On Building A Recording Studio

Like many teens in the 90s, I picked up the guitar and began jamming in my parent’s basement, and when I procured a Fostex 4-track at a garage sale I started to experiment with recording – manual tape delay, reverse, multitracking.

Once it was possible to work with “CD quality” (16/44.1) audio on a home PC, I became interested in soft-sythesis, because it bypassed what was still a major hurdle for producing high-quality recordings: the D/A signal path.

In this time, my friends and I started throwing warehouse parties (“raves”) and electronic music took over in my mind, although I’d grown up listening to ABBA and Led Zepplin and had found a place among the misfits in the punk rock scene. My software weapon of choice was ReBirth and then later Reason, as it allowed me to design a song internally and then mix it down at 44.1 without ever crossing that A/D barrier.

As the years wore on I had children and got out of throwing parties, but my home studio grew and grew as I kept on working on music. I amassed a huge collection of synths and processors and branched out into other software. Cubase. Sonar. Protools. I owned them all, but around the same time Reason had merged with Record to develop from a software synthesizer into a full-fledged DAW.

Meanwhile I’ve been watching my friends and colleagues in the industry and what kind of setup they chose to use as the technology has changed.

I remember sitting in a friend’s studio while he was working on a track, with $100k worth of outboard equipment sitting there and when a reverb was called for, he pulled a plugin.

I remember sitting in front of a 48 channel mixer which was the centerpiece of the control room (as is the custom) and watching my engineer friend lean forward, across the mixer, for hours, straining to see a monitor five feet away.

I remember seeing that same engineer using software sliders, despite the analog console which cost tens of thousands of dollars between him and the screen… because once it was “in the box” that console was no use to him unless he sent it back out through the board and in again.

Here’s the thing: in any trade, you keep the tools that you use the most the closest to you. Makes sense doesn’t it?

We all have this image in our mind of what a “recording studio” is supposed to look like. Huge mixing console, glass window between the engineer and the control room… when I looked at the types of studios my associates were putting together around the world, I had to shake my head. Although they looked great and they put great work together, much of what they were doing was impractical, redundant, besides being ergonomically uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of analog gear. But at the heart of what a recording studio is, there are a few things you absolutely must have:

Acoustic treatment.

This is perhaps the most important aspect of studio design and the most misunderstood and overlooked. Whether you are going to be micing up an acoustic guitar or producing beats on a groove box, you absolutely can not overlook the acoustics of the space you’re doing it in. Much has been written on this so I won’t get into it in too much deal other than to say that our ears read a great deal of information about the space we’re hearing sounds in that we don’t even realize we’re receiving most of the time. The space itself and the reflections it creates colors the sound.

This is why almost every music maker I know has, at one time or another, expressed frustration at getting a track dialed in so that it sounds amazing in their studio and then they take it to their car, or their friend’s house, or the club, and it sounds “not right”. Think of it as trying to do photographic color correction with tinted glasses on – even if you’re super talented at color correction, you’re not seeing it for what is actually there.

Acoustic treatment doesn’t mean just putting a bunch of acoustic foam up however – and for the love of god, don’t be that guy that puts egg cartons on the wall (they literally do nothing).

Every room is different and no room is without it’s problems. If you’re serious about music production, recording, mixing, or even just listening then take some time to learn a bit about some very basic things you can do to improve your room’s acoustic profile (or hire someone who knows what they’re doing) and then at least take some basic measures. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but the quality of your output will improve vastly.

 

Quality microphones.

If you are going to be recording any kind of analog sources – instruments or vocals – then having good quality microphones is absolutely essential.

We are in the golden age for this kind of thing, and getting a decent mic isn’t going to require a remortgage of your house. Even just having a couple of Shure SM-57 and SM-58’s around are better than the $20 music store special. Having a couple of different condenser mics is advisable as well. The thing is, every mic has a different profile and so does every singer. Usually when I get a new vocalist come through we’ll do a microphone “shoot out” where they can try a few different mics and then we can listen to how well each handles their particular voice.

The difference between a $20 microphone and a $150 microphone is unbelievable.

The difference between a $150 microphone and a $500 microphone is remarkable.

The difference between a $500 microphone and a $1500 microphone is totally definitely noticeable.

The difference between a $1500 microphone and a $10,000 microphone is totally debatable.

 

Powerful computer.

People are always asking “what kind of computer should I get for producing with?”

The answer is always “the best one you can afford.”

Mac or PC, it does not matter, as long as it’s powerful enough to flawlessly run your DAW.

Personally, I’ve owned a lot of Apple computers over the years and I’m just about fed up with the whole ecosystem. Sorry, you want me to pay $50 for a driver to write to NTFS so I can drop a file from my Mac to a thumbdrive and open it on a PC? In my opinion, Apple has really become a money pit – much like protools and UAD – where, once you’re in that ecosystem, you’re endlessly shelling out another few hundred (or thousand) bucks.

Small tangent: when decided it was time to upgrade the studio computer, I looked at all my options. With a lifetime of technical experience, I understood what I wanted. When I priced out the Apple solution, it made me very angry, because spec-for-spec they are outrageously overpricing the exact same goddamn components you can put in a PC. “1TB PCIe-based SSD – +$720” I’m assuming they’re talking about m.2 NAND drives? I have two of them in my computer for a total of 2TB “PCIe-based SSD” and they were around $150 EACH.

Sure, they’re pretty, and if you’re wealthy and want to go that route then have it it. But if you’re on a budget (like most musicians are), paying “the Apple tax” is, in my humble opinion, a waste of money that could be better spent on things that will actually help you record better music… like microphones, monitors, and acoustic treatment.

I’m not interested in the Mac vs PC debate, this is just advice I’m giving to aspiring producers. Spend your money where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.

 

 

DAW software.

Studio One, or Reaper, Protools or Reason, it does not matter, they all do the same thing as long as the engineer and producer really know how to use it.

That’s right I said it: It actually doesn’t matter as long as you learn to use it effectively.

I remember when Fruity Loops was just a little toy software and disparaging it until a friend played me some amazing tracks he produced using just FL. I remember when Ableton was basically just a glorified DJ/performance tool and there are some amazing songs being produced in it.

For more than a decade I used Propellerhead Reason almost exclusively and with outstanding results – in fact, the only reason I’ve moved away from it is because of the really amazing VSTs that have come out and Reason’s poor handling of VST. I love my Maschine. I love Serum. I love my EastWest collection.

I settled on Presonus Studio One because I loved the workflow. It’s overhead is lightweight, it’s fast and easy to use. It is actually what got me looking at the StudioLive Series III consoles in the first place, and why I ended up buying one. But Reaper gets a lot of respect out there and some great work is being done with it.

At the end of the day, it’s whatever gets the job done. I know a lot of aspiring engineers/producers turn to Avid because Protools is “the industry standard” but for 99.9% of people who do audio work, any of the above mentioned DAWs will work just as well (and arguably better in some regards). Protools is a bottomless money pit, just like Apple and Universal Audio. Yes, they make good products, and if you’re wealthy and can commit to dropping around $25,000 on plugins then go ahead and get a couple Apollo 8’s and a selection of plugins for it and hook it up to your Apple and commit to paying Avid for the rest of your life. What I’m saying is that you do not need Protools to be a professional, and the money that you could save by getting into a PC running Reaper or Studio One could go towards a PC even more powerful than a Power Mac and some really nice outboard gear or premium plugins (that are still cheaper than UADs).

The only reason that Protools is “industry standard” is because that’s what they teach in recording school. As an trained engineer, you could walk into any commercial studio running PT and know how to use it. That’s all that’s about. And really, if you’re a trained engineer and know Protools well, then you ought to be able to sit down with S1 or Reaper and figure it out pretty quickly.

Whatever you choose to use, the one thing I will say is this: don’t pirate it.

Believe me, I totally understand being a broke-ass and wanting to make music. But if you want to be a professional, if you want to make money doing the thing you love and feed your family with it, you pay for the tools that you use so that those people who made those tools can feed their families. I simply can not wrap my head around the mentality of people who steal software and then expect other people to pay them for using a stolen product.

If you want to get paid for your work you have to be willing to others for theirs.

Also, installing pirated software is like playing Russian roulette with viruses. Is it really the VST you were stoked to try, or is it just going to destroy your computer and everything on it?

You can legitimately purchase Reaper for $60 – and then once you’re making over $20,000 with it, they ask you to pay for the commercial license (on the honor system), which is $225. That is SUPER REASONABLE MY DUDES. Studio One can be rent-to-owned for about $15/mo through Splice. That’s less than the price of a case of beer.

If you care about music and want to take it seriously, then I implore you to legally purchase the tools that you will be using. That money they get will go into development and we’ll all get nicer toys as a result.

 

 

Quality monitors (speakers).

Hearing the music you’re working on, accurately, is absolutely paramount.

This is also directly related to the acoustic treatment section above. Basically, as with all things, get the very best ones you can afford.

The difference between $50 monitors and $500 monitors is unbelievable.

The difference between $500 monitors and $5000 monitors is definitely noticeable.

The difference between $5000 and $50,000 monitors is kind of debatable.

The biggest thing in monitor selection is the size of the monitor in relation to the size of your room. Personally, I’ve owned KRK’s and HS8’s and the Yamaha won it for me and I’ve used them for so many years now that I really know the image they present and can compensate for it.

One thing: bass monitoring is super important. I remember back in the 90s when I was first starting out, I’d made this track on my mom’s computer using the desktop computer speakers and when I went to go play live at a festival on a 50KW soundsystem there was a super low frequency resonance that I hadn’t even noticed “in the studio” but when amplified to that level was tearing the air apart. You couldn’t even hear the song itself, it was just bass waves shredding the structure of reality.

I have a 760W powered sub under the desk, balanced with the mains so that the volume is adjusted in proper relation between them all. I can get away with it because my studio is on the edge of town and my neighbors can’t hear me no matter how loud I go. But you’ve got to have something. The Subpac’s are a good solution for the city dwellers – at least you’ll get an idea of what’s going on down in the low end – but it’s really not for mix mastering and I wouldn’t recommend relying on it solely to set the levels of your mix before it goes out for publishing. This is where a mix engineer comes in (ie, send me your track and I’ll set those levels right for you).

 

 

 

When it came time to build my own studio – real studio, not bedroom studio – I looked at the ergonomics and practicalities of it and came up with the Shadybrook studio design, a comfortable space to hang out in whether by myself or with a full band.

It needed to employ the best practices outlined above, while at the same time pragmatically questioning all the rest of the assumed design guidelines of a recording studio. And, it’s a perpetually evolving space – I try something out and either adapt it in or change it out.

The basic design I ended up arriving with put recording space in the same room as the control room – what’s known as a “one room” design, in part because the room (like the rest of the structure) is built out of logs and therefor have some extremely effective (and unique) acoustic diffusion properties. If I had to make do with a room that was walled with gyproc, I might have made different choices.

And, finally I don’t have to choose between an analog console to control the inputs or a control surface to control the tracks in the DAW – the StudioLive32 Series III console switches between analog inputs and DAW control instantly, motorized faders leaping up to the set track positions and following along with the automation I write into it with the faders. Hands-on control with the flexibility of a DAW. It’s the best of both worlds.

It’s not a traditional approach but then again, I’m not very traditional. I’ve never been attracted to the sterile recording studios and found the control rooms ergonomically uncomfortable for my bad back to work in for extended periods.

Shadybrook is designed from the ground up to be a great place to hang out in. It’s relaxing. When artists are relaxed, magic happens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *