Not so Live Music – Setting Up Your Own Recording Studio.

The last couple of weeks has been a hectic time – what with everyone preparing for Xmas and all. However it also means that we wont be able to perform the Xmas song as expected – everyone is booked up, the town halls are all busy making their own preparations and some of the bands have a tight schedule so it looks like it is going to have to wait until next year.

In the past week the studio has now moved location, so we have decided to record what I can at home and bring these in for the vocals and the engineer to mix. It should cut down the total of time in the studio but means that a likely launch date of end of January. Good progress has been made though – there are now 7 songs prepared, laid down and ready to go to mixing with another 4 to come. This week has been a very creative one. I have written a couple of new tunes – one if which is really outside what I normally do and is a dance/funk/rap kind of tune called “out in the streets”.

Someone posed the question recently about the cost of setting up a studio at home and was very surprised by the answer, so for all you budding sound engineers out there I thought I would cover setting up your own recording studio. Whilst we hear about recording studios costing millions of £/€/$ to set up – is it feasible to set up your own recording studio at home? If so will it cost the earth and will it produce anything worth listening to? There is an old maxim that I heard in my days as a software engineer – rubbish in gives you rubbish out. It doesn’t matter how fantastic  your equipment is – if the original content going in is no good then guess what you get out the other end – yep rubbish.

So it makes little difference if you have the most expensive kit in the world or a cheap sound card – you have to make sure that the quality of your sound being recorded is a good as you can make it.


What’s required?

Well if you have a computer your probably have 90% of what you need and the rest can be obtained either cheaply or for nothing – and that’s the kind of price I like to pay.

Let’s start with the computer – obviously working with sound is a different ball game to sending emails. 3 minutes of sound will produce a single file of some 35MB in WAV format – if you have a song with 5 instruments each track will take up 35MB – so a large hard disk is required – you can get them cheap enough these days if yours isn’t big enough.

Next thing you need is something to get the sound into your computer. That’s a specialist sound card with a 5mm input jack to plug your sound source into. You could go all fancy and buy something like a Delta 66 (6 channels input) and Omni mixer, but in reality a creative labs audigy (with a single input) will do the job and they are about €85 new or €40 on Ebay.

Then you’ll need some specialist software – I personally use Cubasis VST which is a cut down version of Cubase used by many studios these days. It is €30 and the limitations you probably wouldn’t notice for a long time (I have used it for a year and still haven’t run out). However, the good news is if you are on a  really tight budget you can download a studio for nothing – computer Music magazine have one called CM Studio. It is everything you could possibly need including digital instruments synths effects etc.

But I have never used it so cannot say how good it is.

Then you will need effects such as chorus, reverb, compressor limiters and many more – used to control the signal tone and quality as well as EQ – you may have come across eq in the hifi world, if not it is basically a posh tone control. The great news is you can get all of these for a big fat zero – they are all available as free downloads as VST effects and instruments. You can even get drum machines, synthesisers, guitar synths, saxophone synths the works – the world is your oyster – and mostly they are free.

The next thing you will need is a MIDI keyboard – if you haven’t got one then these can be bought for a basic model from around €50. MIDI is a format of describing music and is a way of entering music digitally. If you imagine a computer programme such as windows (akin to the music) and the actual programming language used to programme it. When you move your mouse there is a set of instructions which tell Windows to move a cursor on the screen from point A to point B at a certain speed.

And so it is with MIDI. MIDI is like the programme that tells your MIDI device ie your keyboard) to play a certain note at a certain strength for a period time with certain voice (ie piano, guitar, orchestra or whatever). You can imagine the possibilities then – write a piece for one instrument – modify it slightly and copy it to another instrument and bobs your aunty. Two guitars with different effects playing the same piece or a piano and a string quartet - the creativity I am afraid comes from you.

Of course if you play an instrument you will also need to connect it. If the instrument cannot plug directly into the computer (for example an acoustic guitar or even your voice) then you will need a microphone. Microphones vary in price and quality but there is a website online (www.thomann.de) where you can buy anything you want – it is about half the price of buying the same stuff here in Spain and they deliver to your door for €20. A decent Microphone for your studio would be a shure SM57 or 58 (depending on whether you are going to use it for voice or instruments) and cost about €80 -€100. However, they also do their own brand which are excellent quality and about 1/3 of the price – look for their t.bone range – I personally use a SC 300 and it is a back electric condenser Mic – and I have seen the exact same model in  different studios – so it cannot be a bad thing.

Finally, you will need something to monitor the sound on. You could of course just use decent Multimedia speakers which most likely came with the PC, however most speakers “Colour” the sound and usually add a bit of bass boost or something. What is required is what is known as near field monitors. These give a completely flat frequency response, so the sound you make is the sound you hear and it isn’t coloured by bass boost or other additions/removals. There are two types of monitors – passive which require an amplifier and active, which have the amplifier built in. Best to go for active ones.

A decent pair of monitors can cost you up to €2,000 but it isn’t all bad news. They can also be bought for as cheap as €75 from Thomann. I currently use thomann’s own brand – the Box – which cost €105 for the pair and give excellent sound quality.

And there you have it – an almost professional studio for less than €300 and with a lot of practise there is no reason why you cannot produce CD quality music right from your bedroom – David Gray – I believe – self produced “White Ladder” from his bedroom and I believe Moby does too (I could be wrong on this but I am sure someone will correct me if I am)

So once you have set up your mini studio it is time to explore the great new world of music – don’t be afraid to experiment – some of the best music comes from experimentation (just ask Pink Floyd although perhaps some of their experimentation had nothing to do with music itself).

In the picture you can see my own studio set up which consists of the following

  1. Standard PC (don’t remember the spec but it cost €500 so it wasn’t anything great)
  2. M-Audio Delta 66 Sound card with Omni input/output mixer
  3. Yamaha DGX 205 Midi Keyboard (fantastic grand piano sound)
  4. Pinnacle/Steinberg Cubasis VST
  5. Peavey Strat copy guitar
  6. Hondo Gibson Les Paul Copy Guitar
  7. Crafter Acoustic
  8. Tanglewood acoustic
  9. Fender 12 string acoustic
  10. Westone Custom GT Bass
  11. The Box N105 studio nearfield active monitors
  12. T.Bone Studio Condenser Mic with Plop Shield (stops the Plopping and hissing sound when you pronounce the P and S)
I have recently added a sound booth with insulated walls to be able to record vocals and acoustic guitar – this was simply made by putting sheets of insulation onto chipboard and putting them on hinges so they fold into a small 1.3M x 1.3M booth soundproofed – total cost was €50 and it folds away after use (or you can lift the boards off the hinges)

But the important thing is to just get that song into some kind of recorded sate and play around with it until you get something you like.

So now you can see that for a small cost and a bit of initiative you can be recording music and producing CD’s for your family for Xmas – now won’t that be fun for them?

Good luck to you and I wish you every success.

Vince

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