Don Larking guides you through the various equipment that goes to make up a home studio.
An occasional series that offers personalities in the recording business the opportunity to pass on to readers their hard-earned experiences in the form of sound advice... This month, one of the country's top recording equipment dealers, Don Larking, guides readers wishing to set up or expand their home studio through the ever-growing jungle of products.
For the purpose of this article a Home Studio refers to a personal or private studio. In fact, it really means home control room as most private establishments do not have a studio as such, just the control room with the recording equipment and instruments and then sometimes a cupboard come vocal overdub booth.
Home Studios are not all Portastudios plugged into the Old Man's Hi-Fi; I know of many with over £20,000 worth of equipment and some with over 5 times that amount. These normally belong to professional musicians and/or composers and even arrangers who find it easier and more convenient to work at their leisure at home than in a £50 per hour studio with session musicians costing £45 per session each.
The main reason for the arrival of most of these new Home Studios is the advent of drum computers and synthesisers, digital and analogue, which allow the production of high quality sounds without the need for a soundproofed, air-conditioned, acoustically treated recording area which requires a band and engineer. In the Home Studio most usually playing and engineering is done by one or two people. Another reason, of course, is the advent of many good but low-priced recording machines.
I suppose most people start with the Portastudio/Multitracker, call it what you will, which is a 4-track multitrack machine and mixer combined which records onto a conventional cassette. These are very convenient and easy to use and are ideal for putting down ideas or writing songs and demos in fact. But you would generally not think about using one to produce Masters, unless of course your name is Bruce Springsteen. His album Nebraska was recorded on a Teac 144 Portastudio and reached the top 5 in the US album charts. Despite this phenomenal success I have not seen one Teac advertisement stating this little known fact which is truly amazing. If my company had built a £600 recorder which had been used to make such an album, you would see a full page advert in the SUN opposite the young lady with the big jugs!
On one occasion we purchased 3 recording machines from a well-known, well-endowed Guitarist, Songwriter, Superstar extraordinaire - one was a 3M M79 24-track machine which was little used, one was a 9-year-old Studer 16-track with less than 300 hours use, both highly professional, highly prized machines and both very little used. The third machine was a Teac 144 Portastudio which was hammered to death, which must prove how convenient they are for demo work. The Fostex X15, which is battery operated is known as 'the musician's note pad' which is a very apt description as all you need to record is the X15, a mic, a pair of cans and yourself.
The thing to remember when building your studio is that recording equipment will not make you write better songs. The equipment is important, but not as important as the music, and if a VU meter says the level recorded is too high or too low and your ears tell you the recorded sound is right be guided by your ears. Do not let the adjustment of knobs and faders take over from the making of music. Also if you do not fully understand the working of a particular piece of equipment do not be afraid to ask your supplier or a friendly engineer. If you come across a member of the 'I am cleverer than you because I know how a compressor works' brigade don't be put off, he is most probably a bed wetter and needs something to restore his self-confidence!
The area most people find confusing is moving up to a reel to reel machine whether it be 4, 8, 16 or even 24-track. The reason for this confusion is the introduction of a separate mixer, the patch bay, and the outboard equipment. What does it all do? What is it all for? What machine shall I buy? Well let's start with the machine...
We are all governed by budget, so we must consider a package which falls within this budget. Also the equipment should all be of a similar standard. It is no use buying a Studer A800 24-track at about £40,000 and using it with a 24 into 2 stage mixer. What you should try to achieve is a well balanced package, so the machine and mixer should really be chosen together and will most probably take about 60% of the budget. There are now quite a few 8 tracks on ¼", ½" or 1"; 16 track on ½", 1" or 2". Some with noise reduction built in, others without; some with remote controls and autolocators, others with interface connectors for syncing 2 machines together.
If the studio is intended for your own demos then the budget is the only consideration. If you wish to produce Master recordings which are to be mixed in an all-dancing, bells and whistles, professional studio then some consideration must be given to the format. A 16-track 2" tape is normally no problem as most fully professional 24-track studios have a 16-track record and playback head available. Others will use the 24-track head as the heads line up with the 16 tracks on the tape although there will be a drop in level on some tracks, and of course nothing at all on the other eight tracks. You may wish to let the studio out some of the time to help pay for your investments. If so you will have to consider what your customers may require. If they wish to record 8 tracks all at one time then the Fostex A8 will not do. On the other hand a Fostex A8 with internal noise reduction costs about £1,000 less than the Teac 38 with dbx noise reduction and you can buy a lot of outboard equipment with £1,000.
If your music is mainly electronic — Movement Drum Computer, Roland Jupiter 8, Emulator etc. then by buying a Roland MC4 and syncing the instruments together and then syncing them to the tape machine, it may be possible to use an 8-track machine instead of a 16-track, again saving money. So 8, 16 or 24 track? Fostex, Teac or Soundcraft? Whatever you choose, if it is any of these makes you should be able to produce good results and have a machine that will give you good service.
When choosing the mixer, firstly make sure that it is compatible with the machine. Japanese and Western makes of equipment work at different levels and you must make sure that the equipment matches. Your dealer should be able to help you there. Japanese machine manufacturers are innovative, the mixers tend to be a bit restrictive and a little illogical. On the plus side they are usually reasonably priced and good value. The UK seems to be the world leader in mixer manufacturers and there are certainly some good products currently on the market.
Conventional mixers, however, have evolved into what they are because of the demands of the commercial studio. For instance a 24-track studio may, on occasions, have to record on all 24 tracks at the same time, so most mixers in 24-track studios have 24 groups. In fact, most sessions would not use more than 10 tracks for the initial backing track and then 1 or 2 tracks at a time whilst overdubbing. The professional studio has to cover itself for all eventualities and therefore 24 groups are a must, but in the Home Studio a group for every track is a waste.
Again most 24-track consoles have at least 32 mic inputs all of which are very rarely used at the same time. As you will be building a self-operating Home Studio, whether it is to be 8, 16 or 24-track, you really only need 4 output groups. In fact, if the mixer has direct channel outputs you may only need 2 groups.
Conventional mixers have INPUT MODULES which can be switched between microphone and line input (output from the machine), OUTPUT GROUPS - conventionally one for every track on the machine and MONITORS which are used to feed the control room amplifier and speakers with the group outputs and/or the machine playback. There are also AUXILIARY SENDS which are used to send combinations of signals to outboard effects, headphone amplifier, delay lines, reverb devices etc.
So let's take a conventional 16 track console designed for use in a commercial studio and see if there is a way to save money or get more facilities for the same amount of money in a Home Studio set-up.
The standard mixer configuration would be 24 INPUTS, 16 GROUPS and 16 MONITORS shown as 24x16x16 or 24x16x2. The 2 denotes a stereo mixdown section. On our conventional mixer we have 24 INPUTS which can be routed to the 16 GROUP outputs and also the STEREO outputs for final mixing and monitoring. We also have 16 MONITORS which can be routed to the stereo outputs but, unlike the input channels, they do not usually have equalisation (tone controls) and cannot be routed to the 16 groups. In fact rather than buy the conventional mixer why not buy a 32x4x2 and use 16 of the channels as monitors. As these will have full EQ you can be getting ready for the mix while you are overdubbing. You will also have 16 further inputs for effects while you are mixing and the mixer will cost less than the 24x16x16 which has 8 inputs less when mixing. If you wish to keep a full monitor section then go for a mixer with EQ and fader reverse on the monitors — both Soundtracs and Soundcraft have this facility, and if you can afford to go right up market, some Trident models also.
Right. You've got your machine, mixer and cables, and if you and your supplier have done the job right you have got no earth loops creating hum. Now for the OUTBOARD EQUIPMENT.
In my opinion the most important piece of outboard equipment is a good compressor/limiter. It doesn't create effects - delays, flanging etc. - but what it does is keep the recorded signals within the dynamic range of your tape machine. It also makes things sound punchier. For instance, if a good voice is recorded without compression, the quiet parts can disappear into the track whilst the loud parts can cause the signal to go into distortion. If used correctly a good compressor/limiter will make the quiet passages louder whilst attenuating those signals which would normally overload the system. In effect, all the vocals are more or less the same level but the character of the sound is maintained.
To understand this fully, listen to a recording by Meatloaf or even Barbara Streisand, ie. artists who tend to go from very quiet to belting it out. You will notice that all the vocals are really the same level and sit well within the track, but the parts that were sung quietly sound softer than the loud ones.
The second most important piece of outboard gear is a good, fast acting noise gate. You need this to repair the damage done by the compressor/limiter. Let me explain. As I said in the previous paragraph, a compressor/limiter makes the quiet passages louder and thus tape noise is also amplified when there is no actual signal present. It is here we want the noise gate to shut down the channel. These two devices used correctly should enable you to maintain a good signal quality which is always the main difference between a professional or amateurish recording.
With the increase in the home/personal studio market, manufacturers, particularly those based in the land of the rising sun, are tending to produce some very high quality effects at very reasonable prices. This applies especially to digital effects such as delay lines and reverberation. In a professional studio reverb devices can cost up to £9,000. These will offer a wide variety of programs — plate, small room, large room etc. - with the ability to shape the sound. It is possible to alter the decay times at different frequencies, to vary the frequency response, reverb decay and add a predelay. For about 5% of the cost you can now buy a Yamaha digital reverb which, although it has only one program and four preset decay times, produces the high quality reverberation found on professional recordings.
Digital delay lines are also coming down in price. It seems that every month there is a new delay line on the market which has more facilities at half the price. When choosing a DDL the most important criteria is the effect bandwidth. Before you buy, look at the specifications and see if the unit is capable of producing a repeat of the length you require with a bandwidth of at least 10kHz and preferably 15kHz. There is one delay-based device on the market which specifies a bandwidth of 2kHz on full delay. This will make, for example, a snare drum sound like a bucket of mud, so be careful!
The difference between reverberation and delay (echo) is an important one and both are normally required for recording. EMT used to produce a reverb device commonly called an Echo Plate which really used to confuse the issue. Reverberation is the sort of effect you get in a church or bathroom, where a sound will continue and gradually decay — the length of decay being determined by the size of the room. Echo is the general term given to delay devices whereby a single or multiple repeat can be generated. When using a delay device, it is possible to use the feedback control to simulate a reverb-type sound, but as the repeats are all the same length, it does not sound the same as a true reverb device where there are a wide number of randomly occurring delays.
There are many other types of outboard equipment such as flangers, phasers, harmonisers, parametric equalisers, auto panners and de-essers etc. which can be used to enhance the sound, but remember it is the sound source that is the most important of all. A distorted signal is a distorted signal, and no amount of jiggery-pokery will change that fact.
I get very frustrated by microphone manufacturers who bring out a new model that supercedes all the other models in their range, but who keep on producing the old ones. This results in more varieties available than there are musicians to use them. I also get perplexed by phone calls from people requesting a good vocal mic when I don't know the type of studio they have. The most widely used range of vocal microphones employed in professional studios are made by Neumann. These are excellent microphones but are very expensive and if used in an acoustically poor room, are an unnecessary expense. The microphone I like very much is the Beyer M201 which costs under £100 and, although not listed by Beyer as a vocal mic, it is the one used by Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics and you certainly cannot complain about her vocal sound.
As a general point about microphones — there are two main types: condenser and dynamic. As a rough guide, condenser microphones are used to the best effect on acoustic instruments whilst dynamic mics are normally used for amplifiers and for close miking drums. For vocals either type can be used, and if a voice is too sibilant when using a condenser mic, try a dynamic.
Condenser mics normally require power from an external source and if buying one, make sure your desk has phantom powering or else an external power supply will be required. There are also some condensers which have internal batteries — these can normally be purchased at reasonable cost.
One other important point regarding microphones is the polar response. Some microphones are 'cardioid' (which means they are directional), others may be 'omnidirectional' (which means they pick up sound all around) — these normally sound better but it is harder to separate sounds using these. There are also some with a 'figure-of-eight' polarity, which means that they will pick up sounds from front and rear, but not from the sides. These can be used when there are two vocalists, for example, with backing singers.
Another big decision is the type of monitor speakers to use? The first consideration (apart from budget) is the size of your room. It would be great to have a pair of Tannoy Super Reds, biamped using two Amcron DC300A amplifiers, but if this results in knocking the old man out of bed you won't have them for long! Of course, it is better to be able to hear loudly and clearly the music you are recording, and this can best be done on monitors suited to the size of the room. A good arrangement is to have a pair of high quality speakers which are used to get the sound, and another pair of small cubes such as Auratones or Visonik Davids to get the balance when mixing. I personally like the Tannoy range of dual concentric speakers as I find them the most realistic.
There are speakers on the market which make music sound punchier, and these are great for listening to pre-recorded music, but not as a reference. Many times I have heard studio owners complain that the sound is great in the control room, but lacks sparkle when played back on their domestic system. In these cases it is the speakers in the control room which are creating the sparkle, and not the music on tape.
These days it is possible to make very good recordings at reasonable cost. It is also possible to make some disastrous mistakes when buying equipment. So, ask around and try the equipment before you buy it — most equipment suppliers have demonstration rooms and are pleased to offer constructive advice. So take your time and good recording!
For further advice on equipment choice, Don can be contacted at Don Larking Audio Sales, (Contact Details).
Feature by Don Larking
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