Home Recording Studio Design: What Features Do You Need?

Recording DeskOne of the questions I get asked all the time is about home recording studio design.  I am asked how someone should design and build a studio in their home.  Well, how high is up?  How far is over there?

The point is that the question is impossible to answer without some definitions and insight from you based on your needs.  I can provide the definitions.  You have to provide the insight about your needs, wants and finances.  Let’s see what I mean in general terms.  Other articles on this site will breakdown these options.

Note: This is an introduction to the different types of setups you can create.  Keep in mind there are no absolutes here.  These are my definitions and may vary day to day.  Probably will.

The Zero Cost Home Studio:

If you have a PC or laptop, you already have the beginners system.  This is not the method I would recommend for anyone because it is TOO basic but if you already have the computer you can look at the audio input/output capability.  Most computers will have at least a headphone jack and a mic input.  You can use an adapter to plug your guitar, keyboard or whatever in the mic in and use free software such as Audacity and get after it.

Now realize you are probably gonna overload the mic input, things will sound like hell due to digital distortion and you won’t be happy but at least you are able to do SOMETHING.  With a little fiddling you *may* even be able to get a decent sound.

A variation on this could include on some desktop PCs there is an auxiliary audio input made to handle higher input signals that can be tried.

But overall this whole rig sucks.  You don’t have high quality inputs or low noise audio capability.  Computer audio cards often have crappy s/n (signal to noise) specs.  This means that you are apt to hear a lot of noise in the quiet sections, sometimes you hear digital buzzing noises.  VERY irritating.  Not cool!

I guess you can tell I am not a fan of this no cost recording method. But hang in there you can get pretty decent recordings on the cheap.

Entry level Home Recording Studio Design:

One thing you learn soon enough in the audio recording business is that to minimize noise you need low impedance balanced line microphones.  These have XLR jacks on them instead of ¼” jacks or certainly the tiny 3.5 mm (1/8”) PC mic jacks.  Obviously your PC does not offer these.  So without some external hardware you are doomed to poor quality audio mics.

A caveat to this is that some of the newer USB mics (around $100) are reasonably good especially for talk shows, interviews, podcasts and the like.  But they are just short of infinitely better than a standard $7 PC mic.  I prefer a NON-USB mic even for a low cost home recording studio.  Other articles on this site will cover why.

So why all this talk about mics?  When do we get to the good stuff?

Think about it.  Your sound is only as good as your input.  I don’t know if you are going to record a guitar, drum machine, keyboard, live drums, or a flaming penguin.  Maybe all of the above (poor penguin) but if you have vocals, you need a good microphone.  We will save the GREAT mics for the mid to upper end systems.

You need a box that interfaces a PC to a set of audio inputs.  In between is an electronic interface with preamp capability, maybe a few controls, and what is called an A/D converter.  That stands for analog to digital converter.  Even at the entry level you can probably afford a 20 or 24 bit A/D converter.  In other articles we will discuss the specific possibilities here but the general idea is that you need a USB interface (or firewire) that has audio inputs on it.

If you take one of these boxes and hook to a laptop you have a fully portable recording studio because the USB audio interface is powered by the USB port.  It requires no additional power supply.  That means you end up with a laptop, USB interface and your guitar for example and that’s it.  Most USB interfaces will even power a mic that requires phantom power (+48V) if needed through the XLR interface.

Usually these audio interfaces look like a two channel external box but using overdubs you can do more channels.  They are very thrifty on the wallet and produce good sound.

I keep a guitar in my office to play when the mood strikes me.  Sometimes I am downloading huge files or whatever I just play a bit.  If I get a great ditty for a song I want to get it recorded ASAP so my feeble brain doesn’t lose it.  A rig like a described above is great for something like this.  It records in high quality, is small and self contained.

Mid Range Home Recording Studio Design:

Large Diaphragm MicNow we are gonna have some fun.  I guess you could call my system a mid-range system.  It certainly is designed with a budget in mind but still has a lot of products with fantastic specs.  Things you might find in a mid range home recording studio might be:

  1. Desktop PC (or MAC)
    • Fast
    • Lots of hard drive storage – audio files take up a lot of room…especially in multi-track
    • Flatscreen monitor for the computer – maybe 2 of them.
    • Keyboard – Mouse or trackball.
  2. Computer DAW(digital audio workstation) software – with software effects
  3. Multi-channel A/D audio interface (8 channels or more simultaneously) usually outboard of PC.
  4. Professional or Semi-Pro multichannel mixdown console – either analog or digital.
  5. Low impedance large diaphragm pro microphones.
  6. Outboard effects, preamps, etc.
  7. Studio monitor speakers
  8. Power amp if the monitor speakers are not self powered.
  9. Some moderate room treatments to improve acoustics.
  10. Recording desk – while not a requirement, it sure makes life easier.

This list can be expanded to infinity.  From here additional gear takes you towards what I would call the upper end home recording studio.

Upper End Home Recording Studio Design:

If you take all of the above and expand upon it either with better specifications, additional gear or room treatments you can do pretty amazing things.  At some point the lines begin to blur between a home recording studio and what I would call a demo studio.  This is someplace you might record to get heard by the recording industry.  If you cut the mustard then you might get a contract to record in a full blown professional recording studio.

Also, bands like Boston headed by Tom Scholz blurred the line between home recording studios and professional studios as well.  Boston got a lot of mileage out of the recordings that came out of Tom’s basement.  You can read about some of this here.

As I said in the beginning of this article, these definitions are not standard as there is no such thing.  They are just a single point of view.  You can argue whether or not some item only shows up in a mid system or an upper system but frankly such discussions are pointless.

A home recording studio is an individual labor of love for the person who creates it and is built as time and finances allow.  Quite often finances dictate everything.

Most home recording studios end up with a mix of upper and lower end equipment because most people start out inexpensively and work their way up as finances allow.  You replace one piece of equipment or add on piece of equipment as you can.

The good news is that you can get truly amazing sounds out of low cost equipment these days.  Today’s low cost equipment rivals top end equipment from a few years ago.

Keep reading on the site for more information about how you can improve your home recording studio design.  Feel free to add your comments below.  Tell me what you would like to learn or tell us about your system.

Guitar Player

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