Studio Construction Set
Which Gear is Right for You?
When you're going about the complex business of choosing equipment for your setup, mistakes can prove expensive. Craig Anderton helps you identify your needs and come up with a blueprint for your perfect studio.
With today's bewildering variety of gear, it's getting harder and harder to choose the components for a home or project studio. Wrong decisions can be very costly, whereas getting the right equipment from the beginning can give your studio a firm foundation.
But how do you know what's the right gear? The answer depends on how you plan to use your studio: a rock musician has different needs than someone who does instrumental dance music, or those who work with audio-for-video. So, let's look at which equipment works best for particular musical needs, as exemplified by five typical types of users. You can modify these points of departure as appropriate for your own situation.
Here are the five categories of home and project studio users:
• Rock musician ('Rocker' for short) with traditional instrumentation of drums, guitar, bass, vocals, and keyboards. Jazz, classical, 'real time' rap, and world beat (reggae, afro pop, etc.) musicians have similar needs.
• Pop music producer ('Producer') who does lots of one-person MIDI tracks, with the occasional vocal or instrumental track. This also applies to those who do most kinds of dance music. Electronically-oriented new age artists fall under this category as well; those who mine more of a 'new age jazz' vein have requirements more like Rockers.
• Hobbyist who is mainly concerned with having a good time. This person may do solo recording or work with a few friends, using MIDI-based or traditional instruments. Rockers on a tight budget can fall into this category.
• Songwriter who uses the studio mostly to work out songs and do arranging. Producer musicians on a budget may fit in this category as well.
• Audio-for-video ('A/V'). This musician tends to work with soundtracks, commercials, industrial videos, and the like.
Now let's consider each component in a typical studio to see what works best for the above applications.
Rocker: The extensive use of acoustic and electric instruments makes it difficult to take advantage of virtual MIDI tracks (see box). An 8-track analogue or digital recorder is a minimum, but for more 'pro-level' productions, a 16-track recorder allows for recording more instruments and makes stereo recording of individual instruments a more realistic option.
At the high end, a 2-inch analogue 24-track is the de facto standard. If you expect to produce release-quality tapes, or record and mix in first-class recording studios, this is your best — albeit most expensive — choice.
Producer or Songwriter: By relying on virtual MIDI tracks, an 8-track recorder is usually sufficient. However, if you plan to use lots of acoustic or electric instruments (for example, if you work with jazz musicians), then 16 tracks may be worth the extra investment.
Those who are mostly interested in doing demos that won't be released commercially should consider some of the cassette-based 8-track rackmount or stand-alone Portastudio-type devices. These offer surprisingly good sound quality, fast operation (you don't need to spend lots of time rewinding tape), and low operating costs (cassettes are a very inexpensive recording medium). If you buy one with an integrated mixer, then you save even more.
Upscale Hobbyist or Downscale Songwriter: The type of setup described above works here, but those with more modest needs can get by with a 4-track cassette or used 4-track reel-to-reel machine. Through judicious track bouncing, it is possible to have up to 10 tracks without sacrificing too much quality; combining tape with virtual MIDI tracks expands the number of sounds that can play back in real time.
Hobbyists and Songwriters may not even need a multitrack tape recorder at all if they deal exclusively with MIDI tracks and one acoustic track (vocal or guitar, for example). A MIDI sequencer (described later) can record all the note data necessary to drive various sound generators. Mix their outputs along with an acoustic sound played into your final 2-track master, and you have a master tape. For example, you can get very high-quality results by recording several MIDI instruments on a sequencer, then singing along with them as you record into a 2-track DAT (Digital Audio Tape recorder).
A/V: Here the ability to synchronise to video is crucial. The easiest way to do this is with MIDI sequencing (see next section). However, if you need to add acoustic tracks, then you have two options: a hard disk recording system (which allows for both easy synchronisation and pin-point editing, although at considerable expense), or a synchronisable 8 or 16-track recorder. The ability to synchronise to SMPTE timecode does not come cheap; however, some machines (for example, the Fostex G16S and G24S) can be retrofitted for sync at reasonable cost, and the BRC accessory provides SMPTE control for the Alesis ADAT.
Hard disk recording systems open up many additional possibilities. The main problem with hard disk systems is expense, since sound eats up hard disk space at a rate of about 10MB per minute of stereo recording. Multitrack hard disk systems are even pricier.
The best workaround for those with limited budgets is to use a 2-track hard disk system with tape. Syncing a hard disk system to tape lets you 'capture' acoustic instruments into the hard disk system, edit them on computer, then bounce them over to tape for inexpensive, non-volatile storage. If you're using a small hard disk, such as a Syquest 44MB removable drive, you can then erase the hard disk, record more tracks, and bounce these over to tape.
Eventually, you'll want to mix what you've recorded into a form that can be listened to repeatedly, as well as transported to other studios. This is where the two-track mastering deck comes in.
For all types except A/V, there are three main choices for mixdown decks. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each.
DAT (Digital Audio Tape) Recorder. Offering high fidelity, small size, and reasonable cost considering the level of performance, DAT machines are close to becoming the standard mixdown format. However, there are both consumer and professional models available; avoid the consumer types, because they often include only a 48kHz sampling rate and not 44.1 kHz (the same rate used for CDs), and generally do not have digital inputs and outputs. If you want to make a CD from a DAT tape recorded at 48kHz, it will be necessary to do a format conversion, or take the signal from the DAT's analogue outputs.
Consumer machines also include SCMS (Serial Copy Management System), an utterly silly attempt to prevent piracy of recordings. This allows you to make one copy of source material, but no more. So you could end up in a situation where you record several mixes on various DAT tapes, but when you want to record them again to a master tape, you can't.
Incidentally, hard disk recording systems such as Sound Tools usually let you dump DAT digital audio over to the hard disk system for editing. This means you can crossfade between songs, use DSP functions such as digital limiting and EQ, and do other digital magic to tweak your master to perfection. The main disadvantage of DAT is that not everyone has one, so you'll probably need a cassette deck as well to run off copies for friends.
Duplicating a DAT tape requires a second DAT machine unless you have a hard disk recording system. With this, you can bounce the DAT tape to the hard disk, then bounce the hard disk data over to a blank DAT tape.
Cassette Deck. Although convenient and inexpensive, cassette deck fidelity pales beside DAT. However, for hobbyists and songwriters, a cassette mix may be all you need. In any event, the cassette has become such a universal way to exchange tunes that every studio usually has one around somewhere. One tip: record your mixes with noise reduction off. Yes, it will sound noisier, but that's better than what happens if someone plays back the tape using different noise reduction, or the same noise reduction type with improper calibration (your deck is always properly calibrated, right?).
Reel-to-reel 2-track. This was the standard for decades, but is being supplanted by DAT. Unlike DAT, it offers the major advantage of easy editing — you don't have to bounce over to a hard disk system or another DAT, you just get out a razor blade and splicing block to rearrange your recorded bits into the desired running sequence. The specs are not as good as DAT, but are way superior to cassettes. For pro studios, some engineers prefer a 2-track reel-to-reel tape processed through Dolby SR noise reduction. The specs rival and in some cases surpass digital, you can 'crunch' the tape to add some distortion-induced warmth, and splicing is possible.
A/V people will generally end up mixing their sounds down to the audio tracks on a video tape, or to a format that can be synchronised to video tape. For the latter, a SMPTE-synchronisable DAT is pricey but well worth it.
You can often find used 2-track decks (probably sold by someone who just purchased a DAT!) at reasonable prices. Those on a really tight budget can sometimes dispense with a mastering deck altogether by mixing down to two tracks of a multitrack machine. For example, if you have an 8-track, you could record on tracks 1-6 then mix them down into tracks 7 and 8. The main disadvantage of this approach is that whenever you want to run off a copy of the mix, you have to play the master tape.
Mixers come in two main flavours: traditional mixers that include multiple mic preamps, per-channel equalisation, effects sends and returns, and so on; and stripped-down line mixers that cost less but include a limited number of mic preamps and fewer amenities.
Rockers will need to use a traditional mixer because of the large number of acoustic/electric sounds that need to be recorded. This implies multiple mic preamps, all available simultaneously. Equalisation is also important since you don't want to have to rely on lots of outboard equalisers, and altering mic placement can only do so much to change the overall sound.
Producer, hobbyist, songwriter, and A/V musicians can often get by with a simple line mixer, since using MIDI instruments dispenses with the need for multiple mic preamps. Furthermore, many MIDI devices offer on-board equalisation and effects, which means that a mixer doesn't need sophisticated EQ or zillions of effects sends. If you need mic preamps or options such as parametric equalisation, simply add outboard rackmount devices.
Musicians who use Portastudio-style devices with built-in mixers can, of course, simply use that mixer and do not need an outboard unit.
A 'distributed mixing' approach works well for studios that combine acoustic and MIDI sounds. This method combines a smaller, traditional mixer to handle acoustic signals and tape returns with line mixers for the MIDI instruments (see diagram). The line mixers provide submixes for the MIDI instruments as well as effects sends, and these feed the main mixer. Because many MIDI sound generators include on-board panning, effects, automated level control, and equalisation, they can send a pre-processed stereo image that goes directly to the main mixer.
The number of channels you need depends on your applications, but plan on more than you think you need. As a rule of thumb, figure on a minimum of double the number of tape tracks for traditional studios or studios that use traditional mixing, and at least triple that number in studios that don't use distributed mixing but have several MIDI instruments.
Mixers are easy to outgrow, which is why adding line mixers at a later date can be a cost-effective way to expand a setup.
Rocker: Although it may seem that rockers (and others who don't rely on MIDI instruments) don't have much need for sequencers, a sequencer can be synced to tape during mixdown to provide automated mixing and signal processing, or change presets on a guitar multi-effects to avoid having to overdub tracks with two different sounds. Of course, a sequencer can also provide MIDI instrumentation to augment drum sounds, add keyboard parts, etc.
For these relatively simple sequencing applications, it isn't necessary to get the latest, greatest sequencing software and a computer — a simple stand-alone device will do the job just fine. However, you will probably need a SMPTE-to-MIDI Song Pointer or SMPTE-to-MIDI Time Code adaptor to sync the sequencer to tape, since very few stand-alone units can sync directly to SMPTE.
Producer or Songwriter: Since this application usually involves a lot of MIDI gear, a sophisticated sequencing setup is important. The preferred approach is a computer running dedicated sequencing software, since the graphic interface and easy editing capabilities streamline the sequencing process compared to hardware sequencers. Stand-alone sequencers work well if you have good musical technique and can treat the sequencer more like a tape recorder; however, those who need to edit will find the limited editing capabilities frustrating.
Programs such as Opcode's Studio Vision, which combine hard disk recording and sequencing, can be ideal for producers and songwriters with sufficient disposable income. Integrating digital audio and MIDI sequencing can simplify the compositional process by eliminating the need to move back and forth between tape and sequencing environments (the Fostex/Atari system, which allows a tape recorder to be controlled via MIDI commands from Cubase, Notator, or KCS Omega, provides similar functionality but of course without the editing capabilities of hard disk recording).
Hobbyist: An entry-level sequencing program for personal computers, or budget stand-alone unit, will usually do the job. However, there is another option. As described later, many keyboard 'workstations' include an on-board sequencer. This can not only drive on-board sounds but, often, external equipment including signal processing and automated mixdown gear. A setup consisting of a Portastudio-style recorder and workstation synchronised to tape can give a lot of flexibility at a very low cost.
A/V: The requirements are very similar to producers and songwriters, but SMPTE sync is essential. You will want a sequencer that can reference events to SMPTE times as well as the usual bars, beats, and measures; being able to assemble cue lists to trigger events according to SMPTE times is also helpful.
Rocker: Assuming the band has a keyboard player, that person will probably provide the appropriate sound generators. In the studio, though, you may also want a sampler with reasonable memory capacity to do tricks like fly in vocal sounds, or repair tracks by bouncing a track to the sampler, editing it, then bouncing the edited track back to tape.
Producer: Here an arsenal of synthesizers comes in handy — a multi-timbral synthesizer with a lot of on-board programs for quick selection of various sounds, a sampler for occasional no-compromise sounds (8MB pianos and the like), and a drum module for percussion. A master MIDI controller — keyboard, guitar, wind, or whatever — is also needed. To further extend the sonic palette, consider picking up some used synths as secondary sound generators. They won't be that expensive, and can add extra textures.
Songwriters: Those with sophisticated setups, or who want to make relatively complete demos, can use the same setup as producers. With limited budgets, a multi- timbral rack mount synthesizer coupled with a sequencer is a good bet. Those synths with on-board sample RAM expansion (Peavey DPM3, Korg T-series, Kurzweil 2000) are particularly useful because they can be customised for particular types of music by loading in samples. If you have the extra cash, adding a sampler is recommended so that you can increase your sound options even further.
Hobbyist: A keyboard workstation synth is an excellent choice because not only does it provide sounds, if offers sequencing and often, signal processing. It therefore represents the best overall value. However, if you already have a computer and sequencer, then consider some second-hand synth modules. Last year's state-of-the-art can be this year's bargain, and you might as well take advantage of that.
A/V: The needs are similar to producers, but also for often sampling becomes more important because most samplers are well supported with sound effects disks. Given a choice between having only synths and only samplers, an A/V person might very well choose samplers.
Rocker: A computer may not be necessary. If it is, an inexpensive Atari or IBM clone should be more than capable of handling sequencing needs.
Producer: Because of the time spent working with MIDI instruments, a powerful computer becomes important — and essential if you plan to do any work with digital audio. You will need a Mac II, high-end Atari, 486 PC, or Amiga 2000/3000-type machine for serious work. Many current programs do not promise to provide all features, or run at optimum efficiency, with older computers.
Songwriter or Hobbyist: For demos, an Atari 1040 (or Falcon030 when software for it appears) or IBM clone is probably your best choice. As with producers, however, if hard disk recording is in your future, you'll need a top-of-the-line machine.
A/V: A powerful computer is necessary not just to handle SMPTE and sequencing, but also for the sample editing software that lets you get the most out of your sampler.
Rocker: A quality reverb unit is essential, as is a good compressor/limiter for smoothing out the dynamic range of miked sounds. Equalisers are less important, since they will already be built into the mixing console. A good multi-effects unit can come in handy to add special effects such as chorusing, doubling, distortion, and so on.
Producer and Songwriter: With several MIDI instruments and a line mixer-based setup, outboard equalisers become important. A good multi-stage parametric, where individual stages can be used individually to process multiple tracks, is recommended, as is a graphic equaliser for overall sound shaping. Although a compressor/limiter may not be as useful as for rockers, it can still help a lot when mastering to 2-track to give a final mix a bit more 'radio-readiness,' as well as to process vocals or other acoustic instruments you want to record. Naturally, a good reverb is always desirable.
Hobbyist: A workstation will often have built-in effects which, while not usable on other sound sources (with the exception of the Ensoniq ASR10, or EPS16 Plus with the latest WaveBoy disk) may take care of your needs if the workstation provides most of your sound sources.
A/V: More is better if you know how to use it — reverb, compression, equalisation — but add a multi-effects processor to the list of essentials. Those designed for guitar can be particularly useful in creating unusual sound effects.
There are several MIDI-controllable automated mixdown accessories. These can help create more professional mixes, since you only have to get a mixing move right once — the sequencer remembers it. A workstation's on-board sequencer will generally handle this application, but a computer-based sequencer with graphic editing will make the task easier.
Although some people think multi-effects with distortion are only usable with guitar, light distortion applied to electronic drums can provide 'hard limiting' effects that give more punch and level but don't sound distorted.
Accessories can be purchased as needed. But if you plan on doing any recording of acoustic sources, you'll need a high quality condensor mic (for vocals and 'delicate' acoustic instruments) and a dynamic mic for kick drums, guitar amp stacks, and other heavy-duty sounds.
For warm synth and vocal sounds, a tube preamp really does make a difference compared to solid-state types. And of course, adaptors, cables, and the like are a necessity.
Whatever type of studio you put together, pay particular attention to its ergonomics — in other words, how easy it is to use. Proper lighting, alphabetically filed manuals, color-coded cables, and adjustable office-style chairs go a long way to making sessions fun and productive.
Finally, make sure you retain your sense of adventure. You have your own studio — no one's looking at the clock or making you do anything you don't want to do, so take a few chances and see what happens!
Feature by Craig Anderton
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