Creating Your Very Own Recording Studio – Part II

Cost Effective Solutions to My Expensive Mistakes

Last week I shared Part I of this guide that detailed my evolving understanding and learning at the feet of the esteemed Dr. Personal Experience, Professor Emeritus from the University of Hard Knocks and expensive life lessons. I’m fortunate that most of the classes that I took, taught by this well-known educator, have been the elective courses. The tuition was pricey and the time spent was considerable. Perhaps a more accurate and precise title for last week’s Part I feature could have been, “How Not to Go about Setting up Your Own Home Studio Guide.” Oh well…water under the bridge, right?

Here is presented the more useful recommendations. Understand that I’ve learned to not reinvent the wheel as I have far better things to do with my time and hard earned coin. I reckon the reader does too. So relax, make sure you’ve got enough light to read by turning up the brightness on your phone, tablet, or monitor. Now the reader is ready to soak up for free what people used to pay real cash money for, attending all day Saturday seminars in smoky, worn “hotel” conference rooms, prior to the internet.

If the reader is thinking about getting into this or is just making their first forays into this most rewarding area, please pay attention. This should save one a ton of cash, valuable time and get one up and running with far fewer hiccups and hurdles impeding ones creativity. This will allow the creativity to drive the process, as opposed to the deciphering of the tech standing in the way. Obviously, there are other considerations like cables and other bits, but I did pretty well in that department, so it’s not really on the list, of what to do or not to do, other than a brief reminder at the end of this piece to remember to consider them.

Computer

You will want a dedicated music computer that isn’t shared with everyone as you don’t want malware, viruses and such that always seem to infect a family computer. Remember, this is your music computer, so those nasty viruses will be even more of a problem if you use this computer to watch your porn…ahh, excuse me, if you indulge your artistic cinematic sensibilities on this computer. It’s for music only and should only need internet connections for downloading upgrades to the software and firmware.

You want as much horsepower as your budget will allow. I have a quad core machine. I don’t rightly recall the specs, but it’s just a bit more than adequate and that’s what you want. When I discuss DAW’s below, you’ll want to make your preliminary selection and see what the minimum and recommended performance requirements of your computer will need to be. You’ll also want to make sure that you have as much RAM as you can afford. 8GB is getting to be the minimum (depends on your processor speed) and 16 GB is better. I suggest a 500GB solid state hard drive for your OS and DAW plus anti-virus, plugins and whatever else needs to be on that drive.

You’ll want a secondary drive, either internal or external for your music data. You can expect system crashes and aggravation galore if you try to run your DAW, plugins and such on the same drive that you’re writing all your recording data to, and then trying to mix and master to later on. Just don’t try it. A regular SATA drive or equivalent is adequate, but if you can, go with another solid state hard drive if you can afford it. You’ll want one to two TBs of capacity as music production eats up hard drive space quickly.

I suggest a video card that has the ability to run two monitors. You want to have your edit screen on one monitor and your mixing screen on the other while you’re tracking and later editing. It really makes the experience so much easier, especially when one is learning about automation. That was my experience anyway. Also, one must note if the Operating System or OS of choice on the computer by default supports the DAW and vice versa, i.e., do they get along and play well together? This is one area where the OS/DAW compatibility is important and should never be dismissed as close enough or “shouldn’t make any difference.”

Side Note: Even for furtive forays on the web to access those aforementioned software and firmware upgrades, you still want to have anti-viral protection. Avoid Norton or MacAfee as they tend to treat your DAW as if it was a public enemy to all that is good and free and right when one is in the middle of capturing that one take in a million. I’ve been happy with Kaspersky myself on my Windows & 64-bit machine.

Digital Audio Workstation, AKA - DAW

Let’s next look at the brains of the operation, the DAW. There are a plethora of DAW’s out there to choose from. A short list may include, but is certainly not limited to, Avid’s Pro Tools, Cockos’ Reaper, Steinberg’s Cubase, Presonus' Studio One, Propeller’s Reason and Cakewalk’s Sonar.



They all have advantages and disadvantages. If one is just starting out, I really suggest that the more shallow the learning curve, the better. It does no good to have the most feature laden, plug-in packed DAW if one cannot figure out how to configure and record a basic set of tracks.

I had virtually no experience with DAW’s, but I decided to go with PT. Now don’t get me wrong. PT is the bomb, if you can figure it out. There were way too many bells and whistles for me to figure out the "how to" for even the basics. I got everything plugged in and good to go. I had a bunch of song ideas and I went to work…or not. Trying to figure out how to use the thing was a creativity killer. I ended up watching a bunch of YouTube videos and even bought and read ProTools for Dummies. Yes…there is such a volume in the For Dummies series. See. Told ya’ so!


After five years I still haven’t figured out everything to take advantage of half the stuff in there.

Now, if you have already purchased a full featured DAW, and I do mean Full Featured, then I suggest that you stick with it and figure it out well enough to be able to be productive. If you have the LE, i.e., Limited Edition or whatever semantic device the developer uses for the stripped down version that came with the interface that you already own...or you haven’t purchased an interface and/or DAW yet, please pay close attention. Do not spend what I reckon is at least a couple of hundred bucks to upgrade or more to purchase a full version outright. If you do not own a DAW, then don’t hit “Checkout” on that music gear vendor website just yet.

In my DAW list, I mentioned a product by Cockos called Reaper. Reaper is an open-source DAW (as I understand it) that basically offers the same very important and necessary features that any good DAW should. It has some functionality extras too. It also has a set of pretty good, albeit sparse plugs-ins in terms of effects, Eq, compression, etc. and some MIDI instruments. It also can accept third party plug-ins in VST and VST-3 formats, as well as a few others that I’m not real familiar with.

It accepts most of the common hard-surface control protocols like the Mackie Emulation, Behringer’s protocols for their controllers and a few other protocols that I’m not familiar with. It’s easy to use, well supported with video tutorials and such. It has an unencumbered, full featured license that allows full access to everything for 30 days (there are “nag” windows that occasionally remind the evaluator about licensing options). Here’s the best part. If one decides to buy the license for their own personal use, it will set ya’ back the princely sum of about $65.00. Yep…you are reading it correctly and I typed it correctly with no misplaced decimal. About $65.00 +/- some change.

If one is planning it to use in their small business oriented studio, then the expectation is that the evaluator will pony up about $325 +/- some change. Is there a difference? Not that I’m aware of, at least in the areas that I compared. If you feel a justifiable need for the commercial version because you are aware of actual, veritable differences that do exist and know for sure that you’ll need these “upgrades”, then you are way ahead of the target audience and probably don’t need to know 90% of what I’m writing because for you that 90 % is already known and this article is a review of the “1st Grade”, as it were, for a “High Schooler” like you.

I like the evaluation version enough that I’ll pony up the $65.00. It’s so much easier to use and I’ve heard some really good, commercial quality music produced using Reaper. With what one saves over the $400 to $1,000 dollars that some DAW suites can run, go to town and buy additional effects plugins and MIDI instruments. Just make sure that they’re compatible with Reaper. Also be aware that there are a boatload of free plugins out there for PC and Mac OS platforms and in the various formats I touched on.


Side Note: Plugins are digital musical instruments or software versions of outboard signal processing hardware that were very common and de rigueur back in the day. The software is actually beginning to supplant the hardware on the professional level in some cases. Plugins are also much less expensive to acquire and utilize in the long run. Make sure that any plugins that you acquire are in a format compatible with both the OS on your computer and with the DAW software too.

One other thing that I like about Reaper over something like PT is that Reaper is not a CPU resource hog. I have a water jacket cooled, quad-core Pentium machine with 8GB of Ram and a 500 GB solid state hard drive. With Pro-Tools, I’m amazed at the CPU resources and watching the core temperatures rise as the OS hands off operations to the cooler running cores to keep everything up and running. With Reaper, the ‘puter barely “breaks a sweat”.

If one just has to have a full-featured DAW, then I would suggest Presonus’ Studio One. It is offered with different grades of features, depending on what one wants to spend, but it seem so much more intuitive and easier to get past the learning curve. I do not own a copy, but a close friend does and he let me play around with his music computer one weekend to see what I thought of it compared to PT. It’s easier to use in my opinion. As to the others, I suggest reading the reviews on the various on-line forums, e.g., Harmony Central, and see what is attractive and what is not.

Interfaces

Ok, so there is the DAW. What about interfaces? Well, I mentioned what I ended up with and for the money, it’s hard to beat. Still that’s $500 +/- some that one may not have laying around. Unless one is in need of micing an entire drum kit, I’d suggest getting at least a two mic preamp USB interface. These tend to run from about $90 to $230. Why USB? Because just about every computer I’ve touched in the last 15 years has them. I’m not an expert on Apple, but I understand that if they don’t have them, there is some sort of adaptor/workaround arrangement. Again, I don’t know for sure. I do know that most of the readers here will be using a PC based system with USB ports though.

Why two inputs? Well, a fair number of singer/songwriters don’t get their mojo going unless they are singing into a mic and playing their instrument. Then there are those like me that will close mic a guitar cab up front and then place another mic farther out into the room or behind an open backed cab. With acoustic instruments, I may point a mic at the sound hole and another where the neck joins the body. If the instrument has a pickup, I will plug into one channel and then use a mic to pick up what is coming out of the sound hole of off the body of the instrument. That’s why I suggest at least two mic preamps.

Make sure it offers phantom power for the condenser microphones that require it. Outboard phantom power rigs are available, but that’s one less snarl of cables and extra bit of gear that has to be considered. There are other types of inputs on these units too, but I've generally only been concerned with the mic/instrument channel capacity as I don't have anything that uses the digital I/O ports or MIDI through the interface. All my MIDI controllers use the USB ports. Output wise, a set of outputs to your monitors and a headphone out are adequate when starting, and the USB port out of course.


Tascam makes a neat rack mount, USB bare bones interface with eight mic preamps called the US-16X08 that street values at $299. It supersedes the older US1800. In looking on FleaBay, the US1800 is available used, in good shape, and on the completed and recent auctions for anywhere from $100 to $200 plus shipping. Focusrite, Presonus, Akai, Behringer, Mackie, Steinberg, M-Audio, Roland, etc. all have offerings.

The feature that everyone seems to tout as making their unit superior is either the AD/DA converters or their mic preamps. If this is your first rodeo or two, get what offers the features that you can afford at a price that you can live with. I’ll go out on a limb and say that some of the Behringer equipment in this entry-level DAW enterprise is surprisingly good and reliable. I have purchased a couple of their entry-level interfaces and have been pleasantly surprised with what I ended up with.


For the money being spent, don’t think that an extra fifty dollars is going to make or break the quality of your finished products. One’s ineptitude at what professionals spend years learning and get paid six figures in many cases to do, will have a much greater impact on those first gross or so of recordings just sucking more than an Alabama twister in summer.

There’s no point in spending buckets of hard earned coin for gear that you may find goes to waste when you figure out that this isn’t really something that you’re interested in pursuing after all. You can always move used gear on Reverb.com or Craigslist and get better gear when your skills begin to illustrate the shortcomings of your current gear. At least that’s what you’ll tell your significant other anyway, as to why you need to buy a new for your studio.

One can get bundled interface with DAW pairs, but you'll end up with the stripped down version of the DAW as I implied earlier. Unless you think you can live with the full version of that DAW, including the cost of upgrading to a full version, get just the DAW and check out Reaper. Always look for sales, especially after the NAMM Winter and Summer shows have just taken place. Last year’s gear is good enough and is reduced in price to make room for the newest and the “best”. Musician’s Friend “Stupid Deal of the Day” is a good place to look and if you’re lucky, you’ll find some of your gear here at up to 50% off regular prices. Those entry-level Behringer pieces I mentioned above…Stupid Deal of the Day. Otherwise I would not have risked it.

Mics

I mentioned microphones earlier. Right now, the first two that one needs are a couple of classic, inexpensive and legendary dynamic mics by Shure. Yep, that would be the SM57 and the SM58. The former is really more for instrument and cab micing and the latter is more for vocals. Can one get away with using them switched, i.e., vice versa. Of course. But, they seem to excel a little better than the other in the suggested tasks. Why two mics? Remember my words about the two mic preamps and the variety of uses for having two? There you go.


Now AKG, Senheisser, Audix, etc., all offer equivalents, but it’s hard to discern equivalents and for the money one is hard pressed to justify an otherwise simple decision. Yes, there are cheaper mics that may do the same for a few bucks less, but why chance it? Every pro studio on Earth worth their salt have these two in the mic locker. There’s a reason why. They’re cheap, they sound good and they’re durable.

As to getting into condenser mics, tube mics, ribbon mics, side address mics, etc., I suggest one looks at either MXL or CAD. Relatively cheap and Chinese made they are, but they offer the main advantages of their respective classes and they won’t break the bank. Are there better mics out there? Of course. Remember what I said about your nascent, embryonic skills not letting the relative deficiencies of the gear come though because of your current lack of knowledge? Same deal with the mics. If you have to mic a drum kit, CAD makes a kit that has the six or seven mics that one needs. It’s a lot cheaper than buying them a la carte and will get one up and running. I have a set and they get the job done.


Monitors and Headphones

You’ll want a pair of powered studio monitors. Find a pair that has good reviews and fits your budget. You’ll want 4 to 6 inch main drivers at least, and at least 20-25 watts per side. The same goes for a pair of headphones. Get a pair of studio headphone and not the ones purposed for DJ use. I wouldn't spend more than $100. One can get a decent pair for that or less and one can always upgrade. I'm using Tascam, Senheisser and Akai in my studio and have about $250 invested between the three. You'll use headphones in most tracking situations.


Control Faders

If one has to have a tactile control surface, then I suggest spend $300 and get the Behringer B-Control Fader BCF2000. It has eight motorized faders that will go to wherever your project has the DAW faders set, plus it allows for custom configuration of the other controls. Because it’s a USB/Midi communicative system, I understand that it’s pretty universal and can be mapped to most any DAW.

Again, if you can swing it, the Zoom R24 is a pretty nice multipurpose piece of gear that will handle this and your interface roll. It’s not motorized, but like I pointed out, what you get for your Benjamins more than makes up for it. Of course Alesis and Nektar also have offerings on the cheap, but are supposed to be adequate. Be sure to check the fine print as a few of these controllers are really configured to work well with a particular DAW and it’s better to stick with a Universal like the Behringer or the Zoom.


Lastly, you’ll need mic stands, mic cables and other bits. Get a decent UPS (that’s Uninterruptable Power Supply and not the parcel company). Why? You’ve got some expensive kit plugged into all of this and you don’t want the local power company to surge or brown out the current and grenade the CPU in your computer or the microprocessors in your gear. Plus it sucks if you’re tracking and the power takes a dump. You want to be able to save those tracks.

Conclusion

Those be the basics. Don’t make the mistakes I made if you’re just starting out or have tested the waters a little. You’ll be better off going into this following an already blazed trail. Is my way the only way? Of course not. Is mine the best. That’d be pretty presumptuous of me to think so, but I do know that what I’m advising is reasonable and has been suggested by folks far more intelligent and experienced than I. I just found out the hard way. If you like pounding your melon on concrete and giving away your money, be my guest. Somehow, I believe the reader to be much wiser than that.

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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