Updated: Nov 4, 2019
The Studio is An Instrument
What do you think of what you hear someone is going "in the studio?" Do you think of the famed recording studios of the past—the hallowed music temples such as Abbey Road in London where The Beatles recorded many of their classics and of which they named their 1969 album or Sun Studios in Memphis known as the "Birthplace of Rock'n'Roll" where legends like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley recorded. Maybe you think of "home studio" or "project studio" a space that composers, producers, and songwriters set aside for working on music creation at home? Studios come in large and small, from spaces that are set up to record orchestras with more than 100 members to a laptop and sound-isolated closet that a singer sets aside to lay down her vocal ideas. The types of studios vary almost as much as types of music. What they all have in common in that they are an instrument themselves. The layout, physical space, and acoustics of the room shape how music is created in it.
How can a room be a musical instrument? The first thing to consider is what is sound and how we perceive it. When we hear, our ear receive frequency waves moving through the air and turning them into electrical impulses that our brains then turn into what we call sound. Watch the video below from the U.S, Department of Health and Human Services to watch the journey of the sound of a trumpet to the brain.
Since sound waves more through the air and therefore space, the space we are in when we are listening effects how we perceive sound. Imagine clapping twice in a large open space with a high ceiling like a cathedral and then imagine clapping twice in the back of your closest that is full of clothes. You would perceive the resulting sound very differently although the initial stimulus (clapping twice) would not have changed.The acoustics in these spaces are drastically different with the cathedral being designed to be a "live" space with a lot of reverberation and the second being "dead" or without reverberation.
This might seem obvious but aspects of this alter how we perceive sound and therefore how we hear and how we create music. In an idealized studio setting, the music creator will be able to control how much reverberation, the amount of ambient noise, the temperature, the humidity, and a long list of other factors in their designated studio space. However, this is not always possible, especially in home settings, and we must learn how to work in the space we have. It's like any other instrument, you may feel that you are able to play your best on a Stradivarius violin, but your budget provides you with a student model. Many musicians get hung up on this and are constantly looking for the latest technological solution to their musical creation issues. Embracing the philosophy "Availabilism" or making the best of what you have is essential to being a music creator. When we create our studio space, we must make the best of what is available to us. For example, the aforementioned closet can make a great sound booth where you can use blankets to block out unwanted sounds. Listening critical listening is essential to understanding your studio and learning how to adapt to it. Having excellent audio monitors and being able to listen to your music on a variety of headphones and speakers can help you listen better. Your typical phone earbuds or in computer speakers do not provide the audio quality necessary for critical listening, however, they do give you an idea what the typical listener will hear when they listen to your music. We will discuss more critical listening techniques and approaches at a later date.
In a studio, each of the components of the studio the instruments, the signal processors, the mixers, the computers, the audio monitors (speakers), the microphones, etc. combine to create a unique instrument. Additionally, studios can be combined together to create a larger instrument, similar to how a group of musical instruments (and musicians) comes together to form an orchestra. This is the case in larger studios such as Abbey Road that has several different rooms for different musical purposes. For example, a studio may have one room dedicated for MIDI creation, another for recording drums, another for mixing, etc. This type of setup requires data networking and a communication system if the audio and music professionals in these various spaces are to work together "in real time."
We Live in a Digital World
Nearly all studios today are digital rather than analog (for example, records) or magnetic (for example, tape). Historically, music was recorded on wax cylinders, then on phonographs (records), and later on tape. The tape we mean, in this case, is those big reel-to-reel recordings you see in movies. Much of our studio techniques, such as as adding effects such as delay, echo, overdubbing (recording more than one layer of the same sound), compression, and more originate with how these tapes were physically manipulated and experimented with. Today, we do most of our sound capturing and manipulation with computers.
Computers are digital and process information with on and off or 0 and 1 messages. (Although there are now quantum computers who can consider messages that are neither on or off, 1 or 0.) Much of what we do in the studio is Digital Signal Processing (DSP). Analog signals are "continuous signals that contain time varying qualities." A microphone converts sound waves into an analog signal. Analog signals include electrical signals, mechanical signals, human speech and other systems.
That being said, there is still a place for analog equipment in the 21st century studio. Commonly used analog devices include anything that does not use digital signals, such as acoustic musical instruments, electric musical instruments, and the human voice. Most microphones and speakers are analog and need to be converted using an analog-to-digital converter. Although some analog microphones and speakers have conversion built-in, such as a USB microphone.
Some music creators prefer it and say that analog equipment provides a "warmer" sound. There are even digital plugins which are meant to simulate the sound of analog equipment such as Waves Kramer Tape and the virtual versions of classic equipment. An analog-to-digital convertor must be used to make a digital device receive analog signal. For example, the signal from an instrument such as a electric guitar or the signal from a microphone are analog signals that must be convertor to be input into the computer, an audio interface is a tool that does this. For the sound to leave the computer and be heard by us, it must then be covered back into an analog signal so that it can be received by audio monitors and headphones and finally our ears and then brain. This process is called digital-to-analog conversion.
Digital Signal Processing
In audio terms, a signal may an analog, digital, or magnetic (tape) representation of a sound or a musical gesture (audio rate). An audio signal normally represents a sound in the human auditory range of 20Hz to 20kHz. While a control signal may represent a musical gesture usually 100Hz of lower (control rate). A modulation single my represent a change to an audio or control signal (can be at any audio rate). Other signals are used to represent video and to sychronize audio, video, and computer rates. For our purposes, it is important to note that we are capturing a representation of the sound or musical gesture in digital means.
In a studio, we have a lot of equipment that works together to create our Studio Instrument. We have controller and keyboards that are designed for MIDI input and output; we have microphones and instrument amplifiers; we have our software applications (including our DAW), our audio monitors, our computer screen monitors, our computer itself, the power conditioner, the surge protector, and more. These aspects of the Studio Instrument are all connected via cables and sometimes wireless connections such as WiFi and Bluetooth. Wired connections are far better for audio purposes as latency (time lag) and capturing the highest signal quality possible are both factors. The types of interconnections in the studio include AC power lines, analog audio cables, digital audio cables, digital sync cables, MIDI cables, and fiber optic cables.
Since the musical signal goes through a lot of equipment and cable on its journey from the voice, instrument, or controller, it is helpful to conceptualize the flow of signal in the studio with a Flow Chart.
A flow chart may be depicted using images or photos like the example of the simple portable setup above. Or, it may use descriptive words. It is up to you which you prefer. There are online flow chart creators which you may wish to try, or you can create one using simple shapes and arrows in a word processing software. The important thing is that it illustrates to and from your signal is going. With technology, troubleshooting is part of the process and having a fluent understanding of your technology is a big help. Drawing or writing out a flowchart provide you with that fluency. This is especially true as your add more and more components to your signal chain. For example, the signal may be a voice coming from a singer which is going through a microphone which is going into an analog preamp which is then going to an analog equalizer which is then going to an analog compressor which is then going to an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), so that the digital computer is able to receive the sound. The audio interface is the ADC in the above example.
I encourage you to consider your current studio. Is it a laptop with musical typing and a USB microphone? Is it a professional desktop computer with analog equipment and an ADC? Are you currently creating music with a smartphone or tablet? Do you use an audio interface such as a RME BabyFace, the IK Multimedia iRig, or the PreSonus Scarlett? What audio monitor do you use? Do you have any external audio processors? What instruments do you use? Ask yourself these questions and more and draw out your current Flow Chart. You can add in more components as you add them.
Getting to know your Studio Instrument is important. Give yourself time to become familiar with all the components in your setup. You may find that certain flows are better for particular applications, such as recording on-the-go, recording, or a songwriting session. What does your flow chart look like? Feel free to share yours by tagging us @PerennialMusicAndArts on Instagram or Facebook or @PerennialArts on Twitter. You can always email your questions and comments as well at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, sign in and comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, songwriter, sound healer, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Visit www.PerennialMusicAndArts.com for more about music lessons and www.JanaeJean.com for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and recipes. Contact her via email@example.com for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.
Wright, Geoffrey D. "Studio Techniques Course." Course taken Fall 2010, https://pcm.peabody.jhu.edu/~gwright3/st/st-notebook (Accessed 24 June 2019).
Thanks for much to Dr. Geoffrey Wright for his instruction and online resources!