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Pro Tools #6: Environmental Concerns

piano

Welcome to Pro Tools on da cheap - I’m in no way an expert, and what follows is just “what works for me”. Have I missed something, made a glaring error, or flown in the face of common wisdom? By all means, post a (hopefully polite and cheery) comment and join the discussion.

I lived for five years in a warehouse that had been converted to lofts. Outside my door was a long, long hallway, with a 15-foot high raftered ceiling and brick walls at each end. It was the most gorgeous sounding space I’d ever been in. Clap your hands or whistle one note, and the sound would just hang there, fading like a fleeting ghost.

I’d take my crappy acoustic guitar out there and marvel at how beautiful it sounded. But man, I felt like a douche, strumming a guitar in the hall when a neighbor would leave their apartment. “Look at me, I’m so cool” - I doubt they realized what a feeling that was for me. I always wished I could record out there… “what if I mic my acoustic close, AND stick a mic way down the hall…. pan ‘em apart…”

The stairwell at Headley Grange, Hampshire, where Led Zeppelin recorded the iconic drum tracks for "When the Levee Breaks".

The stairwell at Headley Grange, Hampshire, where Led Zeppelin recorded the iconic drum tracks for "When the Levee Breaks".

There’s nothing like an amazing sounding room to record in, and it’s the secret to a lot of classic recordings - the legendary studios designed and built legendary rooms.

So now you’ve got a mixing and recording room that’s hopefully got some acoustic treatment. Your mixes are sounding better. If you’re like me, if you walk into your room when you’re talking, you’ll hear a dramatic difference… since small rooms need a ton of absorption to kill all those nasty effects, small control rooms tend to be really dead. that’s not a terrible thing - it doesn’t detract from your sound, but it doesn’t add anything good, either.

On the other hand, what if you try to record a quiet vocal or guitar part, and there it is in the playback - the neighbor’s AC unit, a barking dog, your squeaky chair?

As we addressed earlier, soundproofing is not really feasible - especially if you rent. But there are some things you can do.

Look for the sources of outside sound. If you’re near a window, you can hang moving blankets or heavy curtains. Look for gaps around windows and caulk them - you’ll be surprised how that helps. Try closing the HVAC vent to your space. You can also replace your recording room door with a same-size solid-core door (you can find used ones at architectural salvage yards). You can weatherstrip the door and add an exterior-type threshold, too.

If you play loud, listen for things like rattling mini blinds and knick knacks. And take some WD40 to your squeaky chair.

RECORDING IN AWESOME ROOMS

Abbey Road Studios main room... bet it sounds good in there.

Abbey Road Studios main room... bet it sounds good in there.

With the affordability of laptops these days, and the fact that lots of Pro Tools gear is bus-powered (IE, it runs on power from the USB or Firewire bus), you now have the possibility of taking a kickass recording rig anywhere. Toss a couple mics, cables and headphones into a roller bag, grab a stand and go. Got friends who are tight with a church? Know someone who lives in a mansion, a big old victorian, a place with a two-story entry way? Can you use the warehouse at your employer on a weekend? 

Or even around the house - stick a guitar amp or a singer in a tiled bathroom and see what you get. Crank up your guitar amp in a bedroom, open the door and stick a second mic in a stairwell or living room. Give it a try - there’s no studio clock running.

And, of equal importance, make your recording space a nice place to spend hours in. Use a good chair. Get some small lamps (watch out for dimmer noise). Wrap acoustic panels in groovy batik bedspreads, hang some funky curtains from the thrift store to help deaden things. And stick those Jimmy Page and Alex Lifeson posters up to remind you why you started all of this.

tranzFEATURED GEAR: The Frontier Designs Tranzport.

If you record yourself, come up with the $199 it takes to get one of these. It’s a piece of wonder gear - using wireless technology, it’ll run your iTunes, your Quicktime, probably even makes cappucino, all from up to 30 feet or so away. All I know is that you can stick it next to you and arm tracks, set levels, and hit RECORD (and also UNDO) without turning around to check your screen. I don’t know even ten percent of what it can do, but the above alone is worth twice what it cost. it’s a steal. It rules.

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