Paul White presents 20 ways to ensure your studio runs smoothly. If only he’d taken notice of them himself, he might be managing Abbey Road by now!
Even a relatively small studio setup is a complex, symbiotic organism strung together by innumerable leads and often relying on several pieces of software to make it run smoothly. All it takes is one faulty connection and the function of the whole system can be compromised. A little planning and preventative maintenance goes a long way, but because it’s boring, it tends to get put off. Don’t let it! This month’s tips concentrate on those simple things that if done will help your studio run smoothly, but if ignored, can disrupt smooth running… I have done my very best to resist the temptation to point out that if you really want a smooth-running studio, the only PC computer in it should be used to do the accounts! And so, without further ado and in no particular order, here are 20 things you can do to help keep the gremlins at bay.
1. Check all your mains cables periodically by removing the covers from the plugs and tightening the connectors. These do work loose with time and give rise to crackles and buzzes, not to mention the risk of electric shock. Ensure cable clamps and fuse holders are tight and that the correct fuse value is fitted. Budget distribution boards can be dismantled and the contacts tightened up using a pair of pliers, but remember to unplug them first!
2. Wipe all jack plugs using a cloth sprayed with Deoxit, and spray some into your patchbay sockets as well to help avoid the build-up of corrosion and dirt. This stuff also works well on mains plugs where it is essential to maintain a low impedance, especially on the earth pin. I don’t know if I’d go to Martin Walker’s lengths of cleaning all the mains plug pins with wire wool, but it can’t do any harm.
3. Make up track sheets to document your recording sessions, and expand your design to include details on effects and processor settings. If the session includes sequenced sounds, keep a note of all the synths, patch numbers, expansion cards and sample CD-ROMs used during the session. A double-sided track sheet with one side for audio and another for MIDI is a practical way to do the job.
4. If your sequencer doesn’t have a facility for showing the patch names of your various synths, photocopy the relevant patch sheets from your synth manuals and get them laminated. Many local photocopy shops do laminating quite cheaply and it saves the sheets getting creased or torn.
5. Label all used tapes. Labelling the boxes is not good enough as tapes often end up in the wrong boxes. Stick to the APRS labelling convention (for details of which see the January 1995 issue of SOS) so that master tapes, production masters and backups are clearly identified.
6. When you get a new piece of gear, take the time to learn it thoroughly before using it on a session where other musicians are involved. Even if it’s not a paid session, musicians will get impatient if you’re messing around with a piece of gear that you’re not familiar with, and this in turn affects their creativity.
7. Many pieces of software have ‘key-disk-installs’ as a form of copy protection, and if you have a lot of software plug-ins, it’s easy to lose track. To ensure you don’t miss any if you have to uninstall everything from your hard drive, keep a notepad file with the names and version numbers of all the key-disk-install protected software you have on the machine. It also helps to keep all your key disks in one (safe) place.
8. Use a separate hard drive for recording your audio files and defragment it regularly. Failure to do this will reduce the number of simultaneous tracks you can play back without suffering glitching. Try not to work with a drive that’s more than around three-quarters full as it can slow down noticeably.
9. Back up everything, especially if it’s digital! Digital data cannot be considered to truly exist unless it is stored in at least two, and preferably more, different
places! If you have a CD or DVD recorder, make a copy of your entire hard drive so that it will be easier to reinstall your system in the event of a serious crash. Of course you can’t copy key disk installs to a DVD, so you still need to take care of these by manually uninstalling. The same CD-DVD recorder can be used to store the audio files used in your sequences. If you make a lot of changes, you might want to use a rewritable disk/drive, but standard CD-Rs and DVD-Rs are so cheap that it’s hardly worth it.
10. When wiring your studio, always make the cables just a little longer than you need. There will come a time when you want to move something, and Sod’s Law dictates that your cables won’t quite reach! Line-level cables can safely be made a few meters longer than necessary without compromising the signal quality, especially if they are balanced.
11. Do a SysEx dump of all the user patches in your synths, modules and effects units and then make further backups of these. You never know when the internal batteries may die, resulting in the loss or corruption of all your patches (see page 42 for more on this). If you use RAM memory cards, you should also back these up as SysEx dumps as everything is lost when the battery is removed.
12. Subscribe to an Internet service, especially if you use a PC for your music. Often the only way to ensure you have the latest drivers is to check the manufacturers’ web sites and then download what you need. The Internet is also a useful place to look for answers to your technical problems, and of course the SOS site is brim full of PC-related FAQs (see picture on page 200).
13. Even if you don’t play guitar, buy a guitar tuner. There’ll come a time when a guitarist turns up at the studio without one and even if you do tune it to a keyboard, it’s bound to drift out as the day goes on. It pays to check guitar and bass tuning before just about every take.
14. Don’t skimp on media, whether it’s DAT tapes, CD-R blanks, ADAT tape or whatever. You’ve spent a lot of time and money on your music, so it makes sense to preserve it in the most reliable way possible. Also, follow the manufacturer’s advice on storage.
15. However much RAM your software tells you it needs to run properly, always fit at least 4 GB more and preferably 16 GB more. At today’s low prices, it doesn’t make sense to cut corners, and having inadequate amounts of RAM can cause all sorts of problems, including crashes.
16. Use the right cables for connecting digital audio. Cheap audio phono leads may appear to work when connecting one S/PDIF device to another, but you could end up with intermittent clicks and glitches. Buy purpose-made digital cables and keep the connections as short as is practical.
17. Don’t cut corners when choosing a computer monitor. Most audio software feels distinctly cramped on anything other than a 17-inch monitor, but don’t just buy the cheapest as you may end up with a fuzzy display that strains your eyes. A really good monitor will cost a little more, but you may be able to change the display resolution to make it display as much as a 19-inch monitor with no loss of definition.
18. Arrange your equipment racks so that you can get to the back easily if you need to. No matter how clever your patching system, the time will come when you have to string together something out of the ordinary. Self-adhesive PTFE (Teflon) gliders fixed to the bottom of a large rack make it easy to move on carpet.
19. Mark up your patchbays clearly. I know you don’t get a lot of space, but if your abbreviations are too cryptic, visiting musicians won’t have a clue as to what goes where. I print mine using an inkjet printer with eight socket labels per line using tabs to set the spacing between sockets. Three strips cover the full width of a 24-pair patchbay, and clear Sellotape gives a good protective finish to the labels.
20. When you buy a new piece of equipment, stick the receipt to the bottom of the case so you can find it quickly in the event of a breakdown within the warranty period. Those self-adhesive pockets used to hold parcel documents are good for this.