So You Want To Build a Home Studio!

By Craig Jackman

Your freelance business is taking off, or maybe you hit the lottery. Maybe you’ve sat down and looked at your career and decided to take a new approach to your art—and Ladies and Gentlemen what we do IS art! The time has come to put together your own studio space. To that I say, “Good for you.” But here are 2 questions that I would suggest that you know the answer to:

Question 1: How much money do you want to spend? If someone gave me $10 million, I could spend it all on one studio, although I would do it for several zeros less. However much you have, it will never be enough to get it the way you really want it in your dreams. Do not forget that whatever you spend on your studio, you have to make back, plus income to live on if you walk away from your radio gig, plus income to plow back into the studio for upgrades, otherwise it just becomes another one of your expensive “hobbies.” This is important to remember as technology is advancing so rapidly to make your gear obsolete when you walk out of the store with it.

Question 2: What do you really want the studio to produce? If you want to do music, it won’t be the most appropriate set-up for advertising and vice-versa. That is not to say that you can’t do both, but you will be competing against people who have specialized in one or the other. They will have equipment and have it set up in a way that is better for their field—comfort, versatility, ultimate sound quality, and creativity for music production, or speed, reliability, and repeatability for advertising.

What do you really need? Answer that third question first as you begin the process. What you really need and what you really want are usually two different things.

You have to have a dedicated room (or rooms) for the studio. It isn’t gonna make you a whole lot sitting in the corner of the living room, and do you really want to invite clients into your bedroom? If you are going to run it as a business to make money, treat it as such with proper studio setup, acoustic treatments, and whatever needs to be dedicated to the studio. If you are going to do it as a hobby, do whatever you want as I don’t care and neither will any non-paying clients you get. So you need space. If it’s advertising that you will be doing, you need a room large enough for all the equipment you will need to be constantly setup and accessible. You need room to work with the equipment, room for clients, storage room (very important for storing equipment boxes in case your stuff needs repairs, and archiving past projects), plus an area big enough for a mic and voice talent(s). This could be a reasonably sized spare bedroom with a closet, and clean dry storage in the basement. You may want your control room setup with client areas—desk space for advertising clients to go over a storyboard or scripts for example. If you are running a studio out of your house or apartment, you better have the co-operation of wives, kids, and/or roommates, or you aren’t going to get very far.

Whatever space you use, be aware of zoning by-laws. Soundproofing is a concern as are the neighbors—they can shut you down in a heartbeat if they know how and who to complain to. Don’t forget that a good security system is a must. You will be investing a lot of money in your studio, and with people coming and going, seeing all your toys, they may just be tempted to help themselves once in a while. When you decide on your setup, call in an electrician to make sure that you have enough juice and outlets to run your gear. If you can afford a new service put in, do it, and request balanced power. Get the fastest Internet connection you can afford. More and more work these days is done over the Net using either coded files or streaming media. Sitting and waiting on a 56k POTS modem will drive you insane. There’s ISDN (if you have the money, the codec, and the need to connect with others who work ISDN), DSL service (if you can swing it with the phone company), or call the cable company and get high-speed cable modems installed. All choices are more expensive than just a phone line, but you will save yourself hours when doing audio over the Net.

You need furniture. Don’t scrimp here. Having your console and computer supported on your old kitchen table and your outboard gear in milk crates is not a good professional visual for your clients, and will contribute to your expensive equipment being broken and old before it’s time. Get proper racks for rack-mount gear complete with 4 screws and washers per piece. Get STURDY surrounds for consoles—you are going to be spending hours leaning on this thing, and you want it to be strong enough to support everything. Include space for computer monitor(s) and speakers. These can be placed on speaker stands if you wish, although I would recommend getting heavy ones or hollow ones you can fill with sand to give them more mass. Lastly, but equally important, is a good chair. You are going to be sitting in it for HOURS! You better like your chair, or you won’t be able to concentrate on your tasks at hand as you fidget trying to get your butt comfy. A rolling chair is a good start, but the $49 special at Wal-Mart just will not cut it.

Consider your lighting. It has to be comfortable and adjustable to suite time of day and amount of people working in the room at one time. Stay away from fluorescent lights. They’re noisy and some people find working under them fatiguing. A few small lamps and floor standing lamps work great. Recessed pot lights in the ceiling work well too, but don’t compromise acoustics for lighting—it’s an audio room that has to sound good remember?

Keep space open for future expansion. You never know when you will want to add a 2nd voice booth or more rack gear. You might find a client that wants you to do audio for video. Plan for ventilation as well. Stuffy is bad, but too much ventilation will cause noise pollution to and from the rest of the house or the neighborhood. The trade off that all studios have is the one between ventilation and soundproofing.

As for what you should buy, that depends more on what you like and need rather than what I might think. Hey, if you can swing a full Pro Tools install, do it. 150,000 systems make it almost an industry standard, plus there are all kinds of support and specialized products available for Pro Tools. If your old Tascam analog 8-track is right for what you do, then do that. Analog equipment is cheap, and you can find a technician anywhere that can fix it. Plus it has that hip retro-chic sound that audio purists love. To be honest and realistic, the future is computerized, and with a good piece of software and some plug-ins, you can eliminate much of your hardware.

If you are doing a home studio, get one thing that isn’t going to cost you anything…TIME. Don’t rush; take the time to do it right the first time. Make sure you have the right gear for your use. Make sure your wiring and connections are solid and well grounded. If you whack everything together in an afternoon, then have to take it all apart chasing a ground loop, is that really the best use of your time? After all, aren’t you charging by the hour now?

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