Anatomy Of A Studio (Part 3)
Part three deals with Studio Ergonomics; namely, where best to position equipment in your studio.
Once you've bought your equipment and found somewhere to use it, you have to decide how to lay it all out. This month Paul White offers some practical advice on the subject and includes a few suggested layouts to start you thinking.
Wouldn't it be so much more convenient if all that recording equipment you're using would simply vanish, leaving no barriers between you, the engineer, and the music that you're trying to record? Of course this isn't possible, at least not yet, and so you have to organise the studio so that each piece of equipment requires the least effort, both mental and physical, on your behalf, to operate effectively.
There are two ways in which life can be made easier, one is to use a well thought out patching system, and the other is to position the equipment so that all the commonly used items are close to hand, that you don't need a double jointed neck to be able to see all the relevant meters and status LEDs.
Patching was covered in some detail last month so I won't dwell on it overmuch though it will get an occasional mention.
Before making any firm decisions, it is necessary to consider the use to which the studio will be put. Many readers will record at home and only the lucky ones will have a whole room dedicated to this purpose, but on the other hand, others will want to build and install eight or sixteen track studios for semi-professional or fully professional use.
Although many of the layout requirements will be the same in both cases, there are differences that must be considered at this stage. The first important fact is whether the studio is to be used solely by its operator for producing his or her own music or whether it is likely to be used by several musicians at the same time.
If the studio is for single person operation and you have one room in a house at your disposal, it can be laid out in much the same way as a professional control room but, if you have to accommodate several musicians, compromises will have to be made which will probably mean placing all the recording gear in a corner or along one wall.
Another influencing factor is the type of music that you normally record; if it's all electronic, then you don't need to construct a precise acoustic environment beyond a fairly flat monitoring response, but on the other hand, if you record acoustic instruments, particularly quiet ones, care must be taken to keep the recording area separate from noisy tape machines and make sure that your chair doesn't squeak!
Separation can be achieved by constructing some simple acoustic screens and placing them between the instrument sound source and your recording equipment. These screens could be around 4 feet high by 4 feet wide; standard 8x4 feet sheets of chipboard cut in half and covered with fibreglass and carpet do the job very well.
Obviously, every studio's requirement is different so I'm not going to draw a layout and say "You must do this", as that would be both presumptuous and impractical. What I am going to do is to look at various items of studio equipment and discuss ways of keeping the right things close at hand. Whichever style of studio you go for, one thing that you're almost certain to have is a pair of speakers for monitoring purposes and these dictate certain conditions.
Firstly, do the manufacturers recommend mounting the speakers near a wall, away from a wall, on the floor or off the floor? Whichever is recommended, it is a good idea to try to comply as the frequency response can otherwise be detrimentally affected, particularly at low frequency and so you could end up with some odd-sounding mixes.
The next consideration is the position of your ears relative to the speakers; as your ears are fixed more or less permanently to your head and your head is allowed only a limited amount of movement relative to your body, the speaker position will dictate where you should sit when monitoring.
For the best stereo imaging and flattest frequency response, it is usually recommended that the listener and the speakers form the three points of an equilateral triangle, the speakers being angled towards the listener with the tweeters being on the same level as his or her ears.
So far then, we can work out where the speakers go, where the engineer sits, and consequently where the mixer must be, although for home use, compromises will undoubtedly have to be made in the interests of space conservation.
If you are a solo musician/engineer, then you will also need a flat area near to the mixer on which to place keyboards, effects units, musical spoons etc, and a small bench or table is ideal for this purpose.
Again, it depends on what type of multitrack recorder you will be using as to where you place it; if it's a cassette-based multitracker, then it can sit right in front of you on the bench as it probably doubles as a mixer anyway but, if it's an eight or sixteen track reel-to-reel machine, this is hardly practical, so it is conventional to locate this to your left or right hand side within easy reach of your hand. As most such machines have fixed VU meters, it will be necessary to mount them vertically or at an angle so that the meters may be clearly viewed, unless you are lucky enough to have a multitrack mixer with calibrated meters in which case, you can rely on this to optimise recording levels.
The two track mastering machine should also be close to the multitrack as you are likely to want to stop and start them together during mixdown so what we're building up to is an L-shaped arrangement as shown in Figure 1.
Most effects units for studio use are built in 19 inch rack-mounting cases which makes for a tidy installation. Shop-bought racking systems can be expensive but it is a simple matter to build a wooden frame using veneered chipboard and then bolt in a couple of lengths of rackmounting strip (obtainable from Adam Hall Supplies, Canford Audio and other component specialists).
These effects don't have to be quite as accessible as the mixer as you're unlikely to fiddle with them much once you've set them up but they should be located as conveniently as possible. In Figure 1, a possibility would be to mount the effects under the bench or even build a flat-topped effects rack and use this as the bench as well.
Once you've decided where to put the rack, decision making doesn't stop there, what about the order of the items in the rack?
Firstly, you don't really want to mount anything right at the bottom as it is likely to get kicked, so give the bottom six inches or so a miss; it's also not much fun trying to adjust something at floor level!
Next, if you're using a patchbay, which I'd strongly advise, don't put it where the leads will dangle over the controls of the other units, so it may be best to place this in the lowest space that you intend to use or if the power amp is mounted at the bottom, place the patchbay above it.
Remember, priority is given to equipment which is adjusted often, so the more knobs the higher up the rack; the digital delays, flangers and so on are good examples. Finally, don't forget to find somewhere handy to store all those patch leads. How about a wooden drawer in the bottom space?
In a home environment, many people will find their set-up is something like Figure 2, where the mixer is mounted near a wall and everything shares one bench. This can make plugging microphone and line inputs into the mixer a bit awkward so you might consider bringing these out to a wall box that is easily accessible. Figure 3 shows two alternative studio layouts for a room which has a chimney-breast within it. Note that a change of tape recorder position can make available extra space for musicians to set up their equipment.
It's not all bad news being near a wall though as it gives you somewhere to hang shelves so that cassette machines, extra effects and microphones can all be stored within reach of the engineer's seat. Don't forget that you will also need somewhere to store tapes safely away from magnetic fields, along with cleaning and splicing equipment.
Again, it's hard to be specific but the studio wiring, even with a relatively simple set-up should be given a good deal of thought before you start. The technicalities of this subject have been covered in previous issues of HSR but the actual positioning will vary with every individual set-up.
You can buy flat speaker cable designed to run under carpets which helps to tidy things up but you're still left with all that spaghetti joining the recorders, the mixer and the effects rack. Signal cables can be bunched together and secured with plastic tie-wraps but don't put everything in one bunch, try to break it down into a few logical sub-sections. Always avoid running signal cables near mains cables as you can get some nasty hum pick-up-and read through the article on studio earthing in our September issue before you start.
It all boils down to common sense and forward planning really, but it's surprising how many daft layouts you do come across.
A good move is to make a plan of the room on graph paper and then cut out shapes, to scale, representing the equipment that you need to install. By planning in this way a lot of frustration later on can be avoided. Include in your plan any acoustic screening or treatment and I would suggest that you read through the articles on studio acoustics in various issues of HSR if you are not sure what is required.
When deciding on the location of any piece of equipment, ask yourself, "How often do I need to adjust it?", "Does it need any special considerations?", as with a spring reverb, which must be kept away from vibrations and electromagnetic fields, and "Will it get adequate ventilation?". Also consider the implications of room dust; if a socket is pointing upwards, it is likely to collect more dust than one mounted horizontally, which will eventually give rise to contact problems.
The rack-mounting strips mentioned in the article can be obtained from Adam Hall Supplies Ltd., (Contact Details) or Canford Audio, (Contact Details).
Feature by Paul White
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