Common questions and answers on home recording studio design, audio equipment, recording and mixing techniques, costs.
Listed below are some common questions and their answers regarding setting up and operating a home recording studio. (Click on a link to go to the answer.)
Q: Is it expensive to set up a home studio?
Q: Is it complicated to set up a home studio?
Q: How can I use some of the new music formats?
Q: What are some good publications
Q: How do I get rid of noise in my recordings?
Q: What is the best computer and software?
Q: How can I sync with analog tape recorders?
Q: What's the best way to record instruments?
Q: Should I buy used equipment?
Q: What microphones should I buy?
Q: Is it expensive to set up a home studio?
A: To some extent, it depends on what your goals and expectations are. You can now buy a small digital recorder like a Zoom H4n that can record 4 tracks of 24-bit digital audio with built-in stereo condenser mics, onboard effects and digital editing features all for under $300! At its simplest, this could be classified as a home recording studio (and also a portable one). There are some very inexpensive ways to get into home studio recording, but you can also spend a fortune on equipment if you have a large wallet. The good news is that thanks to big advances in technology, it has never been less expensive to set up a home recording studio and achieve quality results than it is right now! You may be able to use some equipment you already have, such as your home computer and parts of your living room stereo system. You can also buy used equipment at relatively low prices, if you know what to buy. You can also build a couple of inexpensive items that can make life easier in the studio. All of these options are detailed in the book Sound Recording Advice, along with info on where and how to buy the equipment. I recommend that you continually trade up to more capable equipment over time since you may need to start you home recording studio with a small budget.
Q: Is it complicated to set up a home studio? Will I need to soundproof my bedroom or basement? What do I need to do to my house?
A: A home recording studio could be as simple as the digital Zoom H4n mentioned above or as simple as a multi-track analog cassette deck, a microphone, a musical instrument and a second stereo recorder to mix the recorded tracks onto. Of course, a home recording studio can get much, much more complicated with multiple recorders, computers, synchronization devices, sequencers, mixers, signal processors, power and ground issues, acoustic treatments of the room, monitor speakers, and many other issues to understand and problems to overcome. It really depends on how deeply you intend to pursue the art of recording. If you want to make your own CDs and sell them from your own web site on the Internet, you will definitely need something better than a cassette multi-track recorder and a microphone.
Typically, the small 10' x 10' boxes (also known as “bedrooms”) that most home studios reside in are not conducive to recording or monitoring audio. Multiple reflections of sound within the tiny rooms will muddy the audio in a hurry, creating locations all over the rooms where some sounds add together and other locations where they subtract from each other. This results in an uneven recorded sound. There are wall and ceiling treatments you can apply to help reduce these bad effects. Other studio issues to tackle are how to handle noise leaking into the studio, noise leaking out of the studio (and bothering your neighbors), electrical power distribution to and within the home studio, grounding for the equipment within your studio, where to get good audio cables and how best to use them in the studio, and many other important issues. It is best to be aware of all these issues before buying equipment for your home studio. If you already have elements of a home recording studio, this book can help you improve your recorded sounds.
Q: How can I make use formats like MiniDisc and MP3s in my home recording studio?
A: Both MiniDisc and MP3 formats use a digital signal processing technology known as audio compression to reduce the amount of information that is needed to be recorded. The good thing about this is that more audio can be recorded onto any given size of digital media. MiniDisc recorders aren’t used too much anymore, but they have processors inside of them that can determine what digital information can be deleted from an audio signal and still have it sound good to the human ear. The MiniDisc processor will throw out about 80% of the information in the signal and just record the remaining 20% of the signal. An MP3 processor will throw out about 90% of the information in the signal and just record 10% of the signal (and MP3 usually sounds inferior to the MiniDisc). The problem is that once this audio material is thrown out, it can never be recovered. This is called lossy compression. For this reason, I recommend that MiniDisc and MP3 not be used for multi-track recording or mastering (the final stereo recording that is used for copies to be made). However, MiniDisc and MP3 are great formats for trading audio recordings with friends (especially sending MP3 files over the Internet) or for personal/portable stereo formats.
Q: Are there any good publications that I can read for the Do's and Don'ts for the beginner to shorten the learning curve and get it right the first time?
A:Reading a book such as Sound Recording Advice that covers the whole home studio experience from start to finish is a great place to start. Subscribing to quality magazines such as Electronic Musician (now merged with EQ), Keyboard, Recording, Mix, Pro Audio Review, Computer Music, Tape Op and Sound on Sound (my personal favorite) is a good way to continually gain up to date information on recording technology. The editors of these magazines cover all of the major tradeshows that exhibit new equipment and they also perform equipment reviews on new equipment as it is released. The book Sound Recording Advice details many Internet sites that you can visit to get home recording information for free. I recommend that any person interested in home studio recording refer to multiple sources of information, because no one source will cover all the bases. I also recommend that you actually read the owner's manuals for the equipment you have (or intend to buy), as no book on general studio recording is going to cover all the details and operational tricks you will find in the owner's manual. Other important sources of information are the various online forums – I tell you some good ones to check out in the book.
Q: How do I get rid of noise in my recordings, such as hiss and 60Hz buzz? How can I record myself with a microphone without picking up equipment noise?
A: Noise is the bane of all studio recording, especially for home studios. Noise can come from many different sources such as from outside of the home studio, poor power filtering, poor electrical grounding or ground loops, crosstalk from other recorded tracks of audio, equipment fan noise within the home studio, tape hiss, leakage from musician’s headphones, and even electrical self-noise from the random collisions of electrons within the electronics of a piece of equipment. The strategies for eliminating these problems are too detailed to go into here, but the book Sound Recording Advice devotes more than 10 pages to strategies for eliminating, reducing or masking noise in the studio.
Q: What is the best software to buy so I can use my computer for audio recording? Should I use my computer as the main recorder in my home studio? Is a Mac computer better than a PC?
A: First of all, let's make sure you have a computer that can support the requirements of audio recording. You should have at least a dual-core PC or Mac; quad-core is better. The more RAM and the bigger the hard drive, the better. As you start piling on more and more software that must execute in real time, then even those dual-core machines might become sluggish. Obviously, the faster and more powerful the computer to be used for audio recording, the better. Currently, the latest PC or Mac machines available on the market are equally able to execute audio recording software for quality results. You can choose whichever computer type makes you feel most comfortable, either the PC or the Mac. If you already have a computer, then you will need to buy a software package written specifically for that type of computer platform. You will also need to buy some sort of hardware that will allow you to plug musical instruments and microphones into your computer for digital recording. There are now many options to accomplish this task, and all of these software and hardware products for home studio recording (along with prices) are detailed in the book Sound Recording Advice. The new 40 page Addendum also details ways to optimize your computer so that it doesn’t crash or hang in the middle of an important recording session.
Q: How can I synchronize analog tape recorders with my computer so that audio recorded on both machines plays back at the same time?
A: An analog synchronization time code (an audio signal encoded with unique synchronizing signals) can be recorded onto one track of a multi-track analog recorder. A separate hardware processor (such as the JL Cooper PPS2) can then read this synchronizing time code audio from the multi-track analog recorder and convert it into a different digital synchronizing code (usually MIDI Time Code) that can be read by one or more computers (or other digital recorders) in the home studio. The computer will then automatically play and record in perfect synchronization with the analog tape recorder. This is an advanced technique used by home studio owners who want to synchronize multiple audio recorders that use different formats (such as reel-to-reel, standalone digital recorders and computers). Multi-track analog recorders are starting to become extinct, but I have even used synchronizing techniques to synchronize the DAW in my computer with a digital multi-track recorder such as the Mackie HDR24/96.
Q: What's the best way to record my <insert instrument name here>?
A: Most every acoustic instrument requires a unique miking approach, and that includes the human voice. To complicate matters, there are many different types of microphones that are specifically made to handle different recording situations. Amplified acoustic or electrical instruments present their own recording challenges, especially if a microphone is not used. This subject is so important to making a quality recording that Sound Recording Advice dedicates over 24 pages to miking and recording various instruments. This information is valuable whether you use an old analog tape recorder, a digital multi-track recorder, or even a computer-based Digital Audio Workstation. Since much of the success of miking an instrument is based on the tenets of physics, this information applies to all recorder types.
Q: Should I buy used equipment? Where should I buy used equipment?
A: Absolutely! You should definitely buy used equipment, as this can give the best price/performance ratio available. Also look for B stock (scratched, dented, open-boxed, or demo new equipment) from vendors. When new equipment is introduced into the market, many vendors sell the older, obsolete (yet new!) equipment at highly reduced prices. You should take advantage of all these low priced sources. The book Sound Recording Advice also details over 25 places to buy used equipment on the Internet. I buy and sell used equipment all the time.
Q: What microphones should I buy?
A: As I mentioned, there are many different types of microphones that are specifically made to handle different recording situations. There are microphones made for studio recording that range from $50 to over $5000 (and amazingly there is a specific $50 mic that can yield very good recordings). Your budget will largely dictate which microphones you will buy. Keep in mind that the microphone is one of the most important things you can buy for your home studio. If you are spending $1000 for your home studio equipment, you should spend at least 20% of the budget on one good microphone. The book Sound Recording Advice details the best ones to buy at various price points (and I keep updating the recommended equipment list for people who have purchased the book). It also gives a recommendation for which mic to buy if you can only afford one, low-cost microphone for your home studio.
©Copyright 2012, John Volanski.