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Kids: Make Big Records in the Privacy of Your Own Home

Build a budget sound studio

Singer, Roger Daltrey, The Who, recording studio, barn, home, Holmshurst Manor, Burwash

Singer Roger Daltrey of The Who in a recording studio in a barn at his home, Holmshurst Manor in Burwash, East Sussex on November 23rd, 1972.

Michael Putland/Getty

Pull up a chair and watch a fine old classic – the musicians who have decided to make a demo.

Here they come on the day they’ve booked a couple of hours of studio time. They’ve got a notepad listing the order in which they’re going to lay down every number in their repertoire. The first thing they find out is that setting up the mikes and checking sound levels eats up an hour and a half. One way or another, they blow the first three takes. Then somebody busts a string. By take ten, they’ve got the song practically the way they want it, and they’ve used up all their time at $100 an hour ($75, if they’re lucky).

And oh yeah, the Dolby noise reduction is an extra $10 an hour. And so on. We flash forward a couple of days and watch the leader open the bill: It’s nearly $1,000! Oh boy, look at his expression – the eyes spinning like tape reels … terrific stuff.

If these musicians were to do the same thing five times, they’d be paying as much as it would cost to put together a ministudio of their own – one that could produce master tapes suitable for auditions and for transferring to discs, one that they could even rent out to other musicians.

Consumer Versus Professional Equipment

What I’m suggesting here is not a professional recording studio. At the very least, putting together a professional eight- cr 12-track operation would run over $20,000. The trick in setting up a home studio is to use as much consumer equipment as possible. Stay away from the fancy consoles and the wide tape decks. If your group is small (three or four people) you’ll be surprised at how versatile a four-channel open-reel deck can prove to be – if you choose the right kind.

As for sound quality, you’ll be surprised to learn that there won’t be that much difference between what you can get out of a $1,000 home deck and a $3,000 studio deck. The big difference in studio machines is their ruggedness. Remember, in a professional recording studio any down time is lost money, so those rugged decks have to be able to keep going as much as 18 or 20 hours a day. Consumer machines just won’t stand up under that kind of punishment, but then neither will you – and your home studio won’t be called upon to work around the clock.

There is one exception to all this. If you expect to produce reasonably good results you will have to use a good assortment of microphones of professional quality. They are not cheap, but the right microphone can make all the difference. Furthermore, one kind of mike will be best for one kind of recording situation, while another type may be needed for other instrument pickups. We’ll get into all that a bit later on, but don’t be surprised if your mike budget ends up at about 20% of your total investment.

Let’s start with a shopping list. You will need an open-reel, multitrack deck, an open-reel stereo deck, some sort of microphone mixer, a minimum of four or five microphones and a good pair of stereo headphones at the very least. Additional items you will want to consider are a record-playback equalizer, a good cassette tape deck and possibly a reverb unit. You will also need a place in which to put all these goodies, but usually it isn’t necessary to rebuild your house.

Where to Locate the Studio

Professional studios usually have a separate, isolated control room with a large glass window facing into the studio itself. While this arrangement has some advantages (all the electronics are housed in the control room and the engineer can monitor everything that’s happening over a good pair of hi-fi speaker systems), it’s seldom practical in a home setting. As recording engineer you will do your monitoring with that set of phones: They will serve the same purposes – to isolate you from the “live sound” and to prevent any of the reproduced sound from “leaking” back to the microphones, even if you and the performers are all in the same room. If you position yourself and the equipment over to one side of the room and the performers as far away from you as possible, the microphones we’ll be listing won’t pick up enough sound from the whirring of tape-deck motors to ruin any recordings. Besides, good tape decks such as we’ll mention are so quiet you can barely hear their motors even when you are close to them.

The Multitrack Deck

The workhorse in your home studio will be your four-channel open-reel deck. While you may or may not be a quadraphonic sound freak, as a serious home recordist you owe a debt of gratitude to the people who came up with four-channel sound, for that in turn led to the availability of four-channel tape decks for home users. In the home studio application, though, you won’t be using your quadraphonic deck for four-channel sound recording. A few (very few) of these four-channel machines have one important feature which makes this whole project possible. It’s called sel-sync and makes it possible to overdub.

In a deck that’s not equipped with sel-sync you can’t listen to something off the separate playback tape head and record something else at the same time. If you do, the two recorded tracks will be out of synchronization because the playback head is located an inch or two beyond the record head. What you hear played back (and try to sing along or play along with) is delayed in time by the distance between these two heads and your newly recorded track will always lag the previously recorded one. With sel-sync, you can convert any channel on the record head to a temporary playback head, so you can listen to one track, simultaneously record on another track and then play them back together.

For example, the chord structure for a musical idea can be recorded on track one. Then, on tracks two and three, you can add different melodies. Perhaps the final melody will be a combination of the two which may then result in a different chord structure which can be recorded on track four. The variations are endless. But sel-sync allows trying out all sorts of ideas, preserving them on tape, and then playing them back in various combinations. If one track doesn’t sound right, you can erase and redo it, all the while preserving the other previously recorded tracks. If your lead guitarist is sick or out of town when everybody else wants to record, his track can be added later – always in perfect synchronism with what’s been recorded earlier.

There are at least three decks we’d recommend for this multitrack application, each in a different price bracket. The Dokorder 8140 sells for $750 and calls the sel-sync feature Multi-Sync, which is really the same thing. It even has a built-in variable echo feature which may eliminate the need for a separate reverb unit, if you plan to add such special effects. There are four separate level meters, four separately controllable microphone inputs (one for each track) and four “line” inputs (through which you can apply signals from FM radio, phono discs or other tape decks if you already own any kind of decent home component hi-fi system). Phone jacks let you monitor results on two tracks at a time (unless you buy a pair of four-channel phones which come with two stereo plugs – one for the front channels, the other for the back channels).

It differs in one major respect from professional machines in that it operates at 7-1/2 and 3-3/4 inches per second. Studio work is usually done at 15 ips, for somewhat better frequency response and better signal-to-noise ratio and lower wow and flutter. Lest you get the wrong idea, though, the performance specs of this machine are better than what you can expect from even the finest cassette deck.

An alternate open-reel multitrack deck you might want to consider is TEAC’s Model 3340S. This one sells for $1150 and can handle large 10-1/2″ tape reels (the kind used on professional machines) and also operates at 15 and 7-1/2ips. The rest of the features and controls are pretty much the same, except that it does not have the built-in echo circuits.

Finally, you might consider Akai’s excellent Model GX-400DSS which operates at all three popular speeds and sells for $1495. If you shop for other machines, don’t make the mistake of settling for a four-channel job that lacks the all-important sel-sync feature (TEAC calls it Simul-Sync). Such machines may be fine for quadraphonic recording and playback, but they’re beside the point as far as your home-studio needs are concerned.

A Dubbing Deck

Whatever you end up with on the four tracks of your multitrack recorder will have to be mixed down and recorded in two-channel master form. For this purpose, you’ll need a top quality open-reel stereo tape deck or you may want to settle for a top-grade stereo cassette deck. You may even find a need for both, since some producers may ask you to submit a cassette audition for evaluation. For a two-channel deck, you might want to consider the TEAC 3300S which goes for $700 and operates at 7-1/2 or 3-3/4 ips.

Or you might choose Pioneer’s RT-1050 for the same price. The Pioneer unit has an important advantage if you are not planning to add any kind of noise reduction equipment such as Dolby or dbx, which we’ll get into in a moment. This Pioneer deck, unlike most home stereo tape recorders, is a two-track machine. That is, it uses half the width of the 1/4-inch tape for each track. Most home stereo machines are four-track machines, using only one-quarter the width of the tape for each channel, to get stereo programs in both directions of tape travel. By widening the tracks, the Pioneer RT-1050 provides a bit better signal-to-noise ratio (less tape hiss), and this is very important when you are dubbing from one tape to another – as each successive dubbing adds a bit of tape noise to the finished product.

Other excellent two-channel machines you might want to consider for master dubbing are the Revox A-77 at $960 or, if money is no object, their new A-700 series which runs about $1,800 but is as close to a professional machine as you’re likely to find on audio dealers’ shelves.

As for cassette decks, there are many top quality units around that are good enough to include in your studio. A few that come to mind are the TEAC 450 at $450, the Tand-berg TCD-310 at $500, a pair of Nakamichi units, the Model 700 (with three heads so that you can monitor results just like you can on an open-reel machine) at $850, or their new two-headed Model 500 at $400. There’s an excellent new three-headed Sony machine, too, that sells for $700 – their Model TC-177SD. All of these machines have built-in Dolby noise reduction, which is a must on any cassette unit intended for high-quality, noise-free recording and playback.

Mixing It Down

The point at which your art changes from musicianship to recording craftsmanship is when you get to the mixdown of those four tracks you’ve finally laid down in “raw” form. Actually, a decent mixer is an important tool you can use even during the recording session. Suppose, for example, that you end up with six microphones, because two of your musicians both play and sing, and you want to mike their instruments and voices separately (standard operating procedure in any good studio). Still, with only four recording tracks available, you want to put each artist on a single track. You’d need a mixer for blending the instrument mike output with the voice mike output of each musician. Then, during playback and mixdown for master dubbing, you could feed the four tracks into the mixer (using its high-level “line” inputs this time) to come up with two mixed down channels for recording onto your dubbing deck.

A neat, inexpensive six-in, two-out mixer is available from Pioneer. It’s their Model MA-62 and sells for just $250. It even has inputs for phono cartridges on two of its channels (so that you can mix a recording with your own live efforts), and two other channels are equipped with “pan pots,” with which you can actually “move” sounds from left to right or position them at any point in the stereo image on the final master recording. TEAC, too, has a fine mixer that will be released this spring, their Model 2, which will sell for less than $400.

If you want more sophisticated mixing facilities, you should consider Sony’s MX-16 or MX-20. The MX-16 ($650) has eight mike or line inputs and four-channel outputs and is even equipped with four level indicating meters. A headphone jack and control let you hear what’s happening as you do the mixing. The higher priced MX-20 sells for about $1,095 and includes pan pots, some equalization features and balanced outputs. This one is about as close to professional as you can get without spending professional sums.

Those Important Mikes

The subject of microphones for recording work could easily fill a book. In fact, we’ve mentioned the book it fills in previous columns and this might be a good place to repeat it. The best book we’ve seen on the subject of microphones, their selection and use, is by Lou Burroughs, the acknowledged master in the field who spent much of his professional life working with and developing mikes for Electro-Voice. The book is called Microphones: Design and Application, and if you are serious about recording, the $20 you spend for it will be one of the best investments you can make. It’s published by Sagamore Publishing Company, at 1120 Old Country Road, Plainview, New York 11803, and can be ordered by mail.

To make our studio complete, however, I’ve selected an assortment of five mikes that should fill all but the most specialized needs. First, you’ll want a precise condenser mike such as the AKG C-451E. It’s basically a cardioid directional mike that will give a guitar that “steely” sound, the very quality that suggests not using it for female vocalists, for example. For warmer, smoother sound you might want to try a Beyer M-160 mike. These two basic mikes will cost you a total of about $450 ($205 for the condenser AKG, and a bit over $200 for the Beyer). The Beyer mike is a super cardioid and highly directional. An Electro-Voice RE-16 is a good all-around mike for vocals and is a dynamic type, as opposed to the fussier and more delicate Beyer ribbon mike.

A good omnidirectional mike is the rugged little electret from Group 128, their Model SD-140 which sells for $145. Another interesting mike from this company is their P-800, which looks for all the world like a guitar vibration pickup but has the smoothness of a free-standing mike. This one costs $100. Another fine popular omnidirectional mike that you might use if you don’t want to get involved with battery powering of electret mikes is Electro-Voice’s dynamic type, Model RE-55, which sells for $180.

As you may have guessed, the choice is really almost endless, with each quality manufacturer offering a broad line of mikes to suit just about every purpose. Professionals all have their favorites and don’t ever try to convince a studio engineer that your mike is better than the one chosen for a given application. Whatever mikes you choose, be sure to equip them with foam “wind screens” which help reduce those popping “p”s.

What About Equalization?

Each mike you end up buying will produce different results – partly because of slight differences in frequency response, partly because of directional characteristics and the position relative to the instrument or voice it’s supposed to pick up. There will be times, however, when no mike you own will impart just the right kind of sound you want. That’s when equalization comes in.

Perhaps the most costly cir-cuitry in most professional consoles is the EQ circuitry, which can become quite elaborate. Fortunately, home hi-fi equalizers (really elaborations on the usual simple bass and treble controls) have become quite sophisticated and lend themselves quite well to recording applications in your home studio. A fine example is Soundcraftsmen’s Model RP-2212 two-channel record-play-back frequency equalizer. You may want to start with one such unit, at $350, which will take care of two input channels that need tonal tailoring. You can do your equalizing during playback and mix-down, too, but then the entire left or right stereo channel will undergo tonal changes in the system as we’ve outlined it so far. If you find you need more EQ facilities, you can always buy another one of these for another pair of channels. The equalizer lets you deal with specific octaves in the audio range and you can really correct for mike deficiencies or, dare we say it, performer’s deficiencies too.

Keeping The Noise Down

We’ve already taken care of noise reduction in your cassette dubbing deck, since that unit will have Dolby built right in. Adding external noise-reduction circuitry to your open-reel decks may sound like gilding the lily, but the fact is that if you do second- or third-generation dubbings, each successive dubbing adds a little bit of tape his to the recorded results. If you find this happening, there are two approaches you can follow. You can, for example, add external Dolby processors, such as TEAC’s AN-180 or Advent’s Model 100A, or you can use the compress/expand approach developed by a company called dbx. The dbx approach, popular in a great many professional recording studios, actually increases available dynamic range of your recordings while reducing noise during playback at the same time. A four-channel version of their device, the Model 154, costs $750 or you can settle for the two-channel Model 157 and save $150.

Electronic Reverb

While most consumer electronic manufacturers have dropped home reverb units from their lines because of the emergence of four-channel home equipment, Pioneer still offers a stereo reverb unit, their Model SR-202W at $140, which will fit in nicely with the home studio. As you probably know, many a small voice has been turned into a big one with a little judicious use of echo and reverb. We all sound a lot better singing in the shower for much the same reason.

Five Thousand Dollars Later

So now you’ve got all this great equipment set up in your home studio and you’ve followed all the hookup instructions, but take it from me, you’re not a recording engineer just yet. Happily, you can play with all this equipment to your heart’s content because you’re not running up a bill at a studio any more. But there are places to turn for help.

A really great minicourse has been put out in record form by TEAC (titled Home Made with TEAC). The record jacket, which has four sell-written pages entitled “Home Recording tips,” is great reading for someone just getting into serious recording. Of course, the record is out to sell TEAC gear, but it’s done in a very soft-sell kind of way and the demo material on the record, coupled with the jacket text, is as concise and complete an introduction to recording on tape as we’ve ever heard. I don’t know what the record costs (your local TEAC dealer may even have some to give away), but it can’t be much – probably less than a regular commercial album since it’s a selling tool.

Another interesting TEAC innovation is something they call the TEAC Creative Tape Center, It’s really a full ministudio containing virtually all of the components we’ve discussed so far (but all from TEAC, naturally). If it were available for purchase by consumers, you could have saved yourself reading this whole story. As we understand it, the attractive display and all its contents are intended for TEAC dealers, and if you can find one in your area who has this complete little studio, you might spend a couple of hours playing with it even before you make your first purchase It’s designed just for that purpose – to let serious recordists see what can be done, one track at a time, with good consumer-grade equipment.

Finally, if you get into all this and feel you still need some professional firsthand instruction, you can always enroll in a recording course, such as the one given by the Recording Institute of America.

Good recording.

In This Article: Coverwall, Recording studio

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