Make music not carbon

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If you are a creative type, your studio may be contributing to global warming and other environmental problems. Between the power used to run your gear, the climate-control system in your studio (that is, your heater and your air conditioner), and the disposable media and old gear you throw out, you are adding to the problem.
As a creative working working from home, you can adopt conservation measures.

Recycling, Life Cycling

An excellent way to start is to recycle those CDs and DVDs that you use in your studio. They are a nightmare. Discarded CDs, in particular, are a horrible example of wastefulness; video editors and music recordists must use the low-capacity, write-once kind to create audio discs that will play in regular CD players, so that nonrenewable technology quickly becomes waste. And until recently, you couldn’t recycle CDs because in addition to their plastic core, they contained aluminum, lacquer, and other chemicals that made them problematic for recycling facilities to handle.

Fortunately, that’s changing, and many towns now take CDs and DVDs away at curbside � but you must check with your municipality first. If you need to destroy the data on certain CDs before disposing of them (because, say, they contain sensitive backup data), don’t zap them in the microwave, as some people suggest. That may obliterate the data, but it uses a lot of juice and creates another problem by increasing your energy consumption. Instead, grab some gloves and heavy-duty scissors and cut the discs in half.

Unlike a CD’s relatively simple construction, a computer is made up of a complicated jumble of metals and plastics. But computers should still be recycled rather than dumped into a landfill. Patrick Stefurak, a recording engineer and eco-journalist, suggests, �Donate your computer to a school. That’s a form of recycling � by keeping it in use, even though it leaves your possession. A school doesn’t need state of the art, and you get a tax write-off.�

Even if you have to remove your computer’s hard drive for security purposes, or you remove other components, most school districts have IT departments that can refurbish and reuse computers, says Stefurak. �The best way to recycle is to keep something alive. It helps another person and prevents them from having to spend more money to buy something new, which in itself reduces consumption.�

If you have old, obsolete gear (analog signal processors, outboard graphic EQs, and so on), Stefurak points out that selling and buying used gear is a form of recycling: �It delays new-gear purchases for the buyer � reducing consumption � and it’s good for your pocketbook. In this way, craigslist is helping the environment. Most of us have a lot of gear we don’t use for an extended time. This means we’re paying to store it and heat it while it collects dust � and it gets in our way. Letting someone else �borrow� your unused gear is a good way to store it and do the maintenance on it.� And if you can’t find a happy new home for your computer gear, many towns and municipalities have computer and electronics recycling days, when you can drop off your old computers, monitors, and peripherals.

Electron Reduction

Recycling is important, but it’s even more critical to reduce your energy consumption. Doing so benefits the earth in two ways: it slows the depletion of nonrenewable resources � chiefly oil, natural gas, and coal � and it lessens pollution, including the production of carbon dioxide, which accelerates global warming. In the United States, most oil goes to transportation, and most natural gas and nuclear, hydro, and coal fuels go to generating electrical power. So there are twin, pressing obligations for us to change our driving habits and rethink how we juice up our buildings. Because driving isn’t really a part of the home-recording process (unless you count the car-stereo mix test), in this article I’ll focus on electrical power and the home studio.

Without electricity, you would be unable to operate your studio. After all, it’s not as if you can switch to a wood-burning DAW. So given that the flow of electrons is a vital component of studio operation, it’s intriguing that most recordists � even technically minded ones who know the specs of their gear cold � don’t know how much electrical power they consume. Do you know, for example, what it is your utility company charges you for? Here’s a hint: your monthly statement lists your use of kilowatt-hours (or kWh). So is the company billing you in units of a) power, b) energy, c) time, or d) some combination of the three? The answer is energy, and the clue is in the combined terms of watt and hours. A watt is a unit of power (the rate of energy transferred, or energy divided by time). And if you multiply that by a time factor (in this case, hours), the result is an energy unit: W � T = E, or watt-hours (Wh).

Bills, Bills, Bills

Because a watt is rather small stuff in daily-living (and billable) terms, the utility uses the unit of the kilowatt (1,000 watts). So if you burn a 60W lightbulb for two hours, you’ll be charged for 0.12 kWh. At a typical rate of $0.15 per kWh, leaving that light on in your living room while you do a mixdown in your control room costs you $0.018, or just less than two cents. Not a huge penalty for such a �mistake,� but if you extrapolate that out over a year, along with all the other energy you waste without even realizing it, the cents can add up to a lot.

And it’s not just the money wasted; it’s the extra electricity that the power plant has to manufacture. Now remember, I’m not just talking about you. I’m talking about the entire population of the United States � more than 300 million people (see the sidebar �Watts Up�).

So the simplest thing you can do to reduce energy consumption immediately is to turn off the lights when you aren’t using them � even if only for a minute. (By the way, there’s no truth to the rumor that turning on a light consumes more energy than just leaving it on.) You can also replace an incandescent bulb with a CFL (compact fluorescent lamp), which I’ll cover in the section called �Light Me Up.� But �turning it off� is what all eco-conscious experts advocate � and not just for lightbulbs. Any device that is left either on or in standby mode draws energy. It may be a tiny amount, but the utility company is certainly tracking it � and charging you for it.

Green Gadgetry

Just as recording technology is continually improving, so are the materials and the machines specifically designed to manage energy use. Although using green products is not a substitute for good conservation habits, it can definitely help.

Auralex produces several eco-friendly products, including its new StudioFoam Eco (see Fig. 1). Tim Martin, Auralex’s director of sales, describes the new foam: �Instead of a petroleum-based additive, we went to a soy-based additive and reduced our petroleum use for the creation of this foam by 60 percent. It’s actually improved our product from the durability and longevity perspective, and it also holds color better than our previous formulations. The best part is there’s no perceptible difference. We would have been hesitant to release it otherwise, but we were able to improve the product, go green, and maintain the acoustical quality that Auralex is known for.�

Not all companies are as active in making their products eco-friendly as Auralex is. One persistently annoying aspect of technology � the dreaded wall wart, or the external power supply � still plagues recordists, even on some of the latest gear. These evil little devices hide out in plain view and suck energy 24/7 without your even realizing it. Power supplies aren’t just a menace to your power strip’s real estate; they also pull energy when they shouldn’t � especially on devices without a power switch (like your USB hub).

Fortunately, there’s a tidy way to quash wall warts when they aren’t in use: put them all on a power strip and manage them through a master control switch. If you chain your power strips together, keeping the master (the one that plugs into the wall outlet) accessible, then you can turn off all your wall warts with a single switch. But there’s an even more intelligent way to manage your power connections: add a brain to the chain. �Smart� power strips, such as the Smart Strip (see Fig. 2) from Bits Limited, use a sensing technology that can determine whether a device is turned on or off, based on how much current it draws. If the strip decides that the unit is off, then it will shut down the circuit entirely, making sure that even small amounts of current don’t leak through. In this way, smart strips act similarly to gates � their counterparts in the audio domain. In addition, other outlets are slaved to this master outlet, so when the master is off, all subsequent outlets are shut down as well.

One way to set this up is to put your computer’s CPU in the master outlet and have all peripherals (printer, USB hub, and so on) in the slave outlets. When the CPU is off, the peripherals automatically shut down.

If you’re nervous about turning off your CPU every night and rebooting it in the morning, at least turn off your monitor and all your peripherals. Hard drives are much more reliable than they were in the past, but people still don’t like to have to watch their computers boot and load system utilities. So if you don’t want to turn off your computer during your workweek or a mission-critical project, at least turn if off for the weekend.

Of course, even the smartest power strips aren’t as crafty as technology that’s specifically designed to reduce your energy draw over the long term. Several devices of varying complexity and expense are available that monitor how much energy you use in your daily activities. The Kill A Watt, from P3 International, is a meter that measures how much energy a particular device uses. In addition to accurately monitoring a unit’s energy consumption � including specific data such as volts, amps, and watts � the display offers other diagnostic tools and features a calculator that forecasts projected costs and converts energy use into dollars per month.

If you leave a meter plugged in between your power strip and the power amp for a month, you can get a very accurate picture of how much energy that amp is drawing. This feedback is the first step in understanding how much energy you actually use, and can inspire you to set goals for reduction.

Light Me Up

In your studio, as in any work environment, you need adequate lighting. Many people still prefer the quality of incandescent bulbs to the lower-energy and longer-lasting CFL types. But if you must use incandescent bulbs, you can economize by turning them off when you aren’t using them and by employing dimmers.

Modern microprocessor-based dimmers, such as the Lutron Maestro series, are far better than the older rheostat models. Today’s dimmers vary brightness by turning the lights on and off up to 120 times per second, which is too fast for the human eye to detect. This method uses less energy than the rheostat models, but it still isn’t 100 percent efficient. In other words, if you run a 60W bulb at half strength, you aren’t using just 30W; you’re using more. But using dimmers is still a good way to save energy, and dimmers have the ability to vary the mood in a room, which is often important for establishing an environment conducive to creativity. So if you have to use incandescent bulbs, try to keep them under dimmer control and consider letting CFLs do their part in illuminating restrooms, closets, hallways, and outdoor areas.

Improving your daily energy-using impulses and employing these gadgets will help you cut down your energy costs in significant, if incremental, ways. But you never really escape the clutches of the utility company, which sells you the juice from the wall, unless you go off of Big Power’s grid altogether. That isn’t a practical route for many people, but it’s doable for some. The precedent is there: for instance, last fall Thomas Dolby disclosed to EM his plans to record an entire album completely off the grid, using solar and wind power.

Soak Up the Sun

Does solar power make sense for your home studio? It may, depending on your location. Paul Scott, an adviser and consultant on solar energy, is a cofounder of Plug In America and was featured in the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? He explains some of the conditions you have to meet: �You’ve got to have the sunlight falling on your property,� he stresses. �Most people put the panels on the roof, but you could also have a ground-mount system, if you have property in the country [see Fig. 3]. The amount of sunlight might vary, too, even if you have direct exposure. For example, in Oregon you have really long, dry summer days with a lot of light, but the winter is terrible. Southern California is great because days are not that much shorter in the winter, and we have sunlight year-round. So each area will generate more or less energy depending on those factors.�

Scott also cautions that it doesn’t make sense to do a small system (say, for just the studio), especially if the studio is part of the house or detached but on the same meter. �A company in the business of installing solar panels won’t do a system that small,� said Scott, after I told him the dimensions of some typical home studios. �The fixed costs � the expenses that are the same whether it’s a big system or a small system � work out better for a big system, because you can divide those costs into smaller parts, which results in less money per kilowatt. Practically speaking, you need to go with at least a 2 kW system,� he says. Let’s look at the math to see how you would calculate your solar-energy needs, assuming that your roof or property has lots of unobstructed exposure to sunlight.

�A single kilowatt of solar power will generate approximately 150 kWh of energy in a given month,� says Scott. �A typical house uses roughly 1,000 kWh a month. So take that 1,000 and divide it by 150, which will tell you how big of a system you need � about a 6.5 kW system, in this case, to supply the entire house. If you didn’t have room for a 6.5, then you’d bid for a 4 or a 3 or a 2.5 or whatever you could fit up there. And that would generate a portion, which would at least zero out the studio. And in round terms, that’s how it’s done. But if you don’t have the sun and the orientation, then you’re a nonstarter.�

So solar power may not be for everybody (like apartment dwellers and those in cloudy, northern climes), but you can still do your part to support solar power, even if you live in a middle-floor apartment in downtown Manhattan. One way is to buy green energy from your utility company. Even if the actual power you get is from a coal plant (as it is in much of the East), by paying a little extra, you can buy power from solar and wind farms, ensuring that at least some of that makes it to the grid. So while you may not be using the sun to run your DAW, by purchasing green energy from your utility company, you make sure that it meets some of the total demand through clean, renewable sources.

Ground-Up Green

All of the approaches I’ve explored so far have been for modifying an existing studio. But not only has Dallas-based studio designer Bob Suffolk of Suffolk Studio Design made a career of studio design, but he and partner Michelle Quazi also are early adopters of eco-friendly materials specifically designed to make recording studios. Suffolk recently designed and � with the help of Quazi and their personal staff � built an award-winning space called Vole Music Studios, which was created with the environment in mind from its inception.

�Most of the wood we used for framing the interior was recycled,� explains Suffolk. �We used Fibrex mineral wall, a rock-based fiber, between the wood for insulation [see Fig. 4]. We stay away from anything fiberglass, like R-11 or R-13. We then put Sheetrock over that, and then a layer of Auralex SheetBlock Plus, a dense vinyl-based material which is ?-inch thick and shielded, then another layer of Sheetrock. This allows us to keep the walls thinner than just building layers of Sheetrock and paper and fiberglass.

�The Auralex Elite wall system is then applied, [composed] of 1-inch S-Core, a recycled condensed cotton material, and finished with Interfaced fabric, a recycled material. It’s all about knowing the transmission points and isolation points and sealing. The custom-made acoustic ceiling clouds were made from recycled materials as well [see Fig. 5].� Suffolk recommended bamboo for the floors because it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing woods and is therefore sustainable. And that was four years ago, when bamboo was just becoming popular (see Fig. 6).

The attention to green processes didn’t stop at the walls and the floor. �The new studio furniture and cabinetry that we make are from pressed wheat and sunflower seeds, with no formaldehyde,� says Suffolk. �The material is more expensive than something like particleboard or MDF [medium-density fiberboard], but that contains formaldehyde and toxic glues. We strive to use all of our materials from Environ Biocomposites to make our studio furniture and consoles. It’s an incredibly good material to work with � more expensive than plywood, yes, but we’re using wheat straw and sunflower hulls, which will all go into a compost and break down organically. And it’s beautiful looking when finished with a water-based varnish.�

Suffolk offers this advice regarding a ground-up build of a home studio: �When building a home studio, there’s a whole bunch of different materials you have to consider. And it is a little bit more expensive than going the traditional route, but in the long run it’s worth it.� He also says that it isn’t just the selection of materials, but how you work with them. �We have a rule when we work � whether it’s with our staff or with a freelance crew � and that is that anything over a foot does not get thrown away. We’ll use it again. We always save all our building materials right to the very end, so that if we need additional materials, we’re not buying a small piece from the company, which would require additional shipping.�

Go Green and Save

While some eco-friendly materials and energy plans may cost more, it is money well spent. And you can offset those costs by reducing your consumption, which is the most immediate threat to the planet. As Paul Scott says, �Make a conscious effort, and you will get into habits that will save you money just by thinking about it. And it’s stuff that won’t affect your lifestyle at all. It’s a matter of flipping a switch.� This relationship of economy and ecology equates to a simple and elegant axiom: if you’re saving money, you’re helping the environment. It’s a win-win situation.

Jon Chappell is the author of The Recording Guitarist � A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard, 1999) and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

Get More Info

The following are valuable online resources (including links to the manufacturers and organizations mentioned in this article) for helping you become more aware of environmental issues and green products.

Energy and the Environment







Green Gear for the Home Studio







Watts Up

Saving wasted energy in your home studio is perhaps the best way to reduce your consumption. Even if you save only 3W an hour, which you can easily do by employing a smart power strip, it can make a difference. Consider this sobering bit of math, inspired from a discussion on Treehugger.com, which shows that such a savings is not an insignificant amount when scaled up to the level of the current U.S. population.


3W of saved energy per hour.

105,480,101 U.S. households (according to the 2000 U.S. census).

Taking into account the above conditions, the saved-energy math works out as follows:

3 watts � 24 hours = 72 Wh or 0.072 kWh per day;

0.072 kWh � 365 days per year = 26.28 kWh per year, per strip;

26.28 kWh � 100,000,000 homes = 2,628,000,000 kWh saved by the United States per year;

2,628,000,000 � $0.104 per kWh (national average 2006*) = $273,312,000.

That’s $273,312,000 worth of energy saved.

So if every household in the country saved 3W an hour, it would amount to not only a monetary savings to consumers, but also a reduction in how much energy the utility companies have to produce to meet demand. And less energy production means less impact on the environment.

Going green means thinking globally and in scalable terms. It means factoring everything you do in yearly terms and by the U.S. population or its total number of households (and the math is fairly easy here: 100 million). Then you take measures, recalculate, and consider the difference you made by changing your habits. Doing the math allows you to see what the impact would be if everyone followed your example.

*Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration (eia.doe.gov).

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