Off the Musical Deep End, Part III: Programageddeon

John Scalzi

“Hey, Scalzi,” you ask, “any more choice thoughts about your new little basement studio?” Why, yes, I have a couple!

* First, folks, I’m sooooooo in over my head right now. I know I’ve said that before, but let me reiterate that I’ve really overcommitted. I’ve, like, bought all the software (to go along with all the hardware, which I also bought), and while buying all that stuff was fun in a retail therapy sort of way, now I actually have to learn all of it. And that’s also fun? But also kind of like work? But if I don’t do it I’ve literally spent a whole basket of money on nothing?

Mind you, I absolutely plan on learning all this stuff. But at the moment I’m at the very bottom of the learning curve looking up and going, yuuuuup, this is gonna take a bit. The good news is, while I can’t guarantee at the end of it that any of the songs I might write will be any good, if I learn this stuff like I want to, at least they will sound good. This will be the aural equivalent of making terrible food but plating it spectacularly. We work with what we have.

* I do think at this point I’m pretty much maxxed out on hardware and software, however, at least for the rest of 2021. More accurate, and per the point above, I have enough on hand that adding more just means I won’t get to it anytime soon, and even if I did I wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with it. So again: Time to work with what I have, and then see after a while if there’s anything else that’s useful and/or necessary.

And here the musicians snicker, and, well: Fair. But I’m gonna try to hold this line for now. Don’t mock me! Okay, mock me a little.

* The most recent major purchase for the room: A friggin’ chair, because I temporarily used a dining room table chair for a couple of days and it almost wrecked my lower back. I forgot I was old and my body is looking for any excuse to fall apart. The studio chair is not as swanky as my office chair, but it’s more than good enough, and when I sit in it I don’t feel my vertebrae trying to slip sideways out of my back. Also it matches the carpet and The Beast, and that’s nice.

* Finally, I’m discovering the drawbacks to having the studio in the basement. The first is that this is where we keep the cat boxes, so there’s the faint smell of, shall we say, “cat business” about. It was always there but I wasn’t in the basement for hours on end, and now I am. So, that’s not great. I expect I’ll be cleaning out the cat boxes more frequently than I currently do, which is probably for the best anyway.

More pressing, however, is that the basement is damn cold. Which makes sense: Cold air sinks, and the basement is underground and largely windowless. But also: Brrrrr. I’ve taken to leaving a hoodie and thick socks down there as part of the studio basic equipment. This gives me an excuse to play my drums to warm myself up.

So, yeah. The easy part of buying stuff is mostly over. Now comes the hard part of learning stuff. Let’s see where it goes from here.

— JS

35 Comments on “Off the Musical Deep End, Part III: Programageddeon”

  1. probably worth hiring someone short term to show you the ropes
    on the other hand probably good to push your brain and figure it out yourself, especially as you get older
    good luck

  2. This stuff takes time, you’ll get there, and the nightmare of learning how to do all this stuff will just be a memory! If it is that cold, I would suggest one of those Dyson portable heaters, they have ones with air filters too, which might help with the cat smell. Since you don’t have your instruments in cases, keeping it at a better temperature might be a good thing, especially for the Beast. I am having my fort band practice in 18 months tonight (all vaxxed) and I’m super stoked!

  3. Cold? I suggest a small oil heater. Will not heat up the space fast, but I have found they work very well for heating rooms. I turn mine on in October, and turn it off sometime in June. I just keep it on the lowest setting.

  4. Just tell people it’s industrial music and you’re doing an 80’s art rock retro thing.

  5. Also the cold will affect the guitars (electrics less than acoustics but it will still affect them).

    There are always a million more things you can get, but if you’ve got input to the computer and software to record with then everything else is gravy. Heavy blankets hung from the wall are workable sound baffles until (and if) you decide to acoustically treat the room (also less of an issue if you’re using headphones for everything instead of studio monitors).

  6. I have discovered that wood pellets (for wood stoves) makes an amazingly wonderful cat litter. There’s a mild wood smell fresh out of the bag but I have not smelled anything cat. Benefits, besides lack of cat smell, are compostable, dust-free, + low price. $5 for a 40# bag. My cats had no objections to my gradual changing over from nasty clay stuff to the pellets.

    NOTE: Must be additive-free pellets. The bags of the locally manufactured pellets I get say:
    Materials: softwood
    Additives: none

  7. Everyone’s suggesting heater solutions, and that’s totally understandable, but it’s probably a good idea to also consider humidity control along with that. Changes in temperature and humidity will play hell with anything made of wood, including guitars. (It’s not so much the cold in itself, but the warming up when the heater’s turned on, then the rapid cooling down when you go back upstairs, plus that the heat may dry out the air… A lot to consider.)

    Also, godspeed to you in your journey to understand the software side of music creation. I love playing my instruments, but whenever I open up a music creation/recording program, it pings a totally different area of my brain and makes me feel like I’m doing a math problem instead, which is far less enjoyable. Not everyone is wired that way, of course, and I wish you all joy in your new toys.

  8. We have a dehumidifier in the basement so we’re already on top of that.

    As for the cold, I mean, socks and a hoodie are fine for now. We’ll see how the basement is in the winter (honestly, I expect it’ll be a similar temperature).

  9. Learning to play and and to record at the same time has a drawback: in case of bad results (there will be, and there will be plenty) you also have to figure if it’s your recording or your playing which made it suck. But then, having the record to listen to and find the mistakes is very valuable, and the convenience of digital tools for this – better than wearing out (casette) tapes – is worth the effort. I’m sticking to my instrument and basic digital tools, I’m not ready to reliably play good enough that anybody could produce anything out of that :).

  10. Having specifically done the ‘work in the same space where the cat nuggets are deposited, two things can really help (and they may be the same thing).

    1> Air flow – if you can put a blocker, redirect, etc so that air does not move the equivalent of downwind, helps a lot.

    2> Small pet-specific air filter – a small charcoal filter based air unit can both handle the worst of lingering odors (nothing will handle the immediate effects of a fresh deposit at the bank) AND can be used to redirect same airflow. I recommend the Hamilton Beach True Air with the permanent HEPA filter (saves money and you don’t need to change it for this) and the carbon pre-filter. (Link for your convenience – disclaimer is I used my affiliate link to generate it easily:

  11. I am disappointed that nobody has gone for the low hanging fruit.

    First album: “The faint smell of cat poop.”

  12. In my last house I had my music room down in the basement. We installed insulated vinyl tiles (took me 1 day). This raised the basement temperature 7 – 8 degrees with the bonus of making the basement look better. This made playing my guitars a lot more comfortable.

  13. As I remember having the air chilled and low humidity works better for recording equipment (something about air density and the quality of propagation that was pretty much beyond my scope when I was last in a studio umpty decades ago). But I do recommend abating the cat smell as quickly as possible and using a hepa filter to help with that as the ammonia will deposit on the equipment and could cause 1) continuous bad smell from off gassing and 2) affect the quality of sound by altering the surface of materials (finish, strings, speaker cones, receiving chamber, etc). This will vary depending if you’re doing direct capture pre amplification or using a mic post amplification (I admit my knowledge is several decades out of current and the last studio I was in was all analog).

  14. We mitigated our cat smell challenges by switching to pine litter (I see someone already mentioned wood pellets; more or less the same thing). For whatever reason, it really does help with the smell. I’ve also seen cat enclosures made out of giant Tupperware type boxes: hole is cut in one side for the cat, litter box is placed in far side away from the hole. Controls both odor and litter tracking; but requires quite a bit of space which is why we haven’t done it.

    Our music room (electronic keyboard, several guitars and amps) is in the loft, which is also where the exercise equipment is. Makes for some interesting challenges, but at least it’s not cold.

  15. The music geek in me would love to know your entire setup, from software you’re using to interfaces, microphones, speakers and mixing gear (which you can kind of see in the picture but would be keen to just know for sure) :) I can see a small MIDI keyboard there too now?

  16. I’m always on the cats’ side. Our cat was exceedingly displeased if she had to use an uncleaned cat box. I found myself scooping six or seven times a day. Total time expended? Two or three minutes? Worth it for a happy kitty :-)

    (But think about it–how do you feel about using a bathroom that has obviously … well, I think the picture is clear.)

    And I’m really impressed by the music room. I’ve given up and now admit to being a collector of instruments I can’t play: harp, travel harp, piano, keyboard, nylon string guitar, steel string guitar, recorder, other recorder, mountain dulcimer… gosh, no wonder my husband isn’t up for a new dulcimer!

  17. I foster cats and kittens in my basement. I installed a Cove Heater (which is basically a baseboard heater but installed near the top of the wall rather than at floor level). It does a fabulous job of keeping my foster room comfortable. There’s a thermostat control on the wall. And since it’s not at ground level, you don’t have to worry about the cats getting curious and burning themselves (which I worried about a lot with the foster kittens).

  18. Aren’t you supposed to be playing with Krissy now and not your musical stuff? It’s your anniversary!

  19. When you write about your basement studio, could you please include full resolution photos instead of your usual thumbnails? Gearheads like me want to read the labels on every knob. (Okay, maybe just me.) Thanks.

    Meanwhile, what are the three devices on your desk? One looks like a pedal board, one looks like a keyboard on an acid trip, and the third is completely unidentifiable.

    And I second jeff kish’s suggestion for lessons. Music teachers are technology teachers too these days.

  20. We use horse bedding pellets for cat litter – I didn’t know heating pellets were just as good, Lif S.

    Pet Supplies Stores have even started selling them, supposedly made out of pine so they have that Pine-Sol smell — at only twice as expensive for half as much as I spend for the horse bedding pellets at CountryMax! (Even so, they’re cheaper than the clumping litter.)

    As for the blankets? They’ll also help trap and retain heat in that cold basement room, so they’re doubly useful. That’s why, pre-central heating, hanging tapestries were so popular – one of those little tidbits you learn from being married to a historical fantasy writer….

  21. I thought I’d asked earlier if you have an Intel Mac Mini or one of the new M-1 Apple Silicon ones, Scalzi.

    If the latter, what do you think? Is it a LOT speedier than a comparable Windows machine, as most reviewers have claimed?

  22. My “office” is also in the basement, about 6 feet from the kitty’s litter box… But we have a litter robot (looks like an egg, turns to dispose of the waste). I can smell right after the cat is done with business as it is set to wait 15 minutes to allow the litter to set, but then all disappears! Plus conveniently goes into a trash bag for removal once a week. Expensive but worth it. And the nice thing about basements is the consistent “cool” temp, summer and winter…

  23. I have the canonical “Evil Genius” edition underground laboratory in the rainforest on a Pacific island, and except for a few days each summer it is sweater temperature down there. You get used to it.

  24. The two cheapest improvements you can make right now:

    get your monitoring speakers up off that reflective desk until the tweeters are about where your ears are when you’re sitting down. Companies like to sell stands ranging from $10 to $1000. For now, anything will do.
    reduce reflections off the wall behind your speakers by hanging up a quilt, a blanket, or nearly anything soft and heavy.

  25. “Cold Cat Business” is a great name for a rock band, or your first solo album.

  26. If it’s been a while since you last listened to the Traveling Wilburys, check out “Cool Dry Place”.

  27. For your back problems, I got my family chairs in which you sit with your calfs supporting your weight, you tush at an angle.
    The chair base is not flat or on wheels put will rock to a position that forces your back to be straight. If you lean forward or back the chair will rock, forcing you to keep your back straight.
    My uncle the orthopedic surgeon, has a cure for your back problems. Swimming! You are not putting any pressure on your joints, and your are strengthening your core, and it aerobic.

  28. W/R/T several recent threads:

    1.) Anniversary: congratulations! (from 40 years and counting–met trekking in the Himalayas and waited to propose until she’d been trying to blow up an air mattress at 17,000 feet).

    2.) Music software: very worth the trouble to learn. Risk of occasional hardware damage, e.g., fist through screen.

    3.) Several different brands of auto-scooping cat litter boxes available!

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