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How to Build a Recording Studio
The magic of the recording studio has often mystified even the most seasoned professionals. With all the knobs, switches and buttons on various gear and large format consoles, no wonder confusion sets in to most non-techies. Many people, especially artists, composers, producers, and engineers, will end up putting together their own studio for writing and pre-production, with some eventually deciding to take the plunge and create a full-fledged recording complex that is capable of recording major albums. This article will try to shed some light on the considerations to take into account when making a studio, be it a small home studio or a professional recording studio.
Is size important? Some may say it is so but this is not always the case. The dimensions of the studio are very important. A room too large may become over-reverberant or full of unwanted echoes. A room too small may sound tight and unnatural. It is important that the room size and room sound is relevant to the type of music you are recording. You don’t want to go into a very small tight room to record BIG rock drums. Although, big room sounds can be achieved by adding external reverb effects to simulate rooms at a later time when necessary.
It is best to find the room that suits the sound you are trying to achieve from the beginning of the recording process. The smaller the room, the smaller and tighter the sound will be; this is not necessarily a bad thing. Small tight rooms can be good for vocals, guitars and percussion if you are going for a tight clean sound. Larger rooms have more air for the sound to travel in, so it will be in fact a bigger more open sound. The sound has a longer travel time for the sound wave to move, therefore the reflection from the walls will take longer to bounce back creating a bigger more spacious sound. The decision of size and sound has to be made early on before the recording starts. One advantage that a larger room will have is the ability to be scaled down by closing up the room using modular baffles or gobos (go betweens). Gobos are structures that are partitions, that help to block sound by placing them in between the musicians, instruments, and microphones. Placing the gobos around the microphone at a close distance will help a large room with too much ambiance sound smaller. This will eliminate the reflections coming off of the walls that are further away.
Small rooms can produce big heavy tight sounds with the absence of the decay from the reverb that is caused from big rooms. Sometimes a large room can sound like it’s washed out, or far away. With a good engineer any room can sound amazing with a little adjusting. A poor sounding room can be manipulated to sound good, although it requires much more work and time. Deciding on the proper room size for your needs is critical to the sounds that get re-produced. This will highly dictate the type of sound the microphones will pick up.
Clapping your hands in a room can give a good representation of what a room will sound like. The reflection coming off the walls will be picked up by a simple hand clap. The true test is to try out some instruments or vocals and position them in various sections of the room until reaching the optimum sound quality. If one side of the room sounds bad try a different spot or move around into a corner until the sound is improved.
Experimenting with different sections of the room also keeps the sound fresh when recording many instruments. If the acoustic guitars are recorded in the center of the room, when the time comes to record the electric guitars you may try recording them in a corner of the room for a different room sound. This gives clarity on the final mix creating separation and providing more distinction on various sounds.
If you are starting your own studio, remember that the bigger the studio the higher amount the bills will be. The benefit is that larger studios can charge more for their studio rates.
Getting the Necessities
If you happen to reach that elite 2% and become that million dollar, hit selling, famous producer or artist (or if you just win the lotto), then you might eventually think about buying serious studio gear and setting up your own producer paradise.
Acquiring the proper equipment and labor is key to a great studio and successful recordings. Studio gear is expensive and the knowledge of those who use the gear does not come cheap. Hiring the right people can save money and time in the long run. Studio designers also are specialty breeds that can make or break your studio. Your buddy Joe the carpenter may be able to help build it for less, yet if the studio is not properly isolated for sound it is a great waste of time, energy and finances.
The studio engineer is also the focal point of the sound that is created. Having an experienced engineer involved in the process will make your sound have a character of its own. He is the extra set of ears that gives another dimension to your productions. He is also a critical consulting partner when building or choosing to rent a studio. Let the experts help you with advice, it will create less of a headache in the long run. The experienced engineer can fill you in on all the equipment needed for recording the music that is relevant to your world. He can also give some guidelines on how the studio should be setup before having to consult a designer. There is no room for guessing or assumption on these issues.
Check List: Part 1
When purchasing studio gear it is wise to research only what is absolutely essential for your style of music. If you’re not recording live drums in your studio, there is no need to buy a plethora of microphones for them. By being patient and shopping around for the best prices, a mass amount of money can be saved in the end. When you save $50 to $100 bucks on each piece of gear it really adds up in the end, and there is a ton of gear needed to put a proper studio together.
Below is a basic studio checklist that will be discussed in further detail in later articles. These are the essentials of modern day recordings and the tools that are most commonly used in the best studios around the world.
The Studio Gear Checklist:
Recording / Mixing Console
The engineer or producer operates the console that controls all of the levels for recording, playback and mixing.
This is the big board that has all the buttons, switches, knobs, faders which control the levels and signal routing for each instrument. This could be referred to as a board, console or mixer. The most common consoles in major studios are SSL (Solid State Logic) or Neve. The console is the most important piece of gear in the studio. It controls the overall operations of signal flow and sound manipulation. The console allows for each instrument to be on its own channel on the board. Each channel may then have effects inserted into its signal path to enhance the sound. A signal may also be routed to external gear for further manipulation. Anything that can be imagined, can be done. There are no rules for experimenting with sound. A signal can be sent to reverbs, delays, compressors, guitar amps, speakers in hallways for re-recording
Each channel strip on a decent console will contain: Faders, Preamps, Panning, Equalization, Filters, a Routing Matrix, AUX Sends and Returns, Dynamics, Muting, & Solo.
Other Features Of The Console: Inserts, Outputs, Monitoring, Automation, Fader Grouping, Bussing, Splitting…
Allows the studio to combine interconnectivity with all the equipment by using patch cables. The patchbay can be configured for each studio’s specific equipment requirements. All of the outboard gear, console and recording devices inputs and outputs are hard wired to the patchbay. The Patchbays can be be analog or digital. The most common is the bantam TT cable configurations.
Check List Part 2:
Microphones Microphones pickup the initial sound source. The mic is the first source in the recording process receiving and converting the sound wave into electrical energy to be amplified, transmitted and recorded.
Preamps Amplifies the original signal coming from the mic or instrument. Gives initial control of the recording levels. Preamps are located on the console or as external outboard gear.
DI Boxes The Direct box is used mainly for instruments such as keys and bass to be compatible with mic inputs. The DI box transforms line levels of instruments to mic level for console and preamp inputs.
Compressors Helps to further control levels and dynamics coming from the preamp or console. Usually comes in rack mounted outboard gear or software plugins for DAWs. Compressors keep levels from peaking into distortion levels and help to bring lower levels louder.
FX Processors For special effects like adding space, dimension, pitch and time delays on signals and recorded tracks. Usually comes in rack mounted outboard gear or software plugins for DAWs. Multi-FX processors may have reverb, delay, flangers, EQ, compression and more all in one unit.
FX Pedals Small floor foot pedals originally designed for guitar FX processing. These pedals are created for distortion and special effects, which add space, dimension, pitch and time on guitars mainly, but are an inexpensive alternative used as outboard gear for other instruments.
DAW The Digital Audio Workstation is like an entire studio inside of a computer. Protools, Logic and Nuendo are just a few DAWs that provide a digital multi-track recorder, a virtual console, a wide variety of effects, editing, and sequencing(musical programming) possibilities. The DAW uses software, hardware and computers in combination to operate.
Check List: Part 3
Control Surface The control surface acts as a console that controls a DAW or external machine. The control surface usually has faders, knobs and buttons that are controlled by the computer connected to a DAW. This makes operating the DAW similar to analog operations by being able to put your hands on faders instead of clicking a mouse. Some control surfaces have all the same features as a console. The most common control surfaces are made by Digidesign.
Clocking Digital recorders use different clocking formats to operate properly. Digital units sample the sound to be replicated. Clocking refers to the amount of time in between samples taken for reproduction. If the digital clocking is off it will sound jittery or add noise to the sound in the analog to digital conversion. A quality clock will improve the sound. Some common digital clock sources can be found in products made by Prism, Rosendahl, DCS, and Aardsync to name a few. Some clocks have sync generators built in to lock up with other machines.
Sync Generator Generates tones to allow communication between machines so that several recording devices can be synchronized together and operate at the same speed. Clocking works with synchronization (sync) when analog and digital equipment is combined. Sync uses SMPTE, MTC (midi time code), Midi Clock, MMC (midi machine control) to allow recording on several DAWs and tape machines to be linked up together.
CD Recorder Records and plays back compact discs. Gives the ability to record stereo mixes and playback these mixes on other CD players. CD standard for consumer playback is a sample rate of 16 bit and a sampling rate of 44.1kHz. Sony, Tascam, Alesis, and Yamaha all make good studio CD recorders.
Tape Machines Recording machines that use analog or digital tape for recording and playback of music. Some purists in sound recording prefer the sound of analog tape. There are many digital tape machines used for recording both music and video.
Cabling Literally miles of various cabling could be needed for a single studio. Common cables in sound reproduction are XLR balanced mic cables and Unbalanced 1/4 inch instrument cables.
Monitors / Amps Speakers in the studio are referred to as Monitors. Powerful clean amps are needed to run monitors. Many monitors are self powered, which means that they have built in amplifiers. Monitors usually consist of high frequency tweeters, low frequency woofers and cabinets that contain the speakers and components.
Headphones / Distribution By using a set of earphones this allows communication between the control room and the studio, also allows pre-recorded tracks to be heard during the overdubbing process. Headphones are also referred to as cans.
Instruments / Keyboards / Drums / Guitars These are more of the tools of the craft. You may have all the best studio gear in the world, but if the instruments sound bad you are starting in the wrong place. Anything could be considered an instrument if it makes noise that could possibly be recorded on a record.
Amplifiers This is often referred to as an amp. Amps increase the amplitude or volume of electrical signals from sound waves. These are used in powering speakers. Guitar and Bass amps can be used for many other applications such as running a vocal or snare drum through them.
Microphone Stands A wide variety of sizes and styles are needed for a proper studio. The mic stand helps to get the microphone placed properly for the best sound quality possible.
Studio Furniture There are many types of racks and furniture designed to hold consoles and outboard gear. The interior decoration of the studio completely sets the vibe of the working environment.
Nothing will work without electricity unless you’re jamming at the local drum circles down on the beach. Electrical installation studio power is often overlooked. Studios will setup a “clean feed” that is a separate breaker from the rest of the general power that is being used for air conditioning, lighting and the basic necessities of the rest of the building. Have you ever plugged something in and heard that horrific buzzing sound coming from the speakers or guitar amp? This is usually due to bad electrical wiring, which causes ground noise. This is the first thing to listen for when going in to a studio session. A simple solution to the problem would be to use a simple ground lifter on the gear or lift the ground from a direct box which can also solve the problems. We will go into details later.
Isolated electrical circuits for each individual room are a must in a recording studio. The proper amount of amperage is also a must. Not enough amperage will surely cause your breakers to blow. Consult with an Electrician who is familiar with studio setups to insure that wiring and voltage is regulated and conforming with local codes.
Unregulated Power Supplies (UPS) should also be in place just in case there is a power failure. This will insure that valuable equipment will not blow up or cause a fire. If there is a case of a power outage the UPS will provide enough time to backup important computer files and safely turn off your equipment. Some studios will have complete generator systems in place to keep the studio running for the remainder of the session.
Improper lighting can also cause buzzing ground issues, especially fluorescent bulbs. Avoid using these in any studio. Dimmers can also cause many problems. The average household dimmers will surely put a damper into a clean sound. Make sure that professional grade dimmers are installed to avoid ground noise. Always listen carefully to signals being recorded before committing to a final take. There are a countless number of accounts that the engineer discovers electrical noise on takes during the mix process.
If you are serious about your studio, may I suggest balance power or a separated panel with neutral power conditioning. The evil problems of ground issues are a direct reflection of sources returning or looking for a different ground. Voltage potential between neutral and ground will certainly change your way of looking at things… for example, .5 volts between neutral and ground is the maximum allowance by UL code that electronics will operate optimally without potential induction issues. I would suggest having a meter installed to rate this. Logging this information and having a good rapport with the local electric company would not hurt at all.
This is another very important area that is often not considered. Studio gear gets very hot. The lack of adequate cooling could result in equipment failure or damage. Blowing up equipment is no fun and it gets very expensive. Some recording studios have a separate Machine Room for computers, tape machines and power amps that is highly air-conditioned to keep everything cool. This also cuts down on the noise from the fans on such units, which can distract concentration from listening in detail in the control room. Having too much air conditioning could also result in moisture or condensation build-up that may also damage the gear. Water in general is bad for electronic gear.
The return air system is used to pull heat out of needed areas and also provides an air intake for the AC units. These are placed in key areas where there is a build-up of heat from the gear, for example near the console or in the machine room.
Separate Rooms: Control Room
Most studios have several isolated areas for recording, mixing, and production. Soundproofing is the main agenda when creating multiple rooms in a studio. To achieve this, the main objective is to make the rooms airtight. If air cannot leak in or out of a room, there will be less chance of sound leaking in or out as well.
Most pro studios have double doors that create a sound lock to help prevent noise leakage. They also have very thick double walls with interior air gaps to also help trap unwanted sound. The floors in the studio should also be floated which means they are lifted from the ground to help further prevent extra vibrations and leakage.
The first focus would be the Control Room where the mixing console and outboard gear are contained. This is where all of the recording and mixing is controlled, hence control room. The acoustics in this room should be designed for hearing the exact sound that is being recorded or mixed. The sound of the room should be as natural as possible for accurate representation of the original sound translated to the speakers in the room.
The first rule for an appropriate acoustically treated room is that there should be no parallel walls .If you were to clap your hands in a room with hard parallel walls you would here the sound bouncing back and forth, this is known as a flutter echo. This is neither good for recording or mixing. The trapping of unwanted bass is important for a room to sound great as well. Twenty five percent of the room should be assigned for bass traps for an adequate mixing room.
Separate Rooms: Live Rooms
The next focus of equal importance would be the Live Room where the music is recorded. This is where the musicians and vocalists perform on the microphones. Live rooms should have more versatility to be able to adapt to different recording situations. Wood floors for example are great for reflection of sound, which creates a brighter tone. If a warmer tone is wanted, one could simply place a rug on the floor. Many live rooms also have a great deal of glass to see between rooms for communication. This is also very reflective. Many studios use curtains to control the amount of reflections coming off glass or hard walls. Non-parallel walls are again needed to eliminate any flutter echoes.
Some studios also contain a vocal booth within the live room. This would be a smaller room designed for vocals. They may also be used for guitar amps and other instruments. There are no rules for what this can be used for; its main purpose is for additional isolation during the recording process. Glass doors or windows are used for visibility of the artists and those working in the control room.
Many elaborate studios may have multiple control rooms and production suites. Lounges and proper bathroom facilities are important in keeping the creativity flowing. A dining area and kitchen are also a consideration if budgets permit. Many hours are spent in the studio when working on projects. It is important to have all the comforts of home to keep everyone happy.
A few proper offices are necessary for the client to be able to have private internet access and to handle business without any distractions. All studios are designed differently. Whatever can be imagined can be created. There are no rules, only guidelines.
Sound is a wave, much like the ripples on a still body of water when a rock is dropped into it. The larger the wave, the lower the tone. Lower tones, known as bass frequencies, travel in wide long waves while higher tones known as treble frequencies travel in a tighter, shorter wave. Frequencies heard by the human ear range from 20Hz to 20K. Just as an indication, a piano’s range, probably the widest range of any instrument, is from 39Hz on the low note and 3Khz on the high note.
Sound is measured in decibels also represented as dB. An average concert is about 95-100 dB while a heavy rock concert or hip hop concert could reach levels of 130dB. This is above the threshold of pain; so don’t forget to wear your earplugs which are designed to protect your hearing when in extreme sound levels. Interestingly enough, whales can actually produce levels of up to 180dB. It should be remembered that taking care of your ears is the most important thing you can do to prevent damage and have a sustained career. So don’t hang out with any whales and put some protection in your ears when exposed to loud volumes.
Absorption is the act of a sound wave being soaked up by a particular material. This is measured by co-efficient ratings. The higher the sound absorption co-efficient rating, the more sound that is being eliminated from troubled spots in your room. Different section of the room may require different co-efficient ratings. Remember that studios start off as an empty shell. Hard surfaces and walls need treatment to provide for a great sounding room. For example, 20 gauge theater curtains are commonly used in studios. They consist of a thick velvet material, which is excellent for absorbing high-end frequencies. The thinner materials soak up higher frequencies.
The thicker materials soak up lower frequencies. This is why thick bass traps are very large and contain ports or holes to trap low-end frequencies. The larger the port, the lower the frequency absorption.
There are endless amounts of products and designs that are used in the industry. Wall panels are also commonly used to absorb sound. These are made from a fiberglass product wrapped in a cloth material. Various sizes and thickness are used for problem frequencies. Again the thin materials eliminate high end and thicker materials absorb low end.
Reflection is the opposite of absorption. Think of the sound as a wave hitting a mirror and bouncing back. This can be used as an advantage for a brighter tone. If a room has too much absorption causing the room to sound too dead, hard surfaces such as wood panels can be placed in strategic locations to add a more live sound to the room.
Some studios have reversible hanging panels that can be flipped between reflective and absorptive to change the room sound at will. For vocals the room may need a more dead sounding absorptive room. Drums may require a more live sounding room. John Bonham, from Led Zeppelin had an amazingly huge live reflective drum sound. This became the goal for the big Rock drum sound.
Prince is underestimated as a drummer. He has a great tight drum sound on his first record where he played all of the instruments as well as the drums. The drums have just the opposite effect using absorption in a small tight room creating a very in your face heavy Pop drum sound.
These are not rules, only guidelines. Using your ears is always the key to getting the best sound.
Designing a studio is quite an undertaking to do professionally. Each room is completely separated and isolated from one another. The most common method is to actually build a room inside of a room. The inner walls do not touch the outer walls, which creates an air gap that traps sound. Each wall can be many feet thick and multiple layers of thick glass and doors divide the rooms.
The floors in each room are floated from the ground with spacers that also create an air space to lower vibrations and help to trap unwanted sound leakage. All floors have different characteristics in the way sound waves bounce off from their surfaces. While wood floors have a warm tone, concrete and tile have a brighter tone. This also holds true for walls.
A solid plan is needed to run cabling between rooms so that each room can be interconnected with each other for microphone signal lines and headphone communication systems. Custom made cable troughs or PVC tubing is used to send groups of microphone cables from a panel to the control room. From the control room the Headphone lines would be run through the walls for communication between all of the rooms.
Materials and Tools
Drywall is needed for walls. The more layers of drywall added will increase the thickness of the studio walls. By using varying thicknesses of drywall stacked and shifted, alternating at the seams will help minimize sound transmission between rooms. Many drywall screws and a good electric drill will definitely come in handy if you are building a studio.
Fabric is used for making wall panels and ceiling clouds that control the absorption in the studio. There are specific fabrics that are designed for different frequency absorption. Each thickness and texture has varying co-efficient ratings at multiple frequency bands.
AC Duct Board and other fiberglass products are wrapped in fabric with spray glue to create absorbing panels called Wall Boxes and Bass Traps. Thermal Fiber or Fiberglass Insulation is inserted in between two sets of walls and ceiling to create an additional thickness providing an alternate texture, containing fiberglass, which is superb for capturing sound.
Sand is also an excellent alternative choice for filling walls to prevent sound wave transmission. Wood provides the skeleton for frames that hold the panels and boxes. Larger Bass Traps with large ports could be made from wood or fiberglass. RPG panels are a series of wooden slats mathematically designed to absorb and refract, or soak up and scatter sound inside a room. Wood can also be used to create custom racks to hold the outboard gear, console and patchbay. Custom studios can be designed for any situation and style.
Doors, Walls and Windows
Doors and walls are the single most important item where recording studio sound bleed is concerned. A small 1/4inch air gap at the bottom threshold of a door will release 30% of the sound. Creating airtight rooms are the first step in sealing all the gaps for optimum sound proofing. The transitions between where the rooms are connected have more possibilities for sound leakage. All corners, gaps and frames for door and window cutaways must be sealed with a silicon or caulking material. Keep in mind that if air can escape through any passage then sound will surely go through as well.
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