Home Recording Studios have only come into existence relatively recently. It wasn’t very long ago that music studios were the exclusive domain of successful musicians, producers, and engineers.
For the average person, the idea of building a home recording studio would have bordered on financial lunacy. But thanks to four technological developments, it’s now possible for just about anyone to have their own recording studio.
The first development is the coming of the computer age, with lower prices and smaller, faster processors that have made computers accessible to the public. Believe it or not, the computers we now have in our homes are more powerful than the computers that guided the first men to the moon! Coupled with powerful software, it’s now possible to create music with hardware that you may already own.
The second development is a corollary to the first. As prices have come down and consumers have become more computer-savvy, the demand has increased for peripheral devices such as keyboards and microphones. As a result, the price of these devices has gradually declined as well. Nowadays, it’s possible to buy reasonably good equipment for your home recording studio at a reasonably low price.
The third development might surprise you. As music has become more and more digitized and “synthetic,” the recording quality necessary to turn out a good product has actually declined somewhat, at least for some kinds of music. Of course, the need for quality music will never change. But sometimes it takes less to convey that quality than it used to. The quality achievable in a home recording studio these days is more than enough. The quality of sound you can get is much better than 40 years ago.
Finally, it’s no longer necessary for musicians to land contracts with big record labels in order to promote their music. The Internet has made it possible to distribute music world-wide without any assistance from the mainstream music industry. Even better, this development has encouraged experimentation on a large scale. Though your music may never make it to the top 40 without the support of a large music conglomerate, you’ll still be heard, at least by a few people!
The convergence of all these circumstances has made it not only possible, but even practical to create a home recording studio. Whether you’re a musician longing for a place where you can experiment privately, or whether you just want to rent your studio to others, you now have tools that music engineers thirty years ago couldn’t even dream of.
Without the right knowledge, though, those tools will probably be put to inappropriate use. What you need is information so that you can make sure you have the right hardware that makes it easy for you to make the music you love. And that’s where this site comes in.
This site is designed to teach you the basics. You’ll learn what you can accomplish with a home recording studio, and about its components, you’ll learn about equipment the pros use, but you’ll also learn about studios that are much less sophisticated – and still very functional. This site will walk you through the process of creating a studio, from the planning stages to completion and beyond. There is a discussion of equipment in great detail, and gives recommendations for specific brands and models. There are also links to resources for further education and research.
It’s my hope that you will find this website useful not only when you’re just learning the basics about home recording studios, but also later when you’ve got some experience. If you like the book, or even if you don’t, I’d like to hear from you. In the meantime, welcome to the world of the home recording studio.
Home Studio: Advantages and Disadvantages
We’ve established that creating a home studio is feasible. But what’s in it for you? Why not just rent someone else’s studio? In this chapter, we’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of recording at home.
Although having a facility at home may not be for everyone, there are distinct advantages to doing so. Here are some of the most important.
Lower Long-Term Cost
Perhaps the most important advantage of recording is that you don’t have to pay anyone when you use it. Obviously, there’s an initial capital investment. However, the cost of a small home recording set up may be lower than the cost of renting a professional facility even once. And after you’ve set up your home recording studio, you will only pay for ongoing expenses such as blank CDs and upkeep.
If you hire or rent a professional facility, you’ll probably have to use it only during certain hours. Moreover, there may be limitations on how equipment is to be used. If you have a place of your own in your house, though, you can be there in an instant, even if it’s three in the morning and you’re wearing nothing but your bunny slippers. You get to decide just how the equipment will be used.
Greater Creative Control
Because rental costs are so high, you’ll want the session to be as short as possible. For that reason, you’ll keep experimentation to a minimum, and you may be inclined to stop before you’re really happy with the product. In your own place, though, you can experiment to your heart’s content. You can be as picky as you want.
Having a home recording set up can save you a lot of time. For example, you don’t have the travel time involved in commuting. Moreover, you don’t have to explain to someone else what sound you’re going for.
Nothing is perfect, and having a home recording set up is no exception. Here are some reasons you may want to use a conventional facility.
Greater Sound Quality
Unless you’re independently wealthy, a commercial facility will probably have much more sophisticated equipment than yours. It may also have live instruments that you cannot afford, such as a high-quality piano. You’ll have to decide whether the difference in quality is important enough to forego the advantages of a place at home.
More options musically
A commercial facility serves many clients with vastly different needs. Thus, it will have invested in more gadgets than you can probably afford. For example, you will probably be limited to buying just a couple of microphones with a sound you particularly like. However, a commercial facility may have ten microphones, each with a different quality.
Let’s face it, no one knows what they’re doing when they start a new venture. If you hire a commercial studio, you don’t really have to know what you’re doing, at least on the technical side!
If you rent a music studio and the equipment breaks down, you’re not the one who will have to pay to repair or replace it. The studio bears the full risk of theft, fire, and other disasters.
You’ve probably thought about the advantages and disadvantages, and you’re leaning towards building your own studio. The remainder of this book will help you through the process of building a home recording studio economically.
Every Musician Needs Somewhere To Play
You’re already on your way to creating a home recording studio. You may be unclear, though, on how you’d like to use it. It’s best to be very goal-oriented when equipping your home for studio recording. Your choice of home recording equipment depends in large part on what you’ll use it for.
Here are some of the things you might do in a home studio:
First, you can compose music. Even if you never intend to do any home recording, a studio offers the musician a well-equipped “laboratory” in which to experiment. Your computer can make sheet music automatically, so you don’t have to write it all out; and it can even transpose it into a different key. If you’re really adventurous, you can perform weird audio experiments in the privacy of a soundproofed room. Nobody ever has to know about that time you tried to make music with a whistle and a bowl of dog kibble (let’s face it, some experiments work better than others!).
Or, you can record music – either yours or someone else’s. If you’ve just formed a new band and you want to make a demo, it may be cheaper to use your spare room for home recording than to pay someone else to record you. And once it’s built, you can charge other bands to record their demos for them. Your studio could even end up paying for itself.
Depending on what equipment you have, you can mix or master recordings for yourself or other people. You probably wouldn’t do this for hire if you’re inexperienced, but if you’re a sound engineer who’s tired of the daily commute, you might be able to work from home and spend less time in the rat race.
You can get in touch with your creative side by creating samples (little snippets of sound from various instruments), or special effects (this is where the whistle and dog food could actually prove useful!). If you create your own samples, you don’t risk infringing someone else’s copyright; and if you sell your sample CDs, you’ll have copyright interests of your own! You can use studio equipment to duplicate other recordings. Keep in mind, though, that copying someone else’s music without permission can cause you a lot of trouble and expense.
If you are a performer and you need sound equipment for your gigs, you can buy equipment that will do double-duty. You’ll be able to record at home, but the equipment will be portable enough to use when you perform.
The rest of the articles assumes that you are most interested in composing and recording your own music and producing it using your own home recording equipment. Even if you have other ideas, though, you will find useful information in the chapters that follow.
You Don’t Have to Have Cutting-Edge Music Equipment In Your Studio to Create Cutting-Edge Music
Before we begin talking about music equipment, let’s discuss a concept that has mystified Western civilization since the 1980s: the concept of “enough.” Cultural and economic traditions encourage us to pursue our goals with all the fervor and dedication of a used car salesman about to sell his first Hollywood script. The temptation to accumulate more and more – for no particular reason – is seductive indeed.
Naturally, then, some of us have taken on the rallying cry of “new, better, different!” and decided there’s no point in creating a studio unless we can equip it with brand new, state-of-the-art, high-tech music equipment. Manufacturers, of course, have made no moves to convince us otherwise.
As a result, musicians have spent thousands buying music equipment that’s so confusing they can’t figure out how to use it. They never manage to get beyond a few basic techniques that could have been accomplished with much cheaper music equipment. Or perhaps they give up altogether. Many musicians are so discouraged by the prices they never attempt such a project at all.
Well, there’s certainly nothing preventing you from spending your nest egg – whether large or small – on machines and software and fancy peripherals. If you’ve won the lottery and can’t be dissuaded, then by all means, skip the section on budgeting.
If you’re like most musicians, though, and your funds are limited, don’t let anyone tell you that you have to spend a lot of money to make innovative music.
It’s simply not true.
Think about it. There’s a lot of innovative music coming from musicians who use very ordinary instruments, or even household objects. The percussion group Stomp, for example, has managed to make a very nice living from mundane items like garbage bin covers and athlete’s chalk.
And consider this:
Frank Zappa once said, “all the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff.”
Even if that’s true (and it’s not), do we really believe that Beethoven’s piano concertos could be improved if we just had more expensive music equipment? Can we say that about Stardust, or Stairway to Heaven?
The fact is, music originates in the soul. Yes, we can create new sounds with high-tech recording equipment, but those sounds don’t become music until someone adds their life and vision. If you’re one of those lucky souls who has that vision, you’ll find music no matter what music equipment you’re using.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that you should just go buy a micro-cassette recorder with a built-in microphone and start recording. In addition to creating good music, you’ve got to be able to reproduce it well enough to convey your vision to your listeners.
So how good does your music equipment need to be? It just needs to be good enough to meet your needs. And what’s good enough depends on the type of music you want to record, the instruments you’ll use, and your overall goals.
Music Equipment –
Explaining the Music Jargon!
It’s no wonder that few musicians build a home studio. On top of the expense, the music jargon can be incredibly intimidating. You’ll come across strange concepts like balanced and unbalanced, patch bay, in-line monitoring, busses, slot resonators, analog and digital, and sequencers. It takes a considerable amount of stamina to wade through all that mumbo-jumbo and figure out what all the music jargon means.
The fact is, you don’t have to understand much about technology to create a decent home recording studio – just as you don’t need to understand electricity to buy a good ceiling fan. A little guidance from people with experience, some basic research on your part, and a lot of listening will teach you everything you need to know.
Still, you do have to know what to ask for when you go to the store, you need to use the right music jargon. Thus, some vocabulary is unavoidable. Let’s begin with the basic components that make up a typical computer-based home recording studio.
All music equipment in a studio falls into one of three general categories: Input, processing (the computer hardware and software), and output.
Let’s take them in order.
If you want the computer to “hear” and store your singing, you’ve got to get your voice into the computer in a language it can understand. The devices that collect the sounds are called input devices.
This piece of music equipment you probably already know about, the input device with which you collect sound is the microphone. The microphone collects your voice or instrument and converts it into electrical impulses called analog signals.
The electrical impulse created by the microphone is so weak that, by itself, it wouldn’t even create a squeak, much less a big sound. The name for this piece of music equipment is the preamp, it magnifies the signal so it’s powerful enough to create sound you can hear.
The preamp can do something else that’s very important if equipped properly. Computers don’t understand “analog.” They only understand “digital,” which is basically just a code made of a series of Ons and Offs (these are represented as 1s and 0s). The language difference, of course, creates the need for a translator – something that can understand analog, and then translate it into digital and send it on to the computer.
The music jargon for this process is analog-to-digital conversion, and the preamp can be equipped to do this task. The computer sound card does this conversion.
Keyboards and synthesizers
The microphone isn’t the only way to collect sound. You can also use a keyboard or synthesizer. Electronic keyboards and synthesizers send music in a language called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) that allows devices to speak to each other through a MIDI cable – another piece of music jargon worth remembering. You can also get something called a controller keyboard that allows you to control several synthesizers from a single keyboard.
A sampler, which can be either a piece of hardware or a piece of software, is like a recording studio in a box. It records and stores snippets of sound from musical instruments. Those snippets can be changed, manipulated, and layered. A sampler is useful where you don’t have access to live instruments, but you want a live sound.
Outboard equipment is hardware that allows the musician to create special effects such as reverberation. You can also use plug-ins to create these effects.
From the input device, the sound goes into the computer where it is replayed, processed, or stored. You’ll read more about computers later. For now, just keep in mind that the computer can be either an Apple Mac or a PC. The computer uses the following items to do its job.
The sound card takes the information from the outside world and converts it into language the computer can understand. Thus, like the pre-amp, it acts as a translator. The sound card also determines the quality of the sound you get. The better the sound card, the more realistic the sound.
The computer can only do what it’s told to do. Software is the stuff that gives the computer its instructions (with a little help from you!). Software can help you record, mix, manipulate, and do all kinds of other wonderful things, depending on the package you use.
A slightly less well known piece of music equipment jargon is the plug-in. These are bits of software that process the music further, or add effects – for example, there’s a plug-in that makes the sound reverberate. Plug-ins often do some of the tasks of outboard equipment, though often not quite so well as the dedicated piece of hardware.
What fun is music equipment if you never get to hear back what you’ve recorded? Output devices provide a way to get the sound out of your computer, so you can listen to your creations. Here are some common output devices:
A very important piece of music equipment is the monitoring system, this is the type of speaker. However, the purpose of a monitor is not to make music sound good; rather, it is to reproduce sound accurately so you can make it better. It doesn’t enhance or improve. It just, well, monitors the sound.
Speakers and monitors are similar kinds of music equipment; but speakers may be designed to improve the sound. This is great if you want to enjoy the fruits of your labor; it’s not always so great if you want to hear what you actually recorded.
These are a pretty self-explanatory piece of music equipment. Headphones are just speakers you wear on your ears. They are great if you want to listen without creating ambient sound. For example, you might want to hear the music while you add a voice track; or maybe you’ve just got a really strict landlady! But beware, there are funny acoustic things that happen to the sound between the speakers and your ears that don’t happen on headphones!
Our final piece of music equipment is the mixing desk, it allows you to regulate and adjust the music. Mixing lets you adjust the relative volume of different instruments, but it also lets you send different types of sound into different channels. This latter function can make it easier to get just the sound effect you want. Most music software now does mixing, too, so a mixing desk isn’t the necessity it used to be. But it can still provide useful functionality and connectivity.
As we’ve discussed, the creation of a home studio is a very goal-oriented process. Before you think about budget, recording studio equipment, or anything else, you’ve got to figure out what it is you’re trying to accomplish. What kind of recording studio do you want for yourself and therefore what kind of recording studio equipment do you need?
Here are some questions that may help you out:
What do you want to record?
Think about your favorite type of music. Make a list of the instruments, types of sounds, and types of voices that are used in this genre of music. As the type of music you want to create is likely to be similar to your favorite genre. Don’t forget to think about the types of special effects that are used too.
Try and put into words what kind of music you want to record. This may be easy for some, e.g. Classical, RnB, Drum n Bass, Pop, Jazz, but go further try and put into words the types of sound you hear. Using everyday descriptive words like fast, slow, bright, dull, heavy and light.
Think about how many people or instruments you’ll want to record at one time. Ask yourself whether you want to record in “layers” or whether you’d rather fit everyone in the studio all at the same time.
What do you want to do with the recordings?
Are you trying to record a demo for a record label you have in mind? Do you just want to send recordings to your grandmother? Do you want to sell your recordings? Do you want to sell your recordings to your grandmother? Shame on you!
How long do you want the recording studio equipment to last, and how much use will it get?
Are you just trying to get some basic recording studio equipment in place until you can afford something better? Or is this for keeps?
Why don’t you just use a commercial recording studio for this project?
Is it because of cost? Because you want to be in charge of the creative process? So you don’t have to get dressed?
Do you want to impress people with your studio equipment?
It’s all right to answer yes. If you plan to record for other people, you want them to be impressed by and have confidence in your recording studio equipment.
Consider other questions that, while not directly goal-related, will help direct the process:
How much experience do you have with recording, and with recording studio equipment?
Do you have friends who can advise you?
How good are you with electronic gadgets?
How much space do you have for a studio?
Notice that there are no questions here about money. There are separate articles about budgeting and money. For now, concentrate on your goals. Once you’re clear on what you want to accomplish, you can look for ways to make your budget work.
‘I would advise you to keep your overhead down; avoid a major drug habit; play everyday, and take it in front of other people. They need to hear it, and you need them to hear it.’
James Taylor (Legend, Singer and songwriter)
There are studios and then there are studios! We might want a state-of-the-art studio with all the latest recording studio equipment, but few of us have the resources.
So, why not cut corners if you can get by with less? Why spend $20,000 when you can get all the recording studio equipment for your needs for just $2000? And what if $2000 is about $1500 more than you can spend? If push comes to shove, what can you do without? What’s optional and what’s not? Now that you have examined your goals, you can figure out what you’ve got to have, and what you just wish you could have.
The bare necessities
In simplest terms, a recording studio just needs to do four things: collect sound, manipulate it, store or process it, and spit it out again when we ask it to. Here are the things you absolutely must have when you’re starting out.
You’ll need some sort of input device . Input devices include keyboards, synthesizers, microphones, and, in some cases, samplers. Which devices you need depends on what sort of music you want to record. If you’ll be recording live instruments, including vocals, you’ll need microphones. But if you’re just using a synthesizer and making instrumental music, you may be able to skip the microphone and some other recording studio equipment.
You’ll need a device to magnify the tiny electrical impulses collected when you use an input device – otherwise you won’t be able to hear anything. For this, you’ll need a preamplifier. These often come as part of the mixing desk but are often available seperately.
Another piece of recording studio equipment you’ll need is a music computer – a must these days. Either an Apple Mac or a PC will do, although many professionals swear by Apple Macs. It doesn’t need to be designed specifically for music, although such computers do exist. It does, however, need to have enough memory (both ROM and RAM) to operate the software and store large audio files.
You’ll need music software as part of your essential recording studio equipment. There are several good music programs available, for example, Cakewalk, Cubase, Logic Audio, Pro Tools. Most of them are expensive but some are not. You might be tempted to buy a cheap, old version of the software. Keep in mind, though, that well-known programs may have better technical support available and will sound better. Moreover, files created by cheapie programs may not be compatible with other programs you want to use. You can probably get away with using an older version of a well-known program, but you probably can’t escape the cost altogether.
You’ll need recording studio equipment that can translate the music you record into language the music computer understands. This process is called ”analog-to-digital conversion.” You’ll need two devices to talk to the computer. The first is a sound card. Don’t rely on the sound card that came with the computer. Good sound cards are not too expensive, and they make a huge difference in the quality of the end product. Buy the best sound card you can afford, and make sure it has enough input and output channels. The preamplifier is the other piece of recording studio equipment that sometimes performs analog-to-digital conversion. To some extent, it can pick up the slack left by a mediocre sound card provided the sound card has digital inputs. However, you’ll need both a sound card and a preamplifier if using microphones.
You’ll need an output device, and power to run it . In other words, you’ll need something that will allow you to listen to the music you’ve recorded. You can listen by using monitors, speakers, or headphones. Some output devices come with power sources. If your output devices don’t have power, you’ll have to buy an amplifier.
Finally, you’ll need lots of wire and cable to connect all the pieces.
Optional Equipment? Or Gotta Have It?
A bare-bones studio may not meet your needs. Here are some items you may decide you need:
Sampler, and Sample CDs
While not absolutely necessary, a sampler can expand your options considerably. A sampler allows you to add instruments you don’t really have. A sampler is particularly helpful if you would like to include live instruments in your recordings, but you can’t afford the real thing. Sampler CDs provide “canned” samples, so that you don’t have to create your own. They can be a real timesaver, but you need to be mindful of copyright issues.
Plug-ins are a category of software and an essential part of the modern recording studio equipment list. They allow you to add special effects like reverberation, delays, chorus, flange, they also do certain types of processing including dynamic processing like compression and noise gating. Because you add plug-ins individually or by category, you pay only for the types you want.
Outboard equipment is similar to plug-ins, but it lives outside the computer. Adding outboard recording studio equipment is a way to “rev up” the quality of your end product.
All major music software now includes mixing capabilities. For most people, the software is perfectly adequate. However, some people – particularly those who like a “hands-on” approach literally – would rather use the hardware.
This item isn’t exactly optional, because you must consider the quality of the sound in the studio control room and live room, and the effect of sound from outside the studio. However, acoustic treatment is very expensive piece of recording studio equipment, so many musicians must find cheaper alternatives.