How To Build a Home Studio: Part 2 Setting Up Your Space

How To Build a Home Studio: Part 2 Setting Up Your Space
Last month's "How To" dealt with how to prepare yourself for home recording. This month's explores how to equip your room. Any setup that's more complicated than a laptop requires some decisions about where to assemble your studio, and how to prepare the space for ease of use. Assuming this is a separate room, you should take basic sound-dampening measures such as closing windows, turning off ventilation if possible, and diffusing hard, reflective surfaces with blankets or mats. If you plan on recording vocals, you will want a sound-dampened enclosure, even if this means buying an office divider or two. You're not trying to completely deaden the room, but set it up so that there aren't any weird resonances or noise sources. You can get very involved in creating your space or leave it pretty much as is.

Jim English tends more toward prepping the room comprehensively, and offers these suggestions: "You should seek out the best room in your home first. Bring in a bass or a synth or something that can produce a wide variety of tones — nothing too complex — to see if there are any rattles in the room. Sometimes you can tape them out, sometimes you can't do anything. You want a good solid floor; temporary treatments like small baffles and mats can help. Use the biggest room in your house. You will want a longer room than wide, and position the speakers about a third of the way in toward the front of the room, not against the wall. Small windows aren't really a big problem; you can make small baffles if you like. I like windows, though; if it matters to you, try to create a nice environment."

Kurt Swinghammer, on the other hand, has a much more laissez-faire approach to room preparation. Swinghammer's attitude is better suited to those without complex live recording needs, but it's important to balance the two perspectives.

Corrupted Power Corrupts Absolutely
An important consideration in preparing your space is sufficient cabling and power conditioning. Cables can surprisingly drive up the basic costs of setting up a studio. English estimates that these can represent more than 20 percent of the budget of a studio — again, given that the studio is set up for extensive live recording. The benefit of having sufficient cabling is obvious: chasing after cables during a creative moment tends to kill the mood. He also stresses a power conditioner or a pro-level powerbar with a circuit breaker. These are unglamorous but essential purchases, especially for electronic musicians. English maintains: "All you have to do is plug one in, and throughout the day, watch your voltage go up and down like crazy. There will often be a short surge or drop. I had a DAT machine fried in the middle of a thunderstorm before it was hooked up to the power conditioner."

A mixer may run you thousands of dollars, or only hundreds. While it's possible to mix your entire work on computer, you will still need at least some sort of small mixer to sort out all your audio outputs. If you're working on a computer, chances are you'll have a multi-channel analog-to-digital (A to D) converter that requires dedicated channels both in and out. A computer musician also benefits from the mic pre-amps in mixing boards. Depending on how much you've invested in your A to D unit, you may find that a good mixer gives you better quality mic support. If you're recording to a tape machine a mixer is necessary, and you should have several more tracks on your console than on your deck. It's hard to go wrong buying a mixer unless you haven't allocated enough channels for all your gear, and even then there are workarounds. Companies such as Mackie and Behringer feature many levels of well built, low-noise and highly configurable mixers for home recording needs.

Microphone needs depend on the individual. Your first purchases (see FAQ) will be those you would use the most. If you are a guitarist, you may already have a favourite mic for your amp. If you are a vocalist, consider earmarking a special amount of money for the most vital piece of gear you'll ever own.

Microphones can be the trickiest purchases you'll make, and it helps to round up as much expert knowledge as possible. Swinghammer's mainstay mic, a common choice for the home recordist, is the Shure SM58 condenser microphone; it performs a wide range of tasks very well. His next microphone purchase was made only after running into renowned engineer Peter Moore in a music store and getting a tutorial on the pros and cons of every option on display. The guide to microphones in Pro Tools for Dummies is a valuable primer on how different microphone types are appropriate to specific and general tasks.

Monitoring the Situation
The flat reproduction of sound from near-field studio monitors is ideal, but you can use home speakers if absolutely necessary. With home speakers, you can use a reference recording to compare your current project to an ideal but, says English, "you just can't do it with headphones. What makes a mix sound good are spatial cues and depth. This involves the use of very small increments of delays and modulators, which will be overly enhanced in headphones." Moreover, the monitors' flat response will be easier on your ears after several hours of intensive listening. Once you've achieved the mix you want on your monitors, you can plug in the 5.1 Surround Sound system that came with your computer and saturate the bass frequencies all you want.

At this stage you should have a solid idea of what suits your physical needs in the studio. You'll be able to figure out what you require from your workspace infrastructure, your mixing console, and your monitors. Why not set up all your gear, and start playing around? You've spent a considerable amount of money at this point, so you should be looking to gain some experience with what you've installed. If it's a software-based system, resist the temptation to acquire anything else, even shareware, before fully putting your system through its paces. If you're running a tape deck, you'll likely have a few effects and other toys to play with before considering the patch bay of your dreams. However, with your start up costs dispensed, the best thing you can do for yourself is to start working on transforming your long-held music-making dreams into masterpieces.

Frequently Asked Questions

When does it make sense to buy instead of renting?
When you identify your needs, Robin Easton [see Part I, June '05] offers a good method of evaluating one's next purchase, although this rule of thumb is more helpful after you've applied it a few times: "Rather than waiting around and going into debt, take advantage of professional services in a clever way. You end up with a good product and end up with the expertise and learning of people who run certain types of studios. Look at how often you're going to use something; figure out the number of hours or days you're going to use something in the next year or year-and-a-half, then figure out how much it would cost to rent something for the time that you need it. If it's not even close, like, if it's $2,500 to buy when I can rent it for $300 to $400, then it's not worth it."

I'm just running software, I hardly use any live sources. Do I need to worry about the space?
Even if you're using a laptop without any live sound sources, you'll still need to consider the physical environment in which you are working as an influence on the mixing process. It's still best to downplay highly reflective surfaces, even if you're sitting right in front of the monitors, and eliminate noise sources. The most important space you have to think about is your immediate surroundings. Sitting in front of a computer can be a draining experience. If you stare at and listen to tiny segments of waveforms all day, an ergonomically correct environment is a must. Make sure to reserve some room in your budget for a good chair; it will be your home. Save a little cash for a suitable workstation, too. Your $50 white melamine tabletop may be fine for email, but a more specialised construction will give you more surface area to work with while making gear easier to reach. Heed the advice in the previous question: how often are you going to use your chair and desk? Constantly. It is utterly worth it to make them as comfortable as possible.