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Home Studio Setup Tips
and accessories for home, project, pro studios
by Rich the TweakMeister
Organization is everything when it comes to building an efficient home recording studio. Its about space relative to your body, gear relative to your hands, ideas and possibilities close to your mind.
The most critical variable in the computer based studio is having a keyboard near your computer keyboard. Ideally, you want to be able to press record and play at the same time your other hand triggers notes. You also want to hear your music in perfect stereo when your head is pointed to the computer monitor, and also when you are at your mixing desk. Having 2 sets of speakers helps. I suggest near field monitors pointing at you when you look at your computer screen and larger mid field monitors when you are facing your mixing desk. You switch back and forth as you build the song. While you are editing the song on the computer you can use the near fields at a moderate-to-low volume to save ear fatigue, and as you do your final mix, you can use the big guns to critically evaluate depth, boominess, crispness, balance and other issues. Your tweeters should be at ear level. That's pretty important. Speakers sound different off axis. Build everything else around these considerations. Whatever you do, avoid putting speakers in corners. Move them a few feet out if it has to sit in a corner so you don't get an unwanted bass boost.
Rectangular rooms are better than square rooms. If possible have the big speakers pointing down the long side of the room to maximize the distance between the back wall and the back of your head. If your back is against the wall, the reflections off the wall will play some tricks on your ears.
Re-rigging my rig in a 2006 downsize
When setting up or rearranging your studio, think of every possible angle by which you may need to access your equipment. This gets tricky with items that you may need to access from behind, as well as from the front--especially mixing boards. If the jackfield is against a wall in the middle of a table, I can guarantee you you won't be repatching very often. I recommend leaving at least 2 feet behind your racks free so you can get back there and troubleshoot.
Get a good, comfortable
chair on casters that is adjustable and supports your back properly.
Many office supply stores have good ones. Make sure it does not squeak.
(Though I have to admit, I've gotten some great really scary samples out of swivel
chair squeaks, but normally you don't want these in the mix, lol.)
Now stretch your arm
out and spin around 360 degrees in your new swivel chair. The circle your
arm makes is your prime studio real estate. If there is an object in
this space you never touch when working on music, move it back. Move
objects you do touch into this valued inner circle. You will not believe the difference
this can make. Move all your set-once-and forget pieces to the back. That
might include room EQs, effects boxes, synth modules, amps, midi interface racks,
etc. Stuff that goes up front, obviously, you main keyboard, grooveboxs, synths
with real time controllers, patchbays, and samplers (unless you edit them remotely).
All that #$%@& DJ Gear. Hey, I like grooveboxs as much as anyone. No dudes. I really do. Yet while they might be great in a DJ Coffin, they pose quite a problem in a home studio, namely, they take too much vertical space because they can't be racked. I mean if all my synths were "desktop modules" I'd have to install a little jet pack to my chair to get to it all!
Of course you could
get rack drawers, but once you price those you might think different. An attractive
yet inexpensive solution is a budget computer desk, the kind parents buy for school
kids. They have a sliding drawer for a keyboard and are about 2-3 feet in
length. Yep, you just put your electribe, your Kaoss pad, or whatever else
that is thin in the drawers and pu your heftier grooveboxs on the top. And
you get space underneath to store your mics, cds, zips, on one side and have some
stackable space on the other side for stuff like amps, tape decks, whatever else
you have that can't be racked. You can even store books there, like your manuals,
which you have read cover to cover, right?
Lighting. Dimmers and florescent lamps may induce hum into your audio system. Invest in lo wattage bulbs if you like to work with low light. Make an atmosphere of lighting to make your studio a creative place that's easy on the eyes. Besides, VST looks better in low light. Ambient lighting is good, it saves eyestrain, especially if you are spending long sessions staring into a computer monitor. Avoid all situations of glare reflected from the monitor, it will save you headaches, and we don't need pain when we create something beautiful, do we?
Keep a well-stocked
box of adapters. Yes. Go to Radio Shack. You have my permission.
Don't let those smirking pros in the corner stop you.
Do you have a Patchbay? Don't think you need one? Take this little test. Have you ever run out of mixer channels? (Who hasn't!) Is there ever an unused mixer channel in any of your mixes because it was tied up with a synth you didn't need for the piece? Do you ignore the sub outs on your synths and run everything from the main outs? If you answered all 3 of these as YES then you NEED a patchbay and if you answered yes to 2 of the three you will really appreciate having one. Sure it's a bit of a pain to set up and you have to buy lots more cables, but it is very much worth it because you can make your studio as flexible as you want. Here's the class on setting up your patchbay. Get all your old gear out of the closet and patch it into the bay. If you ever want to use it again, it will be about 2 seconds away from being live and patched into your board. Using the sub outs of synths and samplers dramatically increases your mix quality. If you dedicate a mixer channel to just the bass drum alone you improve your mix greatly.
If you do go with
a Patchbay, make a list of what gear is connected to each in and out. A standard
24 point patchbay has 96 jacks on it. Don't trust yourself to remember all
of them. When you change your rig, update the list.
Kill the Hum. When laying out your studio, route all the AC cords first. Put them in a pathway that will cross audio cables at a 90 degree angle. Should you use cable ties? I say no, though clearly your studio will look neater if you do. However, you might find that if you ever want to move a piece of gear you have to undo the harness and it's a pain. Avoid all situations where an audio cable travels parallel with an a/c cable as the audio cable will pick up dreaded 60 cycle HUM. Keep audio cables away from wall-warts (adapters).
At a normal listening
level, with nothing playing, gates switched off, your audio should be silent.
Now, carefully put all your faders to 100% and slowly turn up your amp till you
hear noises, hums, rfi. Isolate the most offensive of these noises to single
pieces of gear and see if moving the ac/audio cable paths helps. Usually,
you can improve your signal-to-noise ratio substantially by running this test, and
you learn which pieces in your studio are the noisiest. This helps during
the mix as you can make better decisions about boosting a single level or cutting
everything else to make an instrument cut the mix.
Acoustics: the really simple way. Treat the walls in your studio. Clap your hands loud in your studio. No, not to find the remote, but to listen for any ringing or resonance. You don't want resonance here, you analog filter heads! (smile). Do the foam thing till the only ringing you hear is your tinitus. Ouch! I mean till you clap and the sound does not bounce back. Shoot for a room where instruments sound full and clear, neither sproingy or muffled. Half dead, half alive. You know, the way you feel after 2 weeks of all night sessions.
Half and Half rule. If you have carpet, don't treat the ceiling. If you treat the north wall, don't treat the south wall, ditto for east and west. Square rooms are not good as they create standing waves where a certain frequency will resonate. Of course this is all a simplification to get you going. A more scientific way is place some of them where they will diffuse the early reflections coming off the walls and ceiling over your head and on the wall area your ears point to. But even just adding some foam will help. Sound travels fast (at the speed of sound!) and the more diffusion you add, the more dead the room will sound. You don't want totally dead, but a room where things sound good.
A professional approach will carefully analyze the room and place a variety of bass traps and sound absorbers/diffusers at strategic locations. Bass is a problem, particularly in small studios. Bass frequencies bounce around the room in such a fashion to give uneven bass response, depending on where you sit or stand. A Bass trap is normally put close to the corners, where they can be effective at "trapping" the bass frequencies. But this is just to foreshadow the next article, which will deal with acoustics in more detail.
Keep you cables
where you will need them. Behind your rack is a great place.
Keeping it clean.
You'll be happier in your studio if you dust it every now and then. I use
cotton cloths with either a little Windex or Endust for electronics sprayed on them.
Just a little. Best not to spray on the gear directly. A featherduster
is very useful for getting dust off of mixers, where the knobs are so close together
its hard to get the surface.
Invest in the absolute best all purpose Phillips screwdriver you can find. Get a good pair of needle nose pliers, jewelers screwdrivers, and wire cutters.
Heavy drapes over windows will keep outdoor noises from ruining your tracks. Also, tell the neighbors to keep it down after 3am, you're trying to make music in here.
Every time you burn a CD don't forget to write down what's on it on the cd itself. You will thank me 10 years from now when you have thousands of songs. Access is everything. Think like this: Anything you fail to mark is lost.
Studio-Central Member's Link
You can learn a lot about Room acoustics and solutions to common problems at www.realtraps.com
Also see Acoustic Treatment and Design for Recording Studios and Listening Rooms by Ethan Winer
Have fun in your studio!
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Want to read more about soundproofing and building a great studio room?
Read Acoustics 101, courtesy of Auralex
Tweak's Articles on Essential Studio Concepts