Do It Yourself Home Recording Studio

Just to clarify things, putting together a home studio is my first attempt at any musical recording outside of recoding on a hand held tape recorder, I am not a professional. The way I’m approaching it is to look at my influences, see how they recorded, and try to reproduce it in my budget and using the latest technology. This my list and shouldn’t been seen as a guide. I am writing this both to record to myself as well as help others in my position of wanting to record music, but not knowing how to go about doing it. I set up this list of things I must remember when setting up a home studio, acquired from different books and online articles.

  • Your recordings are only as good as their weakest link (Basically this means that even if you have a $2,000 guitar, if you plug it into a crappy amp it will sound crappy)
  • Buy the best equipment you can (an economy in quality, is always a false economy)
  • Always look for affordable alternatives (this may seem the opposite of the above statement, but it isn’t. Sometimes you may not be able to buy the best equipment and some lower priced alternatives may be there if you look)

To start with I needed an audio recording and mixing device. Back in the days it would have been a huge reel-to-reel recorders with huge mixing boards and teams of engineers in lab coats pushing little light up buttons. In the professional world today they use huge digital recorders and mixing decks, behind glass with millions of dollars of equipment. In an amateur home recording studio there are many different approaches from analog tape mixers, digital deck mixers, to computer based recoding. I chose to edit on my old Apple laptop using software which takes up the least space and allows for maximum quality and maximum edit-ability over all the other amateur formats, for this I am using a PowerBook and a copy of GarageBand to record and mix. GarageBand also has virtual amps which utilize DI (Direct Inject) which sound great, cost a fraction of real amps, are post-production friendly (can change amp’s sound later in the mix) and save a huge amount of my limited urban living space.

(Direct Injecting is a recording term used when you don’t mic up a guitar’s amp, but rather plug the guitar directly into the mixing board. It is often seen by professionals as cheating because it does not allow for an artist’s individual amplifier sound to be captured, but then again the same was said about digital photography 5 years ago.)

Audio Interface

Since I’m using a small laptop, it has no real recording audio inputs to connect microphones or guitars and I need some inputs pronto. Here I found a problem, any layman’s reviews of audio interfaces are impossible to evaluate because you have no idea what the people reviewing the interface are connection to them, or what their level of expertise is. Some reviews would be very favorable, then the next review was extremely unfavorable. So, I looked at 4 models:

  • M-Audio MobilePre USB ($150) great interface for the money, but it has “severe problems with condenser microphones.”:http://www.mojopie.com/mobilepre.html
  • Digidesign Mbox USB Interface ($450) The best quality but no MIDI interface. Just too damn expensive.
  • Tascam US-122 USB Audio/MIDI Interface ($200)($185 ebay new) Has everything including “proper phantom power for condenser microphones”:http://www.musicgearreview.com/reviews-guitar-bass-drums-recording/6867.html and made by the premiere name in recording.
  • M-Audio Delta 410 FireWire Computer Recording Interface ($400) Too expensive for feature set.

After quite allot of debate and research, I found that Tascam US-122 was the best value for what I need. Although I don’t have a condenser microphone yet (read further down to understand what a condenser microphones is) the fact that it had real phantom (v48) power was extremely appealing. It’s small size and USB powered interface was perfect for my portable laptop.

Next up… Guitars

Two basic approaches to this, externally mic up your guitar or musical instrument, or buy a guitar with pickups built in. I have opted for the second. My Acoustic Takamine EG330SC has a mic built in to record acoustic passages.

Microphones

This is by far the most difficult area to get into. To record any sound, your environment really matters. Where you record is as important as what your recording. I have the luxury of an internal room in my apartment that has no external windows and is basically isolated from outside noise. Because i’ve never recorded with real microphones in this room, I decided not to spend my money on an expensive microphone that may be completely useless in my home studio. Instead, I directed my attention to a very versatile “live” dynamic microphone the Shure SM58. It’s characteristics are a natural and warm sound that is unidirectional and perfect for live performances, because of it’s directionality. The Shure 58 costs about $100 and is well worth the money, but in my searches I found a mic that many had compared to the Shure called the Nady SP-5 at a fifth it’s price tag. Better yet, they had a sale for buy one get 2 free at MusiciansFriend. Because I eventually wanted to use a condenser microphone, this cost saving was perfect to try out my recording studio performance, without spending much on expensive equipment before knowing what recording problems I would encounter.

  • 3 Nady SP-5 ($20)
  • 2 Mic Cables ($6)
  • 1 Boom Mic Stand ($20)

I also developed, with some help of the Brooklyn Public Library and Modern Recording Techniques, a cheap alternative to a sound booth that I can create in my middle room. It’s basically two doors bolted together covered in carpet (or some other sound absorbing material) against a wall with caret draped down it. It creates a little recording “V” that should be totally sound absorbent. I would imagine this should run me about $100-$150.

The Mysterious Condenser Microphone

Condenser microphones are the apparent cream of the crop when it comes to microphones in the recording studio. They feature the best audio quality and sensitivity and can capture the most accurate reproduction of vocal and instrumental sound. The only problem that I see is that, from the books I have read, they can be too sensitive for the amateur recorder. They are much less directional than dynamic microphones (Omnidirectional) and are so sensitive that the air displaced by pronouncing the letter “P” can wreak havoc by creating an audible pop in the recording track, so they require a pop screen which is placed between your mouth and the microphone. Pop-screens cost about $20, but can be built for $0.69 with a pair of pantyhose, a wire coat-hanger, and a bit of duct-tape.

I decided after long thought that I will hold off buying one of these guys until my recording studio is better fleshed out and I know what it is that I want to record, but am looking at the Nady SCM-1000 and the MXL 992. On closer examination the microphone that seems to have everybody raving about it’s exceptional quality and fantastic price point is the Studio Projects C1 Single diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone. The reviews of this microphone are absolutely amazing.

More about Microphones.

That’s all I have right now. I hope to post some samples of recordings I make to give you all a better idea what the hell it is I’m talking about real soon.

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