building your own recording haven
How to build your own home studio and lose less than a pint of blood. Andy Duncan stands by with the plaster (builder's joke).
Before we go any further let's get one thing clear. I do realise that the average musician has only a tenuous hold on reality, and I'm equally aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of encouraging such a person to take up the hammer and chisel.
However, if I, not even a musician but a mere drummer, can knock up a useable home studio without injury to life, limb, bank balance or neighbour, then so can you. Even if your present set-up is limited to your dad's did Grundig and a Rolf Harris stylophone, it's worth reading on just to learn what not to do when your number comes up at the Bingo and the creative urge strikes.
Visitors to my old flat in Streatham used to marvel at the many and ingenious places that I had devised for the storage of my ever-expanding collection of gear. "Oh yes," I used to say, "when I move I'll definitely have a music room."
Well one day I did move and I did have space enough, but once all music-related items had been heaved into the chosen room it rapidly became obvious this was also a non-starter. It was now so full, I couldn't turn round without knocking over more tottering piles of cases. At this stage it boiled down to a question of storage.
A swift once-over with the tape measure revealed that the distance from floor to ceiling in this late Victorian property was 11ft — space enough to build a platform which would support all the gear and leave plenty of headroom underneath. This would necessitate a few trips up and down the stepladder, of course, but it seemed a small price to pay for the creation of a whole roomful of space, and slowly another idea was forming. With a 12ft x 10½ft area to play with, there would be room for the vibes, the practice kit AND some modest recording gear — the home studio... something I hadn't even dreamt about, yet.
Even with my limited intelligence I realised that two pairs of hands would be better than one when it came to heaving bits of timber about so I called my oldest friend, Chris Porter. Since the immediate DIY problem facing Chris was deciding where to hang all the gold and platinum records acquired courtesy of his engineering work for Wham's clutch of consecutive number one singles and the 'Make It Big' album, I suggested that the smell of sawdust and the sweat of honest toil would be good therapy. "Keep your feet on the ground," I said, sagely.
Here we note the first real tip: make sure that you hold some kind of blackmailing information with which you can submit the expert of your choice to your will. Chris is good at drawing and here we note tip two: Always have a plan. Even if it's so badly drawn that it looks as though the Tate would buy it (scathing Arts jibe in a music magazine, already) you can learn a great deal just from taking the measurements. The general idea is to save unnecessary expenditure on materials.
Before venturing further, it's worth mentioning that as well as having a plan you also need some tools! If you don't have any and can't afford to buy the expensive stuff, you can always hire by the day (fairly cheaply), assuming that there is no DIY-mad relative you can take advantage of. Minimum requirements are a Workmate (portable bench), an electric drill (preferably with hammer action for masonry), a jig-saw, a tenon saw, a good ratchet screwdriver, a claw hammer, a small socket set, a rasp (preferably electric), a set of drill heads (wood and masonry), a set of chisels, a G-clamp or two, plus the very important metal tape measure, Stanley knife, spirit level, carpenter's square and pencil.
Our first target for this modest array was the window which would let sound out and burglars in. It would also soon be bisected by the platform, cutting out light from its top half when in use and be equally blocked in across its lower half by the false wall which would eventually support the studio gear and conceal its wiring.
Since the lower sash was a convenient ¾in back from the frame itself, all we had to do was fit four pieces of 2 x 2 into the upper half of the window, also recessed by ¾in to create an inner frame to which we could screw a piece of ¾in chipboard. Two more tips: (1) measure all four sides of the window frame, you can be sure that it won't be square, and (2) fit a small plastic air vent into the chipboard panel. It will prevent moisture and the dreaded damp from collecting in the window. Having drawn out the shape in position you use your drill to puncture the chipboard; this hole allows the jigsaw to get started and with steady hand you cut around the shape. To fit the chipboard in place you need screws, which are available in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes, in this case 1in number eights will do nicely — the first ¾ for the board and the last ¼ for the window. Any more might endanger the window glass and by the time you've inserted 15 or 16 screws by ¼in they will provide plenty of purchase to keep it in place.
This method causes as little damage to the window and frame as is possible. Should you move house or get bored with making music you can have the lot down in about 15 minutes and leave only a few small screw holes for the new occupier to repair before re-painting.
Next came the platform which we started by fixing a carefully measured and cut length of 4 x 3 to the wall containing the window. Some more tips: (1) this job is best done with Rawlbolts. These are bolts which fit into threaded, metal sleeves. As you screw the bolt into this sleeve it expands into the surrounding brickwork, making an immensely strong bond. To do the job you need a masonry drill head the same width as the sleeve. Having marked the desired spot on the wall you drill out a hole to the depth of the sleeve. Then you mark a corresponding position on your batten and drill through it a hole of the same width as the thread on the bolt. You push the sleeve into place in the wall and push the bolt through the wood before screwing it into its sleeve with a ratchet spanner. When this is tightened it will support a tremendous weight, but (2) when you are drilling into wall or wood do maintain a strict right angle as the drill bites and you push in. and (3) make continual checks with your level before committing yourself irrevocably. No-one expects this to be a billiards table, but walls, floors and ceilings are generally never straight in any direction especially with older buildings, so don't leave judgement to the eye.
Before fixing the wall battens we did cut preparatory joint sections for the supporting crossbeams. We were conscious of distributing the load weight as evenly as we could and chipboard, being re-constituted wood, has little inner strength of its own, so it, too, needed support. The finished structure, with two uprights taking the strain of the front batten, has ended up bearing the weight of three drum kits, three congas, a 40-gallon oil drum, six cases of assorted percussion, bongos, timbales, African tom-toms, a 1925 dance band kit, a Simmons SDS7 and half a dozen other holdalls, plus, when loading or looking for something, my bodyweight. So if you have limited space and a high ceiling, this kind of platform will serve as a bed quite safely and create at least a 6 foot by 5 space below for other use. Again all this can be dismantled leaving only a few holes in the wall which can quickly be repaired with Polyfilla.
As our first plan was nearing completion another was already being devised. Funds had stretched to the acquisition of a Fostex 8-track package and our new masterplan evolved from two central ideas. The first was that we would construct a new wall from chipboard about four inches in from the window wall. This would mask the window and create a space in which we could conceal all the wiring which would connect the various pieces of equipment. The second idea was that we would run everything from a central patchbay which would eliminate all the time spent wrestling with phono plugs on every occasion a different desk function or effect was needed. After five minutes of that sort of thing you would have forgotten what you had set out to do in the first place.
This called for another drawing, after which we decided that the same vertical battens that held the chipboard wall sheets would also have to support the strips for the shelving which would, in turn, house the equipment. So first off we had to be careful not to place Rawlbolts in a spot where a shelving strip would later need to be fixed. Secondly, we needed to allow for the shelves when fixing the chipboard sheets. So the first thing to be done was to calculate exactly where the shelf strips would be placed (effectively the last job to be done) and mark each screw hole carefully leaving an inch of space on either side. As if all this wasn't enough, we also had to allow for two cross cuts through each batten for the passage of our wiring, which, having been started with the drill, was a job for the chisel — a tool also required to cut square recesses out of each batten, as the Rawlbolt heads had to be sunk in to make way for the chipboard wall sheets.
At this stage we learnt another invaluable lesson — always be prepared to adapt your masterplan. Thus far ours included provision for a worktop which would support the mixer and, at either end, our prized pair of Tannoy Monitor Gold speakers. Now it became obvious that their cabinets would take up far too much space. We would have to build new, triangular enclosures into each corner. So as to ensure that the full power of each speaker would go right into the lugs of whoever was at the mixer, more careful measurements were made. Then two more wall battens were fixed, having first been planed to the right angle for a snug fit with the speaker fronts. Into the corners went some nearby fibreglass and the crossovers, and that was that.
Hi-fi buffs will doubtless be horrified at the thought of triangular enclosures but a phone call to Bill, our friendly speaker designer, revealed that a smaller space behind the speaker would actually tighten up the bass response in such a small room.
So on to the wiring and more drawings. Each socket on the patchbay was allocated a function and a number. Then the lovely Anji took days off the job and brought order to potential chaos by numbering every lead at either end. This meant that the right ends were connected when they went behind the wall and that they would be simple to find in the event of trouble. Next tip: to thread wiring through an enclosed space we straightened out a coathanger and used it to push a piece of string from patchbay to wall outlet, via the tunnelled battens. The two ends were tied together forming a primitive conveyor belt. Each lead was then tied to the string and pulled through. Every minute spent on this apparently laborious task has since been saved as the recording process has been made so much more simple and efficient with the added bonus of greater flexibility in the use of the desk and a minimum number of leads hanging all over the gear.
To power all this we turned a nearby single socket into a fused spur and ran mains cable to new sockets just below the level of the worktop. Another tip: always allow for more sockets than you need: we fixed 16 and could do with four more already. Don't be alarmed by the number of devices being driven from one source. Most studio gear uses less power than a 100 watt light bulb so the 13 amps available should be more than adequate.
Ideally you should make your spur part of a ring main by connecting the last socket back to the mains supply. Then you can happily recreate the experiments of Baron Frankenstein without undue worry.
Now it was down to cosmetics, a matter of covering the new wall and speaker enclosures with cheap (and therefore) pliable carpet and putting up the shelves. Any doubts about the amount of weight which they would support were swiftly eliminated as Chris lay full length on the worktop without bringing the whole thing down. So having plugged everything in we had the grand switch-on, and next stop the concept album.
Fledgling builders have little to worry about because the purchase of materials will mean a visit to your local builders' merchants. They can spot an amateur a mile off and will invariably grill you as to the proposed use of the requested object, freely offering advice as to what you really want, mate! In no time at all you'll be able to tell the difference between your frog (dimpled side of a brick) and your wally (metal brick tie). No doubt you can hardly wait.
Feature by Andy Duncan
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