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Home Studio Clinic: A Musician's Guide to Professional Recording

Home Studio Clinic: A Musician's Guide to Professional Recording

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Home Studio Clinic: A Musician's Guide to Professional Recording

459 pages
7 hours
Jan 1, 2007


Open a music gear catalog and it's bursting with an incredible array of tools available for home recording: recorders, software, interfaces, microphones, and more. And while that's exciting, the sheer volume of choices can be a distraction to the real goal of home recording: getting some music down. Home Studio Clinic, written from a musician's point of view, is designed to help you build and use a studio based on your musical goals, not necessarily on the assumption that you want to become a master engineer. By exploring concepts and various common tasks, this reader-friendly book gives you the know-how to choose equipment that suits your needs and style, and the techniques to use it effectively. “The goal ” Menasché says, “is to spend studio time creating, not reading owner's manuals.”
Jan 1, 2007

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Home Studio Clinic - Emile Menasche




When I was in sixth grade, my class learned about newspapers and newspaper writing. We were told that each newspaper article needed to contain the Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. (We also learned that some articles discuss How, but let’s leave the H out for a moment.) Each of these one-word questions is important when putting together a music-making environment, and we’ll examine each throughout the book. But first, let’s start with the final and, in many ways, most important, of the Ws.


Why do you want to buy recording equipment? The simple and obvious answer is that you want to document your music. But why? To what end? Are you interested in using home-recording equipment to create an album that you hope to sell commercially? Or do you want to record backing tracks for your live performances? Maybe you’re a teacher, and see the potential of being able to record lessons for your students, or a singer-songwriter who wants to pump out good-sounding demos. Perhaps you’re a composer who wants to create complex orchestral arrangements of your work, or a dance producer who wants to make beats. You may be a film composer who wants to score music to picture, or a producer who wants to bring other musicians into your studio and make records. Some of you may be answering all of the above. Fair enough. But the more closely you’re able to identify one or two specific goals, the better you’ll be able to choose the right gear and build a studio that will let you spend time where it’s most valuable—on the music itself.

Now, if that sounds simplistic, so be it. The most important questions, the ones that actually affect our lives most directly, are simple. And the simple questions are sometimes the hardest to answer; they require commitment, self-examination, and—sometimes toughest of all—self-honesty.

So why should a book about a home studio even bring up such a personal examination? One of the goals of this book is to help you make decisions to help you make music, not just help you buy gear and use it for its own sake.

One of the cool things about having a home studio is that you can assemble and learn how to use some powerful gear for a relatively low cost. But one of the dangers is that the gear itself—the sheer capability afforded by technologically advanced equipment—can become a distraction. Many a song demo has gone unfinished because of the trivial pursuit of perfection in the recording details. And many an idea has been lost when the muse bailed out as a writer helplessly waited for a complex gear system to boot up.

One the other hand, many a simple idea has turned into gold by the right amount of sonic polish. When you can answer why, you can create an environment that’s compatible with your most important goals, or create one that can meet each of a number of different goals.

Musicians are by nature open-minded people, and art is about going with the flow of possibility. So it’s not like answering why needs to create a prison around your creativity. But if you keep your goals in mind as you learn about the gear, you’ll make better choices. And that’s why this book was written.

In the next Chapter, we’ll go back to the beginning of the newspaper-writer’s list and examine who the studio is for, who you are as a recording musician.


Who Are You?

How often have you said the phrase my music? A lot, right? I’ll bet you’ve used it to refer to the music you write or play, but you may have also used it to indicate the stuff you listen to. In fact, I often hear non-musicians talk about my music. Music is a personal thing, and it forms such an important part of an individual’s—and a culture’s—identity. It’s ours.

Before you start putting together a studio, you might want to take the time to ask yourself: "What, exactly, is my music? " Sounds like a simple enough question. But for most of the musicians I know, it carries a lot more baggage than you might think.

If you ask a fellow musician—especially one who’s an adult—what kind of music they play or listen to, you’ll probably get a long answer. Musicians are into music for its own sake and usually like to draw on a lot of different influences. Plus, we like to show off. So it’s pretty cool to say, I listen to everything from the Sex Pistols to Bach to Bachman Turner Overdrive, Devo, Abba, and Coltrane.

Young musicians are more definite about their tastes and are more willing to either loathe or ignore music that’s outside their preferred genre. Perhaps that’s one reason why so many musical movements start on the grassroots level by young people: they have the focus and conviction of the true believer.

While no mature artist likes to be called a rigid thinker, maturity and eclecticism have their drawbacks. Unless you have unlimited money and space for your home studio, that everything approach can be a problem. You might be better off focusing on one particular area of your music, at least in the beginning. That’s especially true if you’re a songwriter or performing artist whose goal is to form a marketable identity. You may be able to play everything from Miles Davis to MC Hammer, but will doing so impress your audience—or merely confuse them?

What does this have to do with your recording studio? Quite a bit actually. The studio you build should be an extension of you as a person and as a musician. It should serve both you and your music. No duh, you say (you meant to say obviously, but it just slipped out). But think about this: the two are not always in harmony. You might, for example, be interested in composing jazz for a full ensemble. The studio that would be best suited to recording that kind of music would be a big room with a live sound, a collection of expensive mics, a very good mixer and multitrack recorder, and high-end microphone preamps. Not exactly the right fit if you’re living in a studio apartment. Perhaps your studio should be designed to enable you to develop the music for your ensemble, so that you can prepare the band and get ready to go to a professional facility for final production. An effective home studio is one that will get used, even if that use isn’t in producing the final product.

By the same token, if you want to create dance tracks and loops, you’ll be working with a form where the final product—the actual recording—is everything. You’ll need a complete studio that will let you not only record the parts and mix them, but generate CDs and MP3s, as well. Fortunately, modern technology puts both types of studios within reach, even for people on a relatively limited budget. The key to getting the most out of that budget is knowing what to buy and what to leave on the store shelves.

But just as important as the practical considerations of place and purpose—where your studio will be and how will it be used—Is the you factor. What’s your personality like?

Do you like to tinker with old gear—find bargains and turn them into gold? You may be able to find tons of stuff on eBay and at yard sales as people dispense of perfectly fine hardware in favor of a computer-based approach.

Do you need a clean and austere space in which to think? A small, self-contained studio, such as an all-in-one hard-disk recorder, might be for you. Or perhaps a well-designed computer setup.

Are you a computer person who likes to push your machine to its limits? You might end up with a room full of computers, old and new, some serving as recorders, some as a platform for software instruments, web servers, and more.

Or do you consider any non-musical technology to be an intrusion? You might be better off with a handheld recorder or a very basic digital setup, where you can push a button and play, and then take your work elsewhere for further development.

Maybe you like to build an idea step by step and improvise until something clicks. Or you may be a person who works out everything before you record anything. Or maybe you’re a person who can get distracted when there are too many options; or bored when there are too few.

The goal here isn’t to psychoanalyze you as a musician, nor is it to tell you what to buy, but to help you choose wisely so that most of your studio time will be spent making music in the form you want it to be.


Categories can be dangerous for musicians. No one wants to be pigeonholed as anything. And yet, many of the most successful artists are easily identified (it goes back to the opening part of this chapter—don’t confuse your audience). So, for the sake of putting together your studio, let’s throw some categories—or characteristics—out there and see where you match up.


The singer/songwriter may be the archetypal musician of the early twenty-first century. And in many ways, the home studio is the perfect vehicle: an affordable place to compose and arrange songs, with tools to help fill in the gaps in the songwriter’s own playing skills and expand on his or her personal style.

A studio for a singer/songwriter needs to allow for the clean recording of vocals and the instrument of the musician’s choice. Most singer/songwriters accompany themselves on either guitar or piano (or both), and the use of these instruments will go a long way in determining how the rest of the studio unfolds.

Guitarists will most likely want to focus on tools that allow them to record their instrument: a good instrumental microphone and preamp, some effects, and a space that’s quiet enough to allow you to record parts cleanly. Quiet is essential; you want to avoid working next to a loud computer and hard drive (or you need to dampen their sound). Figure 2-1 shows a basic list of what you’ll need:

Figure 2-1

Vocal mic and cable

Guitar mic and cable

A recorder (this can be two-track or multitrack)

From there, you have lots of options. If you want to augment your guitar and voice with other backing tracks, a modest setup with a small keyboard controller and a multitimbral synthesizer should suffice. You’ll probably want to add effects to sweeten your voice and guitar, and more. We’ll discuss options for each of these later.

Keyboardists, on the other hand, may go a different route. MIDI technology lets you use a keyboard to trigger sounds, rather than record them in a conventional sense. You can, for example, use your keyboard to trigger high-quality digital samples of a piano and save yourself the hassle of recording an acoustic piano. Here, room ambience is less of an issue—if your hot-water heater comes on in the middle of a piano take, it might distract you, but its sound won’t show up on your recording. Your setup might include this:

Figure 2-2

Vocal mic

Piano-weighted controller or multitimbral workstation

Digital recorder

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all of these terms mean yet. We’ll be exploring them as we go through the book. Our concern now is to start thinking about the elements of your studio.

You’ll notice that the recorder has been left really general. In fact, the recording system is the most complex part of the studio and consists of several different elements. It’s also an area where you have many options. We’ll be filling in this blank in various ways as we go along.


As soon as you add the word producer to your job description, you’re upping the requirements of your studio. You’re now doing more than tracking a few song ideas or creating a demo. Your goal is to produce a finished piece of work. Most dance music and electronica is built around loops, either sampled recordings of real drummers or rhythm sections, or beats built on drum machines (good producers will use both techniques). Your centerpiece will either be a sampler or a computer system with sampling and looping software. You may need to do little or no actual audio recording on your own.

Figure 2-3

Sampler or controller

Computer-based recording system


Film composers have a complex job; they need to be able to create music in a variety of styles and deliver broadcast-quality recordings. Many independent composers produce finished soundtracks on their computers; others create a framework at home, and then create a printed orchestral score, which musicians will use to perform the music in a professional recording studio.

Film composers today almost universally use computers. Digital video makes it easier to match pieces of music to places in a film. Computers are also great for organizing sounds and snippets of music, two important factors when you’re working under the tight deadlines of a film project.


Teachers can make great use of home studios. You can record your students at their lessons, create background tracks for them to practice along with, develop unique arrangements that suit your student’s abilities, and create and print sheet music.

A teacher’s studio need not be technically impressive, but should have sufficient space for both you and your student, enough mics to record you and the student, and some means to create mixes that the student can take home, either in audio cassette or CD form.

MIDI gear is especially useful in a teacher’s studio. A MIDI keyboard gives you more sound options when accompanying your students and can also help you teach them about sounds and the roles of various instruments. A MIDI sequencer lets you record accompaniment and then alter its pitch or tempo to suit the needs of a specific lesson.

A computer-based studio, in addition to its ability to record audio and MIDI, has the advantage of being able to produce sheet music.


The needs of a producer/engineer may overlap with those of a songwriter, but the goal of a producer’s studio is by nature different. Where, as a songwriter, your main concern is in representing a song, as a producer and engineer, your focus extends beyond the song into the sound and the production itself. Your studio must not only accommodate you and meet your musical needs but also be flexible enough to accommodate clients.

You’ll need a larger collection of mics, a recorder that’s compatible with those found in other studios, a mixing system that can handle lots of tracks, and a suitable amount of outboard gear. If, for example, you want to work in a computer-based setup, you’ll probably want Digidesign Pro Tools (which is widely used in commercial studios around the world), with a healthy number of third-party plug-ins, some good preamps, and premium monitor speakers.

Your gear will also need to be carefully maintained. A bad cable is a drag when you’re by yourself, but it’s a disaster when someone is paying you to record their music, unless you have a good replacement ready. Hard disks need to be defragmented, interfaces cleaned, computers sorted, tape decks serviced—it’s a big commitment.

Also, unlike a home studio that’s there for individual use, the acoustics of your space become much more important. People who come to you to record will want quiet tracks that sound good outside of the safety of your studio. You may need to invest in the services of a commercial studio designer to tweak your rooms, create isolated recording spaces, and wire everything together so that your clients can focus on the music while you handle the recording. No one likes to be on the clock in a recording session, waiting for your neighbor to stop cutting his grass because the mower’s sound is spilling into the studio mics (yes, I speak from experience).

Finally, your studio will need to be comfortable for you and your clients. Your control room should be big enough to hold a couch and offer a place for people to spread out. When you turn your dwelling into a studio for commercial clients, you’ll be inviting strangers into your house. Be prepared.


In the following chapters, we’ll explore some of the basic tools in the modern home studio. As you’ll see, there are dozens of different approaches to building your personal studio, and while any one approach can deliver the results you need, most home recordists end up with a mix of several.


What: The Elements of a Recording Studio

Not long ago, a typical recording studio contained a set amount of stuff. You’d find a mixer, a multitrack tape recorder, a stereo or mono mixdown deck, some outboard processors, some mics, and some ashtrays.

Obviously, there was plenty of variation within that framework. The multitrack setup might have consisted of an analog four-track tape machine or could have been a number of twenty-four-track digital tape machines synchronized together. The mixdown deck might have been a 1" analog tape recorder or a digital tape machine. The mixer might have been a small manual board or a larger console with automated controls. Preamps and mics were used to lend specific sonic colors to the music recorded with them (and some brands remain popular to this day). The ashtrays, however, were pretty universal.

Great records were made with what today would be considered primitive equipment. And because of the popularity of recordings made in the 1960s and 1970s, much of our taste in sound today is shaped by that era. We’ll talk about vintage sounds and their modern equivalents in a bit, but what is important to recognize now is that each of these devices was an entity unto itself; people would install a mixer and wire it physically to the recording machines and outboard effects.

But today, the recording studio is less a collection of physical items and more a collection of functions. You could put together a system that includes a physical mixing board, a multitrack recorder, and effects; or you could have an entire studio in a laptop computer. In the latter case, the elements of the studio exist only in the software and storage of the computer. There’s no physical mixer, no multitrack tape machine, no processor to provide audio effects. But their functions remain, emulated by the software. There’s a mixer, but instead of sitting in front of you, it appears on your screen.


Audio software developers have up until now come out of the ranks of people who grew up using traditional mixers and multitrack machines, and the majority of the software-based studios and all-in-one studios you’ll find on the market operate in much the same way as the hardware elements they seek to replace. Real mixers have faders to control the loudness of individual channels, and so do software-based mixers—even though the latter could easily use numbers, or text, or colors, to represent the differences in volume level.

Because software developers respect the conventions of hardware recording—or, at least, use them as a starting point in representing their virtual studios—you can learn one system and then translate that knowledge to just about any other. So, before we get into specific systems, let’s look at the functioning parts of any studio.


The first element in any signal chain is an input, the electronic door through which sound gets into your mixer and recorder. When you’re recording, you have two main choices: a microphone, which picks up ambient sound as you hear it around you, and a direct input (also known as a DI), into which you plug an electronic instrument’s output (the one you’d use to plug into an amplifier) directly into your recording system.

Acoustic sources—like piano, horns, winds, acoustic drums, violin and other stringed instruments, and voice—are recorded with microphones. Electronic instruments like digital keyboards, drum machines, electronic drum kits, electric guitars, electrified acoustic guitars, and electric bass can be recorded via DI, or, if plugged into an amplifier, with microphones. Or, you can use a combination of the two.

Recorders and mixers often have different inputs for mics and for sources such as electronic instruments, preamps, and other audio devices, which are known as line level devices. That’s because mics have a lower output level, and need to be boosted, whereas line-level signals don’t—and might cause distortion going into a mic input. More elaborate recording systems have specific inputs that handle each type of source. Others may have only one input that must accommodate all sources. In that case, you may need to add a piece of gear called a preamp or use a device called a direct box to create an input that’s compatible with your setup.


A multitrack recorder is the heart of every modern studio, and unless your sole goal is to get ideas down quickly without additional coloration, you’ll have one in your studio.

Multitrack recorders are designed to record more than one independent signal at a time. But what makes them so powerful is that they can record each track (or any group of tracks) at any time. With a multitrack, you can record a guitar in one pass, and then record a vocal on another track, while listening to the previous guitar. Because this is a multitrack recorder, recording the vocal doesn’t erase the guitar part. You can keep stacking parts until you run out of tracks. This technique is known as overdubbing.


Hand in hand with multitrack recording comes the need to distill all these different tracks down into a mix that people can play back on their own audio equipment. That, in a nutshell, is a mixer’s job. But mixers are also used to adjust the signal’s tone, add effects, route signal to and from the recorder and to your speakers (monitors), and more. A good mixer is the most important part of any studio.


Signal processors, also known as effects, change sound in some way. They cover the gamut, from equalizers that adjust tone to reverbs that add ambience to special effects like distortion, modulation, and pitch shifting that alter the very nature of a tone.


In an ideal world, everything you and your band played would be perfect and there’d be no need to change it. Unfortunately, the real (or reel) world is different, and

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