This is a guest post from Barry Gardner the chief engineer who operates SafeandSound online mastering based in London in the UK.
The home studio can be incredibly sophisticated these days, very much capable of recording, mixing and even self finalizing your tracks to a high standard in the comfort of your own tailored musical space. If you are willing to invest some money and time into learning some basic engineering skills, great results can be achieved.
The beauty of a home studio is that it can serve your core skill set remarkably well and also potentially open up new revenue streams which you may not previously have considered. You will be able to potentially save money on studio bills and benefit from the great convenience of a studio in your house. This would especially have benefits at the composing, arranging, recording and idea building stage for an acoustic musician and potentially the entire production process for an electronic musician.
There is a large demand for spoken word recording. If you have a nice quiet space which is reasonably well acoustically treated, you might develop a side line for voice over recording, which can be quite lucrative. Voice work is necessary for radio advertising, video narration, corporate presentations and of course translation from one language to another.
Other potential revenue streams are karaoke style ’studio experiences’ for people interested in recording their vocals against a backing track; enhancing stereo 2 track or multitrack location recordings; forensic and restoration work; and composing music to video.
The scope for a revenue stream is there if you are willing to put in the hours to learn your new equipment and invest in the initial cost of setting up. Typically, an entry level home studio incorporates the following:
Of course, the sophistication and exact selection of the above equipment will have a bearing on the final pricing. Remember to budget for some microphone and line level leads too.
To ensure your home studio is optimized, here are some tried and tested tips on making it as productive and good sounding as possible.
Acoustic treatment – overlooked, but affects every sonic decision
If there is one area which provides multiple benefits, it is acoustic treatment. Basic acoustic treatment ensures that both recordings and mixes are better. Acoustic treatment does not come across as one of the most interesting of purchases for the home studio, but you will hear benefits on every recording and mix.
Initially, it is wise to tame the early reflections from the side walls relative to your monitoring position. This can be done with acoustic foam tiles (10cms thick ideally) and also Rockwool/Owens Corning type products (a 1m x 1m sized placement would be a good starting point). Once this is installed, you can also consider a ceiling cloud, which is a similar construct, but attaches to the ceiling between yourself and your monitors. This is a great way to improve focus of the stereo image when mixing.
Bass traps are more bulky and often neglected, but you can make improvements by straddling corners of the room with slabs of Owens corning or Rockwool type products. A basic frame can be prepared to hold the slabs, and they can be covered in fire retardent studio fabric. With acoustic accuracy comes more focused recordings, a more natural and even tonal balance and mixes that will translate better to other playback systems.
Mount monitors securely and in the best room position
Most home studios will have a set of monitoring speakers. The positioning of the speakers has a direct impact on the quality of sound you hear. Ideally you should create an equilateral triangle with your head and the 2 speakers at each of the 3 corners. Try to align the tweeter at ear height on a robust set of speaker stands. Speaker stands give your monitors a non-resonant anchor point which can focus the sound and reduce resonances that blur the stereo image and add unrelated sonic information to what you hear.
If it is not possible to use stands, purchase neoprene (soft rubber) mounts or a sheet so that you have provided some isolation from any desk or shelving on which your monitors are placed. If at all possible, try to locate your monitors away from the corners of the room and bring them into the room as opposed to being close to the wall. This reduces ‘bass tip up’ which can reduce the accuracy of the low frequency response of the speaker. This is especially true of rear firing reflex loaded speakers.
24 bit recording has numerous advantages – make sure you are getting them
These days disk space is fairly cheap and most sound cards can record at 24 bit. This is highly recommended. It allows you to record the audio signals at a lower level (peak at -14dBFS) and yet still retain very high fidelity compared with 16 bit recordings. This usually means less distortion as well, because the electronics in mic preamps and mixers is less heavily driven, creating a cleaner less distorted sound. Distortion is to be avoided at all costs in the home studio. You can always add controlled amounts after the recording. But it is virtually impossible to remove once unintentional distortion has been created at the point of recording.
The condenser mic – a home studio workhorse
This type of microphone is versatile and produces a crisp, clear and well rounded sound for vocals and spoken word. It also performs very well on acoustic instrumentation such as acoustic guitars. An indispensable studio addition. Condenser microphones are very sensitive to sound and can overload, but many models have a pad switch. This reduces the signal level and allows such microphones to be used with very loud sound sources such as drums. Ensure your mic preamp arrangements can provide 48 volt phantom power before investing.
Single driver speaker – clear information about the critical mid range
One useful and often overlooked addition to a home studio is a small, single source mono speaker with a focus on the mid range. In professional studios, it is common to see a single small sized speaker as well as near field monitors. This type of speaker was most commonly known as an Auratone. Avantone now make a modern version, and I suggest using just one and routing your mono summed mix down to the speaker from time to time. This allows you to check mono sum compatibility and also provides a ‘no messing around’ mid range check. Despite their simplicity, these speakers allow you to get a clear picture of whether vocals sit right and whether your snare and other mid range elements are well balanced. All reproduction systems play mid range, so it is a critical area of the mix to get right.
Mix where the ears response is most linear and protect your hearing
Another tool of great value is an SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter. Realistic makes a basic analog model which allows you to see in decibels the level that are monitored. This allows you to aim towards the 80dB SPL ideal, where the human ears response naturally even out (read up on “Fletcher Munson curves”). In addition, it allows you to see what your daily exposure is to sound levels and ensure you protect your all important hearing by keeping exposure within safe limits. (See your local authority recommendations online)
Warm recordings sound expensive and reduce listening fatigue
Finally, warmth is a much talked about quality when working with digital audio. Some people feel digital audio has a cold clinical sound. Historically, recording was performed using analog electronic equipment such as mixing consoles and tape machines. Many of these classic recording devices can be emulated in digital form. Warmth is a subjective term, but most people agree that subdued high frequencies contribute to a subjectively warm sound.
Try experimenting with some analog emulations in software form (Equalizers, compressors, tape machines and mixing consoles have all been digitally emulated in the form of software plug ins that can be used in your digital audio workstation). In addition, you can use the humble low pass filter or high shelf to cut excessive high frequencies (treble) to produce a smoother and less harsh sound. A great tip is to add a low cost ribbon microphone to your gear list and use it as a supplementary microphone when recording any given source. When blended in with your main mic choice, you can produce a more mellow and rounded sound which can produce the desired warmth at mix down time.
Setting up a home studio can be an exciting project for musicians with some basic technical ability. There is definitely a learning curve, but if you are up for the challenge, the benefits are valuable in terms of time and financial reward.