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We Made This!!
Hola Amigos! We are currently sat in the van looking out over the Mediterranean Sea in Malaga! The view is stunning - we have sea in front, left and right, and also to our right are the hills/mountains of the next bit of coastline, looming up hazily out of the ocean almost like a mirage… it’s pretty cool! We had a wonderful evening last night in Malaga, meeting up with my Uncle who lives here. To hear about that and other highlights, check out the bottom half of this post.
Obviously we are aware that what we are doing at the moment is a little unusual. Lots of people go travelling, lots of people take long trips in camper vans and lots of people have home studios where they produce their own music. However not that many people go travelling in a camper van which is also their home studio where they produce their own music. So we have an interesting vantage point we think. With that in mind, we thought it was about time that we divulged a bit of information about the music set up in the van, what equipment we have with us, and how we go about recording, producing and mixing our music in such a small space.
It’s a bit wee!
So the first thing to mention about our ‘studio’ in the van (which you’ve probably already guessed!) is that it’s small!! The total usable area we have in the van is probably about 2.5 square metres of floor space and about 1.5 square metres of countertop/surface space. This means that we have to be very, very discliplined about keeping the space tidy and clutter-free. It also means that our studio cannot be set up all the time - everything has to be taken out and set up as and when we need it. This was a pain in the arse the first time we had a music session… but after a couple of sessions you realise it doesn’t actually take that long and you both work around each other to get things set up and packed away quickly and efficiently. It’s poetry in motion now!
Due to the fact that space is at a premium, we also had to be pretty choosy about which music equipment to bring with us. Everything we have is essential to our music making or performing process and “luxury” music items were only permitted if they were small enough to come along too.
We also have to be really organised about where and how everything is stored. Items that are used infrequently are kept in our garage (big storage area under our bed). We have lots of plastic tubs with lids (Bryn hates them!) stacked up in cupboards and these contain a few of the smaller items - cables, dynamic mic, sound interface, etc - and larger items are stored in cupboards or bags out of the way, wherever they will fit.
Don’t disturb the neighbours…
The other thing we have to bear in mind in the van is how loud we are. When I am practising singing or recording vocals I need to be loud; when Bryn is mixing a tune he needs it loud; and when we are practicing live we need to be loud. This is not a very good recipe for blending in if you are staying on an Aire with lots of other campers around. So we have learned that on days where we want to do these activities, we have to take a drive off into the country to find a secluded area with no-one around, so we can be loud without disturbing anyone. Sure, we could just be as loud as we want anywhere without heed of other people; but we’d rather not disturb anyone else’s peace if we can help it and we’d also rather not draw attention to the fact that we have lots of music equipment in the van.
Recording in the van
Before we had the van we used to use a reflexion filter for recording vocals. This is a half cylindrical screen with soundproofing materials on it which is mounted onto a mic stand. You then sing into the mic and the screen does the job of a vocal booth by reducing the reflected soundwaves that would otherwise get picked up by the mic. This creates quite a ‘dry’ vocal recording so you can add reverb, etc, to it afterwards. We considered bringing ours with us but it’s quite bulky so we decided not to in the end.
Fortunately we have a pretty good solution in the van! Our bed is across the whole rear third of the van and between it and the rest of the habitation area is a little curtain. When looking at this, on the left is the bathroom door and on the right, the door of the fridge. If we hang towels or blankets on the hard surfaces of the bathroom door and the fridge door, you end up with soft surfaces on 3 sides which all serve to dampen the sound and reduce reflections - hey presto, we have our own little vocal booth! We recorded the vocals for ‘Wake Up’ using this method and it was perfect to get the dry recording we wanted.
We are pleased to say the acoustics in the van are pretty good. This is something that in a home studio is usually a really big expense. Recording studios spend a lot of money on sound treatment; diffusers, reflectors, bass traps, absorption panels, etc - there are numerous different treatments that you can apply to a room to make music sound better in it. We knew before getting the van that we weren’t going to be able to buy a van based on it’s acoustics, and that we would have to make do with what we had. But funnily enough, the way these vehicles are kitted out actually makes them quite good for sound! Let me discuss a few principles of acoustics to explain why.
When a sound is created, it travels in the air until it reaches a surface and then it is either reflected off that surface, or absorbed by it, or a combination of both. In general, soft surfaces absorb sound and hard surfaces reflect it. In a rectangular room with four walls, hard floor and no furniture or fittings in, if a sound is created in the middle of it, let’s say a clap, then this sound will bounce back and forth and up and down and across and around the room until the energy of the sound dissipates. The frequencies that make up the sound will do this at different rates as well because they all have different wavelengths (I’ll try not to get too geeky!). Because walls are a relatively hard surface, the sound takes a relatively long time to die away. As well as this, because the walls are exactly opposite each other the sound can easily bounce back and forth and back and forth for a relatively long time. In a room like this, even one with a carpet and some furniture, you will often hear a ‘ring’ after you clap, an unpleasant little echo after the reverb. This type of room is not desirable for recording or mixing audio - sound can collect in the corners, different frequencies will reflect more in different areas, and it can create a very ‘muddy’ sounding place to work in.
In contrast, the van has lots of different surfaces and angles and materials, so the journey of a sound wave is not quite so straightforward. Looking around me now, there are only small areas of wallspace opposite each other, so not much chance of sound bouncing back and forth for long. There are windows opposite each other but they have blinds in front which help to diffuse and absorb the sound. We have fitted carpet in the main living area so this reduces reflections from there. There is a bed above our head with a soft-ish surface so this helps to reduce reflections. And we have lots of cushions and throws on seats so this all helps with absorption too. Although it definitely hasn’t been designed with our lifestyle in mind, the fact that a whole living area has to be fitted into such a small space means there are nooks and crannies and cupboards and coverings everywhere, which all ends up meaning sound is reflected in unusual ways, absorbed in many ways, and we end up with a pretty good sounding space! ‘Wake Up’ was mixed in here and we think that sounds pretty good, so it’s a thumbs up all round
This was a very big consideration for us when we were looking for the van. We knew we would need a decent supply of electricity and that we wanted to be off-grid for most of the time, so we decided early on that we would get a solar panel fitted. This would ensure a reasonably constant charge to our leisure batteries, in the summer at least. The thing we didn’t realise though, was that the plug sockets in a van (an ‘off the shelf’ van anyway), only work when you are plugged into mains electricity. The only sockets that work when you are off-grid are the 12V cigarette-lighter type. Not so good when you have lots of stuff to plug in!
The fix for this was to get an inverter fitted. This is a unit that converts the 12V supply from the leisure battery into a 13amp supply (the type of plug socket in a house), so we can plug in our laptops and music equipment anytime as we need it. We had this fitted at the same time as the solar panel and both have worked really well. Only downside was that it only had 1 plug socket on it (it was more expensive for more). Bryn came up with a good hack for this though which was fixing a 4-way extension lead to the wall under the table and running the cable from there to the inverter (the inverter can handle quite a high load so this is not dangerous). It works like a charm!
What essentials would you have to bring with you if you took off in a van? Drop us a line in the comments, we'd love to know!
Read on for an update on our travels!
Day 69, Wednesday 16th May - Sagres, Portugal to Valverde del Camino, Spain
Went to the end of Europe - the lighthouse at the very south-eastern top of Portugal - and also for a lovely lunch to Restaurante Zavial at Zavial Beach on the way back to Spain - gorgeous!
Day 69-72, Wednesday 16th to Saturday 19th May - Valverde del Camino
Spent a couple of days here, mainly working on a new tune. Accosted by a local farmer, speaking million-mile-an-hour Spanish, whom (we ascertained), had eggs and onions to sell us! We may have gotten ripped off, I don’t know, but they were very tasty eggs and onions and it was quite fun trying to muddle through a conversation with him!!
Day 72-74, Saturday 19th May to Monday 21st May - Seville
Beautiful Seville! What a gorgeous city! We took our bikes in so we could explore the city… cycled through Parque de Maria Luisa which was just spectacular. Then the heavens opened so we found a little bar to shelter in until it passed. When it died down a bit we headed further into town for some dinner at a little tapas restaurant (Antiguedades Bar). So tasty! For dessert we ordered ‘5 Chocolate Tart’ and ’15 Chocolate Tart’ - we thought we’d misunderstood so we got him to tell us again, but it was definitely right! It sounded too unbelievable so we had to give it a go. Unfortunately though they had run out of the ’15 Chocolate Tart’! No! The ‘5 Chocolate Tart’ was very delicious though, ridiculously good!
The waiter also gave us a recommendation of some good clubs to try (Monastería and Kafka) and we were just walking back to the bikes with the intention of going home for a quick change then coming back in - but no, disaster! Bryn’s bike was stolen!!! Aaaarrrgggghhh!!! Bloody bollocks!!!! We then had to walk and push my bike the 5 miles back to the van… Unfortunately not the best end to our lovely evening in Seville
Day 74-75, Monday 21st May to Tuesday 22nd May - Antequera
Stopped here just for a night on the way to Malaga. Seemed like a nice city although we didn’t see much of it. It is surrounded by very dramatic mountains though!
Day 75-76, Tuesday 22nd May to Wednesday 23rd May - Malaga
Came to Malaga to visit my Uncle. He showed us around the city which is beautiful. Apparently the oldest city in Europe - there has been a settlement here for 3000 years!!! We had a wonderful evening, going to different bars, eating typical tapas and trying different Malaga wines. And Bryn even ate fish! Malaga has a really nice vibe to it, very cultural, very open… think we’ll have to do a bit more exploring here
If you have any questions about anything we’ve done or comments at all, let us know, we’d love to hear from you 🙂