Topher home recording studio, Part 6: The move out West(yeg) — starting all over, downsizing to one room mansion

Plus — the four elements of the home studio

Letting demo lyrics fly in the One Room Mansion, 2013. Yes, I was as drained as I looked.

Westyeg Studios
2013–17
Edmonton, Alberta

I’ve written a series of posts about my home recording journey, from the time I was a kid up to the present day. (If you want to see that series, the first post starts here).

I have a good life. Great life, in fact. Outsiders may even characterize it as a charmed life. But this period was a very difficult one for me. I went from having David Byrne’s prophetic beautiful family in the beautiful house and the beautiful life, to finding myself shellshocked and stumbling from a brutal emotional concussion.

You may find yourself…

Without getting into details that don’t matter to anyone else, going through marital separation while maintaining a truly thriving family is a feat best left to those with wills forged of the stuff not even Superman can bend. It was left to me instead, and where I come from (Irma, Alberta) is really far away from Krypton. It was only through sheer hope, the support of a handful of close friends, the love of a remarkable partner, and if I do say so, a terrific amount of guts, sweat, courage and fortitude by myself and my ex that we all made it through to stand on the other side, safely. To this day, I’m damned proud we did.

From a purely practical standpoint, where I eventually found myself was a tiny studio apartment on Edmonton’s west side. David Byrne’s perfect suburban house was replaced by a rented 500 sq ft room with thick, brown shag carpet, and faux-wood plastic folding accordion closet doors.

In Canada, we call them bachelor suites, but the Japanese have an even better word for this kind of apartment: a “one room mansion”. They don’t even mean it sarcastically (the way I did when I moved into mine!). They borrowed English words to make a new phrase to represent what in Japan is a small no-bedroom apartment. (Being Japan, their one room mansions are super tiny — like 120 sq ft. Mansion, indeed).

One Room Mansion (wan rūmu manshon ワンルームマンション) is a Japanese apartment style in which there is only one small room and usually a compact bathroom. It is the functional equivalent of the Western-style studio apartment. — Wikipedia

When your life, literally and figuratively, is reduced down to a one room mansion, you’re really forced to simplify… forced to come face to face with what’s important in life, because there’s nowhere to hide, not even from yourself. There’s just no room.

That’s where the seed of this new music was planted and made to sprout: laying alone in silence, on my little old Ikea bed bought off Kijiji, staring up at that 1980s ceiling fan, and thinking, “You have a beautiful life, with so much to be grateful for, whether you feel like admitting it or not.”

That’s where the songs on my EP One Room Mansion came from — inside myself, in that moment where I started to believe that I am beautiful (and by extension, my life is beautiful), whether I wanted to admit it or not. It’s a belief that’s still a work in progress today to be honest, but it started there and thrust me into the arena where I still stand today, daring greatly, as they say.

(Photo: Room enough in the mansion for a keyboard workstation, and blue lights — you gotta have blue lights — sometime in 2013.)

For me, one of my most natural and genuine outlets is always music, which for me includes writing and creating as well as performing and recording. So when I moved out of the little one room mansion into my next space a year later, I knew it was time to dive in. Not stick a toe in — DIVE.

Another move, now set up and recording at Westyeg Studios, c 2016

By 2015 I had moved to a slightly larger condo, and set up the studio in the kitchen’s dining nook, which I dubbed “Westyeg Studios”, as a nod to “yeg” (Edmonton’s hashtag on Twitter) and “West Egg” from the Great Gatsby. I wanted to start recording something more official, more permanent than the song ideas and demos I had been posting to Soundcloud. I wanted to make songs that sounded the most “me” that I’ve ever done. I wanted it to be honest and authentic. I wanted it to have my soul and my character shine through. And I wanted it to be good — not something I would hide behind the excuse of “oh it’s something quick and rough I just posted for free”, but something I would say “yes, this is exactly what I sound like.”

I also didn’t want it to take years and years to accomplish. Real artists ship, right?

I started recording final tracks in March 2015 and by August I was done, and happy. When I shipped it, I knew it was just the start of something, but I also knew it was the most genuinely “me” sounding thing I had ever recorded.

Audio Examples!

One Room Mansion EP. Music recorded in the one room apartment. Vocals, additional music and mixing done in the Westyeg setup.

THE 4 ELEMENTS OF HOME STUDIOS

Hip hop has the four elements. So does your home studio. They are:

  • Setting — a home for your studio. Physical location, as well as furniture, layout, design, vibe and decorations
  • Recording — your recorder (likely a computer with audio interface and recording software)
  • Playback — your monitors, headphones, and also your room acoustics
  • Instruments — what you record — keys, guitar, your voice, mics for your voice, drums, lasers, kazoos, lasers, laser kazoos…

For the music geeks and home studio enthusiasts, hH]ere’s how the Westyeg studio where I recorded “One Room Mansion” breaks down among those four elements:

Video tour of Westyeg.

Setting

The Westyeg studio was eventually located in the dining nook of a small apartment-style condo. I didn’t have space to dedicate an entire room to it, but I also didn’t have it sharing space with a bedroom or office. The location let me keep it permanently set up and ready to roll. I used an old IKEA Jerker desk for my main work space, and it held my computer, external hard drive, audio interface, mixer, second computer monitor and a Roland synth for a MIDI controller. I stuffed my other hardware keyboards on an old Ultimate A-frame stand and guitars hung on wall mounts, so it took up as little floor space as possible. Acoustic treatment, vibe and ergonomics were mostly sacrificed in this space, which I accepted as a temporary sacrifice in order to have a studio I could create with, rather than wait for a “perfect situation and place” which would be years away, which would have prevented me from making the One Room Mansion EP.

Recording

Computer — during this time I had a used Macbook Air. Not the latest and greatest, and certainly not the most powerful computer you can get, but perfectly fast enough to record my own songs. I used Propellerhead Reason for my recording software and most of my sound sources. I’ve been a huge Reason head ever since it first came out. It works well with my creative process, and gives a very high bang-for-buck value. The audio interface I used was also a Propellerhead product, the Balance. It ties in extremely well with my setup, and it’s a creative reinterpretation of what a computer audio interface should be. I used a cheapo 12 channel Behringer audio mixer to submix my keyboard audio to feed into the Balance. I had a single mic, a Rode NT1 condenser. The keyboards I use as MIDI controllers plug straight into the Mac via USB.

Playback

My two Event Project Studio 6 active monitors are on stands on either side of the desk, making an equalateral triangle between them and my head. A pair of Sony headphones. Given where I lived (condo with neighbours below and above me, no special acoustic isolation or soundproofing) I could never listen at loud volumes, although to my relief, no one ever complained as I belted out vocal take after vocal take, evening after evening.

Instruments

My main axe was a Korg SV-1 stage piano. Sounded great (still does), takes a pounding, looks good, and has a full 88-key weighted keyboard. I also had a Nord Electro 3 and a Roland Fantom G6, both bought used. My collection of other ancient used hardware synths and drum machines in various stages of decay still stayed with me, mostly in storage in my closet, and I had two guitars — an Ibanez Artcore semi-hollowbody (I’ve always loved semi-hollowbodies) electric, and a Yamaha APX-500IIEW acoustic which has a thin body that’s very comfortable for me (a keyboardist) to play. The rest comes from software instruments in Reason. And my singing. No laser kazoos, unfortunately.


Up next in this series (next week): My happy place. Welcome to King Edward Park, my current music studio setup.

Previously in this Medium series: Part 5: Nihon Nash Studios — turning pro. Acoustics, vibe and usability matter.