How to Set Up a Home Studio (Part 4)
Building A Rack
Part 4: Building a 19" rack. There is only so high a temporary stack of equipment can get before it becomes a danger to life and limb. David Mellor explains how to give your rackmount gear a happy home.
There is only so high a temporary stack of equipment can get before it becomes a danger to life and limb. David Mellor explains how to give your 19" rack gear a happy home.
Let me start by saying that this article is not for the expert carpenter - by which I mean someone who can saw in a straight line and knows his adze from his surform. This do-it-yourself guide is for the average home recordist who wants to put together a rack with a minimum of bother and a maximum of spending money left over for some more interesting sound producing equipment.
Nor do I intend to give a blow-by-blow account of which nail to knock in next to build a rack to a specific design, although a sample plan is included. My feeling is that if I put forward a few ideas about how to do it, then if you really want to go ahead, you'll be able to fix up a rack of any size and shape - and possibly a couple of fitted wardrobes, too. But first, why have a rack in the first place, what are the benefits?
I've been trying to figure out when the first 19" rack came into being. My research method is to watch old sci-fi films to see if they show one among the banks of force-field generators, then check the date of the film. (By the way, have you spotted how often pro-audio equipment of some kind or other is used out of context in films to give a 'hi-tech' look?) I reckon it must have been the early '50s when a bright boffin somewhere decided that life would be much easier if equipment was always the same width and could be slotted into a standard cabinet. I'm not so sure where the nice round figure of 19 inches came from though.
Racks have the dual benefit of displaying all your equipment to its best operating advantage, whilst concealing and storing all those other essential bits and pieces (like cables and connectors) out of sight, and out of mind. If it's a small size rack, you can also put useful objects, like tape recorders, on the top. If you are rack-smart already, then you'll know all this. But I still remember the effect my first rack had on relieving studio clutter and improving my efficiency. So I consider it my duty to persuade the as yet unracked to take a giant leap into rackdom.
The easiest way to come by a 19" rack is to look under 'R' in one of the studio suppliers' catalogues and write out a cheque. Some racks are actually not very expensive. You might even say that it's cheaper to buy one than to spend time building it. But the disadvantage of buying a rack is that you are generally limited to a set range of sizes and configurations. Make your own and there is unlimited scope.
Another way to get yourself racked is to get hold of a cast-off. I'm not suggesting that you hassle studios for their old racks, but if you are in-the-know you will occasionally find someone who is throwing away their old rack. I got hold of my first rack for my home studio that way [so did I - Ed.], and it provided sterling service for over five years - after I had patched up the holes drilled for cable paths.
The first part of the rack-building procedure is to think long and hard about what it should be like. The design of the rack will more or less be dictated by the equipment and ancillaries you intend to put in it - leaving a bit of room for future expansion. Also essential food for thought is how exactly you are going to make it. The way the panels fit together can have designed-in ease of construction if that's what you want. And as I said earlier, this article is definitely for non-experts, so that means maximum simplicity.
Let's start first with what you want to put in the rack. An easy question - or is it? A quick list will probably include MIDI expanders, effects units, patchbay, possibly a DAT or a cassette deck. Start with the vertical dimension and add up the number of units (U) of rack space you currently require (1U equals 1¾ inches; all rack gear comes in multiples of 1U). Add a bit extra for future expansion and 2U at the bottom for luck. My personal calculation comes to 20U, perhaps that is similar to your requirements.
For my new rack, I wanted things a little more complicated. Because of the very strange configuration of my home studio, due to lack of space, I needed to include a slot for a Fostex E16 tape recorder. And because I like to edit the tape a lot, I wanted it horizontal. This is my little difficulty, perhaps if I explain how I solved it, it will help your design.
The width of the rack is 19 inches, of course, plus a bit for the thickness of the wood, so that is not a matter for too much deliberation. The depth of the rack (front-to-back), however, is very important. The key piece of information necessary is the dimension of the deepest piece of rack equipment you may acquire at some time in the future. The Guinness Book Of Records doesn't provide a category for this. However, the magnitude prize in my rack goes to my Akai S900, which has a magnificent rack penetration of roughly 16 inches. Are there any contenders? Of course, this means 16 inches plus additional space for connectors - jack plugs and mains connector. Having been restricted in the past by a just-deep-enough rack, I would recommend that you add an extra four inches to the maximum depth of the rack equipment. You'll see where all those inches go in the diagram.
There may be other design considerations. Do you want castors? They make it easy to shift the rack around, but add extra unproductive height. Do you have any non-rackmounting equipment such as a power amplifier or mixer power supply - that you would like to hide away in the rack? These all add extra U space. Do you want a transportable rack (if it's more than 8U high, don't count on persuading anyone to help you)? If so, then it will need to be more rigidly constructed than a permanent installation. The list could go on, but the answer of course is to make a list of all the possible problems, and then you can think about solving them. It will not be impossible.
You don't need much in the way of carpentry tools to construct your own rack. Not a basic rack like this one, anyway. If you have a medium size hand saw, and an electric drill and jigsaw, you will find construction very straightforward. A large screwdriver and a hammer will come in handy, too.
The basic constructional material is chipboard. It's not exactly the king of woods, but it is very user-friendly and relatively cheap. Where can you buy it? Good question. In my experience, a good source of timber in small quantities is not so easy to come by. What's needed is a supplier who stores his wood out of the wet and will cut the wood to size for you (to an accuracy of a couple of millimetres). The first requirement is fairly obvious. Working with bent chipboard is not fun. The second is a little more difficult. Get an estimate of the price first, because some suppliers don't like cutting tiny (to them) pieces, and bump up the price accordingly. For the size of rack I am describing, £30 should amply cover the cost of the wood.
For a rack like this, it's best to use ¾" thickness chipboard, medium of high density. ½" chipboard is OK, but with the thicker variety you can get away without using battens (supporting pieces of timber) which makes the job easier. To cover the end grain of the wood (if you can say that chipboard has a grain) some lengths of ¾" by ¼" strip are ideal. Ramin is a nice wood for this. It's like a hardish softwood - or a softish hardwood if you prefer - that many DIY hypermarkets stock. Make sure it's straight when you buy it!
The only other materials required are Evostik 'Resin W' glue (I can confirm their claim that it's stronger than the wood itself), some 1" panel pins, 1½" oval nails, and ¾" number 8 woodscrews - round head, if you can get them. A bit of sandpaper will smooth things off nicely before finishing.
Apart from the carpentry supplies, there is a hardware item that you will need to obtain as well, from a studio supplier - a length of rack strip. Rack strip is a piece of plated steel angle, punched to the exact specifications of a 19" rack. All you do is cut off the correct length with a hacksaw, and screw it onto your rack. You can even have this cut to size if you like. The sort I use gives the correct spacing if the supporting panels are 19⅛ inches apart. Add to this a supply of screws and cage nuts for mounting your gear when the rack is finished.
Now for the sophisticated joinery techniques necessary for putting the rack together - glue, hammer and nails. If you were making precision loudspeaker cabinets then you would be glueing and screwing, which takes a small amount of skill. Building an adequately strong rack takes no skill at all. Just a clear floor space, and preferably a helper.
For your precise measurements you will have consulted the diagram for details of how the edges of the panels fit together. Having gathered together a selection of correctly sized pieces of chipboard and some lengths of wood strip, the panels can take shape. You will also need to have the rack strips ready, cut to length.
First, attach lengths of wood strip to the short edges of the panels. Glue the strips down with Evostik allowing about an inch spare at each end, then pin them at approximately six inch intervals. By the time you have completed all the short edges, the glue will be dry enough on the first panel for you to saw off the strip flush with the edge of the chipboard. Do the same for the long edges, and in less than an hour you will have a complete set finished.
Next, screw the rack strips to the side panels. Tighten the screws firmly, but not too much or the thread that the screws cut as they enter the wood will tear away. At this stage, it may be convenient to mount your mains blocks - see the diagram for info on that.
Assembling the panels needs assistance. I find that the best way is to lay a side panel on the floor and glue the top, bottom and shelf panels to it. Place the other side panel on top, then glue and nail it. It is only feasible to nail vertically downwards - trying to nail a panel on sideways simply knocks it out of alignment. Having firmly nailed the uppermost side panel, carefully turn the assembly upside down, and nail the other side panel before the glue is properly dry.
This last step is really the only stage where problems can arise (assuming all the measurements are correct). If the chipboard is slightly bent, as it probably will be, you will have to correct the alignment as you nail it together, so that the rack pulls itself into shape. There is no need to panic though, because you have a good half hour to do this before the glue starts to show signs of solidifying.
When finished, leave the rack in a horizontal position for two or three hours before lifting it upright. The final step is to sand the surfaces down and apply a lick of paint (or any finish that takes your fancy) before putting it into service.
The whole process, apart from the painting, can easily be done in a day - probably just a few hours. The result is a rack that will provide good solid service. Not the ultimate in joinery perhaps but definitely OK, and it is precisely the shape and size you wanted it.
If you have any questions you would like to ask about this article, or any other in the 'How To Set Up A Home Studio' series, put pen to paper and I'll endeavour to answer them in a future article. Next month's instalment will be about advanced wiring techniques.
Canford Audio, (Contact Details).
Kelsey Acoustics, (Contact Details).
Studio Spares, (Contact Details).
Raper & Wayman, (Contact Details).
EMO Systems, (Contact Details).
Larking Audio, (Contact Details).
Feature by David Mellor
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