Michael Capone may be COO of CableWholesale.com, but he’s also a musician—and now the proud owner of a home studio. In this guest blog post, intended for beginner recordists, he recounts the creation of his home musical workspace, covering the basics of how he built it, equipment choices that fit his budget and more.
It has become more and more common in the world of audio recording for today’s musician to write, produce and record music from the comfort of their own living space. In the past, owning your own recording space was not a common practice — recording technology available to anyone outside of the recording industry was too expensive and complicated to use. Your only alternative was to create a budget and save whatever bit of money you had so you could afford to rent time in a professional studio.
Fortunately, with the advancements of today’s audio recording technology, it is possible and affordable for anyone with a desire or passion to design and develop a professional in-home recording space. Whether you are a beginner with a curiosity for sound, or a seasoned professional, building a home recording space has become an affordable means to producing quality music. With this in mind, I decided to give designing my very own home recording space a shot.
Originally, the design for my home recording space leaned towards a pre-production studio for writing and arranging music. I did not intend on building a full-on recording space, but after spending a lot of time and money toting equipment to and from professional recording studios, I decided that developing my home recording space could have its advantages.
As an independent musician on a budget, I don’t have the financial luxury to travel to a professional recording studio every time I come up with an idea. It was important for me to design a space that was affordable but that would also allow me to make a quality recording. I ultimately set out to design a space that would fit the aesthetics of my home (my wife’s requirement), but also feel like a professional recording studio.
A traditional recording studio is typically divided into several rooms. The two rooms that are the most common in any recording studio are what we call the recording booth or isolation room and the control room. Each room has a specific function and is important in achieving a quality recording.
The control room speaks for itself. This is where most of the recording equipment resides and where the recording process begins and ends. Any professional recording studio has a trained recording engineer equipped with the knowledge to control all equipment necessary for the recording process. This room is likely to occupy most of the space allotted to your project. Also, unless you have a friend or a family member to aid you in the recording process, recording engineer will most likely be your primary job.
The vocal booth is the space where vocalists or instrumentalists perform. Performances are recorded to a medium inside the control room and later manipulated by the recording engineer. The design of a vocal booth is intended to prevent unwanted sounds from bleeding onto an audio recording. Vocal booths are typically treated with specially designed acoustic foam for controlling reverberation. The idea is to create a dry vocal recording, which can then be treated with synthetic reverberation, using a digital FX processor.
I decided to build a 4′ x 6′ (W) x 10′ (H) vocal booth attached to an existing wall in the room allocated for my studio space — essentially creating a room within a room. This design creates a separation between engineer and performer which allows the engineer to monitor the recording without unwanted sound interfering with the vocalist’s performance. The interior of my vocal booth is treated with soundboard that you can pick up from any local hardware depot and acoustic foam designed to control room reverberation. The overall cost of the materials for my vocal booth set me back about $1,200.
Building a vocal recording booth or a separate wall to divide up the space isn’t the only option you have to achieve a workable recording space. There are plenty of affordable alternatives to help design a studio with both a control room and a functioning isolation space. Some homes have bedrooms built with a walk-in closet, which if properly treated with acoustic foam or sound proofing materials, can also be used as a vocal booth or isolation space. Other options are pre-constructed, industry designed, portable recording booths.
Everyone’s home recording studio will inherently have its own unique quality and will be designed and constructed to his or her liking. In my opinion, though, there are at least 4 core pieces that each recording studio MUST have in order to achieve a quality recording.
1. Audio Recorder (Analog Recorder or Digital Audio Workstation). First and foremost, you will need an audio recording device to receive the audio signal you are trying to capture. You can either use an analog system that uses magnetic tape to capture sound or a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), an electronic based system designed to record, edit, and playback digital audio. Each system has its pros and cons but most recording studios today prefer using Digital Audio Workstations.
An integrated DAW consists of a control surface, mixing console, A/D audio converter and data storage, combined into one single device or digital audio recording software. As computers increase in processing power and decrease in price, digital audio recording software has become the more affordable option for most recording studios. Another benefit is that most digital audio software comes with a bundle of software plug-ins that simulates external audio hardware (Compressor/Limiter, Equalizer, FX processors, etc.) that you would see in professional recording studios. If you’re going to use digital audio recording software as your weapon of choice, there are at least two other pieces of hardware that are required for use with the software.
Using digital audio software, you will need a computer that fits within the software’s user requirements. You also need an audio converter (either a sound-card or audio interface) that will convert an analog signal into a digital signal, allowing for sound to be recorded into your digital audio software.
2. Condenser Microphone. Investing in a quality microphone was essential to my home recording studio. If you’re trying to produce quality recordings, taking time to research which microphone is affordable, durable, and works best for your recording needs, is something that I recommend to anyone who has the desire to build a home recording studio. Regardless of which recording medium you use to input sound, a quality condenser microphone is the key component in achieving that professional recording musicians set out to achieve.
Condenser microphones can range in price from $100-$3,000, but don’t be discouraged by price — you can find a quality condenser microphone in the lower end of the price spectrum that will produce quality recordings and satisfy your needs.
Condenser microphones are typically used in recording studio environments for their high frequency response, transient response and loud output. A condenser microphone also requires the use of a 48-Volt power supply, generally called “Phantom Power.” Some condenser microphones come with a power switch available on the body, but other designs require a separate power supply. Most microphone pre-amps or audio mixers have a switch or button on the device that will supply 48-volt phantom power.
3. Studio Monitors. Studio monitors, also called reference monitors, are a pair of loud-speakers specifically designed for audio production applications and are an important piece of equipment to have in your home studio setup. Studio monitors are designed to produce a relatively flat (linear) frequency response to allow the loud-speakers to reproduce an accurate representation of the tonal quality of the sound source. In a recording studio environment, engineers prefer using monitors for mixing and mastering audio. Monitors enable an engineer to mix an audio track that will sound pleasing on a wide range of playback systems.
The physical design of a pair of studio monitors is typically more robust than your average home hi-fi speakers. Monitors are either active (including one or more internal power amplifier(s)) or passive (these require an external power amplifier). Studio monitors range in price from around $150-$2,000 a speaker. If a pair of studio monitors don’t fit into your home recording budget, then a nice pair of studio monitoring headphones is a good alternative. The price range for a set of studio monitoring headphones is around $200-$1,000.
4. Microphone Pre-amplifier. A microphone pre-amplifier is a device used to amplify a microphone signal before being processed by other equipment. A microphone signal is usually too weak for transmission to mixing consoles or recording devices. A pre-amplifier will boost the signal to line level by providing stable gain, while preventing induced noise that would otherwise distort the signal.
Today, you’ll find that most audio interfaces or mixing consoles will have an electronic solid-state microphone pre-amp built into the device. I prefer and would suggest purchasing an external microphone pre-amp, preferably one that uses a vacuum tube. The solid state pre-amplifiers built into your recording devices aren’t always the most reliable when it comes to sound quality. Microphone pre-amps that use a vacuum tube are highly desired in the recording industry for their natural warm tones. Microphone pre-amps range in price from $150-$2,000.
So, here’s the signal chain connecting the core pieces of recording equipment I have in my home recording setup:
1. First piece of equipment in the signal chain is my Rode NT1 Condenser Mic. Rode created the NT series, which is an inexpensive line of condenser mics. One of the few microphone lines that can stand up against the big boys, the Rode NT series is perfect for your home recording needs. With a warm, lush sound, the NT1 does remarkably well across all frequencies, and is perfect for use as a vocal mic. The Rode NT1 has a rugged, durable casing and a dual mesh screen, which covers a large diaphragm. The Rode NT1 prices around $200-$230.
2. I then use a 3-prong XLR cable to connect my Rode NT1 Condenser Mic to my Presonus Tubepre. Presonus developed an inexpensive pre-amplifier that uses a vacuum tube to amplify the signal that passes through it. The Presonus Tubepre costs around $100-$150 and is among the low-cost pre-amps on the market, but offers the best value for a Tubepre in its price range. The Tubepre can be used to amplify microphones or line level devices (Synthesizers, samplers, guitars, etc.) The pre-amplifier comes equipped with both a drive knob and gain knob for tonal coloration and amplification. It also come equipped with, +48v phantom power, 80 Hz rumble filter, a phase inverter switch, and a -20 dB pad. A must-have piece of equipment for home recording studio users on a budget.
3. Out of the Pre-amplifier, I use a 1/4 (TS) connector cable to connect the output of the Presonus Tubepre, to one of the 8-line level inputs on the back of my Digi 002 audio interface. Digidesigns Digi 002 software/hardware digital audio workstation is a native 32 track DAW designed to operate specifically with their Pro Tools LE audio editing software. The Digi 002 comes in either a 19″ rack mountable design or as a control surface. The Digi 002 also has two IEEE-1394 firewire connections, which allow you to connect the device to a computer. The Digidesign Digi 002 model has been around for a few years now, so you can find them reasonably priced on eBay for around $600 – 800, used but in mint condition.
4. Using two 1/4 (TRS) stereo connector cables, I connect the Digi 002s Left & Right monitor outputs to my pair of KRK Rockit 5 powered studio monitors. KRK produced a pair of flat response studio monitors that are priced at about $299 for the pair. They are perfect for use in a small room environment and are a perfect choice for a home recording studio user on a budget.
Designing your own home recording space can be expensive, time-consuming and labor-intensive, but ultimately worth it. These are the steps and criteria I set for my endeavor and they haven’t let me down — hopefully some of these ideas will inspire some of your own home recording space ambitions.
Michael Capone is Chief Operations Officer of CableWholesale.com. Bringing more than 20 years of experience in software development and project management, he is responsible for the e-commerce infrastructure that tracks more than 3,000 cables and components, including fiber optic, DVI, DisplayPort, HDMI, USB (2.0 and 3.0), FireWire, IDE and VGA. Capone oversees CableWholesale’s proprietary system which automates ordering and fulfillment, improves order accuracy and speed of delivery.