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Setting Up A Studio

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by Shawn Maschino
(originally on Shawn Maschino's Home Recording Website, here by permission)

The Basics

The most important part of setting up your own home recording studio is do you really want to spend the time and money to do this. Studios can run you from nothing using equipment you probably already have in your home, to $1,000's of dollars for your average home setup, to $10,000's of dollars for really advanced setups. Most people spend between $1,000-$2,000 for a good quality setup.

Once you've decided to jump in and start the studio, you need to have a place to record, some people just keep all the equipment in a closet and pull it out and set it up from time to time to record, others, like me, have a large space dedicated to the home studio, for example I converted the cellar of my house into a studio this past summer, cleaned it out, put down carpeting, built wall for sound barriers, split it into two sections, one for a control/console room and the main recording area. Since not everyone will be able to do this I'll leave getting the space up to you. After that you need the equipment. Basically the equipment will fall into three categories, the recording equipment, the sounds to record, and how to get the sounds into the recording equipment.

I'll start off with recorders. For very basic, not so-high quality recordings you can just use a standard tape deck, plug in a microphone or some type of input to it, and off you go. This is by far the easiest to do, also cheapest as you probably have one or three in your house already. The next step would probably be a 4-track recorder which is mostly used for home recording. These can run from $200-$1000+ depending on all the features on them, but the basic ones should run about $600 or so. 4-tracks allow you to record up to four tracks independently or at the same time. They usually run 2 times faster then a standard tape deck giving higher quality recordings. Most should also have bouncing ability, so you can take recordings from 2 or 3 tracks and put them on an empty one, freeing up the other 2 or 3, so you can record more then 4, just not at the same time or on first generation tape. The more you bounce the less quality and sound level you will have. 4-tracks also should have punch in/out ability, in case you screw up 2 or 3 notes in one spot you can just fix them up without redoing the whole thing. You should also get an effects/aux send so you can add reverb or compression, as well as other effects on the final mix down. 4-tracks usually come with built in mixers on them to control levels and have settings for mic, line and instrument levels on the jacks. Another thing to make sure to get is headphone and monitor outs, so you can hear what your doing. If you want to get more on a tape then 4 tracks, or however many after bouncing, you can got for an 8 or 16 track recorder. Now these will start to run you some serious money. The cheapest I've seen 8 tracks go for are about $1000 or so. 8 tracks can still use a standard audio cassette to record on, making the media to record with widely available and cheap, but some are open reel tape which you will need to probably go out of your way to buy. 16 tracks are always, at least that I've seen, reel-to-reel tape, usually 1/2" or 1". After that you can get into 24 track recorders using 2" reel-to-reel tape and those are hardly ever found in home studio's, although some people have them. The main difference between 4 tracks and these others, aside from being able to record more tracks, is that they run much faster in speed, getting better quality/less noise, and that they usually don't have built in mixers. See further down for mixer information. You can also get hard drive recorders, enabling you to record to your computer, which many midi-musicians live by, as well as those wanting to stay purely digital. For this you need a sound card, at least 16 bit preferably, software to handle the recording, a really fast hard drive, lots of memory, and a board or interface to get the music into the computer. I haven't played much with this, as I don't have a midi box yet, although I have the software and a few midi keyboards around. The software I have is Cakewalk Pro Audio and I recommend it to anyone interested in hdd recording, it's fairly easy to use and works great. I've only really used it transferring tracks from my 4-track to their own tracks in Cakewalk, then to save them to burn on my computers CD-R drive. I've ran into some problems like a lot of distortion after adding more then 1 track, and not having enough memory or hard drive space for longer songs, but if you just cut the volumes, get some space, and free some memory, they come out great. Computer recording isn't for those with weak systems, and I still prefer the sound and setup of analog, but that's probably because I haven't had much to play with. A few people I know have boards to allow 16 inputs direct to the hard drive just as a 16-track would go to the reel-to-reel tape, if I had a board like that I'd probably toss my analog recorders out the window, so I guess it all depends on what you own. That basically covers recorders, there are many other type, like those that go to DAT tapes instead of analog cassettes, more advanced setups that write directly to CD's instead of burning them with a computer, and a few others. For information on these, as well as the other products we'll be discussing here check out the products pages, you can get to them right from the homepage.

Once you have a recorder set up, you'll need something to record. This can come as vocals (through microphones of course), guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, clarinets, flutes, audio clips from other tapes or VHS's, and many more. I can't go into detail about all of these things, but if your interested in home recording them you must have some of these already, you wouldn't be here to record a few songs you wrote on guitar without knowing or having a guitar now would you? Other things that fall into this category are effects. Now effects aren't just adding distortion or chorus to your guitar when your dealing with home recording. Almost everything that is recorded should be processed before, and after getting onto the recorder. This is fairly hard to do, at least that after part, with a standard tape deck, so you people, if you made it this far, can just skip it... Anyway as I was saying, vocals, bass, and drums should be run through a compressor and sometimes a limiter, depending on what kind of sound you want. A noise gate may also be helpful in getting rid of some background his, but that's mostly for vocals. Now guitar, as well as bass, and sometimes vocals, cans also be sent though your standard effects pedal/rack for delays, distortion, flange, chorus, reverb.. you name it. Just get the sound you want. Now all of this is added before, actually as, it is being transferred to the recorder. Now once the recordings done, and your all set to run it to the master, whether that's on tape, CD, or whatever, you should use the effects/aux send to add reverb to the whole thing, this will make it sound less like recording in you home, and can take your sound from a cellar, to a concert hall, to a huge stadium, with a turn of a few knobs and pushing the right buttons. There is much more detail on doing this in the tips/hints section so I wont go into it any more here to keep down on the redundancy! So lets move on.

Okay, so you have a recorder, and you have something to record. Now lets get them together. The easiest of course is the standard 4-track. Take the output jack on the mic, or from the guitar amp, or processor, stick it in the input on the 4-track, play and move the slider until your in the 3db range or so, should be about the 2nd red light on the level meter. The best sound comes from the level being at 0db, but trust me, if it's 3db or more when your recording it'll probably be 0db when you go to play back, especially after bouncing. Just don't get it into the top of the red and beyond, or you'll have so much distortion you can turn your acoustic song into dark industrial music. Now what about those 8,16, other recorders without level faders and just inputs? Well you need to buy some sort of mixer. Preferably one with more inputs then your recorder. Mixers are fairly easy to find and shouldn't be that expensive, although the more options, inputs, sends, busses... you have the more it'll run. Right now I've been using my band's power amp for when we play out as a mixer, and I run that into the 4-track and it comes out fine, but some people say that using a PA instead of a real mixer can generate more background noise although I haven't seen this to be true. Soon I'll be breaking down and getting a 12 or 16 channel mixer though so it doesn't really matter anyway. The mixer can also be a $15 four input radio shack mixer without a level meter, although it's hard to control the volumes per channel easily. Radio Shack also has a $90 or so 5 channel (mic and 4 inputs) mixer that my first band, Exode, recorded our first album with. In fact we took that, ran 1 mic, 2 guitars, bass, and ran drums mic'ed into a cheap 4 channel mixer, and that into the final input, and recorded the whole thing live, no punching in and out, to a standard tape deck. The sound on that recording was a lot better then I would have though from the setup, hardly any background noise since we kept the levels low and held back on the treble, and all the equipment was really cheap. We've gone back with better equipment and re-did it all, but the first generations of that album from that setup sound almost as good as the 4-track recordings with all the effects. And the initial setup made it so we couldn't punch in and out, so we just couldn't screw up. It's a great way to do your first few recordings, and teaches the basic concepts. And the mics for the drums picked up some vocals and guitar, so it gave a natural reverb and delay to the whole thing.

Well that basically covers the basics of what you need to start a home studio. I could make GIFs of good floor layouts, how to soundproof your walls and floors, sketch out the blueprints for my studio's setup, but not everyone has the same space or equipment. 
There is so much involved in making a studio that I couldn't explain it all, and I shouldn't. The studio should be like the music you are recording, personal and independent. If you had the same setup as I do, it wouldn't sound the same, just because we wont have the same style of music, or wouldn't use the same recording techniques. The problem with most of the music coming out to day is it's lack of originality and independence. One band gets popular doing something one day, and the next you have about 10 bands doing the same thing. It makes boring music that isn't being played with feeling for love of the music, but to cash in on a style that was old two weeks ago. So just have a comfortable setup, write and record some good songs, if you're doing covers add your own touch and sound to them, and stay creative.

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