Starting Over

Eight years ago, I built a large, complex project studio to do freelance film and game sound design as well as music production. The studio was a success.
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Eight years ago, I built a large, complex project studio to do freelance film and game sound design as well as music production. The studio was a success.
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Eight years ago, I built a large, complex project studio to do freelance film and game sound design as well as music production. The studio was a success. But sometimes the unexpected happens: opportunity knocked and I answered, taking a position as audio director of a video game company.

Unfortunately, the commute was brutal, so I eventually sold my house and studio and moved my family to a rental home closer to work. Because I no longer needed to do sound design in my studio, I could repurpose it to focus on recording music exclusively. My new recording space is smaller than my previous studio, which forced me to rethink the layout and my priorities. I was thus faced with the daunting but fun task of reinventing my studio, streamlining it to fit my new life.

This experience taught me two valuable lessons: first, that nothing is permanent, and second, that as you grow as a person, your studio should change to accommodate your changing needs. If you are ready to rethink the design of your own recording space, here are some tips on how to alter it for the better.

Starting from Scratch

Before you rebuild (or build) your studio, sit back for a moment and ask yourself an important question: What are my goals for this room? Although this question may seem simple, the answer will provide a context that informs the answers to subsequent design questions, such as: Are you interested in recording your band? Will you mix other people's music? Will you do sound design for postproduction, or voice-over work for radio? Is it going to be a one-man MIDI studio? Do you plan to take on outside clients? Knowing which of these functions your studio will fill can help you make the proper equipment and design choices.

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FIG. 1: A studio that is well organized and streamlined can be a great place to work.

For example, the primary design considerations for my new studio were sonic excellence, analog solutions wherever practical, and portability. A key point was to be able to take the studio down in one day and set it up elsewhere in another. To that end, equipment is housed in touring racks or sets of drawers on casters whenever possible (see Fig. 1). The room acoustics are attached to stands, rather than being mounted to the walls. The wiring is clean and tight, and most of it can be quickly coiled together and attached with cable ties to the outside of the patch bay case. And when I move out of this space, it will look like a living room again with no revisions needed.

Once you have defined your goals, it's time to take a complete studio inventory. List every piece of gear you have, and with each one, ask yourself the following questions: Does this piece of equipment help advance my studio's goals, or is it a distraction? Does it interface well with my other gear? Is it redundant? If the item no longer serves a productive goal for you, put it into a pile of stuff to be sold. The proceeds can help finance other equipment that will better suit your current needs.

Next, figure out how much you are likely to make selling off the gear you no longer need, and add it to the money you've squirreled away for this little project. That budget will then set a cap on what you can buy.

Now comes the fun part: R&D. Make a list of problems that need solving, such as the need for acoustic conditioning, or a good mic for recording electric guitar. Then research your options by browsing the Web, asking your friends, and reading trade magazines.

Remember that this is not about finding the sexiest new toy on the block. Rather, it is about getting the best tool to solve one or more problems. For instance, if you have neither a good EQ nor a good compressor, you might consider finding a hardware or software channel strip that will do both jobs for you. In the end, the goal is to select the appropriate items that will integrate into a functional whole.

Once you've completed the R&D process, make a prioritized list of the things you'll need. Buy the highest-priority items until you've exhausted your budget, then slowly complete the list as funds become available.

The Physical Layout

When designers lay out a kitchen, they focus on creating a space that offers maximal productivity with minimal movement. To this end, they utilize the concept of the work triangle. The points of the triangle are the three most important kitchen areas: the refrigerator, the sink, and the stove. When preparing a meal, you interact continually with these three objects. As a result, they are laid out first, and the rest of the kitchen is designed around them.

You can take this same approach when planning the physical layout of a studio. Start by creating a bird's-eye-view layout of the room on graph paper (see Fig. 2). Be sure to note the positions of doorways, windows, power outlets, and any other features of the room that might impact the location of equipment.

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FIG. 2: In the initial design phase for my studio, I noted the locations of windows, doors, a hallway, and the kitchen, as well as where I wanted to place my CPU rack, monitors, instruments, and acoustic treatment.

The central listening position and speaker placement are the first elements to determine. The optimal listening position is generally around the center of the room, or slightly forward of that location. Draw a picture of your head at that position on the graph paper. The speakers should be oriented to fire down the long axis of the room and placed equidistant from the sidewalls.

Though it may be tempting to place the speakers directly against the front wall, try to move them into the room at least a foot or two. That will help cut down on undesired bass-loading effects and will lower the amplitude of the early reflection off of that wall.

Now that you know ballpark locations of your listening position and the speakers, draw an equilateral triangle on the graph paper from your head to the speakers, adjusting speaker location until each line is equidistant. This will give you a starting point that can be fine-tuned later, once your equipment and room acoustics are in place. (“Truth or Consequences” in the November 2001 issue of EM shows you how to tune your control room to flatten its response; it's available online at www.emusician.com.)

With your speakers positioned, you can lay out the rest of the work space. The area directly in front of your listening position is the most valuable piece of studio real estate and should be occupied by whatever tools you use most frequently during mixdown. The obvious contenders for this spot are your mixer or control surface, as well as the controls for your recording device. If you spend a lot of time looking at the computer screen while mixing, its logical position is dead center between the two speakers, and close enough to allow you to read it without eyestrain. Be careful to avoid obstructing the sight lines to your speakers with your computer monitor, because it can create unwanted aural reflections.

In my case, I wanted to avoid the distraction of looking at a screen during mixdown, so I moved my computer monitors outside of the speaker area. My mixer is directly in front of the main listening position, and the remote control for my recording device (an iZ Radar hard-disk recorder) is on a roll-around stand within easy reach of my right hand. This decision has helped me focus on what I'm hearing while mixing, rather than what I'm seeing.

Once these key decisions are made, the rest of your equipment can be added, with highest priority given to the objects you use most frequently. If your studio is primarily oriented toward a single composer-engineer creating electronic music, then special emphasis must be given to the position of your master MIDI keyboard controller. Placing this keyboard directly to your right as you face the speakers allows you to play melodies with your right hand while operating your DAW or recorder with your left. In studios that don't have a mixer or control surface, a MIDI keyboard controller can be placed directly in front of the listening position instead.

External signal processors, computers, and other ancillary equipment often work well in racks to the left of the mix position. If you have a lot of gear and ample room, consider getting a producer's credenza that sits behind you. That will give you plenty of rack space within easy reach, as well as a handy work surface. (For more information about studio furnishings, see Web Clip 1.)

Read more of this article on redesigning your personal recording studio

Cables and Patch Bays

Though it may be considered a trifle mundane in some circles, the humble patch bay is the nerve center of your studio. Careful thought should be given to layout and your approach to wiring. When done right, patch bays are intuitive, reliable, and capable of withstanding changes in layout. When not planned out, they can become sprawling, inflexible monsters.

Patch bays come in various formats. My favorite type is a 1U bay that uses Tiny Telephone (TT) jacks, offering 96 points of balanced connectivity. Each pair of patch points can be individually removed from the patch bay for soldering at a workbench if required.

The rear of the bay comes in a number of configurations. Some terminate in solder lugs, which you would attach directly to your gear with cabling. Others terminate in EDAC, ELCO, or DB25 connections, which allow you to connect large, multipin snakes directly to certain mixing consoles and recorders. Still others terminate in solderless punch-down blocks, allowing you to connect individual audio cables without having to solder the ends to the patch points. Lastly, some bays separate the patch rows from the equipment connection terminals by using snakes to connect between them.

New patch bays are great, but there are bargains to be found in used ones. I bought my patch bays in an electronics surplus store for $20 each. You can also hunt for quality used bays on eBay or through Internet vendors such as Mr. Patchbay (http://home.flash.net/~motodata/patchbays/).

The key to a successful patch bay is planning everything out on paper before you touch a single wire. Make a list of every piece of equipment you have, noting the number and type of analog inputs and outputs. Group your items by function, utilizing normaling wherever appropriate to minimize the number of patch cables needed for your default work flow.

Once you've listed all your gear, make a diagram on graph paper or in a spreadsheet of your proposed patch bay layout. That will help you determine how many patch bays you need to do it right. Be sure to leave about 25 percent of the patch bays open for future expansion — you'll be glad you did when that next piece of kit comes along.

The next step is determining where your patch bays will be located. It is a critical decision because all your cable runs will be determined by this choice. I placed mine in a rack on top of all my outboard gear. This meant short runs to individual signal processors, but longer runs to my mixer and recorders. Snakes are perfect for multitrack and mixer connections, as they allow for a larger number of connections within a smaller package than individual cables.

You will need to decide whether you will be opting for custom-length cables or not. I can't stand wading through pools of extra cabling, so I cut each cable to size. I had Redco Audio (www.redco.com) custom build DB25-to-XLR snakes for me, and I soldered the rest of the cables myself.

If you choose to solder cables yourself, be sure to use a quality soldering iron and cable jacks. Heat-shrink tubing, a good continuity tester, and a bit of patience are a must. The results will be reliable connections that will last a long time.

If you plan to make custom-length cables yourself, the next step is to take a full cable inventory. Lay them out in piles on the floor so you can easily see the ends and cable types. This is also a great opportunity to throw out those mounds of cheap, junky, or broken cables.

Measure the distance from a piece of gear to your patch bay, adding about 18 inches or so for slack. Try to find a cable that has the appropriate ends and is as close as possible to the length you need. Resist the temptation to stretch cables that are too short. For patch bay work, steer clear of cables that are thick, because they will take up too much room when clustered with dozens of others.

Once you find your cable, cut it to length and be sure to save any good-quality jacks that are on the cable end you are not planning to use. If you are soldering the cable to the patch point, remove that point from the rack and attach the cable at your workbench. Be sure to use heat-shrink tubing on the cable ends to minimize the possibility of short circuits between cables within such a tight space.

My equipment inventory and layout requirements resulted in a need for three 96-point patch bays. One is used for recorder inputs and effects sends and returns, while another is used for recorder outputs and mixer inputs, as well as group sends and miscellany. The third is dedicated to signal processing.

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FIG. 3: Try to avoid running cables through areas of foot traffic whenever possible. When it''s unavoidable, minimize the exposed cabling area and arrange the cables in flat, tightly bundled groups.

The patch bays live in a 10U rack of their own, in order to leave plenty of room for cabling, and each patch bay is separated by 1U of empty space. All the cabling routed to a single patch bay runs through loops of cable ties attached to the wall of the rack. This provides strain relief for the cable connections and keeps the cabling organized.

Cable positioning always seems to be a hassle. Rule number 1 is to avoid running cables through foot traffic areas. In the past, I've built simple cable troughs out of ABS drainpipe cut in half and attached to the walls. My previous studio had cable troughs built into the foundation under the floor.

Putting a cable run behind equipment and furniture is not a problem, but occasionally you will need to run cables through an area of foot traffic. Depending on your tolerance for ugliness, you can run cables up over doorways, or through loops made from cable ties hung from the ceiling. If that is not an option, you may have to run cables across the floor. The best you can do is to minimize the number of cables by using snakes. Make sure the cables are tight and flat on the floor, using cable ties to bundle them together in a manner that won't cause a tripping hazard (see Fig. 3). You can also build a small ramp out of plywood that covers the cables, protecting them from damage.

Read more of this article on redesigning your personal recording studio

Acoustic Approaches

To quote an oft-repeated aphorism, the single biggest sonic improvement to your tracks and mixes comes not from a new microphone or signal processor, but from tuning the room itself. Properly placed absorption, which particularly covers the low frequencies, is a critical aid in making mixing decisions that will translate well. Although complete coverage of room acoustics is beyond the scope of this article, there are a few things to keep in mind.

It is important to understand that surface treatment is not effective for soundproofing: it is used to balance frequencies and control reverberation time within the room. Surface treatments fall into the category of absorbers, which absorb particular frequency ranges of sound waves, and diffusers, which scatter sound waves.

Diffusers can be effective on the rear wall of a smaller space but are generally lower priority than absorbers for the typical project studio. Bass trapping and broadband absorption, on the other hand, are things that no studio should be without. You can start by placing bass traps across all corners of the space, because this is where low-frequency buildup predominates. Although each room has different needs, you should place absorption to the sides of the mix position, in the front of the room behind the monitors, across the rear wall, and on the ceiling, if possible, halfway between the mix position and the monitors.

Absorbers can be made from a variety of materials, but semirigid fiberglass batts and rock wool are the most common. The fiberglass batts are a solid, dense version of the pink stuff you have in your walls. These batts are typically encased in a wood or metal frame and covered with an acoustically transparent cloth, such as burlap. The thicker the batt, the deeper the frequencies it is effective against.

Bass traps are simply absorbers that are effective at absorbing bass frequencies. There are several ways to construct bass traps, including using thick batts with an additional air space between the batt and the wall.

Outfitting a recording space with effective, professional treatment can be a somewhat pricey proposition — on the order of several thousand dollars to do a fairly large room correctly. However, an investment in these products ensures that you will receive expert guidance from the manufacturer and high quality.

You can also build your own absorbers and diffusers. Owens Corning makes a line of semirigid fiberglass batts — model numbers 703 and 705 are most frequently used for absorption. All the required materials are readily available. In fact, Ethan Winer of RealTraps has an article on the Web (www.ethanwiner.com/basstrap.html) that explains exactly how to build a bass trap this way. Before you get started, though, be ready for a bit of pain: the process of cutting fiberglass batts and gluing burlap to the surface is about as messy as it gets. Be sure you have a large work space, a ventilation mask, clothes you can throw away after the job, and a high tolerance for misery.

I built all the absorbers for my last studio myself, covering all the front and rear walls, the corners, and much of the ceiling space with 2-foot-by-4-foot panels. Because I was at the end of my budget, building my own was the right way to go, but it was an unpleasant and time-consuming process.

In my new space, I chose products from RealTraps (www.realtraps.com): four Mondotraps for the corners, three Minitraps for the front wall, two RFZ panels for the sidewalls, and a pair of Microtraps for the ceiling. Because the studio is in a rented space, I didn't want to mount the ceiling panels to the ceiling. Instead, I attached hooks to the joint where the walls meet the ceiling, and strung airplane wire across at high tension, laying the Microtraps on top of the wires. The RealTraps look far nicer than my homemade absorbers, and will travel with me throughout the rest of my career.

In addition, I purchased RealTraps stands rather than mounting my absorbers to the walls. That had three benefits: I didn't have to deface the walls, installation time was immediate, and, most important, the absorbers can double as gobos for tracking purposes. With this system, I have no need for a separate vocal booth: I simply move the panels into the middle of the work area, creating a temporary recording space. On a recent session, I placed a Leslie rotating speaker in the middle of my studio, put up some ribbon mics, and encased the area with four of the absorptive panels. The result was the best organ recording I've done yet.

Your recording space can be a beautiful, intuitive, and ergonomically effective place to make music. Designing it takes nothing more than a little bit of planning, a little bit of money, and a little bit of elbow grease. Decluttering the area, laying things out for maximum efficiency, having clean, well-thought-out cabling, and making the investment in acoustic treatment will give you a personal studio that you'll never want to leave.

Nick Peck (www.underthebigtree.com) is a composer-keyboardist-sound designer-audio engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area.