).

Next, I went to a hardware store and got some cheap board (1/2"x5 1/2") and had it cut to the 2 and 4 foot lengths I would need.  I also needed a staple gun and some vapor barrier (plastic sheeting).  Spent another $60ish there.

Then took a break for some oysters with my sweetie (fade to black).

The next morning I realized that I'd proably also need some L brackets, screws and some anchors for the hanging.  After dropping another $30 there I was ready.

As you might expect, not all the wood was exactly the same length, so I took some time to identify pairs that we closely matched.  Then banged in three finishing nails on each corner and had a box.  I then drilled pilot holes and screwed on the L brackets.  Without these brackets, the box would be flimsy and the nails would easily work loose.  And the pilot holes keep the wood screws from splitting the boards.

Now with a completed box, I stretched out a double layer of vapor barrier over the one side and stapled it down.  I bought super cheap vapor barrier which was quite thin so I ended up doubling up.  I suppose I could have something else here, like that stuff you see on the back of your sofa but I wasn't that smart.

Next I spread the cloth on the floor (I had previously cut it to size) and put a sheet of the insulation onto it.  I then lowered the box over that.  I could now staple the cloth to the box.  I arrived at this order of operations after wrestling with the first one a little (first one, I put the insulation into the box, put the cloth overtop and then had to flip the whole thing without it all coming apart).

After building all five panels, I set about worrying about how and where to hang them.  I decided that it would be best if I hung them in "landscape" with the 4 foot side being horizontal.  I put anchors into the walls and a screw into the anchor such that it protruded about an inch then simply hung the panel on the screw.  Totally sleazy and definitely not earthquake proof but hey, we don't really much of that here.

I now have 4 of the 5 panels hung.  I still have to work out how to hang the final one from the ceiling but that's going to involve doing something creative with the light fixture and thus will wait for the next surge of energy (which may never happen).

So I'm out around $200, my back is sore, was it worth it?  ZOMG!  Yes!  I'm sure you've all read the audio geek terms about improved stereo separation etc.  I'm going to try to say this in English.  The difference is profound, amazing, fill in your favourite gushing adjective here.  First thing I notice is that I can hear bass.  Previously I was thinking that someday I'd need a sub(-woofer).  Bull cookies.  I have loads of bass, I just couldn't hear it before.  I might even have too much and will need to think about bass traps.  Not sure yet.  Second thing I notice is that I can hear without straining where things are panned (ah, so this is what they mean by improved stereo imaging).  Finally, I'm noticing new details in music I thought I knew.  Presumably that's because those details aren't being masked/buried by early reflections...

Quite simply this is the best $200 I have spent on this crazy journey.

The slightly improved mess
Studio kitteh


You're Comin' Along

Pretty soon it will be 2 years since I started taking guitar lessons.  My goals have not really changed too much.  I've become enamoured of semi-complex chords and nice jazzy sequences.  I've also been sucked into my looper.  So much that I have not been recording too much...

Last Sunday, I played at the T-Rox Jam Night. Aside from the terror of going first, I think it went alright:

By way of comparison, in July 2009, I played live for the first time:

Obviously, I still have a very very long way to go. But it is really really cool to be learning new tricks.


Verb Musings

This morning, my friend Sudara complained that he was loving Eos too much. (Hard to fault him, it's my absolute favourite reverb).

The conversation rambled towards convolution reverbs. I'm fairly ignorant about them beyond the layman's description that we're given to make us layman stop asking questions. This ignorance allows me to formulate all kinds of crazy bullshit.

See, we talked about recording sounds in small reverberant spaces like bathrooms. It occured to me that people like the sound of stuff in their bathrooms more because of the resonances of the room (the way certain frequencies are boosted) than any reverb.

That's a subjective statement for sure...  but bear with me.

Which led me to wonder, does convolution reverb capture the EQ/resonance of a room and is it able to impart it to the affected signal.

My initial guess was no.  But thinking more on it, the IR inherently has the EQ of the impulse (how can it not?) so unless the convolution black magic loses it somehow, the affected signal must have at least some of this EQ curve applied.

I can certainly imagine an experiment that could test this (at least subjectively) but it's so much easier to ask the Google of Mountain View.

And having asked, I learn that there are several methods of gathering impulse responses.  Some involve a sine sweep over the audible frequency spectrum and others involve some kind of digital noise burst.  So if the IRs you have in your convolution reverb are made with sine sweeps,  the implication is that every audible frequency is covered and would be applied to whatever you were running through it.

Sort of revealing my earlier assertion as the naive bullshit it was.

Which raises questions about the kinds of IRs I have kicking around...

And thus we learn.

/me is off to play with impulse responses

CC licensed photo by flickr user: Pulpolux !!!


Blog on Life Support

There is still minimal brain activity. Won't be pulling the plug just yet.

A busy summer has come to an end and with the change in season, I change from a wannabe athlete back into a musician.

Stay tuned...

CC licensed photo by: RambergMediaImages / Keith Ramsey


Sub-Bass! What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing!

Except perhaps annoying the crap out of everyone around you.

Yesterday I was driving in my car testing a mix when along comes a powerful low frequency rumble. Because I was listening carefully to my mix my first reaction was holy crap did I mess that up? Slowly I realized that must be from some joker with a subwoofer in a nearby car.

People have learned that some of us don't like having smoke blown in our faces. How hard is it for people to figure out that not all of us like the sound of your music, your Harley, your leaf blowers or the tinny techno beat leaking from your crappy ear buds when you're on the train beside me.

Your noise is just as much an encroachment on my personal space as your physical presence.

Grow some manners. Stop it.


The Craft

I have long viewed computer programming, which pays my bills, as a creative exercise. Those not in the field may not understand this but among my colleagues, this idea seems to resonate. Large programs are not made overnight, but rather built from many smaller pieces or ideas over a long period of time.

One of the things that initially (re)drew me into making music was the speed with which I could produce something.

That initial honeymoon period appears to be ending and I find myself wanting for higher quality output. I'll leave aside the discussion of what higher quality means but there is a general recognition that higher quality requires more time.

To date, most of my musical output is something that has been created in mere hours. Even if I recognize problems, I rarely go back and revisit these creations. The few times I've tried, I've found it quite difficult. And that difficulty kind of leaches all motivation and ... you know.

This morning, I had a brain flash and I asked myself, why is it that I can write software over many days or weeks but not create music over the same period.

Some immediate thoughts come to mind. One is simply skill. My career in technology is simply longer than my hobbying with music. If you accept, like Gladwell suggests, that time invested leads to results, skill, etc then the math is simple.

Making music, like making anything else, requires a collection of skills that are often called "the craft". With software, I am reasonably versed in the craft. With music, much much less so. My musical skill (knowing notes, scales, chords, etc) is akin to a young programmer that is simply fluent in a programming language (learn Java in 20 days) but otherwise unskilled in the art.

This got me thinking about what aspects of software craft might be transferable to music (as a way to avoid going to a Songwriting for Dummies seminar).

One thing I realize is that in programming (at least using textual languages, as opposed to a visual language like Max) the form seems to lead the programmer to be somewhat organized. We need to organize things into functional blocks that interface with other functional blocks. And if one piece doesn't fit, modifications are made.

There are similarities in music. Each block (verse, chorus, intro, bridge, etc) needs to connect with the others. Now while many of us work with these musical blocks to varying degrees... but when you get stuck, how willing are you to re-record an idea that you've already committed to "tape"? Speaking for myself, almost never. Hmmm. Difficult to improve the whole product if the components are not up to par.

Inability to re-record a block speaks to a bunch of problems. One is just "the sound, man". How many times have you dialed in a sound, wanted to do a little overdub later and not been able to match it? Or simply not remembering how to play a part because you never wrote anything down?

Seems to me that these and other problems and strategies for dealing are all part of the craft. And I have much to learn.


Proud Papa

Woah.  Been awhile.  Oh well, can't be helped.  If you were holding your breath, I'm sorry but I know you're lying.

This weekend past, the fabulous T-Rox Music Academy held its 2010 Summer Showtime and once again many kids and adults masquerading as kids performed.  I was one of the latter.

Performing for me is getting easier but...  it was warm and humid that day and with the nerves my hands were clammy.  My playing is questionable at the best of times but with clammy hands, laying down the main loop in my quasi-improvised affair was frought.  But I soldiered through.  The funny bit was after I got the finger picked loop into the looper, I realized I forgot my pick in my pocket.  So I had to stand up mid performance, smile stupidly and grab a pick.  Look ma no hands.  Doh.

But enough about me and just a little more about me.  My youngest child, J the drummer, decided to sign up to perform Come Together.  After signing up, I asked him who he was doing it with and he looked at me a little blankly (in that way that boys have) and he said, "uh, you?"  Figuring I could learn the bass part, I said sure.  What about the rest of the band...  Long story short, we roped in his older brother A to play guitar.  Of course, coordinating rehearsal times between all the various activities...  well not so much.  Finally, on the day before the show, we all got into the same room and worked it out.  It wasn't too bad but we still needed a singer to tie the whole thing together...  we arrived at the theatre and found J's drum instructor Ed and explained our plight.  He helped rope in the fabulous Kirt (a guitar teacher) to sing the song with us.  Awesome.

So, after my guitar performance, I got the bass ready and we waited for our slot.  My hands were still clammy.  And we're on.  Quick setup, intro, etc.  And go!  A bit of a shaky start but before long were were loping along like we'd been gigging for years.  It's hard to describe the little bubble you're in when you perform.  When you're solo, you're juggling stuff, you're busy.  But in a band, it's kind of a team thing and you get a chance to breathe, look around and really enjoy it.  And the thing that I thought about as we played?  Just how incredibly proud I was of my two sons.

Can't wait to do it again.


Drama Queen

This morning I went to the post office and mailed my latest CD Comfort Noodles to RPM HQ. Mission accomplished.

Behind the scenes, I came damn close to quitting. To explain I should probably start at the begining.

This was my second year participating in the RPM Challenge and I had plans. I was going to record enough material that I could pick and choose what made the CD. I was going to find some kind of thematic continuity. And most of all I would take another huge step toward closing the "taste gap" (see this video for what I mean).

I started well. I had a handful of decent ideas. And then... Excuses. I'm not a fan of excuses so I won't bore you with them. Suffice it to say that I stalled out. Then I started to procrastinate. Before I knew it I was running low on time, hating what I had already done and was rationalizing an exit.

Perhaps you've had these thoughts yourself.
  • it sucks and I don't want to release anything but my best work, anything less than excellent will reinforce a reputation for producing mediocre work
  • it sucks, everything sounds the same (wait didn't I want a theme?)
  • it's all guitar stuff and I want to be an electronic artist, it's not me!
  • it's not weird enough
  • no time to properly mix
  • no time for artwork
  • eek no time!
During this year's RPM Challenge the beautiful city of Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. As a Canadian, it was pretty hard to escape (broadcast on at least four channels) and as a wannabe inline speedskater I wasn't even trying. I watched and watched.

A luge athlete lost his life. A figure skater lost her mother and still skated (to a medal). A cross country skier broke several ribs, punctured a lung and still found a way to finish (again to a medal). I got pissed at athletes that I was disappointed in (not for their failure to achieve results but for what I felt to be a lack of heart).

Thinking hard about this over the weekend it became pretty clear to me that quitting was not an option. That my judgements of my material were coloured by my judgements of myself, not the music. That I'm just as much of a drama queen as anybody I judged guilty of that before.

In the end, I sucked it up and finished (aided by the pressure of a deadline). Now all the machinations seem silly and neurotic.  Entirely self created drama.

Which leaves me to introduce Comfort Noodles.  An ambient collection of mainly guitar noodles.  Another signpost on my journey.


RPM Progress Report

Well half the month is gone.  Eek!

At this point I have 4 demo tracks weighing in at a whopping 31 minutes.  So you could say almost there.  But here's the thing...

All the tracks so far are actually thematically consistent.  Which is what I wanted.  Except, I'm really not sure I like the theme!

Completely buggers my original ideas about album title, etc.  Good thing I haven't committed to any artwork...

For your listening pleasure, I offer the tracks thus far.


MMI Live

Sort of.  Once again, the super fabulous T-Rox Music Academy put on it's twice yearly show.  And as I had previously promised, this time I performed.

I've played in front of fellow students and parents now a couple of times and it's getting a little easier.  But I was also helped by the fact that my son played a drum solo right before me.  This bit of scheduling genius robbed me of the time I might have spent getting super nervous...

Overall I am very happy with how it went.  Nearly 24 hours afterwards, I'm still thinking about it.  It was also fun to have my son in the audience telling me later about the whispered comments from people around him that had never seen anybody live-loop or use an E-Bow before.

But there is still much room for improvement.  There is still a big gap between what I'm doing and my "exquisite taste" (all creative people should watch Ira Glass in this video).

Allow me to enumerate:
  • still too nervous; amazing how when you're nervous, even finding the 3rd string or forming a simple maj7 chord shape can be a challenge.  The solution?  Do it more.  I never got passable at anything by doing less.
  • look at the audience; sure this is partly because I still suck as a player, but at least try to connect
  • feedback; this was the first time I took the Gretsch onstage.   Because I don't play with an amp at home, I don't have much experience wrestling with this monster.  Big thanks to Alex Harrison (T-Rox instructor and roadie for the event); he twiddled some knobs and saved my bacon.
I can't wait to do it all again.


The Calm Before the Panic

In a couple hours, the 5th annual RPM Challenge will begin.  Last year, I participated for the first time without much of a plan.  At the end, I sort of vowed to do better this year.  Well, it's upon us and I'm only marginally better prepared.

Previously, I thought that the challenge involved writing and recording the whole album in the month of February.  This year, it's different.  Apparently, we are allowed to write in advance but not allowed to record in advance.  As somebody that uses the computer and heavy processing as an integral part of the composition process, this rule change (clarification?) doesn't change much for me...  but it did mean that I actually wrote down (yeah, on paper!) a few things that would normally have been the seeds for tracks in January.  Long story short, I actually have 4 track ideas already.  This is light years better than last year when I found myself in the Denver airport working on my first track...

But I'm kind of lucky.  Musical ideas come easily.  The areas that I wanted to improve on this year were not musical per se.  They were in other areas.  Cohesion.  Artwork.  Packaging.  The latter two might seem quaint and old-fashioned in a time when "real" musicians are having trouble...  but that's not the point.  The point is to explore other kinds of creativity.  Hopefully, having a bit of a head start on the tunes will afford me some extra time to fret over the quaint.


Ahhhhhhhh That's Better

I recently bought an Airport Extreme Base Station for various reasons that aren't important. This afforded me the opportunity to rejigger things in my studio office. And in so doing I got to switch off an old computer...

Wow. Holy crap. Wow. Duh!

I didn't think of my cave as an ideal acoustic space but I didn't think that the ambient noise was very loud. It was fine. Until now. Now the quiet is almost oppressive. I can hear my laptop and it's a little annoying, actually.

So the lesson here for recordists is if you don't need it in the room, maybe it should be somewhere else. And if it can be switched off, do it. Your ears will thank you.



I may have figured out my recording latency problems.  I could try to invent a big story and explanation but here is what's working for me.  There might be some useful generalizations to be drawn.  Whatever, I'm still suffering a little from the New Year's Eve stupidity.

My guitars plug into my Boss GT-10.  The GT-10 plugs (via SPDIF) to my Focusrite Saffire and that, in turn, connects to my computer via Firewire.
The control software for the Saffire has a little button for sample rate which pops up a tiny window:

That little EXT at the bottom locks the Saffire's clock with the digital in (SPDIF).  Seems to be important (and of course, I didn't have it set before).

Additionally, using Audio/MIDI Control (Mac stuff) I selected "Device" for the Clock Source (per an Apple support web page).  And finally I set Ableton to record 24-bit by default (I theorized that this would remove the need to downsample audio its way to the disk).

These new settings allowed me to quarter my sample buffer setting. Previously, I could only set it as low as 256 and often ran at 512 when the tracks started piling up.  Now I can set it between 64 and 128.  This reduces my round trip latency to 11ms in the worst case (down from over 30ms).