How To Cram A Major Studio Into Your House

Somewhere between the $2,000 per day room and having a DAW in your garage, is the professional project studio. Representing rooms that people have built into their homes, while going for the quality of top commercial rooms, we have MY deal: Fox Force Five Recorders. Having had the room up and running for over 10-and-a-half years, we’ve been involved in Billboard Number One hits for P Diddy and Rod Stewart, as well as Grammy-winning CDs for Rod Stewart and June Carter Cash. Since most every musician or engineer dreams of having a studio in their home, let’s take a look at what blood, sweat, and tearing misery went into making Fox Force Five.

But first, you might be asking, “What’s with the name?” Well, Pulp Fiction was released the year I was building the studio. I heard the name in the film and thought it would be a good band name. I didn’t know any bands that needed a name, but my studio needed one. So there you have it.

Back to the story; in 1994, I was looking for a home in Los Angeles where I could build a studio. I found a beautiful 1926 Tudor style home in the Beachwood Canyon area of the Hollywood Hills that had a separate living quarters attached to it. I thought that it was ideal for a recording studio.

After demolishing the existing rooms down to the basic framing, Brett Thoeny from Boto Design was brought in as the architect. I was aware that Brett had designed Bob Clearmountain’s home studio, Mix This!, so he seemed like the perfect candidate for the job. Whether in your home or in a commercial facility, I can’t begin to stress how important room design is. Beyond the fact that I can be tracking a band at three o’clock in the morning without disturbing my neighbors, having proper room design and construction makes the tracking room free of unwanted standing wave resonances and comb filtering. Also, there’s no guessing in mixing. Every single engineer who has ever mixed here has commented that what they heard on the monitors here was exactly what they got. I’ll point out that these are things that cannot always be achieved with simple acoustic treatments. The structural shape of a room can be equally as important as bass traps and diffusion methods.

So we determined that the basic setup would be a live front/dead rear control room, a deadened vocal booth and a drum room without parallel surfaces, and bass trapping in the bottom half of two walls. Moreover, I made three amplifier iso booths with mic and speaker tie lines, so that you could patch a head from a different room. In the living room above, I installed a Yamaha C7, as well as mic and headphone tie lines.

Framing started and then Kaplan Electric was brought in to install the power. Transformer isolated, balanced power has become essential in all major studios now, but at the time, it had been done in only one room in L.A., which gave Fox Force Five the distinction of being the second room in L.A. with this configuration. I recommend anybody serious about building a professional studio to use this technology. It’ll save you a thousand headaches. One of my neighbors was the drummer in a very big rock band. He spent a great deal of money soundproofing part of his house, only to never be able to record anything in there because the electricity was so dirty. RF and ground hum made the room useless for anything other than practice.

The studio wiring was done by Audrey Wiechman of Electricia Studio Services. As far as I’m concerned, having a professional do your wiring and patchbay is another essential expense, if you want even fewer headaches. Not only can somebody do the soldering faster than you, one wrong termination and you might spend a whole week trying to chase down the source of a buzz.

When it came to equipping the room, I was fortunate to have help from my friend Alan Hirshberg, a now-retired, but great, engineer. The initial intention was to have a room that would primarily be a place to come and do your overdubs, after doing your basic tracks in a larger room. I’d watched so many friends burn through so much money in overdubs, renting instruments and using a small booth while paying thousands of dollars a day for the rest of the studio they weren’t using. On the other hand, I wanted a room to use for myself, and one where we could do everything, and make a full record from basics to mixing. Little did I know that record budgets were going to almost disappear, and that we would be required to do entire albums here more frequently than I had originally anticipated.

At the time we were building the room, Pro Tools didn’t exist yet, but ADATs were all the rage and were starting to turn up in home studios. I didn’t care for their sound, though. I already owned a 3M-56, 2" 16-track, but this was not going cut it as the main machine. I purchased a Studer 827, 2" 24-track, and the original intention was to do basics to the 2" 16, and overdubs on the Studer, with a Micro Lynx for synchronization. For mix down, I purchased an Ampex ATR 102 1/2", and even got what at the time was the cool set up: an Apogee AD500 for the front end of the Panasonic 3700 DAT machine.

As DAWs came along, that setup has seen some changes. The 2" 16-track doesn’t get much use anymore, and the 3700 is gone. I’ve gone through various Pro Tools rigs, but currently, we are running Pro Tools HD on a Mac dual 1.42GHz G4, with Apogee AD16X and DA16X converters.

For a console, some of the smaller boutique console companies like Oram hadn’t appeared yet, and a Mackie wasn’t going to meet my needs. I wanted a 24-bus desk and Malcolm Toft had just introduced his MTA 980. At the time, nobody could touch it for the price. I had always really liked the sound of the Trident Series 80, and this was basically a more powerful, more flexible version. We did a couple of modifications, including installing a class A discrete stereo bus section by Steve Firlotte of Inward Connections and Uptown Moving Faders for automation.

For monitoring, I chose Genelec 1031s, and a pair of NS-10Ms. I had my father’s old JBL S7Rs, which I used as soffit speakers. Tuned and crossed over on White 4400 EQs, we powered the low end of the JBLs with a Yamaha 2700 and the mid-range drivers and super tweeter are powered by a Manley 35 Watt mono block tube amp. We chose Manley’s Langevin brand eight-channel, self-mixing headphone system so that everybody could have their own headphone mix.

The instrument, microphone, and outboard gear collection seem to always be growing. The emphasis for all gear is heavily on quality vintage. There’s a collection of 23 vintage guitars and basses, as well as a large cache of vintage amps. There’s a stockpile of vintage keyboards, including about 10 analog synths, a Mellotron 400 (it works), a Hammond, a clavinet, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, and even some vibes and glockenspiels. There are piles of vintage and new mics, as well as outboard pres, EQs, compressors, and processing. Basically, I went for two things: gear that I really liked, and gear that outside engineers are comfortable and familiar with. I didn’t want to have to tell a perspective client, “I don’t have one of those, but these are just as good.”

These days, the studio is primarily used for my own projects, but I rent the room to outside producers and engineers. We’re fortunate to have a great second engineer, Max Coane, who previously had worked for other big producers like Michael Beinhorn, Ross Hogarth, and Jim Wirt. The number one philosophy here is to provide a comfortable environment with great gear that helps musicians be as creative as possible. From all reports, we’ve been able to achieve that successfully. And avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls, so can you.