There’s No Place Like Home
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.