The Gear You'll Need to Set Up Your Own Recording Studio

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Category: Pulse! Pulse!

March 2021

Hi—I’m glad you’re back. In this month’s column I share the results of the thought experiment I teased you about last month.

Not very long ago, the cost of the gear needed to effectively record a band or any kind of small music group would be prohibitive without your having to take out a loan. But with today’s powerful computers and the increasing sophistication of hardware modeling, working entirely “in the box”—that is, not using a traditional mixing console and such analog processing hardware as compressors and equalizers, but their software equivalents—is not only feasible but is increasingly the norm.

Mark

Computer: This is the first thing you’ll need, the basic component around which you’ll build your recording suite—and what you don’t need is a cheap low-end laptop. If you have an Apple iMac or MacBook, you’ve already got the computer and Apple’s GarageBand recording software. If not, I recommend going with a Windows 10 PC with a four-core CPU, at least 8GB of RAM and a 250GB SSD for storage, and at least two USB 2.0 ports: one each for the mouse and an audio interface. It’s not that Windows is necessarily better than OS X or that the hardware is better; mostly, it’s down to bang for the buck: You can get a more powerful, if less elegant, computer for much less than Apple offers, and we’re on a budget here. Also, Windows 10 offers a much larger software ecosystem for non-audio uses. I checked multiple sources (Dell, HP, Toshiba, and others), and these specifications can be met by multiple vendors and products for $850-$1000, depending on screen size and graphics. For example, Dell’s Inspiron 15 5000 laptop fits the bill at a list price of $939.99. Don’t worry about the graphics unless you also want to play video games; the most important things are memory, storage, and especially CPU performance—plugins (they’re like smartphone apps) use a lot of power. If you’ve already got a Windows 10 PC that meets or exceeds the specifications outlined here, that money can be spent on upgrades or not spent at all.

CPU usage

Caption: A digital audio workstation (DAW) uses a lot of CPU power during mixdown. This shows the level of CPU usage during a Pro Tools mix session I recently completed. The level is not atypical—and my computer has a very powerful CPU.

Recording software: As mentioned, Apple includes the GarageBand DAW software with its products. For Windows, I recommend Cakewalk from BandLab Technologies, a full-featured DAW that’s completely free. It’s a continuation of the Sonar DAW, which was acquired from Gibson by BandLab, who regularly updates it (I got a free update in November 2020). If things are going well, or you want to use the same tools the pros use, then the DAW for you is Pro Tools Ultimate. It’s the closest thing to a standard in the recording industry, and works on a subscription model: $79.99/month or $799.99/year. I have Pro Tools and Cakewalk, and while Cakewalk is perfectly capable, Pro Tools really is appropriately named. But even a computer so equipped still won’t be much good for recording without a way to get the audio into the computer.

Audio interfaces: I focus here on USB interfaces, since USB works with Windows computers, and adapters exist to convert to Thunderbolt for Apple devices. I’ll be using the manufacturers’ suggested list prices (MSRP) for all items, though shopping for the best price is advised—the pro audio market is very price sensitive, and lots of things sell for less than MSRP.

Focusrite

I recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 3rd Gen USB Audio Interface ($599.99). It has eight microphone preamps connected to eight mike/line inputs with phantom power (see below), ten 1/4″ analog outputs, a word-clock output, S/PDIF coaxial and optical digital in/out, MIDI in/out, two headphone outputs, and two monitor speaker outputs. This means that you can record up to eight sources at once, be they mikes, line inputs from a keyboard, and/or direct input from a guitar. The ability to accept a high-impedance input source like an electric guitar means money doesn’t need to be spent on an impedance-matching device called a DI box. (DI stands for direct injection or direct input, depending on whom you ask.)

Monitor speakers: I recommend ADAM Audio’s T7V monitor speaker, with AMT tweeter and 7″ woofer ($499.98/pair). ADAM calls their version of Dr. Oskar Heil’s air-motion transformer (AMT) tweeter the “U-ART accelerated-ribbon tweeter,” and they load it in the cabinet with a waveguide. It’s biamped, and while it doesn’t have a lot of power, it should be plenty for mixing. For headphones, I’d go with two pairs of Sony’s tried-and-true MDR-7506 headphones ($130 each). They provide excellent isolation, and sound good—not great, but good.

ADAM

Microphones: Unless you work only with nonvocal music produced by synthesizers, you’ll need mikes. Fortunately, there are a lot of good ones out there at musician-friendly prices. First, every studio needs (and has) a clutch of Shure’s SM57 dynamic cardioids—the $99 mike that you’ll hear on most million-dollar records. Get five. Everything sounds at least OK through them, but they’re especially good for snare drums and guitar amps. They’re also very hard to break (but don’t try—it can be done). Shure also makes the excellent SM7 dynamic mike ($499.99), and it’s a great choice for most things. The late, great engineer Bruce Swedien used the SM7 often for Michael Jackson’s voice, including on “Billie Jean,” from Thriller. Alternatively, two other models can fill the role of high-quality dynamic mike: Sennheiser’s MD 421-II ($479.95) and Electro-Voice’s RE20 ($609). Get any of these three and you’ll be glad you did. Use it for vocals, bass, bass drum, and guitar amps. Dynamic mikes are workhorses that tend to be more durable than condenser or ribbon mikes.

Shure

Nonetheless, every studio also needs a couple of small-diaphragm condenser mikes, and the Audio-Technica AT2021 ($89) fits the bill; get at least two, to record in stereo. The AT2021 is great for recording acoustic instruments such as guitar, and for use as an overhead drum mike, and for tom-toms I prefer it to the Shure SM57. Condenser mikes tend to be more sensitive and detailed than dynamic mikes, but require 48V of power to work. That “phantom power” is sent down the mike cable by the mike preamp, but some high-end condenser mikes, especially tubed models, come with their own power supply.

One more mike category gets us almost there. For a multipattern, large-diaphragm condenser mike, I recommend Audio-Technica’s AT2050 ($229), which can be switched from omnidirectional to cardioid to figure-8. Get two. Along with the Shure SM7, the AT2050 is likely to be one of your two main vocal mikes. The A-T is also good for stereo recording of acoustic instruments and, placed overhead, as a drum mike, and its choice of three pickup patterns gives you many options: coincident X-Y, Blumlein, spaced omnis, et al. I also like them on large floor toms, using the figure-8 pattern’s null to reduce cymbal bleed into the mike. (I’ll talk more about miking technique and stereo recording in a future article—it’s a big topic.)

Audio-Technica

That’s ten mikes for less than $2000, but no mike is complete without a stand to hold it in position. The K&M KM21070 boom mike stand ($79.99) is good enough; get six of ’em, and throw in a couple of K&M’s KM25900 short stands ($112.99) to mike things close to the floor; e.g., snare and bass drum.

If you’re wondering why you should buy more mikes than you can actually use at once, remember that there will usually be a best choice of mike to record something, and that choice will change, depending on what you’re recording and how you want it to sound. An exception would be a singer-songwriter or small group who don’t use more than one acoustic instrument and it’s not a drum. Then you’ll need only three to five mikes, and a simpler (fewer inputs) interface.

Cables: So far, the bill for everything I’ve recommended comes to just under $4700. But you’ll need cables. These run from $10 to $20 per cable for budget brands like Hosa. Just as in home audio, you can spend a whole lot more on cables, but we’re on a budget here—Mogami will have to wait.

Upgrades: The first upgrade I recommend is not hardware, but a plugin for the DAW. It’s not a fancy software model of an expensive and hard-to-find compressor or equalizer, nor is it a pitch-correction plugin such as Auto-Tune or Melodyne. Vocal Rider, from Waves, automates one of the most tedious jobs in mixing: continually adjusting—riding, in studiospeak—the volume fader on the vocal track to keep it sounding clear and intelligible. In the old days, it was often one person’s job to manually slide the vocal fader up and down to keep the singer’s voice clear in the mix. Then, in the 1980s, came automated faders, and people would spend hours automating those volume moves. Now you can zoom in on the vocal waveform and manually make small adjustments to the volume of a single syllable, or even a formant within a syllable. This can be a very tedious process. But the Vocal Rider plugin does it all automatically, and will even write fader automation into the DAW session that can then be manually fine-tuned. Its MSRP is $249, but wait for a sale. (In a Black Friday sale, I picked it up direct from Waves for $35.99.)

Final steps: This whole setup will allow a band to record its rehearsals into a DAW. They can then fix mistakes, rerecord entire parts, add new instrumentation, rearrange parts to their hearts’ content, and, when satisfied with the results, mix it to formats from MP3 to 24-bit/192kHz PCM, and release it to the public as is or send it out to be mastered. But just as writers shouldn’t be their own editors, you should never master your own recordings. Anyone who’s interested should try a hand at engineering a recording, both because it’s good to know what goes into making a record, and because someone else is likely to do it better than the rest of the band.

In a recording session, the engineer’s job is to capture the sound of the artists’ instruments and voices. For classical, it’s important to also accurately record the sound of the musicians in the recording space—or to electronically create that space, if the recording is made in a studio instead of an actual hall of the appropriate size for the music recorded. If you want to record acoustic music, attending concerts of live acoustic performances is important—you need to know what it actually sounds like.

When recording rock and pop, I tried to capture the sound I and/or the musicians wanted for the final product. That sound didn’t always strongly correlate with the sound the musicians produced in the studio. In all cases, selecting the right microphones and positioning them correctly is the first step. Setting up a mike is a lot like setting up a loudspeaker—in both cases, a relatively small change in the position of the transducer can have an audible effect on the sound. Also like speakers, every microphone sounds different.

Once everything is recorded, it’s time to combine it all into the penultimate product: the finished mix. With the exception of recordings made with a single pair of stereo mikes, everything must be mixed down from three or more tracks to the standard left and right stereo channels. There are many ways to approach the mixdown process, but some things are universal. Mixing is an iterative process: that is, it includes lots of repetition. Much time is spent listening repeatedly, often on a loop, to a small section of a track, and making small adjustments to the sound of a single instrument. Like a sommelier tasting different wines and learning to discern ever-subtler nuances of flavor, that repeated listening to continually changing sounds trains the ear-brain to better distinguish among ever-smaller differences in sound. More to the point, it’s very like evaluating the sound of a new audio component.

Mark

So there’s your $5000 recording studio. It will fit in the trunk of a typical car or SUV, and will allow you to record not only in a rehearsal space or garage, but pretty much anyplace that has a wall outlet. I haven’t touched on acoustic treatments, most of which can be made from inexpensive and commonly available materials, usually wood and fiberglass, by anyone with a few power tools and basic carpentry skills, following plans available for free online. Nor have I gone into detail about how to actually use this equipment—that will be the subject of a future article or two, or three, or more . . . In the meantime, remember: There are no absolute rules in recording. If it sounds good to you, it probably is good.

. . . Mark Phillips
markp@soundstagenetwork.com