Part I: Necessity, Dollars and Sense
This five-part series of articles will take a real world look at the why’s, where’s, when’s, and how’s of creating a professional-grade home recording studio. The articles will be written as things happen, and I’m sure there will be enlightening anecdotes, technical twists, and surprising turns (for you and me) as I attempt to actualize a vision that is shared by many recording enthusiasts. On the way we will meet and delve into the brains of some true icons in the industry, deal with building contractors and equipment suppliers, and plot and implement a game plan. But before all that we need to go to the…
Prologue (cue music)
Sigma Sound, our family owned and operated recording studio (home to the “Sound Of Philadelphia”), had issues. The client base for large, multi-room facilities in Philadelphia – always the bastard stepchild to NYC anyway – had been in decline for years. What can you do? In 1968, a $50,000 investment built a facility that could generate $130 dollars/hr in studio time, plus the additional 30% extra in tape, materials, and related sales. 30 years later, it’s 1.5 million dollar replacement could only garner $125 dollars (or less) an hour, with no high-dollar materials to sell with the session time.
Factor in essential equipment becoming outmoded three times faster than it did in the 70’s, overhead being exponentially higher, and a glut of studios vying for the same business. Then add a dash of technological advances that make relatively high-quality/low cost recording equipment available to the masses. The equipment is good enough that when comparing the recordings from large, multi-million-dollar studios outfitted with traditional gear versus home software-based studios, the argument of what is “better” becomes a purely academic exercise. The answer for Sigma was painful but simple: sell.
That was an easy decision for my father who was pushing 70 and ready to retire, but it made me evaluate almost every facet of my life. Do I move to NYC, LA, or Nashville and become a staff engineer? Do I stay in the area, cull some fresh clients, and subcontract studios as needed? Do I make my passion of recording a hobby and work a day job for first time in my life? How about renting a space and building my own small room? Home studio?
One by one I weighed the pros and cons of each option. Having been on the board of The Society Of Professional Audio Recording Services, I had the opportunity to get an inside look at the state of major studio affairs around the country and the prognosis was not that good. Many top studios were closing, downsizing, or merging with competitors who were in the same boat. A lot of great engineers were out of work and rates for both studios and engineers had sunk progressively lower and lower. The bottom line is there is still a need for quality engineers and pro studios, it’s just that a lot of what big studios did can now be done as well (or better) in a good home production room.
At Sigma, I worked myself into the position as the most requested engineer. That position had me working with national artists and major labels on a full-time basis. While it was a trip to work with some of the best in the business, it affected my career when these acts grew older, left the biz, or opened their own small studios.
For decades this small select group of clients kept me busy, leaving me little time for the local Philadelphia area music scene. Out of the loop in my own hometown, I would have to start from scratch and build a new client base as well as approach the many local professionals I was too busy to work with before. With my credentials this would not be a problem, but I would have to spend time ramping up. If I were renting, I’d have to eat that money as I ramped up and during inevitable slow periods later on down the road.
Then there was the issue of rates. The budgets of the local talent base would be hard pressed to support both my monetary needs and the price it would cost to rent a decent studio every time I needed to touch a fader. And even when they could afford it, I wasn’t thrilled about having to split everything I earned with an outside studio.
Scheduling was also a factor. Juggling hours between a band’s availability, my own, and a third party studio was bound to be nightmarish. The icing on this melting cake was the realization that I couldn’t control the things I believed were essential to a great recording experience for my clients. I was used to facilities that basically no longer existed in Philadelphia. The things I always took for granted weren’t the norm in many of the smaller, less expensive studios that were left in the area.
Ultimately, I knew from the beginning that I was never really going to get a 9-5 job. End of discussion.
In the end, as I sat and pondered my situation, I was left with two viable options: rent a space and build a studio, or build a studio in my home that could accommodate mixing, vocals, and small overdubs. I could then rent out time in larger recording rooms for live tracking on an “as needed” basis.
Before I made my final decision I compiled a list of pros and cons to both approaches and looked for a good balance between my needs verses the money I could feel comfortable parting with. I would advise anyone in a similar situation to do the same.
Having worked at a major studio that bled money after years of success made me a cautious and wary. Setting rates and the financial bottom line would be a big issue, especially when confronted with the prospect of leasing space and paying rent.
My father owned the Sigma real estate, and I saw first hand how owning verses leasing benefited the studio owner when I compare Sigma’s sale with the auctions of gear at leased studios that closed their doors. Plus, owning my home, I relished the idea of waking up in the middle of the night, walking a few feet, and turning on the computer to make music.
If I could mix and overdub vocals, keys, guitars, etc. right at home, rent when I had to, and let someone else eat the overhead for the large recording space – that seemed like it could be a winning situation.
Part II: Head Banging and Prep Work
An important reason why I want my own room is that I was used to the A+ quality of the recording experience integral to Sigma Sound. Part of what made Sigma extraordinary was that the studio space was built to demanding specifications.
We had a trolley line running right outside of the recording studios that operated in the heart of a bustling city. In spite of this, we could open a microphone up on a whispering vocalist and not have rumble from heavy vehicles, jet airplane noise, air conditioning hum, forced air whoosh, or bleed from control room monitors leaking into the recording area.
It’s important to repeat this. When cutting tracks there was no bleed from extraneous sources that could potentially tarnish the performance.
I had taken this too lightly when I started my independent career working in local studios, and the ramifications were immediately apparent. I found myself saying:
“Hey can we take that again? The studio monitors were too loud.”
“I’d like to do that again, I can hear a truck in the background.”
“I didn’t hear the hum because the air conditioner in the control room masked the noise. I had the monitor low to make sure they didn’t bleed into your mike…”
Then there was the issue of dealing with rooms that had you constantly guessing if your ears were messed up. Move my head here it sounds like this, turn a little or move an inch and it sounds totally different. Maybe if I put my head in a vise…you get the picture.
I wasn’t used to making excuses for poor room design. I knew that before a computer went in or a speaker was placed in my small project studio, I had to have a listening and recording structure that rivaled the high-quality facility that I took so much for granted during my 30 year tenure at Sigma.
The bar has been set. It is time to take my vision and expectations and carve out a home studio that I can be proud to work in and bring clients to. Now to deal with space, time, and money limitations and make it all happen.
Where to build
A small row home in a large city is not the ideal location for a studio, but that is my challenge. The home’s unfinished basement only has a 7-foot ceiling and narrow 26-inch wide steps leading down to it. It was out of the question. I was already in the process of gutting the upstairs, so I chose a location in the back of the 2nd floor as ground zero. Luckily there are many angles present in that room, but it is rather small, having a 14’ X 10’ main footprint. One wall is shared with a neighbor, another is a back wall facing my yard. The third wall is against steps, and the interior wall butts my bedroom.
The ideal room in which to build a home studio is the one that’s the most isolated, needs the least treatment, and works in relative harmony with the rest of the house. This space was at the top of my steps, next to the bathroom, and shared only one common wall with neighbors. It could also accommodate a dedicated power supply.
By the way, when I said “least treatment,” that means try to avoid square rooms, low ceilings, areas with high ambient noise, space that butts up against other’s property, and areas that constrict traffic to the rest of the house. Good space for setting up a home studio is one with rectangular or angled walls, good ceiling height, separate or restricted access to the rest of the home, isolation from neighbors, and away from noise such as street traffic.
I had known from the beginning that sound leakage would be a major issue. I didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg to float the whole studio space but I wanted to be able to work nights and weekends. The first thing I needed to do was too see how much leaked thru the common and back walls. I went to Radio Shack and bought a cheap SPL meter and set up a simple experiment.
We brought a sound system into the unfinished space. I had already eliminated the idea of hanging speakers because the room was too small. Anything we’d use would essentially be a near field monitor, so we set the speakers on chairs close to where I figured they would be when the room became operational. I cranked up the bass on a graphic EQ and put on a low frequency heavy recording.
Then I knocked on my neighbor’s door and told him I like to play my music loud and didn’t want to annoy them. I asked if I could go into their bedroom and listen as my friend played music.
Getting my neighbors involved and showing concern for their happiness would be a benefit later down the line, I figured, and I did need to hear how much sound passed thru their walls. I went upstairs and called my friend. I told him to start playing the music at a level of 85 dB (the level of most accurate human hearing response and hence the best level for mixing).
I then listened as he brought up the music in 5 dB increments. Not too bad, at 100 dB in the shell of the future studio, the leakage in my neighbors bedroom reminded me of a neighbor in my old apartment complex playing his TV too loud late in the evening, when there are no masking sounds. This wouldn’t be good past 10 pm, but nominally acceptable during the daytime. I thanked my neighbor and went back to ponder my next step.
I know the golden rule of any studio design, having been involved in a few major builds, and that is “get the structure right first.” A recording studio is only as good as the space it’s in, and changing a space after gear is in is a nightmare and waste of resources. At this point, I needed a game plan for construction and wanted the space to be the best it could be. So I called on Nick Colleran at Acoustics First. Nick owned a large studio, played in bands, and produced records, so he knows exactly what a person is looking for when they come to him with audio concerns.
I gave Nick the lowdown on the purpose of the room, it’s dimensions, the leakage I was experiencing and my goal of having it look and sound like the professional rooms I was used to working in. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy job, but Nick immediately put my mind to rest.
Moving and grooving
The design Nick came up with is a classic Live End/Dead End setup. I was relieved by the fact that space issues I thought would be detrimental, such as the French doors, were now turned into beneficial tools for bass management.
When the fabric samples arrived this past week, I was impressed by the wide assortment of colors to choose from. Also, as a youth I had been in the hospital for 6 weeks with badly burned hands, so knowing that the materials Nick will be using are rated highly in that area really helped to put my mind – and my insurance company’s – at ease.
I am eagerly awaiting the first shipment of the wall treatments and have been playing phone tag with various builders. Joe Horner of Acoustics First is designing the placement of customized absorbers and diffusers and eventually the iso booth. My excitement and tension are palpable. Stay tuned… who knows what challenges we’ll confront!
Nick Colleran on Mike’s New Studio
While I was visiting Joe Tarsia in Philadelphia, Michael joined us for lunch where the subject of later-life career opportunities for recording engineers came up. I reinforced two of Michael’s earlier points: working for someone else after 50 isn’t in the cards, and the role of a traditional studio – as well as the income-to-investment ratio – has reversed over the past fifty years. With that original conversation in mind, I embraced the challenge when Michael asked me to design his home studio.
Usually our team interviews a new client, qualifies their needs, and presents solutions to correct and enhance the sound characteristics of their space. Having known Michael and his father for years, I had a pretty good idea what he would be looking for, but I still needed to get a few things straight before I could present solutions.
2. Dimensions showing walls, doors, windows etc.
3. Materials the space and coupled areas are constructed of
4. Ballpark budget concerns
5. Time constraints
As I surmised, Michael wanted a room that would have acoustic properties as close as possible to Sigma Sound. He sent all the data I requested, and he also supplied photographs and rough leakage measurements. Armed with this information, I set out to help Mike achieve his goals.
For accurate monitoring, it is necessary to eliminate the first reflections that might combine with the direct sound before getting to the mixer’s ears, coloring the sound and affecting the stereo image. Secondly, we needed to make the back wall acoustically ambiguous, diffusing the sound field to make the room feel acoustically larger and eliminating a defined single reflection that says there is a wall behind the listener.
We also need to give the bass some room to develop. This is partially accomplished by broadband (bass) traps and extended by the features already present in Michael’s space.
Contrary to popular belief, bass does not accumulate in corners, it just appears that way when the reflected out-of-phase energy meets the incoming wave and cancels in the middle of the room. This is easy to demonstrate. Hold a single speaker producing a 1 kHz tone 6.5 inches from a flat surface. Since 1 kHz is approximately 13 inches long, the half-wavelength distance will cause the positive wave crest to meet the incoming negative wave trough and sum to zero – which means you will not hear any audio. No amount of equalization will overcome this. It’s a zero-sum game. You must fix the acoustics first!
Bass trap is a counterintuitive and misapplied term. Trapping the bass does not destroy it. Rather, it prevents it from reflecting back and causing the cancellation just described. The term “bass trap” is often applied to broadband corner absorbers that also go after the higher frequencies. If bass is the only problem, they will make the room too lifeless.
In Michael’s home studio, the room to the mixer’s right provides the extra space for the bass to roam and a thick, pleated curtain that will be covering the double doors takes care of the high-end, first reflections. A window to the left provides a similar function. However, just venting the bass is not enough. Without the absorbers and diffusers to eliminate cancellation, the neighbors will hear the bass while you do not.
For common walls, noise barriers and vibration isolation should be considered. Mass blocks transmission, when combined with internal wall absorption to eliminate the drum effect (tap one head and the other vibrates). We used lead foil in the seventies. Now there is mass-loaded vinyl. This can be applied as a layer under the fabric wall covering and is a good solution for noisy neighbors, with or without a studio. For more difficult jobs an additional layer of wall mounted on resilient channels with vibration isolators may be necessary.
Since Michael would not be dealing with too much heavy-impact, structure-borne sound, and since he isn’t worried about sound leaking downstairs, we saw no need to float the floor (though that is a relatively low-cost item in new construction). Michael’s room will have a layer of one-pound-per-square-foot mass -loaded vinyl (BlockAid™) on the common wall, installed under the Sound Channels® acoustical fabric wall covering.
Other considerations for materials were building codes, ease of use, and long term wear. The entire wall area is treated with an acoustical wall covering that takes the “edge” off of the drywall and allows for less critical placement of furniture and other materials. It installs like heavy wallpaper and only needs to be cut straight and hung in a consistent direction to look good. It can be held in-place with staples at the top until the adhesive dries to prevent rolling down the wall. Panels and traps are hung like pictures over the wall covering, eliminating the need for precise fabric and panel cuts. Anyone who can measure accurately should be able to install these materials. We’ve had accountants do it!
In addition, these materials wear well and are Class A fire rated. Acoustical polyurethane foams, while highly effective acoustically, do not wear well and produce toxic smoke when burning. The same is true for carpet installed on a wall. It may have some acoustical value, like the shag of the seventies, but does not pass vertical and corner burn tests. Egg carton, while having some absorptive qualities, have been proven to have “holes” at certain frequency ranges and are also a fire hazard.
The last piece to install provides both an enhanced listening space and an opportunity for good lighting effect. That is the ceiling cloud over the mixer. This eliminates the reflection between the desk surface and the ceiling and provides an opportunity for indirect lighting. If used with a dimmer, it allows the room to have a subtle glow while working. If the room looks good, it always sounds better!
Click here to read Part 3 & 4 of this series.
In the 1960’s Nick was a guitarist, songwriter and record producer. In those days he worked alongside the likes of Ed Greene, George Massenburg and Joseph Tarsia.
During the 1970’s Nick started Alpha Audio Recording Studios to stay in show business. As well as being the builder and owner of Alpha, Nick also engineered sessions for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, David Sancious, Pat Benatar, George Clinton, Poison and a host of other notable artists.
In 1978 his chief engineer Joe Sheets found an anechoic acoustical foam in an industrial magazine. They made a deal. Joe Horner built a demo booth and it showed at the New York AES convention in 1979. They were the only acoustics company there.
In 1986 he became president of SPARS. The Alpha studio had joined in 1979 upon Joe Tarsia’s recommendation.
Acoustics First Corporation was founded in 1997. His company Acoustics First does everything from noise control for factories, professional recording studios, movie production facilities, office buildings, home theater for artists… The list goes on!
Joseph E. Horner
Before beginning a long career as a recording engineer, Joe was a music teacher, percussionist, gunsmith, and piano tech. Joe walked into Alpha Audio Recording Studios one late evening in 1972 to play vibraphone on a Sears commercial. He stayed 18 more years. His prior skills came in handy. Joe designed the first acoustical foam booth for AES in 1979.
From then until now Mr. Horner has worked with quite a few easily recognized names, including Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, the Temptations, and GWAR.
Michael Tarsia is a two time Grammy recognized Engineer, with over two dozen Gold and Platinum album credits. He is also a Director and Instructor for the Sigma Soundz Recording Arts Program. Learn more at www.miketarsia.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 215-837-1002.