The Fluffy Jackets Sound Studio: The place where dreams are made!
You have probably heard it before: "with modern recording technology, even kids make music in their bedrooms". And, you guessed it: The Fluffy Jackets are no different! Whilst we enjoy spending time in professional sound studios (we have been known for blowing a fair bit of dosh recording in fancy places), we also see the benefit of having our own recording facilities. It has just taken us a bit longer to get there. 12 years, to be precise. With that said, now it is your turn to gawk at all the wonderous technology we have!
The studio was completed in January 2021, and shall soon be babtised "The Fluffy Jackets Sound Studio". Very imaginative, I know.
The idea for the studio came as we were re-decorating our family home...So, here was an ideal opportunity to re-think how to get a music space built in from scratch - within reason. I know we should probably gone even crazier. But, like most projects, my "little studio" idea started very small before it started to grow.
IF you are re-building walls, you might as well place the cables inside the walls, right? So, I found a supplier in the UK (https://www.thatcable.com/) which offers really nice wall-plates through which you can plug in XLR audio cables. The initial idea was to have only one entry (for the microphone which would stand next to the amp permanently) but I could only find a wall plate with two XLR entries. However, later down the line (pardon the pun), I quickly made use of the second cable-entry as well, as I discovered I could also send the guitar-signal through the XLR cable (made possible by purchasing a XLR-to-TRS-cable). At this point, I should - for the benefit of future projects - remember to explain how to solder such cables (I learned this the hard way). I attach the instructions above: Hvit = White cable goes to point marked "3", Rød = Red cable goes to the point marked "2" and the final cable goes to the grounded circuit. The reason it is important to get this right? well, if you connect it wrong, you end up with an "out of phase" sound, which - although is not bad - would limit your future sound.
Like Chuck Berry said "there is money to be made from painting and decorating"... I found those words to ring through, although - on this occasion I was spending it, rather than making it. Still, this green palette should be suitably relaxing and hopefully inspire some creative thougths.
The above image shows the corner where the studio is placed. I was really pleased with the end result, as the desk fitted nicely and all the other equipment slotted right into place (just as I planned it).
Like most audio engineers knows, it is important to think about the whole Audio Signal from A-Z when you are planning what to purchase. Therefore I started with the first place the sound travels to, namely the microphone. I bought the best I could afford. This was a Neumann 103 mono microphone from Germany. The reason it is called a "Mono" mic, is because it only takes the signal input from the front (you sing into where the Neumann logo is placed) as the back of the mic will not take sound. Which is useful when you try to limit noise during recording. This is a condensator mic, which means that it needs 48 volt power supplied from the pre-amp. Which led me to look at what to get ref. vocal amplification.
settled on the Avalon 737 Channel Strip, which basically is a combination of a Mic Pre-Amp, an Equaliser and a Compressor. This unit only has one single mic input. I say that, but you can also send a line or instrument signal through it (though only one signal at the time). I am not a big fan of my own voice (I not fuzzed to admit that, as John Lennon also famously hated his own voice, so I am not alone). Anyhow, because of that, I thought it would be good to have an Equaliser, and a compressor to help with my vocal recordings. Another benefit is that this unit has a valved (tube), which in theory makes it a bit more analog and old-school sounding (which I like). I managed to find this used, and the guy whom I bought it from said it has been used at a studio in Nashville USA for many years, so hopefully it already has some Mojo already.
The Avalon can be connected to record instrument, line or microphone input, and can also be used separately as an EQ or compressor during mix-down, but I do not plan to use much outboard equipment in the mix process. I am not an experienced audio engineer, and do not have a pre-conceived notion that I must have a ton of outboard gear -certainly when the common wisedom these days is that the software does just as good a job. So, I intend to mix mainly in the box, though I am a big believer in that the sound that comes in must be top notch. Since I am planning to use this for vocal only - I decided to hardwire the Mic line from the Avalon 737 directly to the sound card (Apollo x8 - read more on that later). The reason, is that I do not want to damage the Neumann mic, and since that mic require 48V power, I intend to have the 48V on at all times, and record all vocals + accoustic guitars through this unit. Manny Charlton (my friend and professional musician / legendary producer and guitarist for Nazareth) have this same unit, and suggested I record bass guitar through this Mic Pre, so I will try that out. -Once I started to play around with it, I soon discovered that I could plug a line into the back of this unit and send it to the Patch Bay, and from there into the bass-guitar (which means that I can have the bass-cable within easy reach / which saves a lot of time when it comes to the Workflow. This way, I have the front input open if I wanted to quickly put in another instrument. So it is a flexible unit.
I had to get a Neve 1073 -which is the industry standard Mic Pre for rock music.
I intend to record all guitars through the Neve 1073 with a Shure SM57 microphone. The 1073 is therefore hardwired into the back of the Apollo x8 for this purpose. Like the Avalon 737, this 1073 is already Mic'ed up through the wall plate, and the SM57 mic stands next to the Marshall amp, so I only have to plug in a cable into the guitar to start recording. Again, this is extremely valuable to obtain a speedy workflow, so that you do not have to faff around for hours to plug stuff in and loose the creative spark.
You can not go wrong with a Neve 1073, so it was actually an easy decision to get this unit. The main issue for me was that you have so much choice on what to go for: you have the dual channel (two inputs) without the EQ or with the EQ and with DA converters, etc, etc. In the end, I decided that I want the 1073 to color the sound - so I might as well get it with the EQ so that I can dial in those cool tones as I see fit. I do not mind commiting to the signal as it is recorded.
Like the Avalon 737, the Neve 1073 unit is also flexible since you can also plug a mic (or line) directly into the front of the unit. This saves the confusing business of figuring out how to send lines to and from the patch bay which I find very confusing indeed. (More on that later). (PS: at the bottom of the above picture you also see a DVD player, as I also got a large widescreen TV, I can now kick back and enjoy some of my fave concert DVD's with some awesome sound. Highly recommended).
(click on the diagram for a larger size resolution)
The above diagram might look a bit complex. And it is. As a matter of fact, it took me three months to research how to plug everything together. And even then I got it wrong. But, in the end, I now think I have found a signal chain that works, and also is one that is conducive to obtain a quick and easy workflow whilst recording. So, this is not too complex for a relative novice engineer / producer like myself.
I shall now go through the signal chain, hopefully pointing out some mildly interesting stuff. Or, at least to myself (if I ever have to plug it in again!).
The audio signal start with either the Neumann 103 or SM57 microphones, going into the Avalon 737 and the Neve 1073 channel strips respectively. The SM57 signal travels from the mic (located by the guitar amp), through the wall (via wall-plates). Both the Neumann and the SM57 mic's are wired directly to the back of the pre-amp (rather than the Patch Bay) because I do not intend to swap mics (If I do, I can instead use the front input of both the 1073 or the 737). If you need to see the exact signal input/output locations on the Avalon 737 or the Neve 1073, please click on the above diagram and you can see a larger resolution which will show this.
The signal travels from the Neve 1073 and the Avalon 737 channel strips into the UAD Apollo x8 unit. I researched a lot of converters on the market, and was tempted to go for a smaller unit (Such as the small Focusrite Scarlett with two inputs). BUT - and here is the point: I always do the same mistake and buy cheap at outset, and then upgrade later.. so this time - I instead bought the most expensive first! The Apollo x8 is pretty much an industry standard unit and professional unit, and it has 4 x mic pre amps, of which I have to use two (to plug in the 1073 and 737).
Once the signal is recorded, the next step is actually to listen to the sound. For this purpose, the Apollo x8 also has monitor outputs, and two inputs for headsets at the front. As you can see from the diagram, I have monitoring either via Headset, or via the Yamaha HS5 active monitors. These are good for a small recording studio like The Fluffy Jackets Sound Studio (there I used the official studio name for the first time!), because the bottom end can be adjusted to suit the room.
Importantly, I decided to send the signal from the 1073 and 737 to the input #3 and #4 on the Apollo x8 (rather than input #1 and #2). Why? (I hear you ask). Well, there is two HighZ inputs at the front of the Apollo (for input 1 and 2), which means that I can also use these two inputs if I avoid plugging into 1 and 2 at the back. So - if push comes to shove - and I in future wanted to record 4 signals at the same time, I can now easly plug in 4 mic's (2 in the Apollo, 1 in the Neve 1073 and 1 in the Apollo 737). This means that I can record a small band if so required. Or mic up a drum-kit. However, at this stage I do not see ever needing to do that: I will probably only record 1 instrument/mic at the time, but this set-up allows me to grow - if required.
The nightmare known as "The Patch Bay"
If you ever have visited a sound studio, you probably have noticed that a whole bunch of different colored cables pop in and out of places, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Or maybe not. Suffice to say, that the Patch Bay can be so confusing that you can (and will) spend countless sleepless nights wondering why the signal will not travel as you intend it. And, unlike other technical devices, if you try to watch YouTube video's in the hope to get enlightened, this will simply add to the confusion! Still, with that in mind, I shall now endeavour to explain how it works. Bear with me!
Patch Bay's Explained: Let's start with the easiest concept first. A Patch Bay can only ever have 3 different ways of sending the signal. That is, depending on which unit you have. Some Patch Bay's only have one way of sending the signal. My Samson Patch Bay has three, and - as you can see from the picture - you can select from the three different modes using a simple switch. The "N" stands for Normal - which means that the signal will only travel to one place. So if you plug a patch cable in at the top and send it somewhere else, the signal will not flow to the bottom (it will only go to where you stick the cable). The HN means Half Normal - and in this case the signal will continue to flow from top to bottom - even if you send the signal elsewhere. Half Normal therfore means that you are splitting the signal and sending it to two different locations at the same time. That can be useful - in theory. The third signal is not important. I will leave it at that.
Here is one of my (many) Patch Bay tests. This is actually shows a successful one, which is actually used in my set-up. For the record, I use the NORMAL seting on my Path Bay. As I mentioned, I do not wish to use a lot of outboard gear (as I intend to mix in the box). However, I have many guitar effect pedals, and I thought it would be nice if I could patch in the guitar signal through the Patch Bay, so that I always could patch in either the guitar or bass into the guitar effects as needed. The signal in the above picture explanend: The guitar cable goes out from the guitar and into the TOP of the patch bay (at the back), the signal then flows to the bottom (it does this wihout any cables btw) and then it goes out (at the back of the Patch Bay) into the Marshall Amp (via the wall plates). Then, the guitar FX signal flow: the signal goes out from the guitar FX output and into the TOP of the patch bay, from there it runs through at the bottom and out to the Guitar FX input. If you wanted to patch in the Guitar FX in to the guitar signal chain: The yellow cable takes the signal into the input of the guitar effects, then out again, at which point the red patch cable sends the signal to the Marshall amp.
And that, my friend, is how the patch bay works. I bet that was interesting.
The above picture shows the back of the Apollo x8 unit. It is not possible to use the 8 TRS inputs or 8 TRS outputs to send mic signals (those have to go to the 1through4 XLR inputs). The green and orange cables are connected to the Yamaha studio monitors
The above picture shows how my Patch Bay is connected at the time of writing. This is actually useful diagram to have, since I am otherwise bound to forget how this is connected.
I absolutely love the Nano+ Pedaltrain. It is small, fits in a softcase carrier bag, and it is also small enough to fit nicely under the studio desk. I have two of these boards now. One for travelling with and on e for the studio. This is my studio set-up now, and I can swap and change as required. By using this on the patch bay, I can add these effects to whatever signal I fancy. The overdrive sounds great on vocals by the way.
The final piece of the jigzaw, is the Macbook Pro. I am not usually a Mac user, but I discovered that it was near on impossible to use a PC with the UAD Apollo x8, so I had to buy a Macbook to be sure. It has to be connected with ta Thunderbolt 3 connection which has the lightning sign on it. I heeded advice and bought the most powerful unit I could - 1TB storage i9 processor 32GB ram, so it can handle the CPU required. The one downside that I discovered (too late) was that this heats up quickly, and that the fan can be incredibly noisy - which obvously is not a good thing when recording sound. But I hope it will turn out OK. It has worked OK so far, though I will say that Apple is insanely clever at ripping their customers off - even small connectors and cables costs crazy money. I am using the LUNA Digital Audio Workstation, which is designed to work with the UAD Apollo x8 interface - which hopefully means that there will not be any compatibility issues. This is also handy, as UAD happen to make some of the best plug-ins on the market, and I am not at risk of getting into incompatibility issues here. Also, I understand that the LUNA creators are inspired by the Pro Tools software, so all the keyboard short cuts are the same as Pro Tools, which is handy if I ever see the need to move to Pro Tools at a later stage.
Thinking about studio workflow. It is very useful to have things close at hand - so my recommendation is to always have a tuner nearby.
I am not a keyboard player, but it is handy to thave a USB keyboard in the case I need to trigger drum-sounds or to use instruments on occasion.
A small tip: This is an excellent way of keeping cables easily accessible, again resulting in quick workflow. Top is the guitar cable (goes to the amp via the patch bay and the wall plates. The bottom is the bass cable going into the line input of the Avalon 737 via the patch bay. It is easy to patch in the guitar FX if required.
The Fluffy Jackets Sound Studio is officially up and running!
Further reading / relevant links: