Build Your Own Home Studio (Part 2 of 2)

Read Part 1 here.

PERMITS

In most states you’ll need to submit your plans to the local building department for approval for any type of major renovation (read – permit fees and inspections).  If your plans involve building walls, hanging doors, running electrical and HVAC and you aren’t a do-it-yourselfer, then I’d recommend bringing in professionals.  Work that would take a hobbyist months can be accomplished in just weeks by professional tradesmen.  Building my 1,000 sq. ft, six-room recording studio took me about five months, and I’m a licensed builder!

CHOOSING GEAR

The first question you need to answer before you head off to the store is, “What will my typical tracking arrangement be?”  Will you be recording traditional rock bands, string quartets, singer/songwriters or all of the above?   You should determine how many channels you will need to record simultaneously.  If it’s a typical rock band, then 16 channels should do. If you’re recording 13 piece funk bands, then you’ll either need more channels or you’ll want to break up the tracking sessions into rhythm sessions, horn overdub sessions and vocal overdub sessions.  A digital mixer will be one of your more expensive purchases – I recommend buying one that has built-in compression so you don’t need racks of outboard compressors.  The mixer will either directly plug into your DAW (Digital Audio) via FireWire/USB or you will need to purchase an audio interface to go between the mixer and the computer.  If this is all foreign to you, then talk to a professional; things are changing fast in this area.  Working with a pro-audio sales person or a studio owner can save you lots of headaches.

MICROPHONES

Depending on what kinds of musicians you are planning to record, you will need microphones and lucky you – the days when only super expensive microphones would do are over.  Now there are dozens of high quality microphones well within reach, the only problem is that you will need at least as many microphones as the channels on your mixer – and each microphone has its own purpose.  Large diaphragm condenser mics (usually some of the most expensive) will handle tasks like vocals, acoustic guitars and horns.  Small diaphragm condensers are well suited for drum room overheads, acoustic guitars and strings.  Dynamic microphones will be the workhorses for drums and guitar amps.  In addition to the mics, you will need to budget for high quality XLR cables (I recommend getting different colors so that mic’ing drums is easier) – 20 feet is a good length.  You will also need a plethora of different kinds of mic stands – some for singers, some for mic’ing amps, drums, etc.  I recommend getting specialized clip-on mic holders for drums, otherwise you might have a difficult time with mic placement on the kit.

HEADPHONES

You’ll need a range of quality headphones and a headphone amp with multiple outputs and inputs so that each musician can hear while tracking and overdubbing. Drummers tend to do well with closed cup phones, while many singers prefer open ones.  Budget at least $100 per pair and try to mix it up so that you don’t have six pairs all the same.  I use aux sends from the mixer to give each musician his/her own headphone mix. I can’t stress this enough – all the gear in the world is useless if the musicians aren’t getting really good headphone mixes, so don’t skimp on this step.

WIRING, MONITORS, SOFTWARE

All the wiring for the microphone inputs and headphones should be wired in the wall with jacks in each room to make connections.  The cost of these specialized XLR and1/4” TRS outlets, as well as the shielded audio cable, can add up quickly and take some fine wiring and soldering skills.  You’ll need a good set of monitor speakers that you’ll want to mount with adjustable mounting brackets to the walls near where you’ll be mixing.  The type of audio software for your DAW first depends on whether you are going to be MAC or PC based and then on preference and budget.  You can spend as little as a few hundred bucks on professional DAW, but don’t forget about additional plug-ins for reverb, compression, soft synths, etc.  Even if your software comes with most of what you need to get started right out of the box, it won’t be long before you’ll want drum loops, better sounding strings and other plugins. Budget accordingly.

WHERE TO SHOP

I love shopping online at stores like Musician’s Friend and Sweetwater.  There you can read reviews and compare prices while wearing your pajamas.  Ebay and Craigslist are great resources for cheap gear, especially if you know what you’re looking for.  Used gear is a great way to get more bang for your buck, and well-maintained microphones or monitor speakers can be found at a fraction of the cost of new gear.  Realize that you will be learning what works best for your studio as you begin working in it.  Often what seems like a necessity at first turns out to be something that sits unused in the mic closet.  Start as small as you can and expand as you learn what works best for you.  Don’t believe all the hype you read about every product – some gear has earned its reputation in the industry but much is marketing glitz.  Read recording forums and reviews and talk to other professionals whenever possible to glean gear tips and recommendations.

FURNITURE

Make sure you budget for at least one comfy couch and some durable desk chairs.  As engineer/producer, you will be spending a lot of time on your butt.  The band will also be spending much of their time bothering you in the control room. It’s best if you keep them as far back from your workspace as possible, preferably nodding off in comfy couches rather than leaning over your shoulder, second-guessing your every mouse click.

INSURANCE

Will you need insurance?  Yes – bad things happen and you’ll sleep much better knowing that if something goes wrong (like a break-in or a flood), you’re covered.  Usually you can add the studio equipment as a rider on your existing homeowner policy. Remember, you are going to have expensive equipment in your home studio.  Depending on where you live, a security system and additional locks could prevent a thief from taking off with all your hard-earned gear.

As you finalize your studio, keep in mind that you and your artists should be as comfortable and relaxed as possible.  The studio space should incorporate colors, artwork, lighting and design that maximize creativity and reduce stress. Recording is a science, but it’s also an art and should be fun.  Good luck on your quest for a dream studio!

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.

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