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Tools for the Personal Studio

By Steve Harvey. These days, a “personal studio” can be anything from a proper recording facility to a smartphone. What tools will make your private recording space sound even better? An assortment of recording pros from across the industry weigh in with their advice and insights.

Ask any group of audio professionals or recording enthusiasts if there is a piece of hardware or software they have recently acquired for their personal space that has helped improve the quality of their productions and you are likely to get a different answer from each person. Responses solicited via social media for this report cover the gamut and should provide some pointers for anyone looking for the magic bullet that will help them take their productions to the next level.

Truth be told, a personal studio, whether in the home or elsewhere, no longer needs to include even a modest collection of hardware. As demonstrated by recording artists such as Jacob Collier, and Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas, virtually all you need to produce a major release is a laptop computer loaded with your software of choice—in all their cases, Apple Logic Pro X—an interface and some form of monitoring.

Finneas on Producing Billie Eilish’s Hit Album in His Bedroom, by Steve Harvey, May 23, 2019
Live Sound Showcase: Jacob Collier, by Steve Harvey, April 25, 2019

John Krivit (Twitter @johnkrivit), past-president of the AES, adjunct faculty at Bridgewater State University and director of education at pro retailer Professional Audio Design, points to Sonarworks Reference 4—software that calibrates speakers and headphones to deliver the same reference-level sound. “I could not be more adamant about Sonarworks Reference 4 being the single most disruptive software for anyone mixing audio in a bedroom, dorm room, basement or other less-than-perfect mix environment,” says Krivit, who has long focused on audio education and lowering the barriers to entry into the industry for new talent. “Sure, other programs do this, but not nearly as easily and at such a reasonable cost affordable to all of my students. I am very passionate about Sonarworks and its impact on students on a budget with less-than-perfect mix environments.”

For post-production pros, New York-based freelance mixer, sound designer, editor and recording engineer Ron DiCesare (LinkedIn), who has done a lot of work for Vice Media in recent years, recommends Soundly. Developed by Peder Jørgensen and sound designer Christian Schaanning, Soundly is a cloud-based audio sound effects database and online sound effects library.

Depending on the version, Soundly comes with up to 7,500 effects already loaded in the library. DiCesare, who uploaded his own collection of 100,000-plus effects to the cloud, describes it as “an essential tool for sound designers.” He also notes, “I can dial up Soundly and access the cloud instantly from any computer that has internet access. Now I can leave my sound effects drive at home, which is a huge relief.”

The brand that popped up more than once in the responses was Focusrite. For Grammy-winning independent engineer and mixer Nick Sevilla of Sevilla Sound Services, the unit to highlight is the Focusrite Red 2 stereo equalizer. Offering two channels of four-band parametric and shelving EQ with highpass and lowpass filters, Red 2 is also available as a plug-in.

Matthew Weiner—who started out working at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia before transitioning into sales at pro retailer Martin Audio, and then at JVC and Avid—has since moved professionally into the world of IT, but he remains active in audio. He singles out his Focusrite Red 8Pre for offering “lots of I/O and Dante.” The unit houses a 64×64 Thunderbolt audio interface with eight Red Evolution mic preamps and dual Thunderbolt 2, DigiLink and Dante network connectivity.

Weiner also recommends the PreSonus FaderPort, a compact desktop controller that provides 16 100mm touch-sensitive motorized faders together with 89 buttons that access 104 different functions. “Sixteen faders in a small footprint—not perfect, but I can get stuff done and go as wide as I need to, which is about 24-ish,” writes Weiner.

Richard Barron, a veteran engineer, producer, mixer, musician and owner of Sonora Recorders in Los Angeles, where the War on Drugs took up residency to produce the Grammy-winning A Deeper Understanding album, seconds the FaderPort choice. “I also really like the FaderPort,” he notes, while additionally recommending Universal Audio’s OCTO DSP Accelerator card. OCTO models host eight SHARC processors and can be integrated alongside UAD-2 PCIe DSP Accelerator cards and Thunderbolt-equipped Apollo interfaces, including Apollo Twin, DUO, QUAD and 16 for scalable mixing power. “The UAD OCTO is pretty terrific,” Barron says.

Gear choices may often be dictated by the funds available, so it’s always good to hear about low-cost quality options. Kent Holmes, who went on the road straight from school as a guitar tech for the likes of L.A. Guns and Poison and currently plays with L.A. band The Brutalists alongside former members of L.A. Guns and London Quireboys, offers his suggestion: “I picked up one of those Klark Teknik 1176 clones [the 1176-KT] and it has been a revelation. I mostly use it on vocals, but man, it’ll make a guitar snap.”

Producer, engineer, mixer and musician David Newton operates out of Rollercoaster Recording in a converted two-car garage behind his house. The control room there is outfitted with plenty of outboard gear and a Soundcraft Sapphire analog mixing console, but there’s no space for a multitrack tape machine, so Newton has adopted Slate Digital’s Virtual Tape Machines plug-in. “I use it on the mix bus all the time,” he says.

Related: In This Studio, It’s Newton’s Law, by Steve Harvey, Oct. 22, 2017

Artist, engineer, songwriter, producer, A&R and studio manager John Armstrong, whose résumé includes time at recording studios including Conway and Paramount, favors old-school hardware. He itemizes three pieces: the 1-inch Ampex ATR-102 tape machine; the AML 54f50, a triple-wide 500 series module housing a Class A compressor and limiter; and SPL’s PassEQ passive stereo mastering EQ offering 36 boost and 36 cut frequencies with stepped potentiometers and 25 kHz and 35 kHz Air band frequencies. “They have made huge differences for me,” notes Armstrong.

And remember, it’s not just about the signal path. Chris Dauray of Duration Consulting, who offers marketing services to brands including Rupert Neve Designs, sE Electronics and Manley Labs, is a musician and something of an audiophile. Emphasizing that the listening environment should not be overlooked, Dauray recommends IsoAcoustics speaker stands, which decouple monitors from a supporting surface. He notes, “They’ve made a world of difference for me.”

Independent mastering engineer Stephen Marsh stresses the importance of acoustic treatment in any room. “Once I left commercial facilities, proper advice and treatment from GIK Acoustics made a bigger difference than any other single purchase,” he writes. As Marsh previously noted in an interview with PSN, he has been able to take the panels with him as he has moved from one location to the next over the years: “It saved me countless thousands of dollars.”

Related: Studio Showcase: Marsh on the Move, by Strother Bullins, March 19, 2017