There's No Place Like Home

A guide to building your own recording studio

Guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who, in the recording studio at his home in Twickenham, London, 1970. Credit: Chris Morphet/Getty

Okay, maybe the air isn't so great down here, but take a look around. Over here's the eight-track recorder; I got it used, but it works fine. Next to it is the mixing console. Don't lean on it, because that ping-pong table really isn't too strong a support. The monitors are hung on this side — watch out for those guitars! Yeah, I trip on those cables a lot myself. Now this phone booth lined with styrofoam is where I record vocals — careful, your candle's about to go out. I know it's dark, but I just haven't gotten around to replacing that light bulb yet. The band's name? I think we're gonna call ourselves Boston.''

Tom Scholz didn't really start out like that, but his basement studio is probably the most conspicuous case of home technology paying big dividends. Of course, it took Scholz, who has a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, five years and $300,000 to perfect his studio to the point where he was able to record two multi-platinum-selling LPs in his basement. But you don't necessarily need that much time or money to construct a studio that, at the very least, is capable of being used to record a high-quality demo tape.

In The beginning, there were professional recording studios: big, intimidating places where time was money—a lot of it. There was no law preventing musicians from recording in their own homes, but as technology leapfrogged from four- and eight-track to sixteen-track and beyond, home taping equipment became less compatible with ever-rising sonic standards. Then, in 1972, Teac introduced a four-channel tape recorder for home use, setting off a wave of home recording activity that has yet to crest. The four-input capability allowed aspiring bands to put together rudimentally mixed demos in hopes of attracting a record company's interest.

Simultaneously with the amateur taping explosion, professional musicians began to discover the joys of recording in a hassle-free environment where clocks could be turned to the walls (current pro studio fees hover around a hundred dollars an hour). As a result, more and more artists — George Harrison, Pink Floyd and Abba, to name but a few — began building their own studios. Such successful rock stars can afford to indulge themselves when creating a home recording studio, but the rest of us can't. The typical home job should be a shrewd combination of electronic awareness and acoustical common sense.

The first rule in building your own studio is not to rush. As Les Paul, the electronics wizard who built the first eight-track machine, invented overdubbing and did a whole lot more in the field, says: ''The first thing I always tell people is to go and look at a professional studio and try to match it as best they can. The biggest problem I have with people trying to build a studio is that they won't listen to the advice of pros—they want to do it all themselves.''

Once you've done your homework, the next thing you'll have to do is decide where to locate your studio. If you live in a house, the best location is usually the basement; a concrete surrounding is ideal for insulating sound. If you decide to use your basement, however, you should beware of the danger of flooding and consider having your sewer line rooted before you build the studio. As Tom Scholz once recalled: ''I could have lost everything when the sewer backed up. The mess was disgusting.'' An unused garage is also a good choice.

Finding a suitable location is a slightly tougher problem for apartment dwellers. For one thing, they have to be as aware of keeping sound in as of keeping unwanted sound out; landlords rarely turn a deaf ear to noisy tenants. If available, a room not bounded by other apartments should be first choice.

The bigger a studio, the more versatile it is. An area of about twelve-by-fourteen feet is desirable for the playing area; the control room (where the equipment is kept) is small but comfortable at eight-by-twelve. This separation should be adhered to (unless you're strictly into one-man over-dubs), otherwise you will be forced to monitor your recording through headphones, a poor substitute for high-quality speakers. In addition, live miking runs the risk of picking up equipment noise.

Once an area is selected, the next step is to make it fit for recording — i.e., dealing with that two-way sound problem mentioned above. ''The term 'soundproofing' is a misconception,'' says Al Fierstein of New York's Acoustilog Incorporated. ''Nothing is soundproof. That implies there is a way to prevent sound a hundred percent from getting in and out of a room. That's impossible when you really think about it. People have very misinformed ideas, usually optimistic in an unrealistic way, about what will prevent sounds from bothering neighbors.''

Physical acoustics is a bewildering science, but there are some recognized ground rules. One is that air is a good buffer. For that reason, studio walls should be built out from existing walls by nailing up long wooden furniture strips, then mounting fiberglass panels and finally Sheetrock as an aural absorbent.

The ceiling should also be dropped, which calls for more fiberglass; avoid using metal rods, which pick up bass vibrations and low-frequency interference from passing cars. Floors carry the largest amount of vibration, and carpeting laid over felt (or even a thick layer of newspaper) is a necessity. Wall and ceiling construction jobs should cost a few hundred dollars in materials and keep you occupied over a weekend.

Less-expensive approaches to acousticizing include using carpet on the walls — Les Paul suggests scoring an out-of-date book of carpet remnants (''You get all weirdo colors'') — or employing that old standby, cardboard egg crates, to break up sound. In general, a supply of pillows, blankets and soft materials will absorb and help balance the sound.

The final factor in preparing your studio acoustically is to deaden the room against too much reverberation. The traditional view about reverb is that it muddies the sound source and, if needed, it can always be added electronically at a later stage. Rock music's near-total reliance on nonacoustic instruments means they can be plugged directly into a tape recorder, bypassing some acoustics problems. For nonelectric instruments and vocals, though, excessive deadening can be a problem in itself.

''A musician's note will go an inch and die,'' says Les Paul. ''This is a bummer. He'll run over to the first bare wall he can find so he can hear himself. Clarinet players have come into my house, opened the kitchen oven up and played into the oven. They want to hear themselves back.''

Empiricism is the rule for home studio acoustics. If the sound is too live, add more carpeting; if it's too dead, remove some insulation or add wood paneling to reflect the sound back. Movable drapes provide a convenient way to vary a room's acoustic properties. Just remember that hard surfaces will yield a live sound.

Once your room is ready, you need equipment, and there's an overabundance of it available. ''Many home studios are glorified hi-fi systems,'' says Fierstein. His view is shared by Larry Zide, publisher of the professionally oriented db:the Sound Engineering Magazine: ''A lot of small studios are set up on the basis of hi-fi equipment. I don't mean that as a dirty word. Some of the small studios today can and do produce sonically as good a tape as any.''

Nevertheless, recording engineers suggest that home studio operators pick even used professional equipment over new semipro items. ''The semipro will look better,'' Les Paul says. ''It'll have more gadgets on it and may even have specs to outperform a pro machine. But the pro stuff will last longer.'' Ruggedness is what separates professional studio equipment from home equipment. But the semipro market exists — and thrives — because not all home studios require twenty-four-hour-a-day readiness.

Once again, it must be stressed that before actually embarking on a home studio project, it's wise to seek advice from professionals. Bob Shuster, maintenance technician at New York's Media Sound and owner of his own eight-track home studio, comments: ''There are people I know who've spent thousands of dollars to build impressive sixteen-track studios in their houses but can't even find the power switch.''

Recorders, a mixer, amplifiers, microphones and monitors form the core of a studio. Two tape recorders are needed: a multitrack for original recording and a two-track for final mixdown. Among the former, Teac-Tascam's line of four-track (about $2000) and eight-track (under $4000) recorders are popular; remember, the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on four-track equipment. Two-track copying decks (Teac-Tascam, Otari) run from $1500 to $2000. Cassette decks are useful only for making copies of your work to hand out to friends; studio recording is strictly an open-reel proposition. A four-track Teac-Tascam mixing console costs around $2000. For eight-track, Sound Workshop has a model available for $3300.

High-quality hi-fi amplifiers can be pressed into service for studio use. Manufacturers to consider include Crown (their DC-300 hovers around $900) and Phase Linear.

''Microphones are as important to recording as a good lens is to a camera,'' comments Shuster. Trusted names include Sony, Shure, Electro-Voice, Sennheiser and Neumann; prices can range from seventy-five dollars to well over $200. Drums alone require six or more mikes (usually one per drum plus overhead mikes), so watch your budget.

Studio playback monitors are another crucial element, but here we leave the safe world of scientifically measured specs and enter the murky domain of subjective listening. ''The heart of the whole thing is a good speaker system,'' says Les Paul. ''You don't want any coloration from your speakers; you want flat frequency response. If your speakers are lying to you, you'll make the performer fit the speaker.'' Tom Scholz concurred: ''If your speakers have a big dip somewhere in the frequency response, you will end up with one instrument being too loud.''

Most studios use Altec or JBL monsters; semipros should investigate Electro-Voice's Century V (about $650 per pair), Frazier Capsule Monitors ($520 a pair) or JBL's 4311s ($672 a pair). Auratone's tiny (6$1/2-by-6$1/2 inches!), accurate speakers can also be a useful supplement — and at sixty-five dollars a pair, they're cheap, too.

After acquiring the above components, studio owners with money to burn may want to consider various ''outboard'' items, some more necessary than others. A noise-reduction unit (Dolby or dbx) should be a high-priority extra; unlike cassette decks, very few reel-to-reel recorders have them built in. A limiter/compressor will even out sound levels, keeping them ''hot'' for the final mix. Special-effects goodies include echo, phasers, flangers, delay units, etc. Prices range from a few hundred dollars up to $4000. DeltaLabs' digital-delay cum reverb cum flanger unit goes for $1750. Once again, watch that budget!

How much is the whole setup going to cost? Between construction and equipment, a home studio shouldn't be taken up in the spirit of a Saturday-afternoon shopping spree. Advances in consumer electronics, though, have made home studios more viable than they used to be.

''It's just amazing how technology in home recording has escalated in such a short period of time,'' says Media Sound's Shuster, pointing out that in the late Sixties there wasn't one mixing console specifically designed for home use. He is seconded by Jim Galante, engineer at New York's Electric Lady Studios: ''Ten years ago, a four-track recorder cost $15,000 and a mixing board $10,000. Now you can buy a complete eight-track system for around $10,000.''

Shuster estimates a minimal investment in equipment of from $2000 to $3500. Construction costs, depending on the degree of thoroughness, can be as high as $3000 or as low as fifty dollars. Soundproofing averages from $200 to $400 per room. The importance of shopping around for equipment can't be stressed too much. The console Galante uses lists for $7000; he found it for $5000 out of state. Used equipment from a reputable dealer is usually the best buy.

Would-be studio builders should also be familiar with Craig Anderton's informal but informative Home Recording far Musicians (Guitar Player Books, $9.95). Other basic texts include F.A. Everest's Acoustic Techniques for Home and Studio and J.M. Woram's Recording Stereo Handbook. Moderning Recording magazine is aimed at the semipro crowd, and studious types can attend courses at New York's Recording Institute of America or the Institute of Audio Research.

We've come a long way since the Knickerbockers cut their 1965 hit, ''Lies,'' in Leon Russell's house, but maybe they had the right idea after all.