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How to Set Up a Home Studio (Part 1)

It has been predicted that by the year 2020, the world will be entirely covered by a ten metre deep layer of home recording equipment. David Mellor begins a new series that offers advice on how to set up your home studio.


It has been predicted that by the year 2020, the world will be entirely covered by a ten metre deep layer of home recording equipment. David Mellor begins a new series that offers advice on how to set up your home studio.


If I had to fill in one of those forms where it says 'List your interests and hobbies', I would have to include redesigning my home studio set-up as one of my passions. On average, I get passionate about re-arranging and rewiring my equipment about once every 18 months. There is nothing like making a fresh start, perhaps with some new equipment, to encourage the creative instincts. Some people re-arrange their furniture, I re-arrange my home studio.

Having designed several home setups - and having been involved in some more professional installations - it seemed a good idea to throw a few ideas together that might be helpful to someone who doesn't have any previous experience to set their home studio off on the right track. But home studios come in all sorts: from cassette 4-track to that potential master multitrack, the Fostex E16. Home studios, too, come in varying levels of sophistication. From proverbial birds' nests, where the wiring scheme looks like a painting by Jackson Pollock, to highly organised, super-efficient designs.

Choosing the middle ground, I am going to describe the setting up of an 8-track studio. The musical gear, the recording gear and - most importantly - all those little bits and pieces that you don't know will be useful until you need them. And need them you will. The adverts describe all that yummy equipment in a way that tempts the pound notes to leap out of the wallet. It seems to be the little things that get left out - but not here. As far as wiring goes, I have used elaborate patchbay wiring schemes and I have used birds' nest systems. Here I am aiming at something in between, so plugging and re-plugging doesn't become too much of a chore, yet the wiring budget is still less than the cost of something that would actually make a musical noise. Even so, I shall try to keep the options open so that you can choose a method that suits your requirements.

CHOOSING THE EQUIPMENT



HOME STUDIO SHOPPING LIST

MIDI EQUIPMENT
Sampler
Synthesizer
Sequencer

RECORDING EQUIPMENT
Microphone
Mixing desk
Multitrack recorder
Stereo recorder
Reverb unit
Power amplifier
Monitor speakers

OPTIONAL ITEMS
Compressor
Noise gate
Multi-effects unit
Ancillary items (to be described in Part 2)

I shall assume at the start that you have the necessary readies to undertake a home studio venture. Don't buy any equipment yet! It's annoying when you find that you have spent all your money and you realise that there is something else that you need. It could happen. Also, adopting a high moral tone for a moment, you should be aware that it is not the best thing to do to rely on projected future earnings from the home studio to pay for the equipment. But then again, no-one made it big without taking a few chances.

The first three items to buy are a pen, a notebook and a calculator. Good planning can make more out of a fixed budget, so it is important to consider a variety of options before spending serious money. First of all, what is the studio going to be used for? I'll assume that since it is a 'home studio' it will be for the use of the owner and a few selected friends and musicians, as opposed to a commercial studio for hire by all and sundry. What goes on in this studio? Song demos, with the capability of making occasional masters, instrumental music - in fact any type of music, but with the emphasis on achieving true professional quality on a small scale.

SAMPLER, SYNTH & SEQUENCER



If you have a rich aunt who likes your music, then you can probably buy as much MIDI equipment as you like. However, most of us have to think carefully about what we want. I would consider three items essential: Sampler, Synthesizer and Sequencer. The three S's, if you like. The sampler's key feature is the possibility of accessing an infinite range of sounds. The synthesizer's strong point is its capability of fine-tuning a sound in infinite detail. That's a subtle difference, but with a sampler it is often a problem when you have almost the sound you want, but you can't get there precisely. A decent synth, although it doesn't range as widely as the sampler, can edit sounds to a finer degree.

The powerful combination of synth and sampler will go a long long way, helped of course by the sequencer. The sequencer, as you know, will give your playing a super-human accuracy that you could never achieve with any amount of practice. Also, it can help the track-laying process. The sequencer will play the instrument via MIDI, while you set EQ, level, effects etc. That's nice when you are working by yourself. Make sure, however, that you get one which can sync to tape while you are recording into the sequencer as well as playing back. Some can't, and I can tell you that will cause a lot of grief.

When you have the three S's, you have the backbone of a music set-up. Don't forget that you will probably need a keyboard stand, MIDI leads, mains plugs and a four-way mains adaptor. The money soon adds up.

RECORDING EQUIPMENT



At a slightly higher level of complication is the recording equipment. Obviously, you need a multitrack tape recorder (even if you are a committed MIDIphile, the cost of a small 8-track is about the same as a decent keyboard or expander, but it will increase the range of sonic options a good deal more) and a mixer to match.

What type of mixer matches an 8-track recorder, is a good question. Count the number of channels and count the auxiliary outputs. Think of a number, double it, then if the mixer matches up it is probably big enough. A 12 channel mixer will let you control seven outputs of the multitrack (the eighth track contains the sync code), five MIDI-synced synth outputs, and hopefully there will be two additional auxiliary returns for reverb. I like to see at least four auxiliary outputs on a mixer, but the more the merrier. Make sure the mixer is designed for multitrack recording (not PA use) or you will encounter monitoring problems.

The choice of multitrack, at least at the budget 8-track level, is a two manufacturer shoot-out between Tascam and Fostex. The only point I would make (apart from suggesting that you consider your choice very carefully) is that the Fostex Model 80 takes only small seven-inch reels of tape. This may conceivably limit your options - you couldn't replay someone else's 10½ inch multitrack reel, for instance. Then again, you may not want to, so no problem. Fostex do make full-size 8-trackers.

It is more important at the 2-track mastering stage that you get your options worked out. Don't even think about mastering onto cassette, unless you are planning it as a very temporary stage of development. Cassettes will just not do your recordings justice. The choice is between reel-to-reel and DAT (digital audio tape), at around the same price. My advice is to have one of each! But seriously, it comes down to priorities: sound quality or versatility. DAT definitely has the edge sound-wise, but tape has the advantage of editing. Tape is also a more generally accepted format for interchange, so until DAT picks up (which it probably will) tape is better for general work. For my own work, I have to have tape. DAT alone, as yet, will not do.

Make sure when you buy a stereo tape recorder that it will run at 15 inches per second (ips) - the standard pro speed that you can play anywhere - that it will take 10½ inch spools, and that it is halftrack (not quarter-track) stereo. You may also have to choose between NAB and IEC equalisation. NAB is an American tape standard, IEC is European. If you play a 15ips NAB tape on an IEC machine it sounds slightly dull and bass heavy. A 15ips IEC tape on a NAB machine sounds slightly brighter than it should, and bass light. The situation is more-or-less reversed at the 7.5ips speed. This is a bit of a bother because both standards are common in this country, but all you can do is think about it for about 15 seconds and take the ►plunge. You won't come to serious harm either way if you always label your tapes 'NAB' or 'IEC' as appropriate.

Mixer, Multitrack and Master recorder (I had to make them the three M's!) are the backbone of the recording set-up. But the backbone by itself is not the complete organism. Let's jump the queue to the front of the recording chain...

MICROPHONES



Even if you are strictly an instrumental performer, with no intention of vocalisation, you will need a microphone sooner or later, if only for recording samples. The choice is between cheap and cheerful, mid-price or expensive. It's very rare that cheapest is best; the best microphone I ever tried cost well over a grand and it was a good deal better than my usual favourite, which comes in at £800 or so (which I don't own, but sometimes borrow). There are mics in a lower price bracket which will provide excellent service, such as the Beyer Dynamic M201, or the AKG C451. These are both in the £100-£200 bracket, and worth every penny. I can't name every mic worth having, but the classic Shure SM58 just has to be mentioned. I use a C451 and an SM58 at home, because the sounds they produce are complementary. Some things are better with a C451, some with the SM58. Another personal favourite is the Beyer Dynamic MCE5, which is similar to the tiny clip mics that newsreaders wear. Once again, it has a distinctive sound of its own, which makes it very usable.

SIGNAL PROCESSORS



Inching along the programme chain past the mixer, the next item is the Compressor. Briefly, compressors have two uses: the first is to control signal levels so that they don't swing up and down wildly; the second use is to add 'oomph' or guts to sounds. The compressor's companion is the Noise Gate. You'll need this to control the noise generated by the compressor (you can't win, can you?) and as an effects tool in its own right. Quality units are advised, and there seems to be a special type of expertise involved in making these types of unit that not every manufacturer has acquired. Units which I can testify as being among the best, at reasonable cost, include those by Drawmer, Studiomaster and BSS Audio.

Effects units are very much matters of personal taste, but having one megafunctional unit which can do reverb as one of its functions is not nearly as satisfying as having such a unit and a dedicated reverb. You always need reverb in a mix, at least a little, and it is nice to have the opportunity of adding whatever effect you like to a choice track or tracks. Also, you just can't have enough digital delays. I love 'em.

AMP & SPEAKERS



Making music out of all the electronic impulses in your studio is the responsibility of the power amplifier and the monitor speakers. I have opined on power amps in my 'How It Works' series [SOS Nov 88], and intend to do so on monitor speakers in the near future. But a quick bit of advice on monitors is that a good small speaker is better than a mediocre big one. The big one might be butch and bassy, but the chances are that a little one at the same price will give a better response over its chosen part of the audio spectrum. The only snag is that you can't assess when you are putting too much bottom end on the tape, but that is something that can be judged from experience. And when the studio is finally put together, you'll get lots of that very quickly.

BITS & BOBS



The cost of this humble home studio is creeping up. It's at this point that it is tempting to allocate every last penny to as much equipment as possible, with the maximum sophistication. But hang on a minute, there are other things you need. Among them are mic stands, a 19" rack, cables, connectors, patchbay, patch cords, speaker stands, headphones, tools, test gear, not to mention consumable items such as tape.

'How To Set Up A Home Studio' will continue next month with all the info on how to wire up your studio and get it working. Also, the thinking person's guide to soldering, how not to get your cables in a tangle, plus one hundred and one (almost) items you didn't know you needed until you found that they existed - and where to get them from.


Series

Read the next part in this series:
How to Set Up a Home Studio (Part 2)



Previous Article in this issue

Kawai K1 Editors

Next article in this issue

Technics AX7


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Dec 1988

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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Topic:

Home Studio


Series:

Setting Up A Home Studio

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9


Feature by David Mellor

Previous article in this issue:

> Kawai K1 Editors

Next article in this issue:

> Technics AX7


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