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Welcome to Subterranean Scumbarge Studios

January 7, 2009

Here at Recording's offices, we're building a nice little in-house audio evaluation room, with treated walls and ceiling and a selection of quality audio gear basics, where we can do basic tracking and mixing and test a variety of equipment. When I tell my friends in the industry about this project, some of them express surprise: "Why do you need a room like that? Why not just do reviews at home? I would imagine your home setup would be world-class, you being an editor and all!"

The first few times I heard that, I was surprised and asked why there would be such an impression. When the third answer turned out to be the same as the first two, I recognized a pattern and quickly learned how to dispel a couple of the more popular myths about reviewing gear for a magazine.

The first important truth is, manufacturers don't give you the gear to keep, or offer to let you keep it if the review's good. They want this stuff back, and unless you're willing to pony up for it, they get it back, or you get in trouble. Stop and think about it: I've been reviewing desktop recorders for over a decade... if I kept them all, where would I store them? And what about things like full-sized consoles or large monitors? A colleague in the industry summed it up nicely: "Yeah, I wish I had a studio loaded with all the gear I've been sent to review... at least the good stuff."

The second truth is, putting together a home studio with decent acoustics and a good layout isn't magically easier for a magazine editor than for anyone else. There's a reason why I call my home studio "Subterranean Scumbarge". When my wife and I bought our current home some years ago, we managed to get into a decently sized place with solid construction and just about enough room for us, with a few caveats to deal with... one of which was that the previous owner who'd attempted to finish the basement ran out of money and/or time with one room to go. When we toured the house, Dr. Mrs. Dr. poked her head into the one unfinished room, gave me a huge smile, and said brightly, "And this is where you can put your studio!"

Gee, thanks, honey. :-\

I had enough money in my studio fund to do some basic acoustic treatment so the room didn't sound atrocious, but I have to admit, as an inspiring creative space it comes up lacking. (The words "freezing-cold, butt-ugly snake pit" come to mind.) I've managed to produce a fair number of recordings in it and released a good chunk of my catalog from there, but I wouldn't call it a model studio by any means. Other staffers at Recording have had better luck with their home rigs, but their homes are their homes and mine is mine, and Subterranean Scumbarge is, for better or worse, mine.

Over the years I've managed to apply my expertise and do some sensible things, although the studio's always a work in progress to some extent. Once the room was treated to sound half decent and I learned how to monitor in there with an ear toward problems when played back elsewhere, I then got into the swing of:

- building an ergonomic setup that didn't make me cry with frustration;

- making sure I had what gear I needed to do my work and as little other stuff to distract me as possible;

- and making the room a bit less unwelcoming for the occasional guest. (Recording writers like Darwin Grosse, Nick Rothwell, John Rossi III, Paul Vnuk Jr., John DuVal, Giles Reaves, and others have all squeezed themselves in through the narrow door, looked around, and gotten to work with only the occasional sigh, a degree of solicitude for which I'm grateful.)

When I look around SSS, I tend to think of two things, one in direct succession to the other. The first is, "God, what a pesthole to have to work in." The second is, "Man, it's amazing how much music I get done in here." Because this studio, while the smallest and second ugliest of my career (second ugliest?! Don't ask), has been the birthplace of an extraordinary proportion of my released content. I've had studios with literally five times the square footage in which I produced nearly nothing of value, but this miserable little place has turned out to be quite the creative refuge.

I take a certain degree of hope from this, and some lessons I try to pass along. One is that even a crummy room can yield good music, if you learn how to listen and how to control and minimize the crummy parts.

Another is that while good gear can't make a bad room good, good gear combined with good ears and care can get you where you need to be in a bad room... or at least far enough along to carry your work to a better room.

Another is that a recording setup that inspires you to work, will keep you working even under difficult conditions.

And perhaps the most important lesson of all is that you mustn't fall into the trap of saying you aren't going to be ready to do your stuff until such and such a problem is fixed. I lost a lot of the 1980s sitting in a huge and well-designed room with a ton of great gear, saying to myself that if I only had one more piece I'd be ready to rock. In the late 2000s, stuck in my horrid little room, I produce music constantly—some of it not so good, some of it quite good, but the main point here is that I produce it.

I spend several hours a week in the studio, at least a little time every day... reviewing gear, composing, and doing my Internet radio show (more about that in another blog post someday). I get a fair bit done... and I can smile when I turn on my announcer's mic and say, "We're coming to you live from Subterranean Scumbarge Studios, hundreds of feet below the streets of beautiful downtown Atomic City!"

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