Building a Home Recording Studio For Dummies

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Are you ready to trade up your Audigy card and Band in a Box for the next level of recording equipment? Maybe you’re thinking about owning the ultimate piece of gear: your own actual recording studio. Well you don’t have to be Paul Allen to get a completely professional level recording studio up and running.

So, how do you make an Abbey Road in your mom’s garage with 10 minutes of reading and a weekend?

I can tell by search terms being used on the Internet that there are a ton of people out there looking to build their own recording studio. Building a studio is not something you want to do. It’s equivalent to owning the biggest yacht you’ve ever seen. It costs that much and it’s that much trouble. I know. I own one. My guess is that I haven’t talked you out of it. So, may I suggest that you do something more moderate: find an extra room (big if possible), take 10 minutes to read this article, and then plan a weekend to buy and setup your gear.

If you want to do more than what I just described, or spend more than $10,000, read my other article on building a higher-end studio. Or, go buy a ton of books at Barnes and Noble on recording, save up some dough, and you’ll be on your way. I took this route (well, almost). I hired the recording engineer for the Steve Miller band and found out after 30 years of experience he knew nothing about acoustics. (How does that happen?) Anyway, learn from my hard knocks, take the easy route, and never stop learning….

Acoustics for Dummies
You must know three simple concepts…

Isolation: This is the ability to keep wanted sounds in your studio from getting out (and being annoying to others). And, it’s the ability to keep unwanted sounds out (fire engines screaming by while your 10 minute drum solo is being recorded).

Absorption: This is the ability of certain materials to absorb sound waves across the human hearing range. Using different materials allows you to “tune” your room to sound good on the inside. For example, carpet is great for absorbing high frequencies (crash cymbals) but awful at absorbing low frequencies (your 13-year old playing bass).

Diffusion: This is the ability to “spread” sound waves around the room at different frequencies. Good diffusion in a room allows you to hear a pleasant and reasonably accurate acoustical “image” no matter where you are in the room. Without diffusion, certain frequencies will “pile up” in certain parts of the room, giving you a distorted “picture” in those spots.

Buy the acoustic materials ($250-$1000). Now that you know some basic lingo, get out a tape measure and measure the height, width, and length of the room you want to use for your studio. Then log into the website for Auralex, a maker of acoustic materials. Follow the links for their free “Personalized Room Analysis.” Download and fill out the form and fax it back to them. When they get back to you, go to your nearest Guitar Center to buy the stuff. Make sure you buy the Auralex adhesives to stick the stuff on the walls. You’re done.

Recording Gear for Dummies
Buy a good computer ($1000-$1500) You can buy ones tuned for audio from Carillon. Or, you can buy an off-the-shelf Dell or Mac. Get 512MB to 1GB of RAM and make sure your system has a firewire card and CD-RW. For Windows, get a PC with Windows XP. If you already have a Windows PC, upgrade to XP. It will solve a ton of problems regarding your audio hardware.

Buy a computer recording interface (about $1400). The best thing going right now is the Tascam FW-1884. Check it out on Musician’s Friend. It’s firewire so it will work with Macs or PCs. The Digi002 is another good choice. These are good midrange devices that don’t require a separate mixer. Just plug in the firewire cable to your computer and go. They’re portable too. Lower cost recording interfaces are available, but this article is for dummies, so save yourself the time unless you want to do the research.

Buy a software recording platform (about $100-700): There are many choices, but some good ones are Cakewalk Sonar, Sony Acid Pro, Adobe Audition, FL Studio, or Digital Performer (mac). If you buy the ProTools Digi002 recommended above, then the ProTools LE software is included with your hardware. LE is the “lite” version of the DigiDesign ProTools software. DigiDesign ProTools is considered the gold standard for pro studios, but if you want the “full” version you also have to buy DigiDesign’s high-end gear. For the home studio, this is usually beyond the budget. If you are a songwriter, Acid and FL Studio are good choices as they allow you to quickly and easily compose songs using “loops” of real recordings of various instruments.

Buy some speakers (about $1000-$1500): Get a pair of Mackie HR824s or HR624s. The HR824s are the most accurate speakers on the market. The 624s aren’t bad but you’ll be lacking some bass – so you may eventually want a subwoofer. The trick here is that even with good speakers, the best tool you have is your ears. Learn to listen. It may take years to hone this skill. You can get cheaper speakers, but I wouldn’t skimp here.

Buy some microphones, if you need them ($89 to $infinity). Many keyboardists and guitarists don’t need mics. Just jack in. If you are a singer, get the Audio Technica AT3035 – it’s cheap and good. If you are a guitarist, get an SM57 for $89 and stick it 6″-12″ in front of the cabinet. If you are a drummer, well, you’re beyond the scope of this article. Drums are a pain to record and they typically require a lot of mics and a lot of knowledge. Sorry, maybe next time.

Buy a few cables ($100-$300). Buy some mic cables, as well as a pair of balanced 1/4″ cables for going from your audio interface to your speakers, and unbalanced 1/4″ cables to go from your keyboard or guitar processor to your audio interface.

Buy a pair of good headphones ($100). Most studios are using Sony MDR-7506. They sound great, period. Don’t put them on your chair unless you want to buy another pair!

In Summary
This is the quickest recipie I know of to create a studio in your home for a reasonable amount of money. You can do it cheaper, but you’ll have to do some research, visit pawn shops, and spend time on eBay. At least you have a handle on the major components that you’ll need. If you need more info, visit my reading list on amazon.com.

Disclosure:
I’m not an employee of Auralex, Guitar Center, Mackie and any other manufacturer mentioned here. I also don’t own their stocks. I’m just a guy with a PalmPilot trying to organize my life and write meager articles for a few friends.

rock on.
derek
http://www.rainonmeproductions.com

11 thoughts on “Building a Home Recording Studio For Dummies

  1. Jim

    What do you mean by “most accurate speakers”? The speakers that best represent what will be heard on most other speakers after you disseminate what you’ve mixed on the accurate speakers?

  2. derek

    Ah, most intahwesting qwestiahn grahss-hoppah.

    There are two schools of thought:

    A.) studio speakers should not “color” the sound in any way. they should simply reflect what came through the microphone and landed on the “tape”. the way to make a “neutral” speaker like this is to make sure that the speaker has an absolutely flat frequency response from 20hz to 20khz (human hearing range). that way the speaker does not contribute anything to the sound that you are hearing, letting you hear the sound that’s that came from the mic as it came from the mic. make sense? mackie accomplished this with their HR series studio monitors by coupling an amp that reverses the speaker cone as well as pushes it out, giving fine control over the frequency response. this is called “active” speaker control. the mackies are dead flat down to about 40hz, which is where most speakers drop off anyway. if you really want to rattle the house, you can get a matching sub to be accurate down to 20hz.

    B.) studio speakers should provide an interpolation of the kinds of speakers that people have in their homes, cars, tvs, etc. that’s the only way to get a mix that sounds good in “normal” albeit imperfect environments.

    common wisdom has rested upon the solution that you should do A with some B. this is why you see two or three speaker sets in many studios. use a primary set of accurate (flat) speakers for monitoring, and then check how your mixes translate onto speakers that are poorer quality, or speakers that you just “like”. two of the most common speakers that people use for this are yamaha ns-10s because if you can make a mix sound good on those, you are a god. also, the “auratone” (aka the “horrortone”) speaker which is like a mono clock-radio speaker.

    keep in mind with both schools that there are still issues with the room your are listening in. the room may color the sound in a certain way even though your speakers are accurate. the real test of whether a mix is “pro” is beefy bass that doesn’t get out of control. amateur mixes (i have many to my name) get boomy in sections, or have very little bass at all. proper bass frequency reproduction is a problem for home studios because managing bass frequencies acoustically in a room (with room dimensions, shape, and absorbing material) is difficult. hence, this one of the reasons why people spend the big bucks on acoustical engineers.

  3. Sara

    For the last year or so on tv i’ve seen, what appears to be the same speaker in recording studios, i can’t give a name but they are black with the white speaker/circle (im not very familiar with any of this stuff) Who makes this speaker, do you know?
    thanks

  4. lytes

    question,

    using protools le, trying to record a vocalist in a booth, but for some reason there is a delay, around .5 ms between the singers voice and the aux headphone feed coming from the console.

    currently the mic goes directly into protools and the output of P/T comes up in a rail in the console. The headphone feed is coming from the board. I thought maybe to connect the headphone feed directly to the 002, but that didn’t help. I have yet to try connect both to mic and headphone feed thru the console , but even I ruled that option out because of the music, which has to come from P/T.

    how should I be wiring my studio to get rid of this delay… keep in mind, the only reason I wanted to use my console was for the talkbalk feature that the 002 does not have

  5. derek

    Your intuition is telling you the wrong thing. Run the mic into the console and monitor from the console (headphones, control room speakers), then tap the console (from the channel insert, or tape outs, or submixes) to feed into protools inputs for recording. You don’t have to worry about the music coming “from the tape” being out of sync with what you’re playing. This is a common misconception about how DAWs work. As the music plays, you sing with it, p/t records it. This signal path is basically instantaneous. You only run into latency (as you are hearing) when you try and “round trip” with a live input (such as a mic) into the computer and back out again (which is what you described above). There are cases where “live input monitoring” in this way makes sense, such as using softsynths or software based guitar processors. In these cases, you have to dial down the “buffer size” in the software control panel of the audio hardware. Lowering the buffer size decreases live input monitoring latency, but greatly increases CPU load thus cutting down your track count. You can run into cases where you may be able to monitor your guitar with cool fx going through software plug-ins, but you can’t play your tracks back to do any recording. That’s when you have to decide to 1) buy external processing for your guitar or 2) buy a better computer with faster CPU and more memory.

    FYI, if you can dial down your buffer size setting to get 10ms or less of latency, that is basically unnoticable. 5 or 6ms of latency is heaven. As a point of comparison, normal hardware synthesizers (such as a korg triton) have about 3ms of latency from when you touch a key to when sound comes out.

    So, if you are using a mixer with your DAW, always run everything into the mixer and run headphones and control room speakers from your mixer. Also the “tape feeds” from the DAW go into the mixer and thus into the headphones. The value add of a mixer to a DAW setup is preamps and monitoring flexibility. This setup gives you basically zero latency monitoring and everything is in sync with the DAW. If you want to listen in real-time to plug-ins you have inserted into the channel for the current mic/guitar/synth you are recording, then run into latency and the best way to address it is to reduce the hardware buffer size.

  6. derek

    sara,

    those are yamaha ns-10s you are seeing. they used to be the studio standard. however, more accurate speakers are now available. in my opinion ns-10s sound like crap so if you can make a mix sound good on them you are amazing.

  7. derek

    I think you’d much rather be a “rapper” than a “raper” :-)

    Anyway, Sony ACID Pro is the ticket for you. Learn it, love it, and buy as many additional loop CDs as you can afford (around $40 each).

  8. Chelsea

    Hey,
    I really liked this article and i learned alot in such a short period of time. If you are familar with Sony’s Acid Pro, how can I record something from my MIDI keyboard and put it on Acid?

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