In Conversation with John J. Volanski



John Volanski
Photo courtesy of the author

An interview with the authr of Sound Recording Advice
Available for purchase at http://www.soundrecordingadvice.com.

Molly Sheridan: Composers have their own recording needs and especially with the industry being less and less able to support these discs, I thought this book would be really interesting.

John Volanski: Well, I would think that a lot of composers could use a home studio as a composing tool.

Molly Sheridan: This book is a very practical instructional tool. What motivated you to sit down and organize this knowledge for the amateur?

John Volanski: Well, originally it started out as a series of articles that I was going to write for Electronic Musician, and I wrote some of those and then I put the project on the shelf and it sat there for a couple of years. Then the opportunity came up where I had the opportunity to leave my job with some stock under my wing so I thought this would be a great opportunity to sit down and at least finish what I had started writing. It turned out to be a lot more work that I thought it was going to be because every time I got to a point where I would stop and look at what I had written, I’d think, ‘Well, now I have to tell them about power and acoustics and how to mix and how to set up a gain structure,’ and on and on. Eventually I finished it but it was a lot more work that I first thought. I found that I was answering the same questions over and over again to a lot of my friends who were setting up their own home studios and so I thought well this would be a good thing to have to point them to so they could just read that and all my answers would be right there.

Molly Sheridan: What is your background in all this that you became so knowledgeable that people were coming to you for advice?

John Volanski: Originally I started out just playing around with analogue tape decks, reel-to-reels, and I got interested in that when I was a kid. Then when I went to college I studied electrical engineering and I also took audio engineering courses as a minor and got more and more interested in it. Did a lot of playing around with equipment while I was there in the music labs, things like that. And then when I got out I bought some equipment for myself and built my own mixer, bought a used analog reel-to-reel and an old monophonic synthesizer, and just started playing around and eventually figured it out. But there’s a lot of extra reading I did on the side, books and different magazines like Keyboard Magazine, Electronic Musician, things of that nature.

Molly Sheridan: Is there anything new that even you learned while writing this book?

John Volanski: That’s a good question. I think most of the stuff I knew, it was just getting it out and onto paper. One of the things that was an interesting task was trying to put together complete recording systems that I could recommend to people at different budget levels. Like if you only have $500, what can you do? What if you only have $2500? And so that was harder than I thought it was going to be because you kind of have one hand tied behind your back. You have to cover all the bases. You need a microphone, you need a recorder, you need some way to mix it, and a different recorder to mix it down to cassette or CD, headphones…it goes on and on, so that was an interesting exercise for me.

Molly Sheridan: Yeah, I was really surprised how much of it wasn’t necessarily computer based. In my limited experience with recording, it’s always involved ProTools, so the fact that there still are technically efficient ways to do this without involving a PC was very surprising to me?

John Volanski: That’s true. You know ProTools is the latest and greatest and everyone wants to jump on that bandwagon, but for the last 20 or 30 years people have been making perfectly good recordings not using ProTools so all that equipment is out there and a lot of it is on the used market right now and it represents a good deal for people to seek out and buy. Some of the older equipment can be kind of a maintenance headache but if you know what you’re doing with that kind of stuff you can turn out very high quality recordings. There are a lot of sites and in my book I must give 20 or 30 of them where you can get used equipment. There are a ton of them out there.

Molly Sheridan: Yeah, I would guess so since it seems like it almost becomes an addiction and having the new technology gets to be important.

John Volanski: It’s called “new gear lust.” They’ve given it a name, that’s how bad it is.

Molly Sheridan: I’m curious what your first studio looked like when you felt that you were completely operational. What kind of equipment was in it?

John Volanski: Well, let’s see. That’s a good question. When I started out I had 4-track reel-to-reel, a 16-channel mixer that I bought components for and put together, and I used another 2-channel reel-to-reel for my mastering deck and I also used that deck as an echo device kind of like the old tape based echoes. Now a days it’s all digital reverb, digital echo. That’s pretty easy to do, but back then those things were like $10,000 a piece and so there was no way I could afford that. So with that and an old Korg synthesizer that I bought, that’s how I started. And you know some of those recordings that I did back then are pretty lame. I think when I got to the point where I was turning out reasonably higher quality recordings was when I bought an 8-track reel-to-reel and I bought a 16-channel mixer—and it was very clean, the audio path was, no hiss or anything—and I bought a digital effects box, the Yamaha SPX90 was like the first Swiss army knife of multi-effectors, so once I had those and a good condenser mic, then I could start to turn out good recordings, but now a days people can buy those exact units on the used market for, geez, they could probably get that reel-to-reel for $300 or $400 now and when I bought it, it was like $1200. So yeah it’s really changed and the stuff you can buy now, the quality is two or three times what it was and the price is two or three times less.

Molly Sheridan: What do you think, as you look back, were some of the big lessons that you learned or hard lessons through recording disasters that still stick in your mind, that maybe even as you wrote this book you felt a need to address?

John Volanski: Having proper power and grounding is a biggie in that when I first started, the house that I had didn’t have a third wire ground in it. When I’d have ground loops or hum and things of that nature it was hard to get rid of. So getting the proper power and grounding in was one thing. Learning about how sound behaves in a small room because most everyone who is going to have a home studio is going to do it in a bedroom or a garage or something and usually the sound behaves not to your advantage in a small room like that. Not only when you record it but when you listen to it with the monitor that you have it’s going to color the sound quite a bit and it can lead you to make mistakes when you go to mix it down, because you think you’re hearing one thing which you are but when you listen to it in a different space the way the sound is colored doesn’t appear. Another thing that I leaned is probably putting a lot of emphasis on buying at least one good microphone rather than three or four average microphones. If I were to recommend to someone just starting out what they should do, I’d definitly go with a high quality condenser microphone and the reason is because if you don’t capture the high quality sound right at the beginning anything that you do downstream like adding compression or echo or reverb or equalization, it’s not going to matter because you didn’t start out with a good clean pristine signal. So getting the signal to be the best possible at the beginning makes a big difference. Another thing I learned that took me awhile was proper gain staging and what that means is that any act of electronic stages down the line that can adjust the volume can have a big effect on the signal to noise ratio and the dynamic range of the final audio so if you don’t optimize the gain at each one of those stages and learn how to do that you’re probably going to compromise the overall signal quality and you’re going to end up either with a recording that’s not very loud that has a lot of hiss in it or one that’s too loud that has some distortion and clipping, so in fact in the book I give a lot of sites online and also a tutorial on how to set gain staging because that’s very important and one thing I didn’t know about when I first started. Those are probably some of the main ones.

Molly Sheridan: For someone who sees this book and thinks, ‘Yeah, I’m going to start my own home studio,’ is there any good way to gauge or test this out? How do you know if you’re just fascinated with the technology or if you’re really ready to invest in something like this?

John Volanski: That’s a good question because it is for most people a bit of an outlay of cash. I think what I would do is go to the local audio equipment dealer and see if you can rent probably something like an 8 or a 16-track digital recording system, a stand alone system that has a CD recorder, mixer, all built into it, and get a microphone and play guitar or violin or whatever and start laying down some tracks and see how you feel. If you’re just renting a system for a couple of weeks I think by that time you’re going to get the feel that, ‘Hey this really holds some intrigue for me,’ or ‘Geez, what am I doing this for?’ I think that strategy also works if you’re trying to decide what piece of equipment to buy—should I buy a 16-track reel-to-reel or a 16-channel digital recorder or should I just buy a new hard drive and some software for my computer. If you rent the equipment, sometimes you can make a better choice without jumping into the deep end.

Molly Sheridan: With how technology has progressed today, how close can you get in a home studio to what you would get if you used your neighborhood recording studio?

John Volanski: Actually quality wise I think you can get within 98% or 99%. In fact some of the stuff you hear that people put out is actually done in their home studios. A lot of the big stars have some pretty impressive home studios and I think what’s really going to make the difference is whether you have the audio engineering chops or not. Given that you’re a good musician, are you going to be able to capture a good quality recording, and a lot of that has to do with whether you understand acoustic principals and some of stuff that goes on behind the scenes with audio engineering. I’ve tried to give people a basic understanding of that in the book because I think it’s critical to have some of that knowledge if you’re going to be recording—like knowing what techniques you use to take a single monophonic sound like a violin and make it sound like two or three violins, how to make a violin sound like it’s up close or way in the background, those kinds of things. If you don’t know how to do that, you’re going to be at a disadvantage compared to going to a professional studio where the audio engineer will know how to do that and be able to do that for you.

Molly Sheridan: Are these things that you need an audio engineering degree to be able to grasp, or is it something you can read a couple books and practice a little bit and figure out for yourself?

John Volanski: I don’t think you need an audio engineering degree. I would think that a lot of the people who are out there and are mixing songs do not have audio engineering degrees. They may have some schooling in it but I’ll bet a lot of them just started out as apprentices watching somebody in the studio twiddling the knobs and telling them if you do this you’re going to get this result, and if you do that you’re going to get a different kind of result. It’s just a matter of getting your leg up on the technology and figuring out what things do. I think you can get a lot of that just from reading. Of course you need to put into action what you read. You can read all the books you want but if you never get into the studio and try out some of those things and experiment then it’s not going to do you any good. That’s one thing that a home studio is good for—experimentation because if you try to do that in a professional studio it’s going to cost you a lot of money because you’ve got an engineer standing there tapping his foot waiting for you to play around. You’re paying for that.

Molly Sheridan: The clock is always ticking! I guess to finish up then, I’m curious now, when people say, ‘Hey, John, I’m thinking of starting my own home studio,’ what do you think? Is there anything new that you tell them now that you’ve been through the process of writing this book?

John Volanski: I say, ‘Hey, go for it.’ I have a lot of friends who are doing just that. Right now they’re trying to figure out which multi-track to buy and what effects boxes and stuff and they’re very excited about it. And so am I. I like to help them figure that out. I get email all the time from people asking me what I think they should buy and the great thing is that technology is marching along at such a pace that we’re getting the price/performance ratio on a lot of this stuff is just taking off. It’s amazing the quality you can get for the money. I just got a flier the other day from Musician’s Friend, and they have a multi-track recorder with the mixer and effects built in and this thing is $299. It’s unbelievable and completely breaks the price barrier for multi-track digital recording. That’s the way things are going and it really only benefits the musicians and the people who are willing to take the step and create their own studio.