We are living in the new era of makeshift audio studios. Fewer and fewer major commercial studios exist today and the ones that do are expensive. Most professional and non-professional audio production is now being done in small scale studios in rooms originally built for other purposes.
Before undertaking the building an audio studio — whether in a broadcast station, an office or home — there are a range of questions that need to be asked and answered. Sweetwater Sound, the pro audio dealer based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has proposed ten key questions that should be addressed before getting started. They offer a good starting point.
Set a Realistic Budget
Establish a budget. Face up to the fact that building a professional audio studio is not cheap. Not only are a computer, audio interface, software, microphones and monitors necessary, but add to that an investment in acoustical treatment, cables, furniture, lighting and building materials.
Setting a budget, complete with inventory and prices is important. Otherwise, you risk not being able to complete key portions of the studio.
It’s very important to make a list of everything needed to establish a realistic budget. A key mistake is buying as you go. Avoid that, because it’s an easy way to exceed your budget. You’ll end up with a $2,000 microphone and a $250 preamp, or an awful-sounding room because you couldn’t afford proper acoustic treatment. Create a well-thought-out plan and budget and stick to it.
Define the Studio's focus
Decide on the purpose of the studio. It is hard to build a studio economically that does everything. Is the purpose to record voiceovers, podcasts or to record music? If music is involved, how many instruments can the studio handle? This question leads to what equipment is needed, and just as important, how large the working space needs to be.
Consider the studio construction and acoustics first. Selecting the technical gear should be a second step.
A voice-over studio, for example, requires an investment in a high-quality microphone and preamp and needs enough isolation to keep outside noise at bay. Full band sessions, on the other hand, require an array of mics, preamps and processors; maximum acoustic treatment; and perhaps a large, soundproof tracking room.
Besides this, think ahead about future needs. The last thing you desire is to run out of space or realize that the current room and gear have become inadequate due to a lack of forethought. Plan in advance.
Prioritize Equipment Selection
Once the kind of studio and its purpose is determined, decide what gear will be needed to accomplish the goal. How many tracks will you be recording at once? If it’s voice-overs, a good two-channel interface will suffice. If tracking bands, you’ll need more inputs. And you’ll need enough microphones and headphones to accommodate everyone.
When determining the equipment list, keep your gear lust in check. Create a good balance of devices. Don’t buy cheap microphones, just so you can afford a high quality summing mixer and expensive AD/DA converters. It is better to invest in high-quality mics and preamps.
How Much Space is Needed?
Determine the physical space requirements. Once you understand what you’re going to do with the new studio, figure out how much space you’ll need to work efficiently. For example, if you’re a mix engineer, you can get by with a modest amount of space. Achieving accurate monitoring is more important.
Recording vocals and acoustic instruments requires more space — a medium-sized room with an iso-booth will get the job done. Tracking full bands requires a great deal of space in order to accommodate all the musicians and their instruments (not to mention amplifiers and cases) with an appropriate amount of sonic isolation.
Location Location Location
Once the amount of needed space is determined, it is time to choose a room. This is a critical decision. Pick the wrong space or building and the studio could become a disaster. Avoid spaces that are close to traffic, airports, trains and other loud noises. Otherwise, keeping these unwanted sounds out of your recordings will be an exercise in frustration.
You’ll want to be cognizant of others nearby the studio space. Avoid having an adjoining wall to others who may make unacceptable noise. Head off any such hassles with neighbors by choosing the right space at the beginning.
Room Acoustics Come First
Look for good room acoustics up front. Acoustic treatment can make just about any room sound decent. That said, nothing beats the sound of a room with great natural acoustics. If you’ve got the luxury of choosing between a spacious room with asymmetrical walls and a high ceiling or a small, boxy room, take the larger, better-sounding room.
Also, be conscious of nearby rooms. If you’re going to be mixing and recording small acoustic projects with an occasional foray into large ensembles, you can always set up a control room in a smaller space and utilize a nearby large space on an as-needed basis.
Sealing every crack and crevice between rooms is critical. You will be surprised at how much sound can leak through a simple wall outlet or overhead light fixture.
Build a Quiet Room
Make the space quiet and good sounding before adding the equipment. An expensive Neumann microphone will pick up every nasty sonic detail in a room. Seal all the seams, cracks and crevices in the room with an acoustic sealant like Auralex StopGap. Treat all the room’s parallel surfaces with acoustic treatment, such as broadband absorbers, diffusors and bass traps. This will minimize flutter echoes, room modes and standing waves.
Beyond that, well-placed soft furniture and bookshelves are great for absorption and diffraction — tightening up the sound of the room. Large windows can also be problematic, but they can be easily covered with heavy curtains.
Install multiple power outlets and always go for more, not fewer. The same logic applies to cable connections. Plan for growth in the beginning.
Determine Power Requirements
How much power will you need? Studios always need lots of power outlets. Do not daisy-chain all the gear from a single outlet. Determine how many outlets will be needed and where to locate them in the beginning and install them. This is a real, but necessary, cost for any studio.
As for audio cables, if the studio involves more than one room, install wall plates in each room to accommodate mic cables. Otherwise, you’ll need to leave a door open to run the cables and there goes your isolation. Also, keep electrical and audio cables separated from each another to avoid electromagnetic interference.
Avoid local building code disasters. Have the construction plans approved in advance by the city codes office and be sure every mandated inspection takes place. Failing to complete an required inspection, like electrical, plumbing, roofing, framing, can mean ripping out large portions of the completed work so an inspector can see and approve the work.
Know Your Local Building Codes
If building the studio involves any significant remodeling, construction or electrical work, check with your city or county code department for information about obtaining a permit. You don’t want to be halfway through your construction and have the code department shut down the project. Do your homework.
And finally, make the room comfortable. A studio is a creative space, and you’ll be spending a lot of time there. Make it relaxing and ergonomic. Place the gear at a comfortable height. Make sure rack-mount gear is easily accessible. Ensure proper lighting to minimize eyestrain. Be sure to budget comfortable work chairs. These things matter...a lot.
When the studio is in an office building, there is a lot to be said for having 24/7 access to the recording space. This way you can work at your own pace and take risks without fear of judgement.
Building an audio studio for professional recording is more complex than it may sound. However, do the right planning and it will offer a new freedom rarely enjoyed in the early days of recording. These days, we can record anywhere — with the right advance planning.
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