How to Go About Planning Your Home Studio
I think it is safe to say most everyone wishes they had their own studio. But alas the amount of money required to invest in a commercial recording studio is out of reach for many. However, most of us would be satisfied and if not elated to have our own personal home studio and that my friends is perfectly in reach. But without careful forethought and planning, it can easily become a disaster. Come with me as we analyze the different kinds of home studios, what their needs are, and how to effectively plan out these studios out so that you can easily upgrade them as your acquire more pieces to the puzzle. Ready? I thought so!
Pick a Studio any Studio
Before we can start planning out our home studio we first need to decide what kind of studio we wish to have. If you are the musician type who wants to record or produce their own music then you would need a music production style studio to either record or synthesize your music. A recording enthusiast however would need a space strictly dedicated to recording and accommodating bands and the like. Meanwhile a video, blogger, and foley artist would need a studio more fit for post production. In this section we will analyze the three main types of home studios and help you come to a conclusion of what direction your home studio should take.
Pick a Studio any Studio: Music Studio
A Zen garden of creativity and expression, a music studio is geared for those who wish to play. More often than not this type of a studio is geared to singer songwriters and to electronic production enthusiasts. While full bands could be accommodated at a later date, that would not initially be the focus of a home music studio. Below is a checklist to see how well aligned you are to this type of studio. The more you answer "Yes" the more you should consider this type of studio.
- You only need two to four microphones to record at a time.
- While real ambience is cool, reverb plugins do a great job and are easier to tweak later.
- You expect to synthesize a lot of instruments; particularly drums and strings.
- Instrument controllers are essential for the live feel when using soft synths.
- You would rather go to a professional studio if you ever need to record everything all at once or do some serious mixing.
- Most of the time it will just be you in the studio.
- The instruments will take up more space than the furniture.
- You might teach music lessons as a side gig.
Pick a Studio any Studio: Recording Studio
This is where the magic happens. All of those long hours the band spent practicing has lead them hear as they are ready to take the world by storm. However they are a little short on cash and came to you to help get them to the big leagues. A home recording studio is all about trying to get that professional sound without the professional budget. Sometimes they are out to make money and other times they are just very involved hobbies. Here is a checklist to see how well your align to this type of studio; the more you say yes the more this is your type of studio.
- You need at least 16 tracks of recording at a time.
- Often times multiple instruments will be played at the same time.
- A clean open space with a good sound is essential.
- While you might be a musician, your craft is really getting that solid mix.
- A good compressor is more valuable to you than a good instrument.
- You need motorized faders to get that console feel while still mixing "in the box".
- Often times you will have other people in the studio with you.
Pick a Studio any Studio: Post Production Studio
This is where all the different parts of the project meet. From video to audio your home studio is where you finish your projects, voice your opinion to the world, and create some slick sounds. A post studio is involved putting the finishing touches and getting things ready for the real world. Here is the checklist for a post studio to see how much you may or may not need a post studio. Once again, the more you say "Yes" the more this is what you would call home.
- You should never need more than a stereo pair of mics.
- Either vocals or sound effect will be the only things you will record.
- If you need music it will either be stock or something synthesized.
- The most you would get involved in with the music side of recording it would be mastering.
- The only other person in a studio with you would be a director or producer.
- You delve into graphics and visual art as well as audio.
- Your definition of a fun is breaking things for the sake of getting their sound.
Pick a Studio any Studio: Review
While of course there are many other considerations that have to be taken when planning out a home studio, this section was meant to get you thinking about what you want your studio to be and what your needs are. There can of course be hybrids of these kinds of studios but more often than not you will have a main purpose for your home studio. Over time you can grow your studio into a much bigger project but it is paramount you pick a solid starting point to work from.
Hopefully you now have a much better idea of what you want your home studio to become. With a clear goal in mind we can get down to planning out the home studio; first with what pieces of gear we may or may not need. The best setup will be one that is modular and can adapt as time progresses as the gear and room changes around.
We will continue to examine this process from the music, recording, and post style studios. I recommend reading all three sections so you have a good idea of what goes into each setup. Remember, if you have a hybrid vision in mind, read all the sections that the hybrid borrows from!
Gear Priorities: Music Studio
The home music studio is a place where inspiration runs ramped and being able to get that inspiration out quickly is key for this type of home studio. We will divide the list up into "Essentials", "Wants", and "Far off" so you can get a better idea of what should probably take priority.
- A computer with enough RAM and processing power to handle mild mixing and record at low latency. HOWEVER If you are a electronic musician who prefers to create everything using synths and effects then you will need a more powerful computer to accommodate the processing load.
- Two or four channel audio interface for microphones. Firewire and USB are perfectly fine for the job. PCIe would be overkill.
- Entry level speakers so you can reference what you hear.
- Headphones to listen back while recording so your speakers do not bleed into the speakers.
- Instruments of your choice. This can be softsynths, guitars, drums, etc.
- Peripherals for your instruments such as controllers, foot pedals, etc.
- Decent entry level microphones that won't break the bank. Usually this will be dynamic microphones.
- You may want a higher grade speaker than an entry level but for someone who does not need to mix a lot it is not required.
- Better quality compressors and EQs may be nice but again if you are not mixing a ton then stock plugins will usually sufice.
- An 8 channel audio interface may be more useful if you are trying to record drums instead of programming them in but even a good drum sound can be had with four microphones.
- While we all may want the two thousand dollar microphone, a music studio would never need it. Microphones are just sound color options no matter how expensive or cheap they are so buy extra mics for sound options not price tag.
- A PCIe based audio interface while much more stable is not going to give you much more benefit if you are recording less than 8 microphones.
- Even more instruments of course!
- Professional grade speakers while amazing need to be in a good room with a good amplifier to get the most out of. Because of the investment required these should only be considered if you are planning on mixing and recording more often later down the road.
- Outboard gear such as analog compressors and boutique preamps are only needed for mixing and recording, not for inspiration. Only consider these options if you play to move into the home recording studio option way down the road.
- Extreme amounts of acoustic solutions such as dampening, diffusers, etc. while excellent for controlling a rooms sound will not help your song writing process. More often than not if it is your own personal project you will spend countless hours making it perfect anyways. Who cares if a truck drives by on the perfect take and bleeds into the microphone? You don't have deadlines, just record again.
Gear Priorities: Recording Studio
Recording studios have a much different focus than a music studio as the owner usually is not the one being recorded. We will divide the list up into "Essentials", "Wants", and "Far off" so you can get a better idea of what should probably take priority.
- Good entry to mid level speakers for mixing and analyzing your mic placement is paramount for an audio engineer.
- A good computer is almost a requirement it today's world if you intend to do any real mixing since you probably will not be willing to drop the money on a Pro Tools HD rig.
- The ability to record at least 16 track simultaneously is essential to record a modern bands sound. You can do this via a digital console or two daisy chained firewire interfaces. A PCIe based system is highly recommended. Stay away from USB at this point.
- A good starting set of microphones to choose from for sound color options. At least one LDC and two SDC should be part of this selection.
- At least one DI box to record a guitar direct. It can be a life saver if take was good but someone upstairs flushed the toilet and the pipe noise got in the track!
- A couple pairs of Closed Ear Headphones for the musicians to hear playback from while recording.
- Some basic acoustic treatment supplies to control trouble spots in the room.
- While outboard analog gear is nice it is not practical for a home recording studio who is just starting out. Keep these puppies on the back burner for now and integrate them later.
- Speaking of integration, you might be prone to look into a patchbay at some point. I would recommend holding off on such a purchase until you have too many pieces of equipment that need to be integrated off and on like outboard compressors and EQs.
- More acoustic treatment is nice but unless you are willing to rebuild your entire basement with floating floors, walls, and ceilings you probably will not see much of an improvement for your buck. Remember, you are not out to directly compete with the big boys!
- At first you will be able to get by on powered speakers without a power amplifier with no problem. But if you are itching for a piece of gear down the road, consider a power amplifier and conditioner to give your speakers an even cleaner sound.
- A plugin bundle with 64bit 192khz processing! is completely unnecessary when starting out. The stock plugins in your DAW will be more than enough to get you going and will help sharpen your skills too since they may not be the exact tool you want for your sound. The less you need to fix in the mix the less you need the plugins to begin with.
- You may want a mixing control surface to make mixing feel more natural but unless your seriously mixing a lot the mouse will serve you fine. If you are looking into one however then look at the 8 channel versions or perhaps even a 1 channel version!
- A slew of amps and guitars and other instruments so the players don't even need to bring theirs. This is usually an offering that big studios have and the selection usually takes years to amass. Remember, they know their instruments and they can work just fine with them.
- Remember that part where I said don't worry about remodeling your entire basement? While it is awesome to have a floating room and all, you should only need to do it if your home studio starts turning into a commercial studio. And at that point you might want a commercial building.
- You would like a U-87 or perharps a LA2A wouldn't you? Well so would a lot of people but the price just isn't worth the return for a lot of people. Maybe reward yourself if five years but make sure the wife doesn't find out!
- Handling video so you can do post production can be a lot of fun but requires a lot of investment as well to do proper. Leave that aspect to the post houses and maybe start with simple ADR in a cheaper program before you buy Final Cut Pro.
Gear Priorities: Post Studio
Often times the outlier to the home studio market, a home post studio has its own particulars when trying to plan out what gear you may or may actually need. We will divide the list up into "Essentials", "Wants", and "Far off" so you can get a better idea of what should probably take priority.
- A good computer that is capable of handling video processing as well as audio mastering.
- A two channel firewire or USB audio interface for ADR and podcast needs. How many people do you have speaking at a time on your pirate radio station anyways?
- A decent sample library or two to get you started with sound production is a good bet as you may not be recording your own sound FX just yet.
- Entry to mid level speakers to check balance and levels in your video. If you plan to do mastering then I highly recommend getting a good set of speakers with at least 8 inch woofers to get proper bass response.
- An entry level version of a pro video software so you can get your feet wet with the big boy software.
- If you need microphones for ADR then a LDC can work wonders for vocals and if you need to record sound FX then I would recommend a pair of SDC.
- The 8 core computer with 24 gigs of RAM could smoke anything I throw at it! And for the most part you will never really need to throw that much at it. Post for audio and video for the most part is not going to be intense editing and processing like the normal production phase. Consider the mammoth computer if you start getting into more production than post at your home studio.
- You want a floating room too don't you? Well since you are not recording sound as much, maybe some basic acoustic treatment would serve you and your pocketbook better. Just saying.
- A foley pit to smash glass, stomp on metal and stuff would be wicked. No one would argue that point. But unless foley is your primary focus you don't need a dedicated area to create your sound FX just yet. If you think it would be easier to act out sound FX then consider such an investment.
- The mastering grade plugins can be very nice to have but they are usually the most expensive. I would not recommend considering these in your initial investment.
- Just like in the home recording studio, a home post studio does not need the stupidly priced microphones. Only consider this kind of investment if you end up recording more than doing post.
- Instruments to record your own soundtrack for video would be cool but really not in range for someone who has a home post studio. If you find yourself composing more then consider making the move to a hybrid post/music studio far down the road.
- Soft synths can be a fun toy to play around with but won't serve a purpose in a post studio. While they can range from cheap to astronomically expensive, look at these toys after you have taken care of everything else.
- That mastering version of that vintage compressor looks real nice don't it? Well you don't need it right now. Period. If your home post/mastering business takes off then consider taking the plunge then.
Gear Priorities: Review
There is always a lot to consider when planning out your dream home studio and gear for many people takes top priority. These lists were meant to act as guidelines and to make you think about what you actually need. Everyone's priorities will be different and I cannot possibly account for everything for you. With that in mind, put your thinking caps on!
Now that we have a better idea of what pieces of equipment we need we should then take into account how we can plan out the purchases so that we can easily add and upgrade the rig without having to get rid of anything. This is usually where a lot of the waste comes in when someone goes about crafting their home studio. In this chapter we will cover things that can be upgraded, are always valuable, and can easily end up as waste.
Upgrade Paths: Upgrade Me Captain
Some pieces of gear can be easily upgraded or have additional peripherals added to help enhance them at less cost than a full replacement. Here are some considerations to think about...
- If you are using firewire and or USB interfaces, often times you can daisy chain multiple units together. This makes it easier to add additional mic pres on the same firewire or USB line. If you want a different brand for another type of sound then make sure you look into audio interfaces that support ADAT (particularly the ones with the SMUX protocol).
- Computer just not cutting it for you anymore? Try upgrading the RAM using a second hard drive to give your computer the boost it needs without buying a whole new computer. It is a lot easier than it looks!
- If your speakers are good but want something better consider getting a power amplifier or power conditioner to give it cleaner more stable power. And if you really do wish to replace it down the road then you still have the power amp and conditioner for your new speakers!
- For those of you who decided to take the plunge into a control surface but settled for an 8 channel unit there is hope! Most of the 8 channel control surfaces present today can be daisy chained with an identical unit or use an expansion unit to add more faders.
- To all the guitar junkies out there...go mod your amps or guitars like all good like guitar junkies do. :)
Upgrade Paths: Invaluable
Some gear can be invaluable and will always retain some use in your home studio. These are by far the best purchases you can make for your studio and for your bank account. Here are some considerations to think about...
- When buying microphones do your research first. If you buy solid proven industry standard microphones they will always retain their value. When buying additional microphones at a later date don't buy a mic that is proven to sound almost identical to another microphone. If your microphone selection can't handle a particular sound source, a clone with a different name won't help at all.
- An extra set of speakers are always valuable to keep around even if you buy new ones. The ability to use them to quickly reference your mix against can save you a great deal of headaches in the long run. NS-10s anyone?
- Keep your old instruments! Don't sell them! You never know when that old guitar might be just the sound you are looking for. I have personally seen a $50 acoustic guitar sound amazing with the right microphone placement.
- Even if the day comes when you must replace your computer still keep your old computer in storage. If you're starting to make money from your home studio and your main rig crashes, you can always quickly pull out the old computer as a backup. (This is why we back up on external hard drives!).
Upgrade Paths: The Replacements
Unfortunately there are those pieces to any home studio than can eventually break or be of no use when replaced. These are the pieces you want to minimize investment in or go so far out that you will probably never need to replace them. Here are some considerations to think about...
- Cables, cables, and more cables. Cabling is usually one of the most expensive parts to a studio that a lot of people do not take into consideration. They will eventually break if they are being handled. End of story. That doesn't mean however you should completely skimp on them either because a bad cable will sound bad.
- Really cheap amp simulators, plugins, and other such emulation style software can easily get replaced by higher end counterparts. This can lead to wasted money in the long term if you never end up touching them again. I don't recommend buying the most expensive gear you can get your hands on but don't skimp yourself either. As with microphones, solid proven purchases will server you better in the long run.
- Unfortunately most DAWs do not have a lifetime free upgrade programs and the upgrade price can get very steep. You do not need to always have the latest and greatest software to do what you already can do in your DAW. It is actually common for professional studios to be at least one edition behind because they know it is stable. Just some food for thought.
Upgrade Paths: Review
Because there are so many different pieces of gear and protocols it is hard to say exactly what will offer you the best upgrade path. But with some educated research you can make sure you always get the best bang for your buck. While some piece of gear might peek your interest, make sure you also purposely search for people who think the opposite and what their reasons are.
There are many other considerations that you must take into account when planning out your dream home studio than just gear. Unfortunately many of those subjects are far beyond the scope of this tutorial as they are actually about designing your home studio. Here is a list of things you should keep in mind when planning out your studio...
- Where is your home studio going to be located? Basement? Spare bedroom? Attic? This can have a significant impact on what sort of acoustics and room modifications you will have to work with.
- How low are your ceilings? A low ceiling can preset you with a plethora of acoustic problems when mixing. Also if you are going to hang a ceiling then how low will it be after it hung?
- How will air flow work in your home studio? Studios can become extremely hot with all that gear running but you do not want to hear some mammoth air conditioner running either. (this also goes for computer fans).
- Are there water pipes in the walls or in the ceilings that could potentially get very loud if someone runs the washing machine, dish washer, shower, etc.?
- Do you have a rectangular/square room or one with no parallel walls? Parallel walls make it easier to calculate room modes but these are fixed with costly acoustics materials. Uneven rooms may naturally provide a better acoustic environment but if problems exist calculating what and where the problem is can be a royal pain.
- Mac or PC? (This can be a surprisingly difficult decision).
- How will you fit your furniture into the studio? A room can get smaller real quickly once you start adding furniture.
- Are you going to store your instruments or leave them permanently sitting out?
As you can see there are plenty of other considerations that you must research before even pay a penny. Take your time and do not rush anything
I would recommend creating your final game plan as such...
- Create a list of what your goals for the studio are.
- Pick a room in your home to be the studio but carefully consider the above questions to see it would truly work as a home studio.
- Draw out the room on and get a rough idea of how you would most effectively lay out the room taking into account acoustics, space, comfort, storage, etc.
- Once you think you have your room laid out go over it again and again and again.
- If you are absolutely sure of your layout then it is time to go back to your list of goals and piece together the essential gear.
- Finally, keep going over everything again and again till your sick of it so you know you didn't forget anything.
If you had these grand illusions of what your home studio would be and I shot them down, don't give up hope! A lot of people do not realize what they are getting themselves into when they start the home studio processes and end up wasting a lot of money in the process. But you should now have a clearer idea of what is involved in even planning such an endeavor. With careful research and clear goals you can avoid countless mistakes and help make that dream studio come true!
Your dream studio does not have to appear overnight, let it be something you can grow into. Remember home studios are suppose to be fun, so have fun with planning it! And if you keep your pocket book in line I guarantee you will have a lot more fun in the long run. Thanks for reading and good luck!