Home studio equipment has revolutionised how we make music and not least the costs involved. With just a few affordable components you can record, mix and produce your own songs or a whole album in the comfort of your home.
When you’re setting up a studio, in this case a home studio, you should have some idea of how you’ll be using the studio. I’ve built mine for the purpose of only recording my own vocals, guitars and software instruments. That means that I don’t need large pre-amps or lots of inputs and outputs.
I also think that having too much stuff is only distracting. Obviously, if you’re a professional studio with lots of clients, you want to be prepared for as many situations as possible but my main objective is to write good songs and to record them with as little distraction as possible. Some producers and engineers are talking about detoxing your studio, which means that every once in a while you should go over all your plugins and hardware and throw out the ones you really don’t use.
Above anything, I think it’s important to know the gear you’re using. It’s easy to get caught in that spiral of always wanting more but filling up your computer with plugins or spending all your savings on expensive mics won’t make you sound better.
People are writing and recording their songs at Starbucks these days and Steven Wilson mixed all of the Porcupine Tree albums in his old room at his parent’s with the gear he bought when he was a teenager. It’s all about being comfortable with the equipment you have and exploring all its potential.
My studio is a small 15m2 room in my house. There are neighbours all around and I have a three-year old daughter that sleeps next door. The desk is placed right up to the wall, leaving no space behind the speakers and there is a window right next to it. There’s a wall to wall carpet on the floor, which helps a bit but there’s no additional acoustic treatments on the walls.
It’s far from ideal but I know the room very well. When I record and mix, I always do cross references with music I know well and on several different sources – headphones, the hi-fi in my living room, car stereo etc. If my songs sound good in my studio room I know it will sound good almost anywhere.
Still, I don’t do the final mix here so there’s really no need to create a perfect studio environment. I do vocals, most of the guitars and what I call the “blue print” mix for the producer. Drums, loud guitars and the final mixing and mastering are done elsewhere.
I have a few mics but I mostly use two. My main vocal mic is a Rode NT2. Not top of the line but it’s very clean and honest sounding. It can also handle loud guitars, although I mainly just use it for vocals and acoustic guitars.
The guitar cabinets are usually mic’ed with a Shure SM57. I always come back to this one and no matter how many mics you stick in front of that cab, in most cases the 57 will be your main source in the mix.
The mics are fed into a Universal Audio 610 Solo tube preamp. I also plug the bass guitar straight into it. It doesn’t really get any simpler than this. Two knobs and tons of warmth and musical compression. I’m using a lot of digital guitar modelling and adding a bit of tube flavour rolls off the harshness. It also makes vocals and acoustic guitars sound natural and fit right into the mix.
My sound card is a very basic two channel Balance from Propellerheads. Unless you intend to tracks drums or several performances at once, this is all you’d need. There are lots of different models out there but what I like the layout of the Balance, with the two large volume controls and there’s no noticeable latency. The pre-amps are pretty good too. I also use this to feed the monitors.
If you do intend to record multiple instruments, you will need an interface with more inputs. You probably also want a headphone preamp so that each musician, and you as the engineer or producer, can have their own headphones with separate volume controls.
The monitors are a pair of M-Audio BX5a’s, with 5″ speakers. I bought these years ago and I know them too well to replace them. Besides, I couldn’t possibly have anything bigger in my room. The BX5a’s are well-balanced and very transparent and punchy, which makes it both easy and fun mixing the songs.
I also got these stands from Iso Acoustics, which allow a minimum of contact between the speakers and desk. It makes the speakers sound much more open and dynamic and the bass doesn’t just disappear down to the floor. A great addition to a cramped studio.
These AKG K272 HD headphones are very similar to the industry standard K 240s only a bit more comfortable to wear. They also got a bit hi-fi flavour without compromising the clean tone and neutral EQ response. They’re also closed back, which you need when you’re tracking. I also use my iPhone plugs a lot for reference mixing.
I wouldn’t recommend doing a final mix with headphones but they’ll give you some clue of whether your panning is working and if you’re like me, mostly listening to music with headphones, you can easily tell if your mix holds up to anything else you might be listening to.
In addition to recording my guitars the conventional way by micing a cab I also use a lot of effect and amp modelling. Mostly for when I’m recording demos but also when for when I need a certain tone for our albums. Guitar tone modelling has come such a long way and I think it’s foolish to just ignore these things if they can make life easier and produce what you need.
Recording distortion guitars is a hassle. At least for me so all the heavier rhythm guitars and riffing are done one the POD. It’s also got some really cool sounding delays and other weird effects, which I use a lot. I also occasionally use IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube and even the feature amp sims in Logic although I prefer the POD over these.
I’m using Logic. Apart from being a powerful tool for recording and mixing it’s also got some really great sounding instruments. And yes, I record and mix everything digitally. For one thing, it’s convenient but renting a studio with an engineer that can operate the tape machine and the analog desk costs a fortune. A lot of so-called purists seems to forget that. Digital has come such a long way and there’s lots of things you can do to make your projects sound more analog. With Lullabies, we also did the mastering on analog tape, which made a huge difference.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the Mellotron and one of my favourite plugins is the SampleTron from IK Multimedia. I used this a lot on Lullabies. I also use some of the stuff from Waves, Soundtoys and if you look around there’s a lot of really great free plugins.
So, there you have it. I’m pretty happy with the setup and I feel inspired to write more music and explore new sounds, which is really the essence of it all. Again, as I said above, all kinds of fancy stuff won’t make you sound better. Prioritize and get the best you can afford but most importantly, know your gear. Being able to produce high quality recording require a lot of hard work and the more time you spend practicing and experimenting the better you get at your game.