“We interrupt this building work for a live recording…”

Ok, so this wasn’t actually all that recent, but it did happen when I was roughly at the stages of building that I am currently describing.

The Result:

Before we get any further these are the results:

Who, Where and Why:

Colin Hartley, a mate of mine who runs a local Open Mic night and also the Lansdown practice rooms, asked me if I would record him and his Son playing at the Cheltenham Sound Music venue.

Having both done a sterling job performing at my brother’s wedding (basically pulling a second 2 hour set out of thin air and playing like men possessed on the basis of “They were having fun so didn’t want to stop”) I figured it would be a good excuse to dust the audio interface off and experiment with a bit of live recording whilst returning the favour.

Studio recording is something I’ve done plenty of, but live recording is not something I’ve done (unless you count circumnavigating the world using a Korg field recorder in a way that most people would use a camera).

I was also intent on evaluating the Cockos Reaper DAW, so I thought that this would be a good chance to try out some new things.

(some of) The Recording Details:

As it happens, the setup at the Sound Music Venue is pretty darned good for what we were hoping to do. They use a Mackie 1604-vlz3 to control the FOH and foldback. A quick search for the device in question revealed a useful schematic on page 34 of the owners manual. This confirmed that the device had 16 tracks, but also the ability to output 8 of them direct (post fader and desk EQ).

I broke out the jack wiring loom and routed the 8 direct outs from the desk to my Focusrite interface and requested that the engineer only use 8 tracks (not a problem for 2 musicians even with all their various guitars).

The Focusrite is a firewire interface so that linked back to a laptop running reaper.

We also added an SM58 on the final channel at the front of the stage pointing into the audience to get some of that live crowd sound. Normally the pros uses a bunch load of shotgun mics and mix that together, but I don’t have that kind of budget for those kind of toys, nor the inputs to spare (or a pre-mixer or whatever they do).

We did a couple of quick level checks to confirm that:

  1. The 0 dBFS mark on the mixing desk was about 10 db under the clip on the interface.
  2. All the desks direct outs were putting the same level into the interface.
  3. That there was plenty of tape holding all wires in place.

Finally I waited for the act to walk on stage, pressed record, and went to the bar.

The joy of this is that, because the direct outs are all post fader, the work was now squarely with the live sound engineer so I didn’t have to crowd his booth. Instead, I just popped by occasionally to make sure the laptop was still securely hidden in it’s cubbyhole and all beer was a safe distance from my toys.


The recording process meant I was left with 8 mono wavs each about 2 hours long.

Reaper made it easy to slice these at key points when the track changed. After a bit of confusion about what buttons I needed to press to make them persist themselves as actual wavs, I had a disk-full of many songs each with up to 8 mono tracks (even Colin would find it a challenge to play more than 3 instruments on one song, so only a few of these tracks were used for each song).

I added a reverb send and sent differing amounts of the tracks to it. The Audience mic actually captured some interesting ambience from the music hall, so I had to balance that with the direct sound. I tried using sideband compression to make that duck under the music, but in the end that was unnecessary because the overall mastering compressor took care of dropping the crowd noise when the music picks up.

I panned to a decent fit and, as 2 male vocals plus 2 of the same instrument is a bugger for muddling frequencies, I finally resorted to some stereo enhancement (delaying one side a fraction of a millisecond) to give Jay and Colin’s vocals & guitar each their own space.

On the master bus I used Voxengo Soniformer to shape the overall frequency characteristic and Image Line Maximus pull the levels up a tad, add the excitement of a soft clip and deal with the broader bass, mids and treble bands.

Areas for improvement include that the guitars ‘thump’ a bit which is something I’d normally try to fix at record time rather than in the mix, this is obviously not such an easy option with a live recording.

I’m sure I could fiddle with the result some more possibly to remove some of that ‘thump’ with Eq (along with the inevitable and boring job of squeezing MOAR cowbell LOWDNESS) but the above is what I parked it at before sending the stems and the rough mix back to Colin for him to play with further.


All in all a decent and fun experience. I’d love to hear your comments on the mix so please feel free to let me know any tips you have.

On the subject of Reaper, I think the evaluation went well and at that price I plan to purchase a licence once the studio is built.

Step 2 dig a hole, fill it with concrete

There are a whole bunch of possible ways when it comes to building a foundation.

Most of them start with digging a trench and filling it with concrete. If your building needs to comply with building regulations you’re best off agreeing the depth with them. They will take into account things like tree roots, types of soil, etc…

Although the studio did not need to be subject to building regs we were building an extension nearby that was. During one of their visits the regs officer was kind enough to give us some advice on the studio footings too.

The studio (at the time) was close to a bunch of Leylandii ‘trees’. For those who don’t know, Leylandii are bastards. They grow about 1 meter per year even in naff soil. These ones were massive. I have since got fed up with them and went at them with a saw, there’s now a nice fence there instead.

As a result of the trees, the Regulations Inspector suggested that we either go for deep foundations or consider going for a solid, steel reinforced concrete base.

I went for the Steel reinforced concrete base. Looking back, I have reservations about this which I will highlight below. Either way, the ‘method’ for this kind of base is as follows:

  1. We dug out the floor of the studio 200mm deeper than it would be when we were finished.
  2. We dug a trench around the outside just over half a metre deeper than the floor.
  3. We lay 100mm Celotex insulation board so it was to go beneath the floor.
  4. We covered the insulation and bottom of the trench with polythene membrane.
  5. We set up a steel mesh over the floor and going down into the trenches.
  6. We poured a hell of a lot of concrete into the hole until it was floor level. This step is shown in the picture below, apologies for the state of my phone camera.

2012-03-23 16.14.56


I’m not sure of the exact costs as we were also pouring a footing for some decking and a wall running up to the studio at the same time. But the total bill for the pouring phase came to just under £600 for the materials, £250 for the concrete pump and about the same again for labour. Total: ~ £1,100 for the pour.

Other items involved in the footings project were the insulation (about ~£40 for a 1.2m x 2.4m board) Digger Hire and skips for the excess dirt. In my case I’ve used much of the clay that we dug out of the footings for a garden landscaping project, this has saved a fortune in skips.

Total bill for the footings I would estimate at around £2000. You would need to allow for more for skips if you didn’t have a landscaping project in mind for all the soil you pull out.

Learning the hard way

Looking back, my choice of single pour solid base may be the start of my first mistake with the studio. I’m not sure if it was a certain thing then, but I have ended up with a wood beam floor in the studio. The wooden floor is supported by beams above the concrete base with an air gap between for ventilation.

This floor has the potential to resonate like a drum and will be a constant pain going forward.

I am where I am now and I can’t afford to change this. But I would recommend anyone else at this step stop to research and ask if there are alternatives to this configuration either available with the solid, single pour base or by going with a different kind of footing. I would be much happier if I could stand directly on the concrete base.

Step 1 Getting permission

No matter what country you are in there will be laws about what you can build and where.

Because I am building this in the UK on part of the same plot as an existing house I can use certain building rights called permitted development. Please note that this post is just my take on the rules and that if you are in doubt you should go to your local planning office and ask for their advice, my experience was that they were very helpful.

There are 2 ‘impediments’ to just building what you like in the UK: Planning permission and Building Regulations. Permitted development takes care of the planning permission aspect for quite a few extensions and outbuildings.

The government planning portal site provides some quite useful interactive graphics on what is allowed for extensions and outbuildings.

I doubt when this was debated in the house of commons the MPs were thinking about music studios, so the precise rules I am using generally refer to outbuildings like sheds and summerhouses.

More details for outbuildings are available here. However the basics are that, since I’ve not covered 50% of my garden even with the studio, I am free to build an outbuilding. Further I am not subject to building regulations providing it is either less than 15 sq m  or between 15 and 30 sq m and made out of ‘substantially non-combustible materials’. The only exception to this is the electrics which I will have to get signed off.

I figure that bricks and concrete count as non-combustible, and my studio works out to be a tad under 28 sq m.

As it happens, the chap doing most of the structural work for me is helping me keep it to regulations anyway. There have been a few times that this has lead to less than ideal acoustics (the damn wood beam floor is basically a big resonant cavity) , but I think keeping the building inspectors happy is probably better than to risk having to tear it down. TBH, the building inspectors have been very approachable even offering some advice on the studio when they had come round to review some work I’d done extending the house.

I should add that there was a 3rd even more important party that needed to approve of what I was doing – Kate, my very patient wife.

I also get the feeling that the bass drum should get a mention as an inanimate ambassador in all of this. By not fitting through the loft hatch, he resolutely took up storage in what is going to be the downstairs bathroom, thus re-prioritising the studio.

High five, Ambassador Bass drum.

Building a music studio from scratch – mostly because I can