There are numerous advantages to having a home recording studio — being able to produce your own music, your own way, and on your own time is incredibly liberating. And while the up-front cost can seem a bit steep, avoiding a commercial studio’s hourly rates saves money in the long run. And building a home studio is easier than you think if you have a solid plan. It’s not the sort of project that you want to tackle by making on-the-fly decisions, though — that road almost always leads to disaster. So how do you make a plan? Here are 10 things you should consider before you get started.
Establish Your Budget
Building a studio isn’t cheap. Not only do you need equipment such as a computer, interface, software, microphones, monitors, musical instruments, etc., but you’ll also need to invest in acoustic treatment, cables, furniture, lighting, building materials, and more. It’s important to make a list of everything you need so you can establish a realistic budget. And a word of advice: don’t buy as you go — that’s an easy way to exceed your budget. You’ll end up with a $2,000 microphone and a $250 preamp, or an awful-sounding room because you couldn’t afford proper acoustic treatment. Create a well-thought-out plan and stick to it!
Decide on Your Focus
So you’ve got a budget — now you need to establish what you’re going to be doing in your studio. Producing electronic music? Recording voice-overs? Maybe tracking 6-piece bands? Electronic musicians can get by in a modestly treated room with little isolation and a decent monitoring chain. Voice-over artists need to invest in a quality mic and preamp and need enough isolation to keep outside noise at bay. Full band sessions require an array of mics, preamps, and processors; maximum acoustic treatment; and a large, soundproof tracking room (unless you live in the middle of nowhere). Beyond that — and this is important — it’s wise to think ahead about what your needs will be in the future. The last thing you want to do is run out of space or realize that your current room and gear have become inadequate due to a lack of forethought.
Define Your Needs
After you understand your focus, you have to determine what gear you’ll need to accomplish your goals. How many tracks will you be recording at once? If you’re just recording yourself, a 2-channel interface will suffice. If you’re tracking bands, you’ll need more inputs. You’ll also need enough microphones to accommodate everyone. Are you working in the box, with outboard gear, or a hybrid of the two? Whatever you decide, keep your gear lust in check. Don’t buy cheap microphones so you can afford a high-dollar summing mixer and expensive AD/DA converters — you’d be better off investing in better mics and preamps.
Determine Your Space Requirements
Once you understand what you’re going to be doing in your studio, you need to figure out how much space you’ll need to work. For example, if you’re a mix engineer, you can get by with a modest amount of space — as long as you can achieve accurate monitoring, then you can work within a wide range of spaces. Recording vocals and acoustic instruments requires a bit more space — a medium-sized room with an iso-booth will get the job done. Tracking full bands requires a great deal of space in order to accommodate all the musicians and their instruments (not to mention cases) with an appropriate amount of sonic isolation.
Location, Location, Location
So once you’ve determined how much space you need, it’s time to choose a room. Choose wisely, friends — pick the wrong space and building your studio will be much, much harder than it needs to be. For example, avoid spaces that are close to traffic, airports, trains, etc. — keeping these unwanted sounds out of your recordings will be an exercise in frustration. You’ll also want to be cognizant of others (not only family members but neighbors too). Setting up shop next to the baby’s room? Bad idea. Near the adjoining wall of a duplex? Not recommended. Of course, there are ways to get around these issues. But why go through that much hassle if you can just choose the right room to begin with?
Look for Good Acoustics
Acoustic treatment can make just about any room sound decent. That said, nothing beats the sound of a room with great natural acoustics. If you’ve got the luxury of choosing between a spacious room with asymmetrical walls and a high ceiling or a small, boxy room, take the larger, better-sounding room. Also, be conscious of nearby rooms. If you’re going to be mixing and recording small acoustic projects with an occasional foray into large ensembles, you can always set up a control room in a smaller space and utilize a nearby large space on an as-needed basis. An acoustically treated garage can make a great-sounding drum room — just back out your Bugatti (or vintage Yugo), and you’re good to go!
Make the Space Quiet
Once you’ve found your space — before you start piling your gear into the room — you need to make it sound good. I guarantee that your expensive Neumann mic will pick up every nasty sonic detail of your room. So where do you start? First, seal all the seams, cracks, and crevices in the room with an acoustic sealant like Auralex StopGap — you’d be shocked at how much sound can leak in and out of small spaces. Next, you’ll want to treat all the room’s parallel surfaces with acoustic treatment, such as broadband absorbers, diffusors, and bass traps. This will minimize flutter echoes, room modes, and standing waves — all of which make critical listening difficult. Beyond that, well-placed soft furniture and bookshelves are great for absorption and diffraction — tightening up the sound of your room. Large windows can also be problematic, but they can be easily covered with heavy curtains. For more information about treating your room’s acoustics, check out our Acoustic Treatment Buying Guide.
Determine Your Wiring Needs
You need lots of power outlets in your studio — it’s unavoidable. The last thing you want to do is daisy-chain all your gear from a single outlet. So take stock of how many outlets you need (and where you need them), and install outlets as required. As for audio cables, if your studio involves more than one room, you’ll want to install wall plates in each room to accommodate mic cables. Otherwise, you’ll need to leave a door open to run the cables (bye, bye isolation). Also, try to keep electrical and audio cables clear of each another to avoid electromagnetic interference.
Secure a Building Permit If Required
If building your studio involves any significant remodeling, construction, or electrical work, be sure to check with your city or county code department for information about obtaining a permit. You don’t want to be halfway through your construction and have the code department shut down your work. Do your homework and follow the rules.
Make the Room Comfortable
Your studio is a creative space, and you’ll (hopefully) spend a lot of time in there, so it’s important to make it relaxing and ergonomic. Start by placing your gear at a comfortable height — you should be able to use your mixer or control surface, as well as your computer keyboard and mouse, with your wrists in a neutral position. Place your rackmount gear so that it’s easily accessible — if you have to bend over or crane your body to reach something, it’s not positioned properly. Ensure proper lighting to minimize eyestrain. Keep often-used items within easy reach to maximize your workflow. Beyond that, decorate the room so that it inspires you — feng shui, baby!
Building a home studio is an immensely rewarding endeavor — there’s a lot to be said for having 24/7 access to your own recording space. You can work at your own pace, take risks without fear of judgement, and learn new skills.