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So you want to build a home studio? I own Night Train Studios in Westford, MA, a 1,000 sq. ft recording studio that I built in 2003 (that’s a 12’ x 15’ Control Room, 12’ x 18’ Iso Room A, 12’ x 10’ Iso Room B, 6’ x 10’ Iso Room C, 4’ x 6’ Iso Booth D and a 9’ x 12’ Lounge). It’s in the walkout basement of a 40’ x 25’ addition I built on my home. I’ve had lots of musicians ask me after recording in my studio “how much would it cost me to build one of these in my basement?” As a licensed building contractor, I’ve learned to never answer that question too quickly, because the first number you give sticks in people’s heads. But here are some ideas to be thinking about as you plan your dream home studio…
Heating & Cooling – Just like other rooms in your house, your studio will need heat in the winter and probably air conditioning in the summer (an uncomfortable musician is not a happy musician). Your control room, especially, is going to heat up quickly with all the gear and people coming in and out, so you’ll at least want to plan for air conditioning in that room. If you’re building in a garage or detached building, you might get away with air conditioners in the windows in the summer but you will still need to heat the spaces. Can you zone off of your existing HVAC system or will it need its own system? Can you get away with electric baseboard heat? Consulting with licensed plumbers and HVAC experts is a smart idea. In my studio, I was able to create a zone off one of my existing forced air systems so that I could get heat and AC without needing a new furnace/compressor. To reduce airflow noise, I used flexible insulated duct that runs to each room in the studio (remember you’ll need a supply and a return duct for each room and that can take up quite a bit of room – so plan accordingly).
Lighting & Electrical – You will probably want to run a sub-panel off of your existing main electrical panel; in my case I ran a 60amp sub panel off my 200amp main panel. You’ll need at least one 15amp circuit for outlets to power computers, guitar amps, outboard gear, etc (I suggest 2 – 20 amp circuits for this). Make a list off all the gear you have (and plan on acquiring down the road) and estimate the wattage each one uses. Don’t forget that musicians will be bringing in their own gear (and that sometimes means big amps that draw a lot of power). Each amp in your circuit generally equals 100 watts of available power, so a 15amp circuit can handle about 1500 watts before it becomes overloaded. I also would try to keep your new electrical wiring at least 12” away from audio lines that you may be running in the walls and ceiling. If electrical lines do have to cross audio lines, have them cross at 90-degree angles to reduce interference.
Lighting should be on its own circuits. A rule of thumb for old school light bulbs was 3 watts per square foot, but things are changing fast, with new CFL & LED bulbs reducing lighting wattage drastically. Whatever you do, make sure you plan to have plenty of light. I recommend having at least a couple of different lighting options for each space (wall sconces, track, switchable lamps, recessed) each with its own switch. That way you can adjust for different moods easily. In many states, homeowners can do their own electrical work (which will be inspected by the local electrical inspector – once before you close the walls and then at final inspection). There are many good books available for do-it-yourselfers, and I recommend The Complete Guide to Home Wiring from Black & Decker. Hiring a professional to do the job is always a smart idea if you aren’t sure you’re up to the task.
Framing & Wall/Floor Covering – Whenever possible, you want to minimize parallel walls in your studio. So unlike regular construction where everything is square, you want to try (if possible) to have at least one wall in each room at a slight (7 degrees or more) angle. In my control room, one wall is elliptical, which looks and sounds great (but was very difficult to build, so I don’t recommend it unless you enjoy wetting sheetrock to get it to bend). You want to separate your control room sonically from the room(s) that will have the musicians tracking in them. To do this you want to create “dead air” cavities. One way to do this is to frame your walls using 2” x 6” floor and ceiling plates and stagger the studs, so that when air pressure moves the sheetrock on one side, it doesn’t directly move the sheetrock on the other. Another way is to build a wall like you normally would and then after you sheetrock, build another wall half an inch away (of course you’ll only be able to get sheetrock on 3 of the 4 sides). In my case, I built double walls and also doubled the sheetrock, so there is 2-1/2” inches of sheetrock and 7-1/2” of dead space between the control room and the iso booths. The drummer can be rocking out but in the Control Room it sounds like he’s down the block. Of course you will want to use fiberglass insulation in all the walls and ceiling cavities.
Will you need to see the talent tracking in the iso rooms? If so, you’ll need windows – two double glazed panels installed out of parallel to each other works well. And if your talent needs to see each other in different iso rooms, you’ll need sliding glass doors. Plan sight lines very carefully. Also, the higher the ceilings, the better – 9 feet is nice, try not to go lower than 8 if you can; there’s nothing worse than low ceilings. If you are building in a basement, keeping sound from going up and keeping “foot steps” above from echoing down into your studio is hard to avoid. Plan on doubling the ceiling sheetrock with acoustic clips in-between, so that the two sheets are not rigidly attached to one another. Sheetrock walls and ceilings do not generally sound very good, so you’ll want to apply carpeting and other acoustic treatments (hanging tapestries or “acoustic clouds,” for instance) to certain sections. You can build simple acoustic wall and ceiling treatments by making wood frames, filled with fiberglass insulation and wrapped in a nice fabric. Some floor areas can be carpeted, but its nice to have some wood floor to give a room a “live” sound – you can always add throw rugs to adjust the amount of liveliness. Again, if any of this sounds out of your league, plan on bringing in a professional to help.
Final Thoughts – I worked for many years in studios in Boston and L.A. and I made note of the things I liked and the things I didn’t. We’d all like huge rooms to work with, but few of us have the luxury of huge Abbey Road style halls to work with. Set up a drum set in a small office and see what makes it too tight. Is it better in the bedroom where there are two more feet on one side? I have four iso rooms in my studio, but we generally only use two rooms for 90% of the work we do (and my tiny iso booth hardly gets used at all). Could you live with two bigger iso rooms instead of three small ones? Could you have one big iso room and use gobos to divide the drums from the guitars? My biggest advice would be to visit some studios first and pick their owners’ brains to help you figure out what you need and what you don’t in your dream home studio. Oh, and plan on having at least one comfy couch in the control room. Happy planning!
Zac Cataldo is a licensed contractor. He is also a musician and owner of Night Train Studios in Westford, MA and Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company that licenses music for film, TV, software & commercials.