Building a Project Studio for $1000 or Less, Part II
The list of famous recordings made in a “home studio” is long and subject to debate. What qualifies as a home studio? We all know that “Exile on Main Street” was recorded in a home (make that the basement of Villa Nellcote in the south of France), but does it really count if the producer is Jimmy Miller and a mobile recording truck was parked outside? “Hitsville USA”, the home of Motown Records, had a recording studio on the first floor of a two-story house where the Gordy family lived upstairs. Still, artists ranging from Herb Alpert (“The Lonely Bull” was recorded in a garage) John Lennon (“Working Class Hero”), Bob Dylan and The Band (“The Basement Tapes”), Bon Iver (“For Emma Forever Ago”), Nine Inch Nails (“Downward Spiral”) and Adele (“Rollin in the Deep”) all produced bonafide hits without the acoustical and other advantages of a conventional recording studio.
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:
- The right space…
And the essential gear:
- Audio Interface
- DAW (Digital Audio Workstation
- MIDI Keyboard
- Headphones/Studio Monitors
The Right Space
Let’s start with where you’re going to set up. Ideally, you have a spare room or a basement that can be reserved for your project studio. If so, you’ll want to think about acoustic foam and other sound absorbers to handle less than ideal sonic characteristics. While recording is an art, acoustics is a science.
You want the space to be as sound-neutral as possible, limiting sound wave reflections that will make it hard to both accurately capture the music being recorded and mix it later. Professional recording studios built on floating slabs, like Shure’s Performance Listening Center, require the services of acoustical architects and cost tens of thousands of dollars to build. Still, don’t let this deter you from making the best of your available space.
Here are some tips for improving your room’s acoustics:
- Cover hardwood floors with carpeting or area rugs.
- Make sure windows are covered with fabric treatments – the heavier, the better.
- If you have a choice between a rectangular room and a square one, choose the rectangular room as square rooms tend to create problematic “standing waves”.
- Some pros advocate the “live end/dead end” arrangement, where the mix area is set up at the dead end of the room and the recording space is in the live area.
- Use acoustic foam if you’re in a more permanent space, but make sure it’s the commercially available professional (and fire retardant) type.
- Experiment: Books in bookcases, floor pillows and overstuffed chairs can go a long way in breaking up offending frequencies.
Remember, too, that there is no way to soundproof a room. Sound travels easily through doors, windows, ceilings and floors. If you have the luxury of setting up your studio on a top floor, you’ll still need to be concerned about who is next door or one floor down.
Tip: One person’s music is another’s noise, so anticipate issues. To check volume levels, playback through your studio monitors and listen outside your recording space. If you can hear it, so can your upstairs, downstairs, next-door neighbors and family. Use headphones for mixing and record at mutually agreeable hours. No one but you and the drummer wants to hear drum tracks over and over at 11 PM or on a peaceful Sunday afternoon.
In a perfect world, the computer you use for recording isn’t the one the family uses for email or eBay purchases. Even if it is, we’ll bypass the Mac versus PC battle (by this time, we all have our favorite operating system and most of us won’t be moved.) As one engineer put it, “Macs don’t sound better than PCs and PCs don’t sound better than Macs.”
Most people agree that this is what you need to support your recording rig:
- Hard drive: 40 GB
- Plenty of RAM: 4 GB or more.
- Powerful CPU. Minimum: Core 2 Duo processor with the frequency above 2 GHz or higher.
Tip: Many of us like the convenience of a portable laptop. Philip Lazar at the Institute of Audio Research suggests using a second monitor with a separate mouse and keyboard rather than its onboard trackpad and keyboard for a “nicer, seamless, and more professional workflow.”
The audio interface is an analog-to-digital converter and has increasingly taken the place of the soundcards built into most computers. An interface allowed your recording software and computer to process audio in to the computer, as well as out to your speakers.
Some computers come with 1/8” jacks, but if you want multiple inputs for microphones and instruments, you need to add an audio interface. This is where you’ll want to figure out how everything connects and purchase an audio interface that fits your needs. Think carefully about what your needs are.
Here’s Philip Lazar on the subject, “FireWire interfaces fair much better than their USB counterparts in cases of speed, clarity and their capability of daisy chaining multiple interfaces and drives. When shopping interfaces, it’s a good idea to figure out how many PREs you might need, and then add two. Having an extra MIC IN is always better than never having it when you need it the most.”
Having the right hardware for your project can make all the difference.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a system designed to record, edit, and play back digital audio. A key feature of DAWs is the ability to freely manipulate recorded sounds in the same way that word processing programs manipulate typed words.
Recording software allows you to record audio, record MIDI, cut, copy and paste audio or midi sequences, change tempo, change pitch, apply sound effects, use loops, quantize sounds and MIDI, play virtual instruments, play virtual sampler, organize sounds and song information, import/export sounds, play videos, mix, master and much more as technology advances.
There are many working environments out there. For PC users, a popular choice is Windows®- compatible Cakewalk Sonar studio recording software. Steinberg Cubase SX recording software can be used with both Macintosh and Windows. Apple Logic Pro and Pro Tools are widely used.
MIDI controllers or keyboards come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices these days. If you’re a pro keyboard player, you may want to invest in something sophisticated, but for many, a less-expensive 25-key keyboard works well for almost everything.
Some controllers also come with pads, sliders, or knobs on them. When considering a MIDI controller look first at the comfort factor – do the keys feel good to you? Do you need 88 keys or will 25 keys work as well for you? Then look at the size factor – will it fit on your desk? Avoid MIDI controllers that are too complicated. A simple controller is easiest to learn and work with.
Studio Monitors and Studio Headphones
Now it’s time to listen to what you’ve put down and here your options are studio monitors or studio headphones. The choice (and it isn’t necessarily one or the other; you may want both) may depend on where your studio space is located. Some project home studios use headphones for playback since they can practice or record into the wee hours without annoying the neighbors.
Here’s where you might be thinking: “Great! I already have headphones and speakers.” Not so fast. Studio monitors and headphones offer a stereo image and a flat, balanced sound that accurately represent the sounds you have recorded and aren’t colored (more bass, for instance) to make the sound more appealing. According to blogger Michael Walsh in Dubspot, “At first they may not sound as exciting as your other speakers. This is because you’re hearing an honest representation of the music.”
One thing you may also notice about studio monitors is that they’re small. For most home or project studios, 5” models are big enough. Michael Walsh recalls, “Visiting a producer friend once and noticed that he was mixing tracks with a pair of $20 computer speakers. He could do this because he knew from experience how to EQ his sounds and master his track to rumble a club sound system, so he didn’t need to hear the bass on his home system to know what was happening to the sound.”
Now let’s talk about headphones. Like many of us, you may have a nice pair of over-the-ear ‘cans’ that get pretty regular use when you’re listening to music. They won’t be helpful to you in studio, though, since headphones made for consumer listening color the sound. For mixing and monitoring, you’ll want studio headphones that are as neutral and accurate as possible; they’re the ears of your recording system and you’ll make a lot of important decisions based on what they deliver.
Good quality studio headphones, like the ones Shure sells, start at about $100.
Michael Walsh, who is a producer of audio/visual art and writes for soundsdefygravity.com suggests that two very competent systems can be assembled for less than a thousand dollars. Here are his recommendations:
“In this setup, we spent the bulk of our $500 budget on the speakers/studio monitors from Mackie and M-Audio. Both companies make very nice self-powered studio monitors that rate well among producers. The Behringer audio interface is inexpensive but effective for a small home studio. The M-Audio and Akai keyboards are both highly rated and have been used on countless recordings. This package will give a clean sound with a simple yet effective setup.”
Behringer UCA202 Audio Interface
M-Audio Oxygen 25 or Akai MPK Mini MIDI controller
M-Audio BX5 or Mackie MR5 Studio Monitor Speakers
“In this setup, we spent the bulk of our budget on sound – upgrading the speakers to an 8-inch driver that will deliver much more substantial (and clean) low-end sound. We’ve also upgraded the audio interface in this package with the highly rated Apogee One. Apogee is also known for their DAC (Digital to Analog Converters) that will breathe beautiful life into your speakers. Lastly, we’ve chosen a more elaborate MIDI controller, the MPK 25, which adds pad functionality to our setup.”
Apogee One Audio Interface
Akai MPK 25 MIDI Controller
M- Audio BX8 or Mackie MR8 Studio Monitor Speakers
Editor’s Note: These are the opinions and recommendations of Dubspot contributor Michael Walsh and do not represent an endorsement by Shure Inc.
Just building a project studio will not transform you into an engineer or producer. You’ll need experience and practice in order to perfect the craft and master the tools that make up the system.
If you’re new to recording, there’s a great new benefit: it’s affordable. The digital revolution has changed the landscape.
It’s easy to look at this list of gear and feel the need to get more things, more speakers and more components to create sound.
But remember that artists and engineers have managed with much less. And whether you agree that some of Robert Johnson’s 41 or so original recordings were recorded at the wrong speed in a makeshift studio of two adjoining rooms at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, no one can deny the brilliance that shines through those discs 75 or more years later.
Now it’s your turn.
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 a few of the sources used for this post, but there are dozens, if not hundreds more.