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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

This is part 1 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Maybe if you're just starting out with your studio you haven't given it much thought, but do you realize what professionals do when they build a studio? They design the entire place from the ground up, making walls with crazy angles and covering them with different materials. Then they make a separate room for a drum kit and another separate room for vocalists. They cover the walls with either unusually-shaped wood or this unbelievably expensive foam padding with tons of little pyramids cut into it.

Obviously, we at home can't recreate this stuff, but we can throw together our own acoustic dampening setup without giving up thousands of dollars and our first-born.

Most of us don't really get to choose where our studio is, we just have to deal with whatever room we can fit the studio in. I've had, as a studio, my childhood bedroom, a college dorm room, the single-bedroom in a single-bedroom apartment, and the one-car garage of a much nicer apartment. If, however, by some stroke of good fortune you can choose where your studio is, try to choose a room that is somewhat isolated from everything else. You want to be loud and not have to worry about neighbors or roommates attempting to bludgeon you to death after you've played the same guitar solo eighty times just to get it right.

Once you've got your place, what can we do to make it less echo-y? Here are some of my suggestions:

EDIT: My astute readers have suggested that the things I mention the upcoming paragraphs tend to do very little for acoustic dampening, and that the difference between cheap foam and expensive foam is a lot more than pretentiousness. After just a little bit of research, I have to agree with them. Take a look at some of their fantastic advice in the comments section.

Go to Goodwill or Wal-Mart and get some big, ugly shaggy carpets like your Aunt has in her living room and nail them to your wall. The more hideous the color, the more fun you'll have putting them up.

Since they have flat, non-porous surfaces, pictures would seem like a bad choice for acoustic dampening. However, anyone who's ever moved knows that a room sounds really obnoxious until you put some pictures up on the walls. Get some pictures that you know will inspire creativity.

Egg-crate-style mattress pads:
For the true faux-professional look, get some of these while you're at Wal-Mart. Remember, the only difference between expensive acoustic foam and cheap mattress foam is pretentiousness.

You'd be surprised at how well furniture can not only scatter sound waves, but also make the studio more comfortable for everyone. Get an old couch or easy chair and see how it changes the feel of the place.

Just remember that the more angles you have in the studio, the more sound gets bounced away harmlessly from your microphones, which is what you want. You don't want the place stark and hospital-like, but you don't want it overly cluttered either. Try to make your studio into something cozy and comfortable and inspiring. I hang huge wall-hangings full of weird geometric patterns in my studio, which have the double-effect of dampening sound and looking awesome at the same time. Experiment a lot and you'll likely find some combination of things that works perfect for you.

This is part 1 of the Studio Guide


>>> Go to Part 2: Get a Computer For Your Studio

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Random Music Making Techniques, Volume 1

There are lots of cool hints and techniques I've wanted to share, but I couldn't think of a good context in which to deliver them. So decided to just put them together in a series of articles. Enjoy!

Stealth Chords:
So you have an interesting chord progression in your song. Instead of just leaving your chords as basic triads or whatever, try to change them up a little to make them unique. Take out some of the notes, or arppegiate it occasionally. This may help make the chords blend better with the rest of the music, and it will keep surprising the listener.

Many folks hate fadeouts. I think they're pretty cool, if done well. If you're doing a fadeout at the end of your song, try introducing a new element just seconds before the song fades out completely. Something like a new melody or maybe a new melody played by a new instrument. This makes the fade out more interesting and will make the song feel like its part of something larger.

Hard Panning:
If you have an element in your song that's in the center channel but you want it to have a nice, big presence, try doubling the track and then panning one hard left and one hard right. Sometimes this can give the sound a large enveloping feel.

Key Changes:
You've seen Jeopardy right? You know the Jeopardy song? Halfway through it they do a key change, but they don't change anything in the song! It's the exact same music, just transposed up a few steps. I hate this with the fire of a thousand suns. I call that 'technique' artificial lengthening. There's nothing wrong with key changes; they can add so much life to your piece, but for the love of Mike, at least change the melody, if not everything else. Okay, rant over.

Orchestras Play in Concert Halls:
remember that if you are making orchestral/symphonic sounding stuff, reverb is very important! Listen to any orchestral recording and you'll hear lots of beautiful reverberation. Spend a lot of time tweaking your settings until it sounds like a real concert hall, and consider simply putting a reverb effect over the entire mix. Whichever works best.

Radio Voice:
When recording vocals, for whatever purpose, I've found that a lot of amateurs won't mess with equalization much and leave the voice as is. It's a good idea to play around with the vocals, for instance try cutting out some of the low end. This will often give it a more realistic sound, allow it to mix better, and avoid that deep, booming 'radio voice'. Pay attention to some of your favorite albums and you'll see that the singer doesn't have a lot of deep low-end in his or her voice.

That's all for this edition! Feel free to add your own writing or production techniques in the comments section.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Make Music on Your Computer Right Now for Nothing

Even the studio in my article about building one cost a few hundred dollars at minimum. If the words "a few hundred dollars" make you run for your food stamps, you might need to start with something a little cheaper, like perhaps in the no dollar range. I've listed three options that I've found on the internet over the years, and each one is for a different kind of musician or composer. If you're like me and you're a little bit of all three types, then try all of them:

For those who play an instrument or have a band and want to record it:

Kristal Audio Engine

This could be Window's answer to the Mac's GarageBand. You get 16 tracks and a professional-grade interface. This is a great way to get yourself acquainted with multitrack software.

For you electronic/software nerds:

Jeskola Buzz

They call it 'the first free soft-studio'. The idea is that it's an entire studio's worth of gear running on your computer. It has low system requirements and it's fun to use once you get the hang of it. Note that there's quite a learning curve to get past, and your music is strictly electronic-based. If that's what you're going for and you have some patience then this is for you.

For you of the ruffled shirt, powdered wig and real music training:

Finale Notepad

If you know how to write music on a staff and enjoy doing so, then this is perfect. It's so easy to use that a one-armed dyslexic monkey could do it. You select your time- and key-signatures when you start a new piece and then it automatically calculates the structure of each measure for you as you place notes. Without ever using it before, I was able to fire it up and transcribe 8 measures of a piano song I've been working on in about 15 minutes.

I was just kidding about the ruffled shirt and powdered wig thing. Although if you do wear these items, please send me a picture.