The Budget Recording Studio

My First Recording Studio

Though the heading may sound like something you buy at Kid’s R Us, the struggle to meet a specific budget can be difficult. Pretty much every student and most professionals have to make concessions with what gear and construction to go with. let’s look at a few basic options.

As Simple as it Gets

The most accessible and immediate recording studio is the cell phone/tablet. Recording high-quality audio doesn’t take up a lot of processing power, and there are plenty of apps that will even allow you to mix multiple tracks into cohesive productions. A few app-based options are IK Multimedia’s Amplitube, WaveMachine Labs’ Auria, Apple’s Garageband (free), HarmonicDog’s Multitrack DAW, StudioMini’s XL Recording Studio, Meteor’s Multitrack Recorder, Steinberg’s Cubasis, and Sonoma Wire Works’ StudioTrack.There are also full-featured audio interfaces now that can plug into portable devices (mainly iOS), allowing for multiple inputs and advanced monitoring.

Devices like Shure’s Motiv lineZoom’s iQ series, Rode SmartLav and others are almost guaranteed to capture much better audio than built-in mics. There are also full-featured audio interfaces that can plug into portable devices (mainly iOS), allowing for multiple inputs and advanced monitoring. In fact, you can now get iOS guitar effects, keyboard controllers, DJ and live sound mixers.

Bring on the Computer

The Microphone: As we learned in the first section, mics convert acoustic energy into electrical impulses that can be read by a computer through an interface. The first mic an engineer usually buys is a large-diaphragm condenser (LDC). It’s the go-to mic for studio vocals and is extremely sensitive and versatile. There are many great LDCs for around $100 (Audio-Technica AT2020, MXL 990), though an absolute beginner could get by spending half that amount (Blue Snowball).

Mic as Interface: Once you’ve decided on a Mac or PC, there’s a veritable hoard of options to consider. The simplest computer interface is a microphone with a common computer bus integrated (usually USB or Thunderbolt). In this case, the mic and a digital audio workstation are all you need (AT2020USBi, Rode NT-USB and Blue Snowball/Yeti). Some such mics also come with a headphone jack for monitoring and other options. There are also adapters to convert regular, XLR mics into USB/Thunderbolt versions (Blue Icicle or Shure X2u).

A Real Interface: Most likely, if you have a computer, you’ll want a real interface. USB is notorious for having higher latency than Firewire or Thunderbolt, though USB 3.0 and Type C may change that. For most beginners, a USB interface will work fine, and some work well enough for professionals. A simple interface shouldn’t set you back more than $100, even if you want one with four inputs. The simplest, single-mic interfaces are as low as $30 new. The main things to consider is how many inputs you will need, compatibility with your operating system, and quality. If you stick to reputable brands and set up your recording program correctly, quality and latency shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Digital Audio Workstation: Though recording programs are covered here, I’ll mention a few that are more budget-friendly. A popular, free recording program to get started with is Audacity. Two of the only completely free DAWs are Ardour and Tracktion 5. Avid’s Pro Tools and PreSonus’ Studio One have free versions, with serious limitations. If you want a full-featured, commercial DAW on a budget, Reaper has an uncrippled, 60-day demo, costs $60 after, and is known for its stability and resource efficiency. Most commonly used, professional DAWs cost hundreds of dollars for the full version.

Monitoring: For most tiny studios, headphones are the way to go. Decent headphones for students use, such as the Sennheiser HD 201/202, are around $20 (replaced with the Sennheiser HD206 for ~$39, but used 201’s can still be found for cheap). The first pro tier of actual studio headphones is around $100. The most basic studio monitors can be purchased for <$100, but unless a room is well-treated, studio headphones will usually give a better result. The lower tier of pro monitors is approx. $150-300.

Effects, Software Instruments, and other Accessories: Most DAWs come with a suite of free effects that will satisfy beginners. Most also support free VST effects that are readily available online. There are also plenty of free software instruments for a beginner to learn on.

One thing that doesn’t come with a DAW is a keyboard controller. At their most basic, these are 25-key controllers for as little as $50 new. 88-key versions run as cheap as $199 for a quality controller.

Cables and stands are another small expense. There’s an old saying in the industry that life is too short for bad cables; quality cables generally pay for themselves. Neutrik is the standard, but there are a few standouts in the budget category (like Monoprice’s Premier Series). Mic stands are available for $20 from many brands; you’ll spend $50 for a heavy-duty stand.

Basic Room Treatment

So far we’ve only talked about gear. Assuming you aren’t recording in a closet full of clothes (it’s been known to happen), there are a handful of basic room treatments that almost every home studio applies.

The main reason to treat a room is so that audio is captured and reproduced as accurately as possible. This usually doesn’t take more than 30-40 percent surface coverage, with a mix of treatments.

The first thing to do is to prevent sound from bouncing between parallel walls. If you’re using monitors, then the first parallel surface to worry about is the one in front and behind you.

The solution to this is to create a “dead back wall.” This can happen with either absorption or diffusion, depending on if you have a lot of excess energy to worry about, or if you just want the walls out of parallel. In most small rooms, there is excess energy to be tamed. At the very least, a panel should be placed in the middle of the wall behind the engineer; at most, a large and low-frequency-capable panel or diffusor could be used. If not practical to hang panels, gobos can be rolled into place anywhere behind the engineer.

The first reflections to be treated are from speakers to a surface to the engineer’s ears. A simple way to figure out where to place panels to prevent these reflections is to grab a mirror. Sit at the mixing location and have someone run a mirror across the wall until you see the speakers. This is the spot where sound is directly reflecting back at you, and is where some sort of treatment should be placed (usually an acoustic panel). The same process should be repeated for the ceiling. At the very least, one panel should be placed on each wall and another on the ceiling to cover the first reflections from the speakers.

Others panels should be placed around the room as they are effective. You can go around the room clapping and listening to the resulting reverberation, or play a test tone through the speakers to hear where trouble spots are located. Sometimes it just takes hearing someone talk to realize there is a flutter echo that needs taming.

Having rolling gobos is convenient when performers don’t always record in the same place. They can be moved to break up parallel surfaces anywhere in the room, or use their solid side (if built 2-sided) to add more reverberation if the sound is too dry.

Bass traps are almost always placed in each of the four corners of a room, often floor to ceiling. They may also be placed diagonally to bridge the other corners of the room (where the walls meet the ceiling or floor, since sound treats all corners equally). As mentioned earlier, where walls meet is where bass builds up.

Foam Bass Traps: These are of questionable effectiveness. There has been some tested benefit with Auralex bass traps, but the bass control doesn’t extend as low and isn’t as cost effective as other options.

Panels as Bass Traps: Often regular, 2-4″ acoustic panels straddle corners diagonally to absorb bass tones. This is an effective way to trap bass on a budget. Naturally, the thicker and wider the panel, the better.

Superchunks: This is a type of bass trap that is built out of triangle sections of insulation stacked on top of each other. If space permits, all panels should have an air space behind them, including superchunks.

GIK Soffit-Style: Similar to a super chunk, but is a square pillar.

If you are going to buy a complete treatment kit from an acoustic materials supplier, there’s a good chance they will take a look at your room and design something for you. It’s a cheap way to get a professional to look over everything and give an informed opinion.

There are also plenty of forums and other places online where you can see what others have done and get great advice; though, as with anything online, make sure the advice is legitimate, informed and professional. It’s as easy to get bad advice as good.

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