Home recording studios are great. Commercial studios, which I would define as spaces that allow for the tracking of band ensembles where the technology facilitates for multiple workflows, are expensive, and can often leave you spending most of the time worried about the clock. They also require a high set of skills to operate the gear (i.e a trained sound engineer). Conversely, home studios are autonomous spaces where a songwriter, producer or musician can create music at their own pace – often with amazing results. Price reductions in technologies has resulted in a possibility for you to have a setup that would rival what, in terms of analogue to digital conversion, many commercial studios had 10 years ago. However, getting home studios right can be difficult. Often music store retail assistants provide little help in this. In this article I’ll provide some tips for setting up a home studio to get the best sound and creative environment without spending a fortune.
If a commercial studio allows for multiple workflows, a home studio (or project studio) is normally configured for one workflow; the person who operates it. So the advice I’ll give is general. If you’re into guitar, MIDI or whatever you’ll need to tweak things, but that’s the best thing about home studios, they are made to be configured just how you like.
A quick glance at Gearslutz, or anyone interested in audio gear, will provide you with a feeling that Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) are hotly debated. In my opinion they all pretty much do the same thing, and it, in many ways, comes down to how well you know your software. For example, if you are used to, and quick in, Logic and someone puts you in Cubase, you will be slow and frustrated. I think these instances inform people’s attitudes towards DAWs. For me, it’s what your used to. Pro Tools is the industry standard for DAWs. Although it’s not the most widely used DAW (FL Studio is), it is certainly the most widely used DAW in commercial studios. If you are hoping to get a job in a commercial studio, you will need to have an in-depth knowledge of Pro Tools.
If you want close to zero latency to software monitor (meaning monitor the track you are recording through the software, with its plugins etc), Pro Tools HD is really your only choice when it comes to hardware. There are some other options but they are too complex and, I would say, unconvincing. For tracking bands, where there can be 16+ inputs, I think Pro Tools a must. However, for home setups, you will find you will mostly, if not always, record one or two inputs at a time. With this in mind, many audio interfaces have low latency monitoring features that provides you with signal for monitoring that bypasses the software. There are many consumer focused audio interfaces, and I haven’t tried them all so I won’t give specific advice other than to say I use an Apogee Ensemble and Duet. There are some musts when choosing: low latency mode, hot plug compatible (so you can plug in and out of your computer without having to reset your computer) and good quality converters.
There are some amazing monitors available that cost a fortune. They are accurate and they provide great mixes. However, if you are working in an untreated space (and if its just a room in a house then, it is probably untreated) there is little point in spending a lot on them. It’s important to buy monitor speakers instead of HiFi speakers, as monitors have a flatter frequency response, but unless your room is treated a consumer focused monitor will serve you well.
Microphones and preamps.
I’m clumping these together because I want to make a broad point. Gear present in commercial recording studios is expensive. For example, LA2As 1176s, Neve 1081s, Neumann U87s are all the sound of pop and rock since the 1960s with a lot of cultural significance (Watch Sound City). What’s more, these studios have multiple versions of these technologies. For home recording I recommend one channel of great sounding equipment. A good microphone , pre-amp and, if possible, an outboard compressor. But also keep in mind that, like monitors, if your room isn’t acoustically treated your recording may suffer. You may find that you’ve spent money on a great microphone but it often picks up car noise from the street anyway. If you are on a budget, Rode make some great and affordable sounding microphones. The NTK is a respectable all-round microphone. In terms of a pre-amp you’ll probably need to spend about $1K before you get something better than the preamp that will be present in your audio interface. And when it comes to outboard compressors you probably need to spend about $3K+. A NTK and the preamp on my Duet have, at times when needed, served me adequately.
Plugins, which are software signal processing effects, have changed considerably over the past couple of years. In about 2010, UAD release a firewire DSP device called the Satellite, available in Duo or Quad, that, in my opinion, is a game changer. Waves used to only bundle plugins, where as UAD lets you pick and choose. While firewire technology is now outdated and we all eagerly await a USB 3 or thunderbolt device (I know they made an Apollo but that locks you into the audio interface which I am not overly impressed by), you can still put quite a number of plugins before you max out the device. If you want a decent sounding mix you will need to get good plugins (either UAD or Waves). Stock standard compressors, EQs and reverb are not sufficient for mixing, and will, more often than not, result in a non-professional sounding record.
Mixing consoles in commercial studios are an important signifier that it is indeed a studio. However, in a home studio, unless you spend over about $15K, you’re not going to get a console that will improve the quality of your work. Mixing consoles colour the timbre of the sound. If you have an expensive one like a Neve, that’s great. If not, not so good. It’s also a workflow thing. If mixing consoles are part of your workflow, then you will probably miss them, however, if they aren’t $15K +, I generally only use them for monitoring and avoid using them for the recorded signal. I will explain this setup in more detail in a future post.
Hope this post has been some help.