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Studio Ergonomics

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.

Mike's whole studio fits under his stairs.

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.

The adjustable shelving can easily be moved to accommodate a growing collection of rack gear.

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.


This is not the place to start extolling the virtues of black ash Conti board, nor to relate my various adventures with white plastic jointing blocks — I can only say that it is only by indulging in a little DIY (or by paying through the nose for custom-made furniture or workstation stands) that you're ever likely to make the best use of the space that's available to you. Once again, it means spending money that might otherwise have been allocated to a piece of equipment, but at least this is one-off expenditure — once you've got it right it's unlikely that you'll ever need to do much more than a little gentle tinkering with the overall setup.

COMPUTER LOVE. Having placed your keyboard in its optimum position, it's time to consider the next most important piece of equipment which, if you do a lot of sequencing, may well be your computer. If we're talking computers we're talking mice, and that means you'll need somewhere to put your mouse mat. Besides music, I use my Atari computer for word processing, and it is located on a short shelf immediately above and behind my master keyboard. The shelf is wide enough to take the computer keyboard and mouse mat side by side and is mounted on drawer runners, which makes it possible to pull the whole thing out over the keyboard when I'm not using it for music. It also makes it possible to pull it very close to the keyboard when I am using it for music. You know all those keyboard shortcuts that most sequencers offer as an alternative to constant mouse moving? They get used in direct proportion to the ease with which the user can reach the computer keyboard. I use them a lot.

SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. This is the moment to consider just how you want your setup to look when you've finished. Perhaps you want all your equipment running along one wall, on the other hand you might like to consider building a worksurface in front of you and to one side. My current studio is, with one or two exceptions, arranged in the former configuration — I don't like it as much as an L-shape to work with, but it fits in with the other demands made of the room in which I work. If I was to move equipment onto a side bench, it would be located on my right, because I am right handed, and most accessible on that bench would be the mixer. If I was doing much (any) work to tape, the multi-track — or at least the multitrack remote — would be positioned immediately next to it.

LOCATION RECORDING. While 'recording' onto a sequencer, I like to be located between the speakers, but I recognize that this is more personal preference than necessity. What is necessary is that I am located between the speakers at mixdown. As it is, my mixer is positioned immediately to the right of the master keyboard and I can reach all the faders without moving my chair.

IDEAL STUDIO WORKSURFACE. The ideal studio worksurface needs to be tiered up and away from the user like the seats in an auditorium. If one row of equipment is located immediately behind another then it becomes impossible to work with it in an efficient manner. If it's immediately behind and above, however, all the controls are immediately visible and ready to hand. In my own studio I've built a shelf about nine inches above the bench which is deep enough to take all my synth modules and just about everything else I need. A further shelf above this houses all the equipment manuals and is mounted on an adjustable spur shelving system.

RACK OPINION. If — as I surely will — I accumulate more rack mounting devices, I can simply raise the manual shelf sufficiently to accommodate the growing pile of equipment beneath it. On the equipment shelf, running from right to left, is a near-field monitor, a rack of modules, the computer monitor, a sampler, a cassette mastering machine and the other nearfield monitor. Beyond this is a CD player which, besides providing me with pleasingly relaxing music while I write this article, is close enough to the sampler to allow me to reach all the controls on both machines when I'm loading samples from CD. With this arrangement I can reach all the controls on every piece of equipment without leaving my seat.

I suspect that I can pile on another four or five 1U modules before the whole thing starts to grow beyond my reach. When that time comes, I shall invest in an adjustable rack unit on wheels. When not in use, it can sit out of the way under the bench, and when I need it I can pull it out to a position close to hand. I cannot overstress the importance of this. The creative process can sometimes be quite a tenuous thing, and if I can reach everything without having to get up and stride across a studio, then that process is less likely to be disturbed.

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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 - Sep 1993


Home Studio

Feature by Mike Simmons

Previous article in this issue:

> Power To The PC!

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