Making Yourself At Home In The Studio
Most studio owners tend to spend their available cash on new equipment — an extra multi-effects unit, a mixer with a few more inputs, a better vocal mic — but just a few pounds spent on making your studio truly comfortable and functional could be the best investment you ever made. Mike Simmons tells you why.
The problem with most home studios is that they tend to be built a little at a time, new pieces of equipment being added as and when the need — or, to be more precise, the available finance — dictates. The advantage of this organic approach is that the studio owner has the opportunity to become thoroughly familiar with how one piece of equipment works before being confronted with the next; the disadvantage is that the entire studio can tend to be assembled in a fairly ramshackle manner, with no real thought given to how it might develop into an integrated whole.
Home recording can be an addictive business, and it makes sense to face that fact at the outset. Building a rack storage unit with just enough space to take the rackmounting devices currently available is the act of a supreme optimist. Whatever the studio owner might tell other people, whatever he or she might actually believe, there's no such thing as a complete studio. There will always be new pieces of equipment appearing on the market and, however complete a studio might seem today, the time will inevitably come when some new innovation will show up a previously unforeseen deficiency in your studio.
It's worth bearing in mind that a badly-organised studio can have an adverse effect on your creativity; if a specific device is not readily to hand the chances are that it won't be used to maximum efficiency. Any musician who remembers the early days of synthesizers will confirm that it was a lot easier to edit a synth decked out with rows of knobs than it is with today's machines. If we take it as read that editing a device by means of a small LCD and a range of multi-function buttons is, at best, a far less intuitive process, then the likelihood of extracting anything meaningful from such a device when it's stuck behind a mixer, a DI box and a computer monitor seems minimal.
The purpose of this article is to look at ways to design a home studio so that it can be used with maximum efficiency, but can also grow in a logical and ergonomically sound way. What it really boils down to is finding ways of arranging a large amount of equipment so that as much of it as is possible remains within arm's length. This is generally one of the primary concerns in any professional installation but, inexplicably, it tends to be ignored in the kind of bedroom/living room studio that most of us tend to use.
Studies of the two hemispheres of the brain indicate that most human beings find it difficult to slip freely between the intuitive/creative right hemisphere and the analytical/logical left. If this is so, then it follows that a musician will work most effectively in an environment which permits prolonged residence in the right hemisphere without too many forays into the left. This means a room which is pleasant to be in and logical in its layout. It means equipment which is linked together in a straightforward manner and which may be reconfigured without the user becoming completely lost within a rat's nest of cables. It also means synthesisers with usable patches in predictable places and a library system which is as intuitive as possible in its operation. These are the sort of issues I'll be examining here.
• CONSIDER YOUR PRIORITIES: The first thing to consider is exactly which pieces of equipment are most often used in the studio. It seems almost too obvious to mention, yet experience indicates that it is necessary to mention it — the pieces of equipment most often used should be those most readily to hand. In my own case it's a master keyboard and a computer. Following this comes a range of modules, the drum machine, the mixer, an effects unit and a multitrack cassette deck. I can reach all of these devices without leaving my chair, except for the multitrack — and that doesn't worry me because I almost never have cause to use it now. If I ever stop writing New Age wittering and get back to writing songs, then I'll have to make some adjustments.
• START WITH AN EMPTY CANVAS: In many ways I've been fortunate in that I've had to move house several times over the last seven or eight years. This has meant that I've had to build a home studio from scratch on more than one occasion. I'm convinced that it's only by starting with an empty canvas like this that it's ever possible to make the most of the equipment available. So, what could you do to make the most of the equipment available to you? First, imagine that you're in an empty room — this is your studio. Now introduce the monitor system so that you are sitting at the point of an equilateral triangle, the two speakers being at the other points. If you are sitting, perhaps you should consider exactly what it is you're sitting on. Maybe it's an old chair that no-one wanted, maybe it's something you bought specially, but if it doesn't swivel then you're dramatically restricting your freedom of movement and the length of your maximum reach.
• ARE YOU SITTING COMFORTABLY? Having read the reviews of some tasty piece of equipment in a magazine, and then checked out the prices in those full page ads, the last thing you want is to have someone telling you to go out and buy a chair. That's just what I am telling you, however, and it should be one which provides good back support, is comfortable and adjustable — and it should swivel. What it should be, of course, is an office chair. Office chairs may not have been designed specifically for studios, but they're about as close as you can get. You can pay up to £200 for one if you really try hard, but I picked mine up for £25 in a second-hand shop.
So you're sitting on your swivel chair and probably feeling a little sick from spinning round and round. You've noticed how it slows down when you stick your legs out and speeds up again when you pull them back in, and you're wondering what to do next. Stick your hands out as if you're playing an imaginary keyboard [Stop the chair first— Ed!]. With your forearms roughly parallel to the ground, you should be able to determine the most comfortable position for your keyboard. You may have a table that's roughly the correct height, and by adjusting the chair you should be able to achieve the ideal position. But this is where the crunch comes — are you going to make do with what you can find, or are you going to get out the Black & Decker and make something that exactly meets your requirements? (See box if you're prepared to dig out that workbench...)
The keyword in all this is comfort. If I can reach what I need to reach without stretching, I'm more likely to reach for it. If I can sit on a chair which is comfortable, I'm more likely to spend more of my time sitting on it. An office chair, a few sheets of Contiboard and sundry plastic fittings may not seem to be the most exciting musical purchases you can make, but without them you may never know what music you're capable of producing.
Feature by Mike Simmons
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