With the few recording studios now for only the rich and famous, many organizations want to take advantage of the streaming media landscape with low-cost podcasts and web presentations. Fortunately, high-quality gear is now available that can be easily set-up in any office, home or other space. Here’s some guidance on constructing a low-cost studio.
Setting up a studio on location can be a complex and expensive project if you allow it to get out of control. Today some of the best gear ever built is very affordable and easy to operate if scaled to small projects. If users do their homework, it has never been as cost effective to get professional quality sound.
Five key components are required for the modern studio, no matter where it is located. These include one or more microphones, a digital audio workstation (DAW), an audio interface, a pair of audio monitors and good headphones. Each of these items can break the bank, but each also have budget-friendly versions that perform very well.
Let’s begin with a microphone, which can be a dynamic, condenser or ribbon. For podcasts where the human voice is being recorded or broadcast, the low-cost option is a large diaphragm dynamic, such as the Shure SM7 ($399) or Electro-Voice RE20 ($449). These have been broadcast studio standards for many years.
If these are too expensive, Shure’s SM57 and SM58 will do the job. They cost about $100 each. These dynamic mics block out a lot of background noise and sound good with the human voice. For more output, use them with a Cloudlifter CL in-line microphone signal booster from Cloud Microphones. The Cloudlifter provides up to +25dB of ultra-clean gain in two distinct stages and optimal impedance loading for dynamic and ribbon microphones.
Large diaphragm condenser microphones are sensitive and catch transients and high frequencies. These mics produce a very natural sound. Ribbon mics, due to their proximity effect, can boost the voice to become richer, deeper and fuller. Low-cost condensers are available, but ribbons begin at about $500 and should have active circuitry to drive any standard mic preamp. Knowing your space can effect mic choice, but dynamic mics are the safe, low-cost choice.
The heart of a remote studio is a personal computer with digital audio workstation (DAW) software installed on it. A DAW is an application that allows users to record, edit and mix audio projects. This is where real advances have been made recently in remote audio production.
Even free DAWs today have EQ, reverb, delay and a ton of other processing built-in. Every new Apple Macintosh comes with a free DAW, Garageband, installed. Other excellent DAWs include Pro-Tools, Cubase, Logic, Reaper, FL Studio and Studio One. All sound excellent
Many makers of audio interfaces also offer free DAWs when you purchase their products. For example, all Audient interfaces contain a free copy of Cubase LE and Zoom products normally include free copies of Cubase and WaveLab LE. Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 Studio package ($250 with interface, mic and headphones) includes Pro Tools | First, Focusrite’s Creative Pack and Ableton Live Lite recording software.
Audio interfaces are an essential piece to a studio — regardless of price. They allow users to get audio in and out of a computer. The interface choice is perhaps the most critical decision that needs to be made. An audio interface with poor mic preamps will not cut it. It will sound flat and can hide issues with the recording. Buy an interface from a known brand and get a mic preamp — even if just one channel — that has the pedigree of a leading console manufacturer.
Focusrite’s Scarlett range (starting at $149) or Audient’s iD4 ($199) offer console-grade mic preamps that become a strong foundation to the overall system’s sound quality. Of course, the cost goes up as you determine the number of channels needed. But the starting point can be very low.
Finally, studio monitors and headphones are essential. Studio monitors should have a flat frequency response, little distortion and accurately represent the signal path. This is how studio monitors differ from home music speakers, which add some coloration.
Monitors can be expensive and are the costliest part of any studio. Low-cost monitors like the Yamaha HS5s can be purchased for $199 each. However, the better choices are Genelec’s The Ones or JBL 7 Series, which offer automatic set-up for any space to ensure accuracy of sound.
When purchasing audio monitors, be sure to include foam isolation pads to isolate the monitor from the surface it sits on. This will reduce resonance that can increase bass.
Also, many spaces need some kind of acoustic treatment. Primacoustic makes Hercules sound treatment panels that are designed to withstand the abuse of everyday multi-purpose environments. The panels are covered with a rigid fiberglass layer that allows the panel to effectively absorb most frequencies, but they stand up to the wear and tear of most offices.
Finally, there are headphones. Like monitors, a good pair of headphones will have as flat as possible frequency response. They will add little coloration to the audio signal. On the choice between open or closed back, the low-cost studio should choose closed back headphones first.
But be careful, since closed-back phones can over-represent bass frequencies and often have higher distortion figures when compared to open back models. Yet, they prevent sound leakage when with others.
It would be ideal to have both types of headphones, however in a budget studio situation, closed back headphones are recommended. This is due to their extra versatility. For a very low budget installation, studio monitors can be replaced with a pair of good headphones. Audio-Technica ATH-M50X ($149) and Sony’s MDR-7506 ($79.99) are popular closed-back headphones used by engineers throughout the world.
Audient estimated that using it’s iD4 interface with the free DAW, two $100 microphones, a pair of Yamaha HS5 monitors and a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-50X headphones, that a studio can be put together for under $1000. Without monitors, the estimate is under $600.
Of course that doesn’t include a personal computer, acoustic treatment or other accessories needed for specific types of recording. But even so, the cost for professional sound is now lower than ever before and studio facilities can be easily constructed in a cost-effective way in offices, homes and other spaces.
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