joseph & the play room

Two-wall view after passing through a 6 foot threshold from the reading room.
An additional 'hall pass' is available to the left.


In truth … this quick, illustrative photo shoot – using only a single studio flash unit bounced off the ceiling – would document a space that was specifically designed to be the anti-‘Architectural Digest’. As a loose mimic of a similar creative environment in London, this stateside inception in Massachusetts would bring the same colorful and childlike whimsy to ‘The Writing Room’ – more informally known as ‘The Play Room’ …

some general, some technical ... for two different audiences.
take away what you please.

A Child's Room for The Immature Adult in a Matured Home

Just beyond the front door of the nearly 100 year old home, one can deftly navigate their way in a small and less-than-considerate entryway that’s somewhat reminiscent of a generous European phone booth – with stairs leading straight to the second floor … and yet another entrance door to the one’s right. While the second story would be dedicated to the more conventional fare of living room, dining room, kitchen, and a couple of bedroom spaces, the right-hand door in the entryway leads to a world less orthodox …

Beyond the second door is a more formal and inviting foyer space, featuring a gas-driven fireplace, flanked by antique sconce lighting, just above the mantle. This, as a more modern reflection of the gas lamps that once illuminated the house, with the previous gas-filled pipe work that exited the walls, now capped off in more contemporary times. Indeed, the first modernized revamp of the 1920s would sport actual electrical service – generously delivered through one outlet, per room. And the 15 amp circuits, sometimes shared, would provide all the power required for the post-industrial, technological marvels of a table lamp and radio.

As time moved on – with more offered in the way of ‘newfangled contraptions’ that couldn’t be powered by a horse or housewife of equal standing – the floors would be adorned with a series-parallel array of snaking extension cords. The more industrious would drill electrical cord ‘access ports’ between rooms, stapling the wire runs to baseboards. In fact, the archeological and forensic evidence of these assiduous approaches would be periodically unearthed for the next 80 years … at least as found in those residences that didn’t burn to the earth.

Enter the age of power tools – where the first, historic circular saw to buck and seize upon its chance encounter with a knothole – would render the house … dark. This, simply because one chose to cut up the old coal shoot in the basement that accommodated the ‘heating fuel’ of a previous era. But with periodic updating over several decades, much would improve with the new challenges of blow dryers and microwave ovens, leaving modern man and woman with more leisure time to trek into the basement for the continued renegotiation of circuit breakers.

From The Foyer to The Great Beyond

But there one would be, in the foyer of ‘This Old House’, where the wanderer would have three options: Turn around, and head back out the entrance door, fearing the home’s eccentric inhabitant; make a left and wander down the hallway to other first-floor spaces towards the back of the house; or pass though a wide and generous threshold that offered the more inviting sitting/reading room with wall-mounted bookcases and a large reading table by a wall-occupying expanse of angled windows. This all sounds more lavish than it is. One could merely think of it as a living room area with a purpose – an actual utility, foreign to many such spaces.

And from this area, one couldn’t help but notice yet another wide pass-through to a room that popped the eyeballs and excited the retinas with a colorful boldness that could invite controversy. It would be ‘The Play Room’ …

Above the refinished and heat-painted radiator is a signed and numbered print by German artist, Ferdinand Just the ex-husband of my dearest friend who passed on all too soon. She would never get to see this space or home on terra firma, but she's present ...

Her nude torso is abstractly rendered in the print with multiple passes of the silk screen. When the neighboring lamps are turned off, the colored tones of the tulip shades vaguely key-in with some of those in the print.

A similar work from the series is hung on the opposing wall, just above the expansive desk space.

The wall color in this instance is more reflective of the room's tone under nighttime, incandescent illumination  being far more subdued than its bright-light, daytime (or photo flash) presentation.

For this particular room, I wanted something that wouldn’t be typical of an ‘Architectural Digest Visits’ spread. A place to write – whether words or music – that would excite and inspire. And yet, in the very same instant, would be free of distracting clutter. An organized and versatile space that could readily adapt, within a matter of minutes, to a variety of creative endeavors. And, in tow, the ability to be entertained – as one wished to consider the creative works of others. This would all have to come together in a space that wouldn’t come across as static and contrived, maintaining an ‘always-on’ sense of casual comfort.

And, as a ‘Play Room’, it needed to have some whimsy – even containing some visual jokes, if a few would only be known to me. Many early childhood nods to the Pop 60s – inclusive of color selection – would come into play … ones less frequently considered by true adults, of which I am a highly reluctant and resistant member of the tribe. In short, I wanted a room where I could sit on the floor, plowing down injection-molded soldiers with Tonka toy trucks and – in my Time Machine – listen to the WOR broadcasts of Jean Shepherd, when I wasn’t listening to music. For I knew that the truly creative … never completely grew up. They couldn’t. (After all, I only synthesize adulthood for the benefit of the grown-ups so they can feel a little less uncomfortable around me. It's a complete ruse. A total fake. What bullshit.)

And then there would be ‘The Toys’. Oh, the toys.

The ‘College Years’ would also be reflected in the utilitarian furniture I would fashion myself – along with the more youth-oriented selection of ‘poster prints’ that would play along side with somewhat more ‘mature’, signed and numbered artworks. The House could 'rock', among chairs that could roll and spin – as a favorite of twenties-something, intra-room transport. And the ‘Frat-House Couch’ would invite one to simply … flop. In short, outside of the area rug and a few architectural details, there could be nothing even remotely 'Ethan Allen' about this room. It had to be 'Kid Stuff'.

The lighting – essentially color-gelled by the contemporary take on tulip shades – could change the entire tone of the room. With a particular selection of rotary switches, profound warmth could be assigned … in the bluest of rooms. I could make the walls 'advance'; I could make them receded, looking more slate-like in tone. I could provide both, in the same instant, depending upon direction. Overall, the room coloring would, indeed, be heavily geared towards the rendering of nighttime illumination with low-wattage accent lighting serving as the overall room lighting - having no 'general lighting' to speak of. Popping a studio flash off the ceiling for this pictorial renders many of the details ... but captures little of the mood.

But in all, it would be a space that would be carefully considered … without coming across as being highly contemplated.

The Look Around

The heart of music composition, with recording and playback equipment stacked under the two tables at their outer perimeters. Additional equipment may be rolled in, as required, to also fit below the table tops. Other guitars come in and out of the room on a rotational basis, depending on mood or requirement.

The piano seating would be an adjustable-height office chair with its arms and back not attached after being pulled from the box. This, combined with a home fabricated piano stand specifically built be lower than regulation height, would reduce fatigue for long sessions. The forearms would remain more relaxed while the hands could still navigate even the more demanding classical notation.

Along with an array of guitars situated around the room, next to the Fender Custom Shop Telecaster, is the heart of the 'music composition center': A Yamaha Digital Grand Piano -- that which has the digitally recorded sounds of a $30,000 Yamaha CF IIIS, 9 foot concert grand piano tucked into a black box with 88 keys.

For those not familiar, the technology digitally records (samples) each key of the actual concert grand, one note at a time. In addition - and of equal significance - each of the 88 keys is sampled at a variety of dynamics (loudness levels) and articulations. These recordings are then stacked below each key. With that, in the comfort of the studio - or home - one can then trigger (play) the samples at the keyboard, as if sitting at the actual piano. In fact, the keyboard action is also replicated with weighted keys and, to Yamaha's credit, it also accurately mimiced the differences in action (Graded Hammer Action) from the bottom octave, up to the top - just as it would be on the actual piano.

If 'recording' is your stage (such as a CD or digital download) - as opposed to performing live in a concert hall - then the replication of the original grand piano is truly exceptional. And Yamaha did a bang-up job, auditioning and 'ear-selecting' from an array of their own pricey pianos before bringing it into the studio to digitally sample ... after it had been custom tweaked by their piano technicians. It would then be recorded with the finest studio microphones, spaced at different locations, to ultimately be selected from a switch on the more compact, digital inception.

But there'd be more to the piano-style keyboard ... By way of a communications protocol known as 'MIDI' (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), the keyboard can access the over 2,000 instrumental sounds - in a variety of articulations (which is how one gets to over 2,000 sounds) - stored in the Mac computer. These would include full-scale recorded samples of Steinway and Bosendorfer pianos, among others, but none have yet quite equaled what Yamaha provided right out of the box, as concert grands go. Still, this array, combined with software, allows for full orchestral scoring, inclusive of printouts.

Another View With A Room

Yes, one can keep on eye on the news - or The Queen - while playing at the keyboard. But the large flat screen can also display the output of the Mac computer, functioning as a massive monitor. Seated at the piano keyboard, and with the aid of a wireless mouse, the recording software can be negotiated in place.

Sometimes referred to as my 'Wall of The Dead English', the flat screen is flanked by the pshycedelic, 1968 Look magazine shot of John Lennon by photographer, Richard Avedon -- and a photo-mosaic print of Princess Diana. The latter image was created entirely with small photographs of daisies being used as 'pixels' to form the final image. The inside joke to myself was that this would be the essence of how a television 'illusion' is created, flat screen or otherwise. The two images would be bridged by the 'Daisies' print (yes, more daisies) from the New York Graphic Society -- further carrying the tones over from the Avedon print of Lennon. And this from a heterosexual.

The loudspeaker monitors on either side of the flat screen -- somewhat sizable for 'satellites' of these days -- are supplemented with a subwoofer, driven by its own dedicated amplifier, crossed over at 125Hz. These particular monitors are a customized Frankenstein creation -- marrying modified, wide-dispersion Lineaum tweeters to remarkably smooth and silky mid-bass drivers, sourced from Vifa of Denmark – that truly can be run up to 4000Hz for higher crossover points, as required. The crossovers were entirely reworked and all of the components are housed in stiffened enclosures, fully sealed, and lined with non-hardening modeling clay to suppress resonances, inclusive of the front baffle speaker mounting board. The non-hardening clay would also be selectively applied to the structural speaker baskets of the mid-bass drivers. In short, the system walks all over the ever-popular  (and long discontinued) Yamaha NS10s used as near-field monitors in pro studios, the world over -- at least for pop music production, being wholly unsuitable to check classical mixes.

And yet, with banana jacks at the ready, these pictured monitors may be readily swapped out with a manageably sized pair of B&Ws, pulled from another room ... or even a pair of  ... yeah, Yamaha NS10s I have stacked in the closet -- so I have the option of hearing what wretched thing other people (inclusive of professionals) are listening to. (NOTE: In their defense, there were reasons for the ubiquitous presence of the Yamaha NS10s. For the technicially astute, providing a different perspective, you can find one of the best discussions on the monitor here at 'The Yamaha NS10 Story. While there are some statements advanced that I don't entirely agree with, it's an excellent read -- with some valuable take-away considerations for those pondering other reference monitors).

But no matter what monitors might be patched in at a given moment, the actual end-game here was the ability to hear the intended mix (or currently recorded, non-acoustic track) from the piano's seating position. Headphones are used when microphones come into play - for acoustic instruments or vocals - during the actual recording process, naturally.

Still, the nemesis of my existence has always been cabling -- wires of any kind. They trip me up ... literally. Beyond this, imagine having to untangle the Christmas lighting pulled from the attic, each and every day of your life. In this room, much of it would remain hidden. While there's still something of a forest in the back of the equipment, the actual intra-room runs would be trafficed through the baseboards. In fact, additional baseboards were added to the existing ones, channeled for the runs of wiring around the room (inclusive of rear channels for 'entertainment-style', surround presentation). Additional wiring would be handled from the basement, below.

And yet, there are still those necessary umbilicals to the electric or electronic instruments, out towards the middle of the room, inclusive of the required power cords. Still, the space remains relatively clean in its wiring. There's little to trip you up, and not much in the way of tangled, visual messes. The trick was to retain patching versatility in a room that would have varying requirements, and much of that would be handled with patch-points located in the closet space.

But the point in all of this was the ability to record tracks -- even those created in the writing process -- that could be brought into the more formal or elaborate studio, without diminishment to the final recording. Yet, depending upon the nature of the music, entire wotks could be recorded and mixed in this very space, exclusively -- using the Mac computer as the digital multi-track recorder and mixing console (Macs - along with garden-variety PCs - are commonly the 'recorders' in pro studios, in any event -- even when married to massive mixing desks ... the latter not entirely required for one person, recording all of the instruments themselves, a single (or stereo) track at a time. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software provides most of what you need, aside from quality mics, preamps, converters, and a good monitoring system.

Controlling Acoustic Splash: The Even More Technical Section

Breeze past this section, as you please. The 'Desk Space' will soon follow ...

As it relates to acoustics spaces -- for either playback or recording, the nightmare from Hell would be a perfect cube, with all dimensions being equal, inclusive of the floor to ceiling height. This would be particularly true of a room without open apertures, where the entrance door would be shut. Across the sound spectrum, some wavelengths (frequencies) would be unduly reinforced, peaking heavily in certain regions, while other wavelengths would be suppressed (often referred to as 'cancellation', but that never really happens in the absolute). In fact, with a given set of room dimensions at hand, one can roughly calculate the frequency behavior across much of the spectrum -- the low and early mid-bands, in particular -- relative to a given source location (using a single speaker -- two of them, as in stereo, complicate matters) . It should be noted that these calculations wouldn't consider furnishings and fixtures -- nor the absorption rate of different materials, from walls to the stuffed furniture.

Essentially no parallel or perfectly perpendicular (full) walls can found in The Play Room. But even the window blinds come into play as a means of altering the room's acoustic signature, along with the rather unusual molding pieces custom-fabricated for the wall to ceiling junction ...

It's a rather good thing that few people live in a perfect cube with highly reflective surfaces -- like a bathroom, say. But several rooms approach it -- though rectangles are more common, certainly. Still, even 'perfect rectangles' (as if such a thing existed) can present similar challenges to the cube, creating a jagged response curve in the room. One can smooth the 'playback curve' by moving the speakers to different locations, relative to the boundaries (as just one part of a larger equation). And the 'recording curve' can be adjusted by seating location and direction, sometimes combined with the use of acoustic screens -- commonly called 'gobos' in the studio, though their most typical application is for sound isolation among instruments and sections.

In a quick, related aside, it's utterly amazing how many pro-level studios spend so much time and effort tweaking the acoustic profile of the recording space ... while having an absolutely horrid environment for playback in the control room -- where critical decisions are made. 'Near Field' monitoring -- with smaller monitors at 'close range' -- can help, reducing the room equation. But it's truly damn-near impossible to successfully equalize around the secondary reflections bouncing off the mix console, itself -- "combing" the response pattern in the critical mid-band and lower treble registers, in particular. Even in 'The Play Room', for more critical monitoring, the satellite speakers are pulled to the front ledge of the table to eliminate its reflection. I can better 'control the floor', particularly as it relates to near-field monitoring.

(NOTE: There are other reasons that one uses near-field monitoring -- with other benefits. Their presence is also commonly supplemented by other - often larger - monitors situated away and beyond the mixing console. Yet still, there are many engineers and producers who have used near-field pairs - such as the NS10s - as their 'reference standard'.)

Be that as it may ...

As it relates to an enclosed space -- even one with apertures -- for both recording and playback, one can adjust the acoustic profile with placements, materials, and dimensions. Materials can adjust the absorption rate and reverberant decay characteristics -- though not its time, so much, as it relates to 'first and second reflection'; that's more a function of space. But all three parameters cited, inclusive of placement and dimensions, work in harmony -- or collusion, more commonly -- to define the room's response curve as it relates to frequency balance.

As it was, the home's innate architecture provided gifts ... Chief among them would be the varying wall angles throughout the house. In fact, the only spaces where pure rectangles can be found are in the rear room on the attic floor (an abbreviated 'third floor', of sorts), and in the kitchens (yes, there are two of those, hailing from a time when two generations of mass-reproducing Irish Catholics within a 75 mile radius of Boston would occupy the same home).

But without getting into the specifics of mathematical calculations, the seven angles within The Play Room would help reduce 'standing waves' and provide very nice, relatively even-handed acoustic diffusion across the audio spectrum. But there would be more added to the mix ...

While generous and weighty cornice moldings can be seen adjacent to the ceiling perimeters of many colonial-style homes, the more contemporary inception found in The Play Room would be fabricated almost entirely from acoustic sheeting panels to help control reflections at the wall to ceiling junction. This, combined with the area rug -- and some additional absorption material affixed to the undersides of the tables would further control the room's acoustic 'slap'. Additionally, the couch -- spaced a couple of feet away from the angled window banks -- would provide something of a 'bass trap' for low frequency control. But we wouldn't be quite done, just yet ...

Additional acoustic panels of another, softer material (similar to judo mats) would be fabricated to compression-fit within the window frames, behind the blinds -- easily removed for daylight, as desired. With this, some adjustment could be made to the relative acoustic absorption and reflection of the room by opening or closing the blinds by varying degrees. This technique - more commonly using wooden louvers - can be seen in some top-flight recording studios, as well as in a few contemporary concert halls where the louvers are actually navigated by motors. For me, the absorption panels are inserted behind the blinds when I want to do something rather serious in the room -- inclusive of critical listening playback in two environments contained within the same space.

The Non-Executive Desk Wall

The desk space - truly a table, with a generous depth - is the companion piece of the other, shallower table that supports the flat screen television and monitors. Each of the two home-fabricated units would have their legs tapped in different locations in consideration of the loads that needed to be distributed. For example, the 'flat screen table' has its legs kicked in more towards center, while also being in a location that would support a variety of monitors on the vertical axis. For the computer table, legs would be kicked towards the edges for the freest of leg space span as one rolled in the office chair. Even the additional audio equipment below, towards the left side, is pushed back towards the wall for a free knee space. And that piano stand that was made to be lower than regulation height? It, along with the piano, can be slid underneath.

I applied the finishes in-place, after the walls were painted, to get the relationships I wanted in color and tone. Semi-gloss clear coats were then applied in micro-thin layers. The childlike Choo-Choo train, carrying similar tones, sits above.

And so now I sit, at the very computer pictured ... The Word Machine (aside from the one in my head), The Audio Production Studio, The Video Editor, The Photographic Darkroom -- all before me. And all on hard drive backup - just for the critical media files.

But the desk remains relatively clutter-free. Even the printer is situated off the table, to the right, sitting on a night stand with drawers filled with paper and ink supplies. A scanner fits in there too. I hate computer peripherals. They annoy me. They distract me. With open spaces I can place open magazines and newspapers at will. Or nothing at all.

Yes, there are speakers - but not shitty 'computer speakers', mind you. Looking much like miniature 'Mac Towers' they're small and highly modified units that can be legitimately used as another pair of 'near-field monitors', aluminum color matched to the Mac -- again crossed over to a true and actual subwoofer ... all of it powered by dedicated audio amplifiers, split by an electronic crossover. If I need to listen a bit more critically from this location, the mini-monitor satellites are placed on small pedestals and foam panels are placed on the desktop in front of them to reduce secondary surface reflections off the table. In all - from a specified seating location, sitting in front of the computer – the ensemble, inclusive of the much-required (mandatory) subwoofer, is better than many people's home 'stereo systems'. Certainly with better 'imaging' – or 'sound-staging', and without an over-pumped bass region.

A small digital modeling guitar amplifier sits to the extreme left. While one could technically record with it, the unit more commonly functions as a quick 'note taker' with internal effects that can be stored and recalled. It may moved at will, even by weaklings, and replaced with other amps for the final recording. Or, the electric guitars can be sent through a preamp, and patched directly into the recording software where 'virtual amplifiers' and associated effects can be called up on-screen.

To the left of the 'table-desk' is a closet - partially obstructed by an office chair with a Gibson Byrdland guitar comfortably nestled within during this photo shoot. The closet houses mic stands, booms, an array of studio mics, patch cables, an additional pair of monitors, and other related equipment. And yeah, the 'full featured' office chair may be rolled in front of the computer ... or the truncated piano chair may be rolled over for that seating location instead - back and forth, to and fro ...

The Final Analysis

In the final analysis, I know that many would cite this room as being 'typically male' -- or at least a male with a somewhat artistic or eccentric flair. But as it relates to the collective female eye, they say ...

"It needs some plants."



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 original contents copyright © joseph bambach