Thinking of putting a home recording studio together? Here are five things to consider before you start investing in materials and gear.
If you decide to convert space in your home to function as a recording studio, it’s easy to spend a lot of money before you plug in your first microphone. While quality recording gear is more affordable than ever, acquiring everything you need can add up quickly, and that doesn’t begin to address the costs of properly outfitting your space.
For many home recording enthusiasts, doing any sort of construction is simply not an option — but that doesn’t mean your dream of a recording space in your home needs to end before it begins. The degree to how “professional” your studio needs to be, and therefore how expensive the endeavor, is relative to your goals for your finished product. At the same time, your budget will ultimately determine how ambitious you can be within the scope of the project.
You can start by answering these four basic questions.
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.
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 do just about anything with recording software, 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 heading 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 now. It may be that learning to record your own basic demos using some drum loops, guitars, and virtual synths is 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 where 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, a spare bedroom or home office usually makes for a good initial home recording studio environment, but even normal sounds like doorbells, phones, and bathroom fans can become annoying when you’re in the midst of a perfect take of your new song. Do your best to isolate yourself from household sounds wherever you decide to record.
4. Will you be able to keep your studio set up all the time?
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.
A friend of mine 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 reset the studio. He ended up buying a small mixer that he left plugged in all the time and was back to recording demos at a moment’s notice.
My own home recording set-up (laptop, Pro Tools, mics, and headphones) takes less than five minutes to set up. 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. I can always bring back the studio recording and continue adding parts and work 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 (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.
The other approach — recording a full band as an ensemble — involves several challenges that must be dealt with if you plan to 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, you 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.
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 years ago, we invested nearly 2/3 of our budget in construction and remodeling and about 1/3 in our equipment package.)
Ready to record at home?
If you think this is the direction your plans are heading, it makes sense to begin the process of learning about basic studio construction (our Home Studio Handbook is a good place to start) 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 is author of The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, which tells the story of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Iola Brubeck as they took a stand against segregation by writing and performing a jazz musical titled The Real Ambassadors. Hatschek, who directed the music management program at University of the Pacific for twenty years, has authored numerous music industry books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Music Industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros, and The Historical Dictionary of the American Music Industry.