Build a Personal Studio on Any Budget

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We started this feature in EM years ago, and over time it has developed into one of the magazine''s most popular. It''s also a sought-after assignment among our contributors. Who wouldn''t want to go on a shopping spree (albeit a virtual one) to select the gear for a dream studio? Of course, if we went hog wild, this would be no problem—a $500,000 mixing console here, a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand (not a sampled one!) there, and perhaps a crew of top acousticians and architects to create the ultimate nest for musical creation. That may be fun, but we''ve kept things within the bounds of affordability, so this article might have some semblance of relevance to the few of you who have less than a million to spend.

With that in mind, we offer up several different approaches to the personal studio. Gino Robair investigates the very real concept of the portable fits-in-a-backpack facility. Geary Yelton focuses on systems for film/TV scoring and video post-production. Len Sasso delves into the world of electronica, remixing, and sound design. George Petersen looks into the song production studio capable of more traditional recording/overdubbing, with live drum tracking. Selecting studio gear is subjective, and these lists reflect the authors'' preferences given the budgetary limits we imposed (see below). We regret that we''re not able to include all the worthy products that are out there.

We set a few ground rules for this exercise: Each participant would suggest a basic system for his assigned category (referred to here as the budget studio) and a higher-end version (the full-featured studio). The prices quoted here are all MAP (street) prices. We set upper ceilings of $5,000 for the budget studios and $20,000 for full-featured alternatives, but in many cases the authors came in with lower totals. We''re assuming that everyone already has a computer, so we''re not including them in our budgets. We also didn''t include cables, stands, furniture, or acoustical materials. Grab your checkbooks and let''s get started!

By Gino Robair
A portable studio doesn''t just mean it can be packed into a car. These days, it has to fit into a backpack, or at least into a bag that you can carry onto a plane. That includes the computer, interface, mics, controllers, and all peripherals. It''s a tall order, but in the 21st century, portability is king.

And, of course, I want to be able to do it all: record audio, sequence MIDI, control effects, mix, and master. To that end, my purchases will be feature-rich. You''ll need an ExpressCard slot on your laptop for these studios, the reasons for which I''ll justify shortly.

Creating a portable studio doesn''t mean you have to scrimp on sound quality, nor do you have to spend a mint to get pro-level sound. For this studio, I specifically tried to keep the cost of each item as low as possible, both for economic and practical reasons: Who wants to schlep $20,000 worth of gear in a backpack? Baggage contents are vulnerable to damage and theft, so I am reluctant to carry around a $3,000 pair of mics or a $2,500 portable stereo recorder when less-expensive products will do just fine.

With this in mind, I''ll focus on high-quality, yet reasonably priced hardware and stick with an inexpensive sequencer. In fact, both of my budget levels will be based around Cockos Reaper 3.6 (Mac/Win; $40 discounted license) as the main digital-audio application. It offers the bread-and-butter features that the major players do, and it supports VST, DX, and AU (on the Mac) plug-ins, as well as REX files. And the entire application is a relatively small download—5MB to 8MB (yes, megabytes!)—depending on which platform you''re using.

Budget Portable Studio
($1,849.97 Mac/Windows)

There are plenty of portable, 2-channel USB interfaces available, but for my traveling system, I want at least two mic preamps with XLR inputs, as well as a ¼-inch I/O and MIDI ports. I could get a cheaper unit for around a C-note, but I''ve budgeted for an interface I won''t grow out of for quite a while: the MOTU UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid ($549). In addition to having MOTU''s excellent preamps and converters, this 10-input/14-output interface has FireWire and USB 2 I/O. (I don''t need to use the power adapter when I use the FireWire connection.) It has a high-impedance input, comes with CueMix software, and sports S/PDIF I/O. Best of all, it''s small and lightweight.

USB controllers are a big part of music-making, and I want to cover all of the bases but still have room in my knapsack for mics. The Korg nano Series has me covered, so I''m adding a nanoKey ($49) 25-note keyboard, a nanoKontrol ($59.99) knob and slider bank, and the nanoPad ($59.99) for programming beats. To schlep the works, I''ll spring for the nanoBag soft case ($17.99), which holds all three controllers.

My microphone choice is Josephson Engineering''s C42MP ($975), the stereo kit that includes a matched pair of the wonderful condensers in a hard-shell case. These mics have an open sound that is perfect for uncolored recording of concerts, sound effects, or environmental sounds. And just as important, they''re small.

Although I have earbuds for use with my MP3 player, I want a pair of closed-back headphones, which are more comfortable when working for long periods of time. Robust and relatively compact, the Sony MDR-7506 ($99) fit the bill. They''re a little on the bright side, but I find that helpful when editing audio.

Full-Featured Portable Studio
($3,946.97 Mac/Windows)

I still have a little room in my backpack and a bit more in the bank, so I''ll add more items to increase the system''s usability.

First, I''ll add a portable digital recorder, a Zoom H4n ($299), for situations where something interesting is happening but I don''t have time to set up the laptop to record. It''s not the smallest or lightest portable recorder available, but for the price, it''s hard to beat its features and build quality. It has a pair of XLR/TS inputs and amp-modeling software, and it can also record four channels simultaneously. And the built-in condenser mics sound great. In fact, if I had to carry only one item for a field-recording excursion, this would be it.

Another hardware purchase I''d add to my system enhances my software setup. The Universal Audio UAD Solo/Laptop ($499) card fits into my computer''s ExpressCard slot, providing access to a wealth of great-sounding UAD Powered Plug-Ins (VST/AU/RTAS) and the processing muscle to use them. It comes with the Analog Classics plug-in bundle that includes 1176LN/SE Classic Limiting Amplifiers, Pultec EQP-1A, LA-2A Classic Audio Leveler, and Realverb Pro. Although UA has a huge selection of plug-ins available, I''ll splurge for the Precision Mastering Bundle ($500) and the Neve Classic Console Bundle MkII ($799) just to give me more options for finishing up my projects.

By Geary Yelton Among the features you''d want in a film- and TV-scoring studio are both audio and video capabilities, lots of virtual instruments, some mics for live performances, the ability to view and edit MIDI as music notation, and a DAW that lets you work seamlessly with picture.

Budget Film- and TV-Scoring Studio
($4,815.37 Mac; $4,646.32 Windows)

If you want to assemble a studio to produce sound for picture, $5,000 might buy you more than you think. Armed with just enough gear, talent, and technical know-how, you''ll be well-equipped to begin composing soundtracks, recording dialog, and producing sound effects and synching them to the action onscreen. Fortunately for you, some terrific products I recommended in a similar article three years ago are less expensive now than they were then. Most top-shelf DAWs can play video clips in a window and sync them to audio tracks. MOTU''s Digital Performer 7 (DP 7; $499) offers Mac users a remarkable array of features and a smooth workflow. It quickly calculates tempos based on cue points that you indicate, and it streams video to external devices via FireWire. DP 7 has a nice selection of useful effects plug-ins and software instruments, and its Pro Tools HD hardware compatibility may come in handy when you''re working on a TV- or film-production soundstage. An alternative for PC fans is Cakewalk''s SONAR Producer ($399), offering many of the same advantages—including FireWire streaming—to Windows users. Its bundled synths, such as Dimension Pro and Z3TA+, are especially powerful tools for scoring and sound design.

Though either DAW covers the bases for effects and dynamics, Waves Native Power Pack ($412.50) delivers a powerful palette of plug-ins at an attractive price. You get convolution and algorithmic reverbs, a paragraphic EQ, mastering tools, and more.

It''s often preferable to work in a standalone audio editor, especially when creating edit decision lists (EDLs). Adobe''s Soundbooth CS5 ($199) is well-rounded, cross-platform, and optimized for working with video files. Being able to edit video content and convert video-file formats is useful, too, so Mac users will want Apple''s Final Cut Express ($199). Windows users can get similar functionality from Sony''s Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10 ($129.95).

You''ll definitely want a good variety of software instruments for composing, arranging, and sound design. Native Instruments'' new Komplete 7 ($499) furnishes all the NI instruments I suggested as separate purchases three years ago and more, at a fraction of the previous price. In addition to NI''s industry-standard flagship sampler, Kontakt 4, you get a top-notch suite of synthesizers, pianos, drums, and effects. For physical-modeling synthesis, Applied Acoustics Systems'' Tassman 4 ($329) is another valuable addition; until the end of this year, its price is drastically reduced ($99) if you buy it online with the coupon code EMFALL2010.

Obviously, you''ll need an audio interface to get sound in and out of your computer. The PreSonus FireStudio Mobile ($299.95) offers two XLR mic inputs with good preamps, plenty of ¼-inch I/O, and excellent performance at a low price point. You''ll also want a keyboard controller for playing all those virtual instruments. I recommend the M-Audio Oxygen 61 ($219.95), which has a nice lightweight action and plenty of hands-on MIDI controls.

When choosing microphones, quality and versatility are key. For recording spoken word and most other sources, the Neumann TLM 102 ($699) strikes an ideal balance between quality and affordability. But because it''s a fixed-pattern cardioid mic, you''ll also want a multipattern condenser mic; the Avantone Electronics CV-12 ($499) offers excellent sound and flexibility at a great price. For monitoring your recordings, the Yamaha MSP7 ($399.99 each) is a cost-effective near-field speaker with reliably uncolored sound. You''ll also need headphones; I trust Audio-Technica''s ATH-M50 ($159.99) to be accurate and comfortable, even during long sessions.

Full-Featured Film- and TV-Scoring Studio
($19,574.99 Mac; $19,550.89 Windows)
Even with $20,000 in your pocket, you''ll still need to spend your money carefully. Avid''s Pro Tools has long been the standard in the world of post-production, but investing in a Pro Tools HD rig could blow your entire budget in one fell swoop. A more suitable choice is the company''s 003 Factory Complete ($3,519). In addition to Pro Tools LE 8, you get the 003 audio/MIDI interface and control surface bundled with a boatload of software add-ons. Included are a huge variety of studio effects, an impressive collection of software instruments, and plenty of sample content. The system can handle 7.1 surround mixes and up to 128 simultaneous audio tracks.

A bigger budget means you can afford more robust audio and video editors. Mac users can purchase Apple''s Final Cut Studio ($999), which includes Final Cut Pro 7, Soundtrack Pro 3, an ample library of sound effects and music tracks, and numerous other applications. Windows users can get similar capabilities and resources from Sony Vegas Pro 9 ($599.95) and Sound Forge Pro 10 ($399.95). With Ableton Live 8 ($499) in your arsenal, you''ll have an alternate approach to assembling and triggering music and other sounds. And for creating and arranging printed music scores, Avid''s Sibelius 6 ($499) is the cream of the crop. UAD-2 Quad Omni ($2,999) is Universal Audio''s top of the line, a supercharged DSP accelerator with a generous assortment of plug-ins that model towering racks of studio gear. When you need to match voice-over tracks and substitute dialog, nothing saves time like SynchroArts VocAlign Pro 4 ($585). Again, no matter what your budget, no studio is complete without Native Instruments Komplete ($499). From Vienna Symphonic Library, Vienna Special Edition ($399) supplies an upgradable selection of some of the most realistically sampled orchestral instruments you can buy. For added power and realism for your string arrangements, I''ve also included Audiobro''s L.A. Scoring Strings ($1,099) library. Add Spectrasonics Omnisphere ($479), and you''ll have enough musical sounds to take on most any scoring task. Polish your final mixes with iZotope Ozone ($199).

A bigger budget also means you can upgrade your microphones and other hardware. Now you can afford the Neumann TLM 103 ($1,099) and Avant Electronics Avantone BV-1 ($999) mics. To give you some spice to augment the mic pres in the Avid 003, I''ve also included a Universal Audio Solo/610 ($799) tube mic preamp. You''ll likely want to record in 5.1 surround, so I recommend five ADAM A7X monitors ($599 each) with an ADAM Sub7 subwoofer ($549). Again, Audio-Technica''s ATH-M50 ($159.99) are my favorite headphones.

Every studio can use a piano, and the Kurzweil SP2X ($1,099) is also an outstanding keyboard controller for playing software instruments. You can afford to upgrade your portable recorder, and the new Korg MR-2 ($699) is perfectly suited to capturing sounds on the go and archiving your master recordings in almost any format and sampling rate.

By Len Sasso
Although these two studios are tailored for music production and sound design inside your computer, both do accommodate recording vocals and external acoustic and electronic instruments. A couple of mics have been called out, and the audio interfaces offer mic- and instrument-level inputs with phantom power and mic preamps. If you know you won''t be recording vocals and acoustic instruments, you can redirect the funds, for example, to cover more software, sound libraries, or a digital recorder and mics suited to Foley and field recording. The budget studio is designed for a smaller space.

Budget Electronic Studio
($3,839.94 Mac/Windows)
I''ve opted for Focusrite''s Saffire Pro 24 DSP ($299.99) FireWire audio interface. It comfortably supports inside- and outside-the-box operation, with its 24-bit, 96kHz compatibility, 16 inputs and eight outputs, cross-platform mixing/routing software, and a suite of Focusrite VST/AU plug-ins. For listening I''ve selected a pair of M-Audio Studiophile BX8a two-way, 130-watt powered reference monitors ($499) and a pair of AKG K 240 Mk II headphones ($199). For mics, I''ve followed the suggestions of my more knowledgeable colleagues, Mike Levine and George Petersen, and called out a RØDE NT1-A ($299) and an AKG C 1000 S ($279). The latter can be either phantom- or 9VDC-battery-operated, making it ideal for remote sample gathering or field recording.

At the minimum, you''ll need a keyboard and some form of knob-and-button box. I''ve picked the Novation 49 SL MK II ($499) four-octave keyboard, which sports faders, rotary encoders with an LCD indicating their function, user-assignable 270-degree pots, and drum pads (eight of each). Its accompanying templates and AutoMap Universal software make it compatible with most DAWs and plug-ins. I''ve also called out the Akai APC20 ($199), which I consider an essential accompaniment to Ableton Live.

I spec''d a pair of sequencers for their different features. With its complementary Session and Arrangement views, Ableton Live 8 ($499) is the go-to sequencer for real-time audio and MIDI clip arranging. Propellerhead Reason 5''s ($299) gear-rack paradigm gives you a huge array of customizable instruments and effects, all of which are accessible from any DAW supporting ReWire. Alternatively, you can use Reason''s built-in MIDI sequencer to develop your project.

In addition to the extensive array of instruments and effects in Live and Reason, into the cart goes a href="" target="_blank">Komplete 7 ($499). For $120 more than the price of the industry-standard sampler Kontakt 4, Komplete 7 gives you 23 additional NI products, including classic instruments Reaktor 5.5, Battery 3, and Absynth 5; a bunch of effects; and essential sound libraries.

Finally, I''ve included three utilities that I find necessary in my own work. Being able to scout your audio library and batch copy, alias, rename, and organize files saves hours, and Iced Audio AudioFinder ($69.95) will do all that and more. When you can''t figure out what one MIDI application is saying to another, Snoize MIDI Monitor (free) will eavesdrop for you. As a companion to Reason or simply for slicing and re-grooving audio files, Propellerhead ReCycle ($199) is the tool of choice.

Full-Featured Electronic Studio
($17,253.89 Mac; $16,958.88 Windows)
For the high-end audio interface, I chose an Apogee Ensemble ($1,995), a 36-channel, 24-bit, 192kHz FireWire unit with world-class converters and all manner of I/O. Because it''s Mac-only, Windows users can substitute an RME Fireface 800 ($1,699), which is cross-platform and is renowned for its great-sounding converters and preamps. For listening, I''ve spec''d a pair of JBL LSR6328P powered monitors ($2,738) and a pair of Sennheiser HD 650 reference headphones ($499.95). For mics, I''ve again relied on Levine and Petersen, whose choices are the Mojave Audio MA-200 ($1,095), a large-diaphragm tube condenser, and the multipattern workhorse classic, the AKG C414 XL II ($1,049).

For controllers, I''ve chosen an 88-key, weighted-action StudioLogic Numa ($1,199.95); the Akai APC40 ($299), which adds pan, send, and plug-in controls to the APC20''s bag of tricks; and a Novation Launchpad ($149.99) button box. An earlier version of the StudioLogic keyboard, along with the Akai and Novation controllers, are indispensible components of my studio.

On the DAW end, I''ve upgraded to Ableton Live Suite 8 ($799) and Propellerhead Record Reason Duo ($399), and added Apple Logic Studio 9 ($499). Live Suite adds premier plug-in instruments and effects, including versions of four of Applied Acoustic Systems physical-modeled instruments, along with a mountain of audio content. Logic Studio gives me high-end content, instruments, and effects, including the Space Designer convolution reverb. Record adds audio recording, take comping, pitch correction, voice synthesis, and a virtual mixing console modeled on the SSL 9000 K to Reason''s array of features.

In the virtual instrument category, I''ve augmented Komplete 7 with Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, Omnisphere ($479), and Trilian ($279). For working with loop libraries and manipulating your own REX format files, Stylus RMX is the first call. In addition to meticulously sampled acoustic, electric, and synth basses (and a Chapman Stick), Trilian offers an array of performance options that brings a keyboard as close to a bass as you can get. Furthermore, all Trilian samples are available for Omnisphere''s extensive sound-design treatment. For a truly different approach to sound design and manipulation, I''ve called out UI Software MetaSynth 5 ($499), a perennial EM Editors'' Choice Award winner and the unsung hero of many of your favorite sound designers.

I''ve chosen BIAS Peak Pro 6 ($499) for sample editing and batch audio-file processing. Windows users can substitute Steinberg WaveLab 7 ($499.99). I''ve added Antares'' Auto-Tune Vocal Studio Native with AVOX Evo ($599) and Celemony Melodyne Editor ($299); together they can solve most intonation problems and stretch your vocals (and instrumentals) beyond recognition. I''ve also added a Universal Audio UAD-2 Quad Omni ($2,999). Its four SHARC processors will take a big load off of your CPU; it sports 34 world-class plug-ins; and it supports AU, VST, and RTAS formats. Again, I suggest the three utilities mentioned in the budget studio.

By George Petersen
For the song-production studio, I wanted to take a more traditional approach, with a hardware mixer and the ability to record a full band—live or in the context of studio tracking.

Budget Song-Production Studio
($4,940.44 Mac; $4,840.44 Windows)
The centerpiece here is PreSonus'' StudioLive 16.4.2 digital console ($1,999.95). It has 16 high-headroom, Class-A mic preamps (plenty for band tracking), with four subgroups, a built-in 32x18 (I/O) FireWire digital recording interface, 4-band semiparametric EQ on all channels, and some surprisingly good onboard DSP effects.

StudioLive also ships with Studio One Artist DAW software and the Capture recording app, and it''s also compatible with other DAWs such as Logic, Nuendo, Cubase, SONAR, Digital Performer, and Ableton Live. There are a lot of options here, but for this package I selected Apple''s Logic Studio 9 ($499). This Mac-based DAW is also bundled with MainStage 2 (offering instrument and amp models), Soundtrack 3 (for video post support), Compressor 3, WaveBurner 1.6 disk authoring, 20,000 Apple Loops, 80 studio DSP effects, dozens of virtual instruments, and more. If you''re a PC fan, Cakewalk''s SONAR 8.5 Producer Edition ($399) offers powerful recording, composing, editing, mixing, and mastering functionality; tons of virtual instruments/drums; and multistage plug-ins for Windows XP, Vista (32-/64-bit), and Windows 7 (32-/64-bit).

With all those virtual sounds to play with, you''ll want a USB keyboard controller. It''s a personal choice, but M-Audio''s Keystation 61e ($169.95) is a good basic unit.

The focus of this studio takes the traditional route, so a hefty chunk of the budget goes to a well-appointed mic locker. The Audix FP7 ($479) is a seven-piece drum mic package, with two condensers for overheads, one mic each for kick and snare, and three tom mics—just right for tracking a five-piece kit. For less than $70 per mic, the set offers performance nearly matching its high-end D Series models—at about half the price. A Shure SM57 ($99) is a studio staple and is great on anything from amps to percussion. Two nice condensers are also de rigueur, and here Audio-Technica''s Pro 37s ($240 for the pair) are a great choice. There are lots of choices in large-diaphragm tube vocal mics, but I like the rich sound and sweet top end of Sterling Audio''s ST66 ($399.99), designed by Groove Tubes founder Aspen Pittman. My direct box choice is Whirlwind''s Director ($69), a no-frills affair, but it''s rock-solid and sounds great.

At some point, you''ll need to hear what you''re doing. Audio-Technica''s ATH-M45 ($69.99) studio headphones offer a flat sound and enough SPL output to satisfy a drummer. I''ve also added four sets of Sennheiser HD201 headphones ($16.89) for bandmembers to use during tracking, and an ART Headamp 6 Pro headphone amp ($199) to feed them. And last but not least are studio monitors, with my selection being JBL''s LSR 2328P ($698 for the pair). These bi-amplified systems have an 8-inch woofer and 1-inch, soft-dome silk tweeter, and are capable of 117dB peaks, with a wide, 37Hz-to-20kHz response.

Full-Featured Song-Production Studio
($14,624.90 Mac; $14,524.90 Windows)
Say you have a little windfall and want to pump things up a bit. No problem. The StudioLive 16.4.2 is a powerful console in its own right, but for those who want a little more, the StudioLive 24.4.2 is $3,299.95. In addition to the extra eight channels, the 24.4.2 also increases the aux send count from six to 10 and adds full parametric EQ on all channels.

On the mic side, I''ll upgrade with two Miktek CV4 large-diaphragm condenser mics ($1,299 each), which feature a NOS Telefunken EF800 tube and a selection of nine polar patterns for true versatility in the studio. These are equally at home doing vocals, piano, or even drum overheads. I also swapped the Audio-Technica Pro 37 condensers to the AT 4041 condensers ($499 for the pair), which I''ve been using for years with great results.

For overdubs or “the money channel,” Universal Audio''s LA-610 Mk II preamp/compressor ($1,599) offers mic/line/DI instrument amplification, with a warm tube preamp and UA''s classic Teletronix T4 opto-compression circuit used in the LA-2A.

I''ve also bumped up the keyboard controller with Roland''s RD-700GX stage piano ($2,199) with an 88-key “Ivory Feel” keyboard, a good selection of studio necessity pianos, EPs, and organs, as well as USB out for controlling virtual instruments.

On the listening side, I''ve stepped up to Focal''s award-winning CMS 65 monitors ($1,790 for the pair) with 6.5-inch Polyglass cone woofers and 1-inch inverted-dome tweeters that take the highs out to 28kHz. For some extra thump down to 30Hz, I''ll add Focal''s 300W CMS Sub ($995), bringing this monitor package to $2,785. I''ve also upgraded the headphone complement with four more sets of Audio-Technica ATH-M45 headphones for the bandmembers.

So after swapping out the mixer, mics, monitors, headphones, and keyboard, the grand total of my new deluxe digs well under the $20,000 limit, although I''m sure you could add a few hardware or software toys of your own to round out the total.

George Petersen is a Mix senior editor; Gino Robair, Geary Yelton, and Len Sasso are all former EM editors who now contribute regularly.