It's All Done By Planning (Part 1)
A first hand report on the trials and joys of setting up your own electronic music studio.
Steve Howell reveals the inner secrets behind the planning stage of your home studio.
In the first part of this series, Steve Howell explains the goings on in his bedroom.
The whole idea of owning your own studio was, until recently, considered to be absolutely ridiculous unless you were in receipt of a substantial advance on a recording deal. It wasn't so long ago that 'professional' 4-track studios abounded and 8-track was considered to be too up-market for many bands and artists. Nowadays, times have changed considerably and we have at our disposal a veritable plethora of 4-track cassettes, a ¼" 8-track, ½" 16-track and 12 (or more precisely 14) tracks on a special wide format cassette and all of these give a performance that rivals many older professional machines and does so at a far more realistic price. It is now almost a necessity for a band to have a Portastudio (or similar) on which to write and demo their music, and such recorders have been responsible for putting some artists into computer assisted 24- and 48-track studios.
There is, however, another form of multitrack which is proving to be almost as popular. Advances in microchip technology have provided us with affordable and readily available analogue and digital synthesisers, sophisticated computer control (either via a home computer with appropriate software or via a 'dedicated' unit), affordable digital drum machines and electronic drum kits and, more recently, cheaper sound samplers. There are also great advances being made in computer music systems where the dividing line between computer and musical instrument is becoming further obscured, and with all of these developments, prices are becoming lower. Using this technology allows sophisticated 'multitracking' without a tape recorder in sight, but which do you choose - tape recording or multi-synth control?
That decision of course rests with you and depends on your musical inclination and budget. I suspect that for the most part, a combination of both will be the most common option and so, with that in mind, we will examine how best to exploit both technologies to get more musical mileage out of your system, but first, we will try to guide the first time studio owner who is setting up a small recording facility at home.
If you intend to set up a studio, before you buy any gear, you'll need somewhere to put it. Naturally, this depends on your home circumstances and whether or not you have a spare room to occupy.
Your studio will have to be a place where you can work undisturbed and undisturbingly, so it's pointless setting everything up in the lounge where you will disturb the household's enjoyment of 'Match of the Day' (if such a thing is possible). Neither do you want to be disturbed, so you'll ideally have to occupy a spare room. If you have such room, you could offer to clear it out and move in. If your parents (or wife, girlfriend, dog, etc) aren't immediately agreeable to this, offer to decorate it - you may find they change their attitude.
In the absence of a spare room, you could use your bedroom, but if it's on the small side you may have to make a few alterations. Beds, for instance take up a lot of space, so you might consider a fold-away bed. When I was a lad, (we used to have to work all year for threepence, walk three hundred miles to work - etc) my room was too small to hold both my gear and the bed, even when folded down, so because I was always up later than my parents, I slept on the fold-away in the lounge and used my ex-bedroom as my studio - problem solved!
Wherever you decide to set up your studio, try to consider the rest of your household and your immediate neighbours. For instance, if you're going to work late (most musicians I know are insomniacs), then try to make sure your studio isn't next to anyone's bedroom unless you ensure that you always work on headphones.
Having found a place to work, you should make everything as comfortable as you can, so before you put up all your shelving and so forth, it's a good idea to do any decorating necessary. If you think this seems rather trivial, believe me, it makes a big difference having a pleasant environment in which to work. Something you may also like to bear in mind before you dismiss this aspect - you may at some time send in a demo tape to someone (such as HSR!) and accompany it with a photo of yourself in your studio. There's nothing that destroys your credibility more than 'Mr Men' wallpaper in the background! I know, it happened to me.
So now you have a place to work that looks stunning; Zaguloth dusky pink with draylon scatter cushions, and you can now think about shelving for the gear. I used simple Melamine covered chipboard shelves attached to the wall with brackets and supported by lengths of 2" x 2" wood. These are fairly inexpensive (much cheaper than keyboard stands) and easy to construct. Alternatively, you could buy shelving kits but these can be expensive, and tables, especially fold-away tressle types, can be unstable. It's also useful to build in some storage space for all those old effects pedals and reels of tape.
One thing to be careful of when putting up your shelves is their height; you don't want to get arm strain by having them too high or low; also bear in mind how your gear is to be laid out and plan accordingly. Keep the instruments together and have the mixer where you can reach it. Recording equipment can be further away if you have a remote controller but if not, remember that you will also be engineering your own recording sessions and so you will want to have convenient access to the multitrack transport controls. All this of course depends on the gear you have and the shape of your room.
The central point in your studio will be your mixer, so it's a good idea to choose wisely. It may be that you have a 4-track cassette which has an inbuilt mixer which may be sufficient for your needs. Unfortunately, the four channels with which most of these little mixers are equipped aren't enough for a multi-keyboard set-up and so an external mixing facility is required and there's nothing to stop you using a simple stereo mixer in conjunction with your Portastudio. In fact, it's quite convenient as you can, on most of them, route the stereo outputs of the mixer to two inputs of the cassette machine's internal mixer and then select the track you wish to record on with the track routing switches. In this instance, you can utilise the internal mixer's EQ and effects send as well as the external mixer's facilities.
The advantages of having a separate mixer are many. You could use it for live work or hire it out for PA use, but the real advantage is that you can upgrade your recorder without needing a mixer as well.
When choosing a mixer for your studio, firstly check to make sure it has enough channels. This may seem obvious, but many people do try to economise by buying a smaller mixer than they need and then have to swap it for something larger so it's worth thinking ahead. It is not only additional instruments, but also separate outputs on drum machines, expanders, effects returns and so forth that will take up more channels so don't underestimate your needs.
You might think that you won't need to hear all the instruments simultaneously, but it's perfectly possible that you'll end up using a MIDI sequencer or a MicroComposer which would be run in sync with your drum machine, so you will need channels for all those too. On the subject of effects returns, you could use the returns specifically provided for that purpose, but these are usually without EQ, panning and effects sends and so the mixer's channel inputs are far better suited for the return of your effects. You can set up all sorts of exotic effects in this way, such as echoed reverb, reverberated echo, flanged reverb, harmonised echo, phased harmonised reverberated echo and so on (see last month's 'The Art of Toys' for even more bizarre combinations). There's also another technique using sync codes, which devours channels at a great rate of knots but more of that next month. Try therefore to buy something with more channels than you currently need or else get something easily expandable such as one of the Allen and Heath System 8 range.
Because you are using instruments such as synths and drum machines, the need for an expensive mixer with phantom powering, balanced lines and so forth may not be essential as you will be DI'ing at line level so you can save a bit of money there. All you need in this instance is something with fairly decent EQ (although the need for vicious EQ is not so essential with electronic instruments) and a goodly supply of effects sends. Remember that as a solo performer in your studio, you probably won't need to use the channel monitor or foldback send, so that can be more usefully employed as a prefade effects send. If you're a dab hand with a soldering iron (a skill worth acquiring if you own a studio - Ed) then there's nothing to stop you trying some of the modifications covered in the May edition of HSR.
So you've got a smart room, suitably shelved and a decent mixer. You next need a means of connecting this to the other gear you'll shortly be moving in. Enter the patchbay.
Any of you who have worked in a 'proper' studio will no doubt have noticed something resembling a telephone exchange near the mixer. This is the patchbay and is simply a means of connecting any output to any input in the studio. By having all your relevant ins and outs terminating on a patchbay, you can simply connect them together with a short patch cord instead of rummaging around the back of all your gear. Patchbays are relatively easy to install. You can make your own by getting a sheet of aluminium and drilling as many holes as you require to accomodate the jack sockets which you then connect to the inputs and outputs around your studio. If this seems too much like hard work (and it is), then you could buy the modestly priced patchbay kit published in HSR September 84 (available as a kit from Powertran). Alternatively, you could buy one ready made from a studio supplier, but these are about double the price and offer exactly the same facilities.
If the cost of a patchbay seems an unnecessary expense, before you dismiss the idea completely, calculate the cost of having enough leads with all the various types of plugs that your equipment has and with enough cable to stretch from one end of the room to the other and you may well find that a patchbay is cheaper. In my studio, I have two patchbays; one to handle all the ins and outs to and from the instruments and recording gear and effects, whilst the other handles all the control voltage, gate/trigger, clock and tape sync inputs and the outputs from all my synths, my MicroComposer, drum machine and E&MM Syndroms, so if necessary, the whole studio can act as one huge modular synthesiser with the insertion of a few short patch cords on the patchbays. Another advantage of having patchbays is that all the wiring is out of sight and harms way being routed around the outskirts of the room. I've had no problems with hum or buzz and this should always be the case provided you keep your wiring out of the way of mains devices and use decent shielded cable. (It's also worth avoiding earth loops by earthing all the equipment to a common point.) As with your mixer, it's as well to allow for future expansion by building or buying a patchbay that is larger than your present needs so that when you get new pieces of equipment you simply wire them in.
Designing the layout of your patchbay is quite important. With careful planning, you can have a patchbay that requires only short patch leads (cheaper and less prone to extraneous hum pick-up) which is easy and logical to use. It's also worth considering those packets of moulded coloured leads as the colours help to avoid confusion. If you use an off-the-shelf patch bay, it is normal to connect all inputs to the top row and all outputs to the bottom row of sockets.
Next month we'll look at installing the rest of the equipment and discuss some techniques. Before you all write in to complain that this has been more like a DIY article, let me say that I get asked more questions about this side of setting up a studio than I do about gear - after all, you can read the reviews for guidance in buying a piece of equipment. Organising everything logically at the onset will make life a lot easier in the future and you only have to do this once - after that, you can get on with making music which is surely what it's all about.
Feature by Steve Howell
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