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Building a Project Studio for $1000 or Less, Part I

By Shure Notes Editors, Contributors: Shure’s Michael Johns and Chris Lyons

Thank the humble tape recorder. And give some credit, too, to the 1960s when rock and roll ruled the AM airwaves and teenagers were learning to play guitar by listening to Beatles records over and over again. Professional recording studios were the domain of major acts, but even then, two-track reel-to-reel machines were recording bands in basements, bedrooms and garages.  According to some, that set the ground for the home studio revolution.

By the 1970s, the first home studios were making their appearance, thanks to Teac’s 4-track reel-to-reel machines and mixers.  The addition of amps and speakers completed the system, but the $10,000 price tag was too steep for the average musician or would-be engineer. Tascam (formerly Teac) further revolutionized recording with its 8-track machines and mixers. The 1980s saw the introduction of MIDI, digital synths, drum machines and some of the first affordable cassette 4-track recorders and mixers designed for quality recording in home studios. When the millennium arrived, all the pieces were in place – powerful desktop computers, soundcards and audio interfaces, recording software, synths and digital samplers – each more powerful and less expensive than before.  The computer became the locus of audio production.

Today, according to one expert, “The home studio has progressed from having perhaps a 16-channel mixer and a few rack effects to having a virtual console of unlimited channels with unlimited inserts, sends, busses going to a full library of effects processors not even Abbey Road could afford.”

In this two-part series, we’ll look at seven project studio fundamentals – from considering all-important acoustics to choosing gear that will see you through your sophomore effort and beyond:

  1. The right space
    And the essential gear:
  2.  Computer
  3. Audio Interface
  4. DAW (Digital Audio Workstation
  5. MIDI Keyboard
  6. Microphones
  7. Headphones/Studio Monitors

Let’s start with the section we know best – Microphones.  (Part II will include all the other essential gear.)

Microphones

If you’re going to be recording a vocalist, instruments or sampling your own sounds, you’re going to need a good quality microphone. Your options are determined by what you’re recording and how much you have to spend.

High-end condenser mics, typically used in recording applications, can cost thousands of dollars, but good quality dynamic microphones, like Shure’s SM58 (vocal) and SM57 (instrument), can perform a multitude of tasks in your studio. Condenser mics are popular in studio applications – and they don’t have to be budget-busting.

Since this article is about building a small budget project studio, we decided to sidestep the big studio honchos we know, and direct our questions to a pair of Shure Associates, Chris Lyons and Michael Johns for their suggestions on mic choices for project studios.   We wanted to know what mic or mics to consider first … and what to add later.

Here’s what we learned from Michael and Chris.

First of all, you cannot go wrong starting with an SM57.  It has the reputation as the “do everything workhorse” and it really does work well with almost any voice or instrument, plus it’s super-affordable.  If you can only afford one microphone, make it an SM57. The great thing is that no matter how many microphones you eventually own, you’ll need at least one and possibly several SM57s in your locker. You might as well buy the first one right now and get started.

Next, let’s say you have a little more money to throw into the kitty.  There are two possible directions you can take:

If you want to go with a condenser mic, which gives you that added crispness on vocals and especially string instruments, go with an SM27.  It’s a great sounding mic, real versatile.  Colbie Caillat recorded the vocals on her latest album with an SM27.  That’s a really good choice.  The retail price is $299 and it includes a shock mount, which is great.

If you prefer a dynamic microphone sound, which some people do, go with the SM7B.  It’s about the same price as the SM27 – but is has a different sound signature than a condenser and depending on the type of music and what you’re recording, it might be a great choice.  Some of the most popular recordings have been made with anSM7B– including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.

It’s a great mic for people who are doing rap and heavy metal screaming- type vocals that would tend to overload a condenser.

The third mic we’d add later on to give yourself more versatility is a small diaphragm condenser like the SM137. A pencil style, probe-style condenser, this a mic you’d use primarily for instruments but it makes a great drum overhead mic and works especially well in a stereo pair. If you’re stereo-miking a piano, for example, a couple of SM137s with a stereo mount make a really nice stereo set-up. The mic retails for about $180 so it’s really affordable.

The thing to avoid is you don’t want to pick a microphone that has a really pronounced sonic character.  Some people are really big fans of mics that have that, but generally those mics tend to be less versatile.  It may sound magical on acoustic guitar or voice, but it doesn’t work well on other instruments.  You don’t want to over-emphasize any one thing – you’re looking for balance and consistency because that’s what makes a mic flexible in lots of different roles.

If you stay with that strategy going in, you’ll be able to handle almost any miking tasks, vocal or instrument and later on, you can certainly add those more unique application-specific mics.  You’ll have built that foundation of ‘do everything workhorses’ that can handles lots of different roles.

Tips:

Record each voice and instrument (or sound source) separately.

Maintain a consistent sound level. Make sure your sound sources do not move in and out of the pickup areas of the microphone. Movement (i.e. varying distance from the microphone) will change recording levels, which are hard to fix later.

Keep the microphone away from reflective surfaces. Reflections caused by hard surfaces, including even tabletops and music stands, can affect the sound quality captured by the microphone. This is also called reverberation and if you want this effect, add it later.

Place the microphones far from unwanted sound sources. Be sure to also point the microphones away from any unwanted noise. Make a few sample recordings of the chosen recording area, with the microphone facing different directions, to find the quietest possible placement.

Place the microphone only as close as necessary. Too close a placement can color the sound source’s tone quality (timbre), by picking up only one part of the instrument. But too far away means you will pick up more ambient sound.

Less is more. Fewer microphones mean fewer technical issues and, for the purposes of capturing clean sound, less pickup of background noise.

Keep the 3-to-1 rule in mind. When multiple microphones are used, the distance between microphones should be at least three times the distance from each microphone to its intended sound source. For example, if two microphones are each placed one-foot from their sound sources, the distance between the microphones should be at least three feet. If each microphone is just two inches from an instrument, they only need to be six inches apart.

Resources

There’s a mountain of ever-changing information on the Internet that can give you details on the latest hardware and software, along with pricing and good/better/best recommendations.  We’ve included one of the sources used for this post, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, more.

Guide to the Home and Project Studio, TweakHeadz Lab

FREE downloads from Shure:

  • Home Recording and Podcasting
  • Introduction to Recording and Sound Reinforcement
  • Microphone Techniques for Recording

Read More

Building a Project Studio for $1000 or Less, Part II 
In the second of our two-part series, we’ll look at the remaining six project studio fundamentals – from considering all-important acoustics to choosing gear that will see you through your sophomore effort and beyond.

 

 

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