Thinking of putting a home studio together? Here are five essential considerations you should think through before you embark on investing in a home recording set up.
1. What is the purpose of your home recording investment?
Are you planning to write new material, record a demo to submit to a music supervisor, production company or label, or record your first album for DIY distribution and sale? Deciding on the reason you are getting into home recording is the first step to setting realistic goals for you to achieve in this area.
The more musicians and acoustic instruments you plan to incorporate into your recordings, the more like a professional studio space your home recording set up will need to be. That’s not to say you can’t create the sound of an entire rock band or orchestra in a tiny apartment, you can – using samples and virtual instruments, but if you want the authentic sound of a thumping rock band behind you, you may be better off using your home studio to record demos and going out to a professional studio to cut your album’s basic tracks.
2. How good will your finished home recordings need to be?
It’s important to strive for the absolute best quality in every recording you make, but don’t beat yourself up trying to create the next Sgt. Peppers at your home studio if you aren’t set up for that type of recording project. Instead, consider what the next step up the ladder is for your musical career based on where you are at now. It may be that learning to record your own basic demos using some drum loops, guitars and virtual synths may be exactly what’s needed to attract the attention necessary to move your career forward. Remember, you can always invest more later on as your recording knowledge and skills expand.
3. Where can you set up your studio?
You need to find the best available distraction-free environment. The garage at your house may be the biggest space available and seem like a natural location to set up your home studio. But if your roommates have to use it every weekend to do laundry, or you live on a street on which busses rumble back and forth day and night, you might want to find an alternate space that is more isolated and quiet.
For many of us, the spare bedroom or home office usually makes for a good initial home studio environment. While we’re on the subject of distractions, remember that normal sounds (doorbell, phone ringer, bathroom fan) can become annoying when you’re in the midst of a perfect take of your new song. So do your best to isolate yourself from household sounds wherever you decide to record.
4. Simple is best.
It sounds obvious, but one of the main reasons to invest in a home recording system is to have the benefit of being able to record your music when inspiration strikes. If you plan your system properly, you should be able to plug and play in a matter of just a few moments.
I remember a friend of mine who was using his band’s live sound mixing board as the heart of his home recording system. Unfortunately, every time the band had a gig, he had to totally rip his studio apart and then reconnect it all before he could record the first note. As you might expect, he complained constantly about the hassle every time he had to re set the studio. He ended up buying a small used Mackie mixer that he left plugged in all the time and almost immediately was back recording demos at a moment’s notice.
My own home recording set up (laptop, Pro Tools M Box 2, mic and headphones) takes less than 5 minutes to set up and begin recording. Keep in mind that you will use your home recording rig much more if firing it up and laying down your ideas is quick and painless. If I want to work with three or four other musicians at the same time, I’d rather book a few hours in a local studio that has reasonable rates than have to have the musicians wait around while I lay down one part at a time for each song. Then, I can bring back the studio recording and continue adding parts and working on the mix at home where studio time is plentiful and cheap.
5. Are you recording a full band or one or two musicians at a time?
This will ultimately be the biggest decision you must make before you start down the road to researching, purchasing, and installing your home recording set up. That’s because the type of space required for one or the other is radically different.
Let’s start with the latter option. If you will be building your songs by overdubbing various instruments and voices one track at a time, then a basic living room or den environment can work very nicely to record your music. Whether you are recording acoustic guitar, piano, vocals, or saxophone, a living room has a variety of textures and surfaces in it including carpet, drapes, furniture, etc., which tend to diffuse your sound. Assuming that you aren’t playing a Marshall half-stack set to stun, you’ll likely find that the living room sound is perfectly adequate for most home recording.
For a brighter, more reverberant sound, drag your mic into the bathroom, laundry room or other reflective room. If you want the sound of a full band – or an entire orchestra, for that matter – there are a number of virtual instrument software packages (see links below) available that can give you a reasonable band sound without driving your wife/roommate/neighbors to pull the plug.
The other approach – recording a band in a home studio setting – brings with it a number of challenges that must be solved if you plan to regularly record with good results. A simple rule: diffusing low- to moderate-sound levels in a living room is perfectly acceptable. A full-tilt rock band, however, will have the whole house shaking, and will likely have the neighbor’s windows rattling as well, even at moderate volume. (It’s no coincidence that rock stars often build their own studios on a semi-isolated ranch or farm.)
To solve the problems involved with recording a full band, you have to understand a fundamental acoustical principle: to effectively control the sound of your band, your must isolate the sound generated and keep it inside your home recording studio. Single pane windows, door frames, heating ducts, floors and walls all act as transducers allowing the sound of your band to get out of your home studio and into the ears of others.
At the same time, lack of isolation means that outside sounds like traffic, airplanes, fire trucks, or noisy neighbors can all find their way IN to your recordings. Isolating your recording space can be done, but it will require a much greater investment in wood, fiberglass, insulation, time, and labor to build a room that will allow you to record a band at full throttle. The costs for such acoustical isolation, sound control, and enhancement to existing spaces will often cost more than the purchase of your entire home recording system! (As an example, for the campus recording studio I helped install last year, we invested nearly 2/3 of our entire budget in the construction and remodeling costs, and about 1/3 in our equipment package.)
If you think this is direction that your plans are heading, it makes sense to begin the process of learning about basic studio construction by downloading the free Acoustics 101 booklet (link below) which outlines many of the basic principles of building an acoustically isolated room on a budget. As you read through it you’ll start to see that building a studio requires time, knowledge, money and patience, but in the end, if you have the necessary real estate available and you can justify the expense, it can be a very rewarding experience. Don’t forget that if you will be altering the structure of your home, you may also need to apply for certain remodeling permits from your city building office.
Keith Hatschek, author of The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros, started recording in his bedroom in the early ‘70s with a Sony 770 sound-on-sound tape deck. He built his first commercial recording studio, Bayshore Studios, in 1979, developing a mean swing with a framing hammer. He now teaches Music Management at University of the Pacific, but still finds time to lay down tracks at home or at the campus studio.
Auralex’s Acoustics 101
Kore 2 system, a bundle of virtual instruments from Native Instruments
Logic Pro 8 virtual instruments, bundled with the Logic Pro application from Apple