Why Doing What Works For You Will Improve Your Home Studio Recording
When starting out your home recording studio, you will rely on a lot of help and advice from experts. This is probably the reason why you are reading this article. It will be foolish not to get all the expert information before building or expanding your home studio. What will be just as foolish, is not doing what will work best for you.
This may sound a bit like a contradiction for you, but its actually a very important point that needs to be understood to help you make the most of it.
Like most of us do in modern times, you get online to find any specific information you are looking for quickly and easily. The same applies when you are doing some planning on starting a new project, like building or expanding your home recording studio.
Unless you are in the fortunate situation where you personally know a friend of family member in the recording industry, the web will probably be your first and only source of information. Even if you know a specialist in the industry, it is still a good idea to do your own research to get a more balanced and complete picture of what your options are and needs to be done.
As important as it is to get the right advice and expert opinions from experienced professionals in the industry, you have to keep an open mind and keep your own requirements at the back of your head.
One thing you will find during your online research are diverse opinions and guidelines, but also a certain trend that many articles follow. In some cases it's as if everyone jumped on the same bandwagon when it come to specific equipment or some practices.
This means one of two things. Either what you are reading is a proven and tested fact, or some influential publisher put out a powerful and convincing post which then plays a big part in influencing other bloggers while researching their content. (Yes I do it as well, as I find it unethical to base an article completely on my own experience, without doing some research on trusted professionals' opinion on equipment and practices.)
The latter can result in a snowball effect where more and more users are reading the same "facts" or opinions, and incorporate it in their own articles. This does not necessarily mean it's wrong, as long as you understand a lot of information you find online are based on personal opinions.
At this stage you are probably starting to wonder what all of this has to do with "doing what works for you". The reason is that so many users believe what they read online is a fact or a set of rules that must be followed down to a tee. And that is the point I'm trying to drive home.
As much as you can gain from the experience and knowledge of others, theses experiences are based on what works for the authors in their own personal environments.
And that, my friends, is where you come in. Your situation, requirements and end production may be very different, meaning you have to do what works best for you.
Off course you need to take and use all the information you gathered during your research. But work carefully through it, determining which information is relevant to you and needs to be applied to your unique setup and goals.
This ability to determine what works best for you can be a difficult to achieve at first and be a case of trial and error in the beginning.
The best way to explain this, is to illustrate how it works in practice by using examples of how this has worked for me personally and hypothetical situations where it may be relevant to you and your situation.
By going through the following list of real and hypothetical scenarios, you will be be able get a much better understanding of how you can research and get new information and use it in such a way that will best suite your own personal needs and requirements.
1. A Smaller Studio For Personal Use
When I first started setting up my home recording studio, I was in the fortunate situation of having different size rooms to choose from. I had an outside apartment with a fairly spacious room with a size of 20 x 13 feet. Another room inside the house with a size of 10 x 10 feet was also available.
If you read any article on room size for studio use, you will know that a bigger room is always advocated, not only to reduce reverberation, but also to allow enough space for the amount of people and instruments that the studio will have to accommodate. (You can read more about room size and how to set up a studio in this article.)
Personally I didn't require much space at all. I was just going to use my studio for voice-overs, vlogging and on the odd occasion maybe use one instrument.
The bigger room was empty with a wooden floor, meaning a lot of acoustic treatment would have needed to be applied to get rid of reverberation. It was also surrounded by outside noise interference from three sides, which meant quite a bit of sound insulation would be needed as well to isolate the room.
Although much smaller, the room inside the house was already converted into a study. This meant quite bit of furniture like desks and bookshelves were already in place. Normally the square hard surfaces would pose a reverberation problem.
The amount of different shape and sizes of books and objects on the shelves helped to act as a sound diffuser though. This helped to scatter the sound waves in different directions. The desks were placed in a corner with the sound directed away from them. The tiled floor was also already covered with a carpet, absorbing any sound waves reaching it.
On top of that, a big screen with a textured blanket over it (to act as background for my vlogging), was placed behind my chair. This acted as big acoustic panel. The result was that I needed absolutely no acoustic treatment of any kind. I confirmed this with some testing.
Needless to say, the study turned out to be just perfect for my needs, without having to spend a penny on any additional treatment or installations.
Your requirements can be completely different. You may be looking for a bigger empty room to set up a studio from scratch, which also need to accommodate multiple instruments and artists. In this case, the bigger room I mentioned would have been the preferred choice.
The point here is that your requirements my clash with accepted standards and norms, which no doubt would have been reinforced by most of the information you got online. This was definitely true in my case, but turned out to work out perfectly for my personal needs.
2. Bucking The Trend When Choosing My Audio Interface
As with all devices, I did some in-depth research and testing when it came to deciding on the right audio interface. I was looking for something in the sub $200 range. Immediately the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 jumped out as the favorite by far. It was a best-seller on Amazon, recommended by everyone I came across and was priced very reasonably at around $150. It is also very solidly build and sounds great, with more features than I would ever need.
Just before purchasing, I came across a review of the Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD audio interface. At half the price and after watching many raving reviews, I wanted to take a closer look. (For those of you not familiar with the Behringer brand, this audio hardware manufacturing company is known for producing high-quality products at surprisingly low prices.)
After having a close-up look, I was thoroughly impressed. I honestly could not hear a difference in sound quality between the Behringer and Focusrite, even though the spec sheets showed a clear difference.
I ended up with the Behringer U-Phoria and I cannot be happier. Even after purchasing the U-Phoria I still kept on going back to Youtube to listen to high-definition comparisons and I still couldn't tell the difference. (I will be the first one to concede that my hearing may not be as fine-tuned as a top professional sound engineer, and there may be definite audible differences in sound quality.)
The big takeaway for me here, is that you don't need to spend a small fortune on a piece of audio equipment. Getting a quality product for much less than I would have spend, without being able to tell the difference is big win for me.
Your standards may be much higher than mine, which will require you to spend a bit more on an audio interface that will satisfy your personal needs. (Your requirements may even outweigh the capabilities of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2.) This is just another example of where deviating from the popular online recommendation produced a very satisfactory result.
3. Superior Microphone, Less Work
Many of you who already read some of the posts on this site, will know how much I emphasize the importance of a high quality microphone. There is just no substitute for a good recording, just as there is no way of removing all the flaws and poor quality of bad recording, even with the most advanced DAW software.
This principle of "Garbage In Garbage Out", was drilled into me long ago, so I am very glad when I followed this advice when deciding on my studio microphone.
As you would have gathered from the previous section, I can be quite frugal and would take advantage of a more affordable product anytime as long as it is not at the expense of quality.
However, I was not willing to sacrifice anything on a microphone which didn't deliver 100% of the sound quality I was looking for. With the amount of condenser microphones flooding the market in the sub $100 category where a number of models got very good reviews, I was very interested to hear how well they performed.
It was Audio-Technica AT2020 that really grabbed my attention, with its crisp and clear sound, solid feel and the company's reputation for producing high-quality products. At around $100 it was more than reasonably priced.
I was about to proceed with the purchase when I happened to come across a comparison between the AT2020 and its bigger brother, the Audio-Technica AT2035 on Youtube. Although the spec sheets showed almost identical performance figures, the AT2035 somehow sounded just that little richer and fuller. After some closer personal investigation, this slight difference in performance was confirmed.
At around $150 the AT2035 was quite a bit more expensive, but still relatively inexpensive, (especially compared compared to some high microphones more than double the price.) I decided on the AT2035, as I wanted the best microphone I could afford. I can honestly say that I don't regret this decision for a single day.
This slight jump in performance means that, after setting up my microphone and software levels for my studio environment, I didn't have to do a single adjustment in post-production for normal vocal recordings. The amount of time and effort that it saves me, make the little extra I spend on it completely irrelevant.
Here, the general trend and recommendation while I was doing my research, were to go for the very popular and more affordable Audio-Technica AT2020. I am pretty sure that had I not followed my gut and went for the slightly more expensive AT2035 due to its slightly better performance, I might have felt that something was missing from my recordings. This would have resulted in wasted time fiddling around in DAW software post-production, costing me valuable time and effort.
The most important lesson I learned from this exercise, is that really is no right microphone for everyone. This is a very personal choice where I would recommend you do the most amount of research, as the microphone best suited for your needs may definitely not be the most popular and recommended one.
(At the time of purchase, the Audio-Technica AT2020 was the most recommended microphone in the price range, as well as an Amazon Choice with over 450 reviews. It will definitely be a great choice as the ideal microphone, just not the one that works best for me.)
4. High-Definition Speakers And Studio Monitors
I know this is a very divisive issue. On the surface, high-definition speakers and studio monitors look the same and consist of the same core components.
Both vary in size, and both handle low-frequencies and mid-to-high frequencies through two main drivers respectively (woofers for low frequencies and tweeters for mid-to-high frequencies). This where the similarities end though.
Hi-fi speakers are made to make your audio sound good, while studio monitors are designed to give sound engineers a very accurate and honest representation of the created audio, even if it doesn't sound very flattering.
Where the controversy arise though, is the argument among many studio engineers and users that hi-fi speakers can not be used to monitor recordings and mixing sound in a studio.
As a home user, If you already are serious audiophile with a home theater system with very high-quality speakers, I find it difficult to find a compelling enough argument to necessitate the purchase of an additional set of studio monitors. There is a simple but logical argument for this.
The problem with mainstream and fairly inexpensive hi-fi speakers, is that they are are made to make all audio sound good by adding their own "color" to the music and boost the bass of their drivers to produce a rich sound that also serves the purchase of masking flaws in the mid-to-high range frequencies. The result is great, but not accurate sounding audio.
As you start investing in expensive high-fidelity speakers, the whole picture changes. The speakers that fall in this category is set apart from their inexpensive siblings, not just by the superior sound quality they produce, but with the authenticity and accuracy they are able to reproduce the originally recorded audio.
This means that, although not being as "raw" and able to expose every little flaw as pair of dedicated studio monitors will, they are still able to give you a more than adequate indication of what your audio will sound like on most commercial devices.
This another instance where you will have to decide for yourself whether you will follow the popular opinion in the recording industry, or decide for yourself what will works best and what is good enough for your own needs.
5. Dismissing Free Software? Don't Be In Such A Hurry
This is one I heard over and over again. The common consensus among most serious studio users is that free software is not even worth considering in the first place. And most experts feel very strongly about this, to the extend that many consider the free and popular Audacity software tool unworthy to be even called a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
And I get it, With all the powerful functions, filters, virtual instruments and ability to perform extremely complex audio tasks, make them unmatched compared with any lessor software. To be able to handle different aspects of multiple tracks simultaneously, the ability to edit and modify every possible aspect of the smallest sound, while still easily managing big projects, consisting of multiple smaller projects with ease, puts them in a league of their own.
However, I think I speak for many of you when I say that many of us do not want or need the power to produce a full Hans Zimmer or Ennio Morricone movie soundtrack.
Sometimes you just want to add a few vocals track together, add some background music and do some basic cleaning up. A "simple" piece of audio software like Audacity will be more than capable to perform all these functions with ease.
(I am actually starting to wonder if many of the critics of this humble piece of software have actually kept track of how much it has grown and evolved over the last couple of years, enabling anyone new at audio software, not to just get started and learn the basics, but proceed to put together rather impressive audio projects with the help of Audacity. You can read more about Audacity in this article.)
Off course, as you needs and expertise grow, you are going to have to take that step up to advanced fully featured DAW software. And here you are spoiled for choice, with the added advantage of already getting your feet wet with audio software, making it easier to decide which of the professional tools will be right for you.
The big names like FL Studio, Presonus Studio One, Cakewalk Sonar, Ableton Live, Cubase Pro and Pro Tools - all have the power and ability to handle your most complex audio project. Just know that most them have quite a steep learning curve, so it will take some time but worth it to master the important features.
I went into a lot more detail than I needed to in this section. I just believe there is much confusion among beginners as result of very divisive views when it comes to DAW software.
If you are still starting out and uncertain which software to choose, why don't you start with downloading the free Audacity software. It won't cost you anything except a little bit of time playing around in it and following tutorials to find your way.
You will soon enough find out whether you would rather want to move up to an established professional DAW, or whether you have more than enough to keep you satisfied and going for quite some time.
This is one case where you should definitely decide for yourself what will be best for your requirements. By all means, do all the research to find out as much as you can to make an informed decision. But try the simple options first. After all, this is an important (and rather expensive) decision.
6. When A Pair Of Headphones Will Be Good Enough
In many of the articles on this site, I have put emphasis on not relying on just your headphones when monitoring and mixing your audio. I always believe the combination of studio monitors/speakers and a quality pair of headphones is the best and most accurate way to get the best representation of what your audio sound like.
I will have to admit though that there are some instances where it is not practical or achievable. Some of you may have no choice but have to make space in noisy environment to set up your studio. Even if you are able to secure a separate room, there may simply be too much external noise entering the studio to justify a pair of studio/monitors.
Then there are always other factors like a limited budget. Many of you starting out are on a very tight budget, and a quality pair of studio monitors is simply not an option.
Practical limitations like space also play a role. Make-shift studios in bigger rooms or a separate small room may just not have any space for a speakers. In such a case you really have no option but to rely on just a pair of good quality headphones.
As you probably have noticed in other posts as well, if you have to choose between speakers and headphones, always go for headphones first. It picks more sound detail than the best pair of studio monitors, are able to allow you to listen to your audio in a fair amount of isolation and finally, headphones do not take up much space.
Even though I still believe in using the two different sources for the best means of monitoring your recording and mixing, I must admit that there are clear exceptions where it is just not possible and you have to rely on your headphones for the time being. You alone will be able to determine what will be best suited for your unique setup.
7. Do You Really Need All That Acoustic Treatment?
Like most of you who already experienced working in a commercial recording studio or already set up your own large home studio, I know how important acoustic treatment is to get your studio as silent as possible without any reverberation. (I even already dedicated a whole article to room setup and acoustic treatment. If you need more detailed information, you can find it here.)
If you plan on using an existing room that is already furnished, maybe a study or lounge, don't be in any rush to and get those acoustic panels and bass traps.
Start by doing a clap test first to test the room's acoustics. (If you are unfamiliar with the clap test, simply stand in the middle of the room and clap your hands together. If you hear an immediate sharp and harsh noise from the clap, the sound is reverberating from the walls and you may need some acoustic treatment. If your clap produces a "dull thud" though, you already have enough natural acoustic treatment and your room do not need any additional acoustic treatment!)
As was the case with my study I already mentioned earlier on, you may already have enough furniture like curtains, carpets, cloth furniture with different shapes - all acting as natural acoustic panels and sound absorbers. Adding shelves with differently shaped objects on them to the equation, and you also have a sound diffuser that scatters the remaining sound waves in different directions.
Again, this will be different from person to person. Some perfectionists may still not find a setup like the scenario described in the previous paragraph to be satisfactory and rather throw everything out and start with a blank slate.
My best advice for you in a situation like this to do the research to know what the advisable thing is to do, compare that with what you will be happy with and make a decision that will result in the best environment for you to work productively in.
From all these 7 scenarios just portrayed, it is very clear that there are times to follow the general trend and tried-and-tested practices, and times where your own unique situation will force you to adopt an approach or choice in equipment that will better suit your personal needs.
The biggest takeaway here, is to do as much research as possible, then evaluate you own situation and goals, and finally proceed with the solution that will work best for you.
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!