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In the last instalment of this series we concentrated on the virtual processors you will need to complete the typical mix. In this section we are going to move away from software and move into the physical world, taking a look at the hardware and equipment you’ll need to own to get the job done.
Also available in this series:
- The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 1 – Choosing The Essential Processors
- The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 2 - Essential Studio Kit
- The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 3 - Choosing Your DAW
Although a typical studio setup these days can be pretty basic there are a few essential pieces of kit any musician will need to put together their first projects. Our guide you through the essentials here, breaking each piece down and explaining exactly what it does.
I’m aware that readers budgets will vary pretty drastically and I’ll try to present a few options here that should suit everybody’s pocket. Don’t be too concerned about budget though as you don’t need to spend all your savings together great sound.
Step 1 - A Space To Work
Before we get into specific hardware you’ll need to produce a basic track, we first need to think about your workspace. Although it is possible to produce a track on the move using a laptop these days, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to spend long mixing sessions in ad hoc surroundings like this.
Ideally you’ll want a dedicated space to record, create and mix your projects. Not only will this give you privacy but also the storage you’ll need for any hardware you have purchased.
My home based workspace.
When selecting your studio space, there will be obvious considerations to make such as isolation, to ensure you do not disturb others while you work but also basics such as adequate power supply, lighting and space to work.
With the right room selected you will be ready to start kitting it out and getting down to the important business of making music. Next up let’s take a look at the basic fixtures and fittings you’ll need to get started.
Step 2 - Furniture And Acoustics
The first thing I like to do when preparing a studio space is to get the acoustics of the room to a satisfactory level. Your starting point will depend very much upon the rooms characteristics and construction but I have yet to enter a untreated room that is already ideal for recording and playback. More often than not some kind of acoustic treatment is essential.
More often than not acoustic treatment is essential.
If you are new to the world of acoustic treatment then you might want to think about buying a complete room kit to get you started. These kits will often include the basic essentials you need to get any room to an acceptable standard. These basics will probably comprise of bass traps, absorption panels, some form of diffusion and of course adhesive.
With your rooms acoustics up to scratch, you can start to think about furniture. Although this may seem pretty unrelated to audio production, you’ll find that it is actually an extremely important part of your average mixing session.
With all your equipment in reach on a well organised desk you’re mixing sessions will be much more enjoyable, less stressful and ultimately more productive. Investing in a purpose-built production workstation, equipment racks and speaker stands can be the best way to achieve a well rounded, usable workspace.
The right furniture in the right place can make for a great work space.
It’s also a good idea to ensure that you have suitable storage for all your media, software, manuals and paperwork in your studio. This approach will allow you to find everything you need quickly and also making the task of rewiring and adding new equipment a breeze.
Even a simple studio desk can help you get organised.
Spend a short amount of time getting things right in this area now and just thank yourself later. With all the aesthetics, acoustics and organisational tools in place you can now start to add the essential hardware you’ll need to produce mixed your music.
Step 3 - The Heart Of The Modern Studio
When equipping any studio we all have to work within a specific budget. Of course this budget will vary wildly from one project to another but funds are pretty much always finite. Whatever your budget is I would advise spending the vast majority of it on the heart of the modern studio, the computer.
Gone are the days where we need to buy enormous analog mixing consoles, expensive outboard and piles of wiring, most of our work is now done almost entirely in the box. With this in mind, it’s usually important to invest as much as you can in your studio's main computer.
Whether you buy a Windows or OS X based machine you should head directly for the product with the fastest processor, largest amount of RAM and most extensive storage options. Spending money in this area now will mean less upgrades in the future and the ability to run the latest and greatest audio software.
A powerful Mac Pro is arguably the ultimate audio machine.
Not only is it a good idea to buy the best you can afford, but timing can also be pretty critical in the purchase process. Keep a keen eye on when companies last updated their hardware, as there is nothing worse than seeing a fresh upgrade days after you have spent your hard earned money on a powerful system.
If your budget is limited then my best advice would be to buying nearly new and concentrate on the computer’s processors. By doing this you can purchase a great machine with a solid foundation for expansion. Hard drives, memory and other peripheral parts are probably the cheapest to buy as expansions.
Upgrading can be one of the most cost effective studio upgrades.
Once you have chosen the best computer you can afford you will need to think about which software titles you plan to install. As I plan to cover music production software titles in the next instalment we’ll move straight on to the first critical piece of hardware in any studio setup - the audio interface.
Step 4 - The Audio Interface
Whether you are producing electronic music, recording bands or scoring for moving picture you will need some way of converting digital information in the computer to an analog audio signal you can hear in the real world.
This process is called digital to analog conversion and is achieved by using an audio interface. Many interfaces available today also include analog to digital conversion, which allows the user to record their own signal into the computer, which is converted into digital information within their production software.
Modern audio interfaces range pretty drastically in price from only a few hundred pounds to the high thousands. You really can spend as much or as little as you want but in reality really excellent results can be achieved using only cheap hardware. As ever knowing your equipment, experience and technique are the all important factors.
An affordable interface maybe all you need to get going.
When buying an interface you will need to think about what your budget is, what connectivity you need and how the interface will fit into your studio. Once you have identified your needs you can start to look for the right product.
If you are building a first studio I would suggest something pretty basic. There are plenty of 2 in 2 out interfaces on the market that price well below £300. Many of these interfaces are compatible with just about every piece of music production software and will allow you not only to monitor the mix you are working on but also record instruments and vocals with ease.
Of course the more you spend here the better quality components you will get. If you can stretch your budget then by all means do so and you can expect to hear higher quality results but remember you can always upgrade at a later date.
Spend a bit more and you’ll get better quality components.
More expensive interfaces will not only give you better sound quality but you will also see improvements in the amount of inputs and outputs and variety of connection options. This is also something you may need as your studio grows.
Top dollar will buy you quality and flexibility.
Step 5 - The Importance Of Good Monitoring
It is said that any system is only as good as its weakest component. This can be said of integrated studio systems and therefore it’s pretty pointless to install an extremely expensive interface and connect it to cheap speakers. In this situation you audio will only ever sound as good as the speakers you use.
With this in mind it’s well worth installing a solid monitoring system but again you don’t have to spend a small fortune to get great results. If you are using a relatively affordable interface, connecting it to a monitoring system that cost under £300 is perfectly realistic.
There are some truly excellent monitors about that come in at under £300.
When buying your first pair of monitors you again need to think about the size of your room, connectivity and translation. Of course sacrifices will have to be made in each of these areas if your budget is limited.
If you are working in a small area installing extremely large speakers could be a fatal mistake, giving you an unrealistic representation of your mix and a host of acoustic problems. Opting for smaller speakers and a subwoofer is probably a better option in this situation.
High quality, compact monitors can be the perfect option for the smaller room.
Whatever setup you decide to go with remember you can always trade up in the future. If you do, it might be a good idea to couple this upgrade with the purchase of a new audio interface, as these two components share a very close relationship.
Step 6 - Hands On Control
With these basic components in place you will need to start to think about hands-on control and how you plan to input your music into your system. Some of your input maybe recorded audio and therefore you will use instruments to create sound but in other situations it is likely you will need a controller keyboard.
There is a huge amount of USB controller keyboards on the market and you can even pick something up for under £100 in value. Even if you are a guitarist or singer keyboard is a valuable part of any modern studio setup.
A USB keyboard is pretty much essential.
There are also other areas in which you may want to gain hands-on control. For example if you plan to use a lot of software synthesisers then you may want to use a hardware controller to tweak their parameters. Picking a dedicated USB controller that this task should be pretty straightforward.
A simple controller can go a long way.
Just as a keyboard is obviously designed to inputting notes many hardware controllers are specifically designed to control instruments and plug-ins and feature a host of knobs, faders and switches. With a few pieces of choice hardware installed you may even forget you are dealing with software altogether.
More complex controllers will give you in depth control of your software.
A professional studio really can be created with a few limited pieces of kit and the whole thing can be set up even with a modest budget. So if you are sitting at your first year follow these simple steps and see what you can achieve.