Recording: How to Build A Home Recording Studio 1.0

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Okay, so this is a blog about creating a home studio for audio recording and it will involve 7 steps.  It will be told from a Home Studio for dummies perspective but be warned — you need to be really dumb to find this useful.  Andy will chime in on technicals because he knows what he’s talking about.  Be warned.  It is also written to those with human relationships, where you have to consider … others. 

So some additional caveats.  I’m going to give you tips to build a home studio for 6 performers all playing at the same time.  So a lot of the kit that I’ll talk about assumes you need to be prepared for all this.  If you’re on your own for awhile, then you don’t need most of the things I’m talking about and others will give a lot more appropriate advice.

Here’s how I think about a home studio.  This was all new to me, so I didn’t know squat but here’s my mental image:  the brain is the core HW/SW and the skull is your mixing environment.   The backbone is the basic hardware and cabling that sets up the musicians.  The arms and legs are the workstations of your musicians (mics, headphones).  The veins are all the cables, which deserve their own tip.  And the heart is the core musical instruments or add ons that you bring for your musicians.   The lungs are the room.  Oh, and the soul is those that drop by.  So with that,  here are my 7 steps to building a home studio (and my links are just showing where we bought stuff at the time, but do shop around):

1. The Lungs:  Find a room and talk to all those involved with that room – and warn them that ‘life as they know it is over!’:    Now, this is good advice if you want to save an important relationship but it is bad advice if you want to build a home studio, because if your partner, friend, room mate ever knew what was going to happen to them they would never, ever in a million years say yes.   I chose our cinema room, which was also my wife’s office and said I was going to put some software on the computer and learn about music production.  She said yes.  One year later, she is in the loft, having retreated there and the cinema room is filled with studio equipment – more wires then a 1950’s super computer.  It is impassable to the whole family.    Now, because of the damage you will cause to all human and pet relationships, I’m not sure how picky you can be.  But if you could be picky, find some healthy lungs.  Big is better.  Less noise is better – less wheezy breathing.  Well ventilated is better – big healthy air flow.   But, if it were all these things why would YOU be given it.  So you’ll settle for what you get.

2. The Brain:  Now Choose your Studio Equipment: Computer, Mixing Software and Mixer.  I did a lot of research on this at the outset and went with Pro Tools.  I’ve not used others so have no idea but I have been very happy with it.   I run it in two home studios, MAC and PC and so I am the world’s expert on daily comparisons — go MAC all the time, every time.   No question.  So get the best MAC you can afford (because you’ll use it for tons of other things related to your music) — the click goes to their 27″, which is ‘the dream.’  If you can afford it get two monitors, with BFD and mixing window on right and core window in front (if you go with MAC you need some fiddly kit to make dual monitors work, but ask them).  Then get Pro Tools and go for mixing board — LE series, 003.   There are tons of short cuts in terms of mixing when you’ll be happy for the physical board.   The other boys will chime in on the stuff they use for solo recording.

3. The Skull: If you have the luxury to decide, go for mixing desk and nice chair:    If you are in a good relationship, take a hard look at your partner.  Do you like the way they look, their touch, the feel of their body against yours?  Did it take you a long time to find said partner and do you invest a lot of time with them?  Okay.  Now look again.  However  much you love them, you are still going to spend 28 times more with your mixing chair than them.  You will sit all day with the band, you will sit after the band leaves to do fast mixing, and you will sit on that chair for hours during the week to improve mixes.  The ratio is 28:1.  So think about that when you fork out the dosh for the best chair possible.  Really good chair.  I confess, I have an amazing wife, so I had to think of something 28 times better – I went Aeron.    In terms of the desk, I’m less fanatical.  I have a big flat table in London and a more professional desk in Spain, a Studio RTA Producer Station.  The main benefit of a more professional desk is you can organise all your added kit, starting with headphone amps (see below) into the rack stations.  Finally, you need good monitoring speakers.  We went Genelec and are happy, but we also burn CDs and run them around our house and those of our friends and play them on 10 other speaker systems to make sure we like the sound.  You can’t trust one pair, but we decided to burn a CD and test rather than set up 2-3 other speakers.  But you’ve got  to do the CD thing.

4.  Sort out the backbone stuff.  this is where I was clueless and Andy really jumped in.  You’ve got to set up an infrastructure for your musicians.  This involved buying two headphone amps, for a total of 8 discrete headphone plugs, but 16 if you share volume (and trick, you can buy some of the head phones with volume knobs to give some more freedom).  We also bought an Octopre kit (don’t forget optical card and optical cables!) which expanded the number of inputs, mic and line in, which allowed us to set up templates in pro tools where we could permanently assign instruments and mics.  We then bought a snake that allowed us to set up a major mic/line in portal in centre of room (there is advance alternative to this that we’ll write about later).    This was back bone and I wouldn’t have thought of any of it without Andy.

5.  So with backbone sorted, we can now get our arms and legs sorted.  In my simple head, I think about this as giving the artists ‘workstations’.  They need to have:  mic and stand, line in for instrument, headphone, and music stand, and all the cables connecting them to backbone.   I didn’t think this way at first but it helps, especially with a great band that can sing, play and add value to everything.  So with that, you need as many workstations as you have musicians, plus the guy in the brain, plus your ‘soul’, your audience.  So, start counting.  We have six full time musicans, so they need the whole works – 6 mics + cables, 6 headphones + cables, 6 line in’s, 6+ mic stands, 6 music stands (for lyrics/chords) – one place you can save money is get them cheap or skip them).  Now that’s full on because they don’t all sing, but we have a lot of live instruments, so the guitarist all like to play into mic or thru amp.  So we need it.   We bought two great mics – both AKG, one with and one without the directional stuff.  We bought 2 condensor mics for stereo guitar recording (and don’t forget a stereo bar).  And we’ve got four workhorses for the rest and did a good deal on a mic-stand-cable combo.  We’ve got pretty good headphones, but they do keep having problems with one side going out, so not a huge advocate.    Then we got tons of cabling for all this (see veins).    Got basic music stands and mic stands, but would recommend two of your mic stands be really heavy duty so you don’t suffer droop.  You’ll have enough problems in your personal life with drooping and general bodily deterioation – why have to deal with droopy mics?    The notion of a workstation is a good one, because it helps you think about cables and messy studios, which i will devote some time to at end.   Now, remember, the brain gets a little station – headphones, mic stand, mic, music stand.  Depending on your contribution to band you can give up everything but headphones.  I talked about the soul of the studio being those who drop by to listen.  I would recommend you have a couple headphones for them and a little sitting place.  This also helps when the back up singers arrive.    Now, I’ll put it here, but we must return to it when we discuss acoustics of room, the single smartest, little brilliant, high-bang-for-the-buck thing we did was buy a reflection shield for the mics from SE Electronics.  On important vocals, our leads will step within their little booth, with confidence, and belt away.  We can also use it to surround a guitar mic where we’re recording from an amp.  We use ours non-stop and so far don’t think we need to to a vocal booth (remember, we like the sounds of pet noises in our music).  Also, you will really begin to hate your vocalists after a while (because you will spend so much time mixing them in after they go) and it’s nice to use the shield to avoid general eye contact.  I’ve been told they feel the same way.

6. The veins.  Okay, then there are cables.  Your life will be all about cables.   You will learn all sorts of vocab around what cables are and I know I’m wrong in even saying cables.  But that is the generic term.  Here are the problems you will encounter with cables:  they will never be the right length, they will all look alike, they will never work when you need them, they will always be tangled and your whole life will be spent untangling them and coiling them – you will feel like a sailor on a C19th warship keeping this junk straight.  So they will be your downfall.  And no matter how good you are with buttons, your band will hate you for the cables.  And they will never remember where they are plugged in, always put them in wrong place, etc…  So not sure if you will hate your band more than your cables,  but you will definitely hate your cables.  So here are some basic tips:  a) for all the instrument cables (str jk to str jk leads for those who talk jargon), buy multi coloured — no two cables same colour.  Just do it.  And get 5 m for 4, 10 m for 2.  And then get 2 more 10 m. And hide them. And bring them out when arrogant guitarist says none of the lines work and he’s frustrated.  That’s 8 leads.  Get 8 different colours.  Trust me.  You’ll want to have the following dialogue:  ‘Martyn, where are you plugged into?   I dunno.  Well what is the colour of the stringy thing going to your guitar?   Red.  Andy, where is Martyn’s red string thing plugged into?   B.’  That will go on 100 times a day.   And this is most important because for mics and headphones (and you’re talking extensions with headphones because they have a little stringy thing already) you just get black.  So enjoy the rainbow while you can.  On headphones extensions and mics leads, get 30% 5 m, 30% 10 M and 30% a mix of 2-4 meter.  And now the labelling bit.  I bought a bunch of coloured tape.  All mics are green or red tape.  And I tape 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 strips around the ends of each. 1 thru 5 red.  1 thru 5 green. Then for mics same thing with yellow and blue.  So our dialogue is:  ‘Jimmy, I can’t hear anything from the cams.  Martyn, where are you plugged into?  I dunno.  Martyn, what colour and how many strips on your cable.  Oh, 3 red little stripes.  Andy, where is 3 red plugged into? Number 4.  Thanks.  Martyn, any better? ‘ And then Rob points out he left to get a beer.  But you get the idea.

7. So now I’m at the heart.  The fact is each of the band are going to have to jump in here.  I’ll tell you what we bought for Spanish studio, which we agreed would be a set of basic workhorse instruments that they were all ‘okay’ with… Let’s go in order of the Pro Tools Session.  Our drums are digital — we went for mid-level Yamaha.  We then supplemented with BFD 2 and the Percussion and Jazz & Funk add-ons.   These are fantastic.  We went for all the normal percussion add – ons – tamborine, shakers, etc… Guitar wise, we went for a classic Fender strat, Mexican and in Candy Apple red. The bass is a a Warwick corvette, and came with a nice little amp, which although was thought to be a bit poncy to begin with, has now come into its own as a pre-amp. The acoustic is a Yamaha CP700, which is nice and performs reasonably well on its pickup as well as acoustically.   Buy 70 10 volt batteries and hide them, though.  You leave the acoustic plugged in and it drains the little battery overnight.  Amp sounds come from the Line6 Pod XT, which has vocal harmonisers and everything, but we haven’t quite got that far with it yet… Keyboards include the  Yamaha CPX 700 NT and a Novation box for Jimmy to use at his station.  We love the Yahama and have had non-stop problems with Jimmy’s MIDI-Pro tools-PC in London studio.  We have full harps and the boys bring an assortment of tin whistles, trumpets, ukulele’s… Martyn brings really expensive guitars that go to 11.  Rob brings a five string bass.

Okay, so that’s it for 1.0.  These are the home studios that produced Six Months of Saturdays.   We know we’ve got a lot of issues and so 2010 is about building out Studios 2.0.  So watch this space.  The major upgrades will be:  a) to figure out a cost effective set of acoustic solutions and b) to sort out this notion of musician workstations.  On the first, Andy works on some of the best studios on earth and has argued all along we should invest in steps 1-7 long before we sort out all the right acoustic shielding, etc… And we have a pretty professional sound.  So watch this space.  On the workstation thing, right now we have the hub and spoke system.  Everything feeds into the snake. This means the middle of the room looks like octopus mud wrestling with with tangled mess o’ cables.  Rob suggests we work out how to switch all the plug ins to the walls so musicians just plug into their little station along the studio walls and keep centre free. We’ll try that, so again watch this space.  That will get us to 9 tips to build a studio, so we promise to come up with number 10 before we rev thru Version 2. Hope you find this useful and tips on above would be helpful.  If you do comment on this don’t get to geeky or strident — we really can’t be bothered.  Let’s not forget, afterall, its all about the music (and the lyrics!).

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