(A Rule of Thumb Guide)
James (J-Bot) Pennington: Copyright, 2010
First of all, welcome to Byte-Mix Sound Design.Here is another guide that may be updated and revised as I find mistakes, or better explanations. This guide is geared toward setting up a home or project studio, and making the most out of the setup.
Disclaimer: This is --NOT-- a comprehensive guide. This is strictly what I know from experience, research, listening to other home-studio musicians, and what works for me. This "guide" also assumes you are just starting out in this field.
So, in my last guide, I explained some of the principals involved with setting up a decent room to be used for a home studio. That guide covered such topics as positioning, acoustics and treatment, and touched on equipment and software. This guide will focus more on gear and equipment, and other useful things to get you started.
I: What do I need?
Many people ask questions about gear and what they need. Most of these questions begin with the phrase, "What is the best...?" or, "I have this budget, what can I fit...blah?" Well, honestly there is no best. It's all about how you use it, and what the intended applications are. Generally, a typical setup will consist of your computer/DAW, a monitoring chain, and an input chain. We'll start with the input chain, which will include your mics, mixers, preamps, audio interface; everything in the signal path between the instrument/sound and the DAW.
So, you've come up with a great song, and you've got the instruments set up just the way you want it, and you're ready to go. So, what do you need? Well, for starters you're going to need a way to get those sounds recorded and into the computer so you can work with them. This is done by using a microphone, of which there are different types. For our purposes, we'll focus on two types: dynamic mics, and condenser mics.
The main difference between the two is that dynamic mics can generally handle a higher SPL (sound pressure level). This is good for those sounds that are very loud and close to the mic. Think electric guitars, your rock vocalist shouting into the mic, hard-hitting snare drums, etc. The name "dynamic" is somewhat a misnomer however, as the mics are not as dynamic as a condenser mic, and tend to play nicer with harsher sounds.
A condenser mic is much more sensitive, and very high SPL's can potentially damage the mic. A condenser mic tends to paint a picture of the sound for what the sound actually is. It is very dynamic, and can pick up --everything-- in the room. The whisper of the A/C Vents, traffic from outside if the room isn't very well soundproofed, and so on. This type of mic tends to play very nicely with more dynamic instruments or vocals, such as picking up the intimacy of a soft violin or the character of a trained soprano. The work nicely with various acoustic instruments. So, essentially sounds and music that have lower SPL's, but a much larger dynamic range.
There are plenty of good brands for either class of microphone: Shure, Rode, Karma Audio, MXL, Neumann, Audio-Technica, AKG to name a few. You do -not- need the absolute most expensive mic out there, and there are plenty of good microphones in the low to mid budget range. The Shure SM57 is a good all around dynamic mic used by bands the world over, and is pretty much a standard. The SM7b is also a good one (almost essential) to have around for vocals. The type of mic you will want will vary depending on the situation, and the application. Some good condenser mics include the Audio-Technia AT2020 and AT4040, Rode NT-1A, Studio Projects C1. Different mics will have a slightly different color or character. So after recording adjustments to the audio may or may not need to be done to get the sound you want. Some have a nice warm vibe to them, some are cold, some more harsh, etc.
Most microphones (particularly condensers) will require a pre-amp (which boosts the signal) with +48volts of what is known as "phantom power" The mic needs this power to be able to function. Many mixers and audio interfaces will have that phantom power built in. In other cases, you may need an external pre-amp unit. As for connections, most mics will use what's known as XLR, which is a 3-pin connector. Other mics may use a 1/4-inch TS Jack.
This is a quick touch on the subject, but you will likely want headphones for the musicians so they can hear what they are playing without having everyone bleed into each other's microphones. Though, sometimes you may want to mic everyone up at once just to capture that "room" sound. Good headphones will keep the sound in, have very little sound-bleed while wearing them, be comfortable, and have a good clear sound. Some suggestions are the Audio-Technica M40fs or M50, Sennheiser HD280pro, Sony MD7506, or the AKG K240s.
III: Mixer, or no Mixer?
This really depends on the application and situation. How many mics and instruments do you need to record at once? Chances are, if you're recording a full band, you'll want a good 12 or 16 channel mixer. Enough for drum mics, guitars, bass, vocals, and/or synths if any. Some decent budget mixers are the Berhinger Xenyx series. A bit more expensive is the Allen & Heath MixWizard. If you're setting up for live sound, you may want to look at the Allen & Heath Zed series.
However, if you're only concerned with recording a few things, such as your personal podcast, or vocals and a guitar or synth, or layering tracks and being a one-man-band, you may not need a mixer at all, and could record straight into your audio interface. in fact, if you're recording just a few things at once, you really should run straight to the interface and bypass the mixer all together. Now, you may be wondering why that's the case. The reason is, most mixers are noisy and add unwanted noise or artifacts into the input signal being recorded. So if you can get away from the mixer it is a good idea to do so. However, keep in mind that if your interface does not supply phantom power (+48v), you will either need an external pre-amp that does, or you may need to run it through the mixer channel anyway if it supplies it on the mic inputs.
IV: Which Interface?
This should be the next device on the input signal (assuming no outboard compression or other effects devices). There are many, many different types/brands of audio interfaces. MOTU, Echo, M-AUdio, Line6, PreSonus, RME, Focusrite, and the list goes on. Again, application and situation play an imporant part of the decision process. How many inputs and outputs do you need? Do you need midi? S/PDIF? Tos-Link? RCA? Do you need an external or internal interface? Can you use USB? Firewire?
If you don't need very many inputs, then a Line6 Toneport UX1 or UX2, or an Echo Audiofire 2 or 4 are very good quality and affordable. M-Audio also makes some good budget interfaces. However, if you need higher-end interfaces with higher quality and more channels of input, then you might consider looking at the PreSonus, MOTU, or RME brands.
For a good quality 4 or 6 channel interfae, you can look to pay about $300, maybe $200. If you're going for 8 channels, you may be looking closer to $500 or more depending on the manufacturer and model.
I can say from personal experience that the Echo Audiofire 4 is a very nice interface for the price, and the drivers are also rock-solid. I have had absolutely zero issues with this interface, and the sound quality is also very good. I can also vouch for the Line6 Toneport UX2 as there have been many folks satisfied with that device. Unfortunately, the toneports do not have midi ports. (However, the Line6 KB37 is a 37-key midi keyboard controller + audio interface combined, which is also very good)
After the audio gets recorded, you'll be working on mixing and adjusting the soundscape. As you do this, you'll most likely be critically listening to things. Your monitoring chain will allow you to analyze the soundscape and make adjustments as needed. This, combined with your room setup, is (and I cannot stress this enough) --Most Important Aspect of Your Studio-- ! If there is any one thing you do -not- want to skimp on, it is your speakers. Your speakers are like your eyeglasses into the audio world. Your mix can only ever be as good as your monitors along with the room they are in.
That said, there are a number of price-friendly lines suitable to the home or project studio world. To name a few brands: Adam, Tannoy, KRK, Dynaudio, Samson, Focal, Behringer, and M-Audio. Some of these brands are more expensive (I'm looking at you, Adam!) but several have the budgeted home musician in mind. KRK makes several lower-priced monitors that are quite good. The Rokit series have always gotten good reviews. Tannoy has the Reveal series, Dynaudio BM5A's are a bit better, but twice as expensive. M-Audio also makes some decent budget monitors.
The important thing on choosing monitors, is they have to work with --Your-- ears. It really doesn't matter what others think about them. What matters is if they work well with your ears or not, and everybody's ears are different. If you can at all, try to avoid buying online (though I'm guilty of this as well) and get down to a music vendor and hear the monitors in person. The same goes for headphones. Some people adore the Sennheisers, I'm fond of Audio-Technica, other people like AKG or the Sony MD7506's. For tracking or recording, the headphones aren't (quite) as important, as long as they seal the sound in well, and the playback is nice and clear.
For a quality set of starting near-field monitors, I wouldn't recommend spending less than $450/pair. Higher end monitors will run closer to $1000/pair or even $1000 per speaker.
I won't really get into mid-fields because unless you are building a studio from the ground up, and having an acoustic engineer design the walls and the room, they don't really do the job they're supposed to do. Mid-field or main monitors are built into the wall and soffit-mounted, so they become a part of the room itself. Adding them onto an existing room doesn't really work because the room has to be designed around the monitors. They get pricey to say the least.
VI: The DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Standing for Digital Audio Workstation, the DAW is where you will do most of your production work. Most DAWs handle the same basic job, but in different ways. What matters most is what works with your own workflow. Which DAW is easy for you to navigate, inspiring if need be, and a pleasure to interact with? There are plenty of software options including: FL Studio, Cakewalk Sonar, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Logic, Ardour, Cubase, Reaper, Sony Soundforge, and again the list goes on.
The type of DAW will probably depend on your computer's operating system as well. Some companies have versions for several different operating systems, whereas others are exclusive to Mac OSX or Linux. My recommendation is to download several different demo versions (most companies provide them) and do some actual work. Sure, there may be limitations to track count or saving, but that won't be important.
What will be important is how well you interface with the software. Ask yourself, Is it easy for you to navigate? Is it easy to start a project right away? How is the workflow? Can you get a recording finished and mixed pretty easily? How about the track and mixer layouts? Point is, you'll want to stick with a software that will do what you want, while at the same time being easy to move around in, and actually get things done without having to jump through hoops, or dig into the deep reaches of software menus.
So, in a nutshell, it is important to demo the software, and figure out which software you like, but still does what you need it to do. Most products have different "tiers" of the product line, such as entry-level or "lite" versions (usually the demo) home-studio versions, producer, and complete bundles. They're all capable of the basic things that a DAW needs to do, the question is what jives with you, and helps you get things done, and which of the "extra" features you could see yourself using in the future. Some DAWs are also stronger or weaker in certain areas as well, such as audio vs. midi editing capability.
VII: Computer System
If you are new to this, and just starting out, you may not be able to afford to get or build a new computer right away. The good news, is most softare will run just fine, and you'll be able to record what you need to if your system is reasonable. By reasonable, I mean roughly a 2.0Ghz Processor, 2GB RAM, a good audio interface, and a decently fast/large hard drive (7500RPM spindle speed minimum) My older system was dated, but got the job done unless running multiple VST effects and instruments. A decent power supply will also go a long way: About 400Watt for an older system, and at least 550Watts for newere computers.
A "good" system will probably be something like a Dual-Core at 1.5Ghz per core (3.0Ghz total), 4GB RAM, a couple good fast hard drives (10000RPM if possible) one being for audio work, and the other one for the Operating System. Both drives should have a good amount of storage (at least 180GB per drive) Also, for certain VST and effects displaying the more impressive graphics and feedback (Such as scopes, EQ, monitoring, etc.) you may want to get a decent dedicated video card. This will also free up some system memory by disabling the onboard video chip. A decent powersupply to power it all will be necessary, which, as I said earlier, will be about a 550Watt power supply at least. Beyond that, it boils down to what you like to work with OS-wise. Linux, Mac OSX, Windows XP, or 7 (I'd avoid Vista like the plague) whatever works for you the best is what you'll want to focus on for your DAW.
VIII: Other Devices
Well, this should cover other types of outboard gear including compressors, pre-amps, distortion pedals, DSP, etc. etc. Honestly, these days when it comes to effects, plenty of people work on the effects post-recording inside the DAW. There's a few reasons for this: 1) Software effects these days produce some really nice results. 2) If you use outboard gear to affect the recording, the recording is pretty much "stuck" with it, and the only way to get it out if you don't like it, is to do another take without the effect. So, using software effects will improve the workflow and will be far less time consuming (debatedly) than having to retrack a take, making changes to the gear everytime you track. Though there are always exceptions and cases where you want to use outboard equipment for a certain sound or style.
As for software, there are plenty of places to get VST instruments and effects. And there are also many quality free and/or open source VST products. VST, standing for virtual studio technology, will be your amp simulators, reverb, limiter, compressors, EQ, audio monitors, soft-synths, sample libraires, etc. etc. One of the best places to check for good free VST is KVR Audio: http://www.kvraudio.com They have an extensive database that is easy to search and navigate, and houses many fre VST products as well as commercial software.
IX: Midi Keyboards
I'm covering this situation last since they aren't technically part of the input or output chain. Some questions to ask are: what size of keyboard are you looking to get? If I'm using this for VST primarily, do I really need it to have an internal sound engine? What sort of key action do I prefer? Am I a trained pianist who requires hammer-action and nothing else, or can I get by with semi-weighted keys? Do I need a full-range 88-key controller, or am I comfortable with 61-keys or smaller? Do I have room for an 88-key controller in my space? Can I get by without aftertouch?
If you have any background playing piano, I'd recommend getting 61 keys minimum. Otherwise, you might get by with 37 or even 25 key sizes. (I find 37 keys tolerable for doing melody leads, and being portable, but I use a 61 for my main keyboard controller) When it comes to controllers and using them with various VST, I really prefer something with options for controlling automation along with a decent keybed. I'm semi-picky about my key action as a partially trained pianist, and prefer solid-feeling keys, though not necessarily hammer-graded action.
Different makes of controllers will have different feeling keys for sure. Some companies use cheaper/thinner/lighter plastics and end up feeling flimsy and/or cheap. I'm not fond of the the really light synth-action style keys (though I just recently bought a couple compact keyboard VA-Synths), and prefer something heavier feeling. Though for VST, I don't really want something that's hammer-action (unless I'm emulating an actual piano). I like a nice in-between on the key action; not too soft or light, but not hammer-style. A nice inbetween slightly weighted resistance.
I've always heard people say that the M-Audio keys feel kinda "spongey" I feel the EMU Xboard is a nice in-between feeling. The keys feel nice and solid feeling, but they're not hammer action. And there's 16 knobs that can be used for automating various VST parameters along with okay-ish aftertouch. I've also heard good things about the later Edirol PCR-series for the key action. (the 300/500/800, not the earlier controllers) but I think they've been discontinued and repackaged into the Cakewalk A-series. But I've heard they have pretty good keyboard action. Novation's line of keyboards I've always heard have pretty good key action, depending on the controller. The SL Series in particular is supposed to be good. I've not had a chance to try Akai's new line of MPK keyboards, but I've generally gotten a positive sense about them from others' comments, and they do have an 88-key controller if you need a full-range keyboard. Many midi-controllers stop at 61 keys. If you have a chance to hop by a local music shop to try out different keyboards to get a feel for them, that's a plus. Though I realize that's not always an option.
X: In Closing
Well, that pretty much describes the ins and outs of typical home-studio gear. In a nutshell, you'll have your mics (which may or may not need a pre-amp) going to a mixer and/or audio interface. The interface will connect to your DAW. The DAW is where you focus on the production and mixing work, which is output through your interface, and played back over your monitors. There are a lot of very affordable options, and you don't need the best or most high-end gear out there to produce good quality and commercially viable work.
What you -will- need, is time and patience to learn the gear. Learn how it works, what to expect, the limitations and how to work around them. Learn how to work with the software, and how to mix with it. It may take a year or more to get your head wrapped around all the concepts, and get a solid grasp on the many facets of the field. But, a lot of it can be done with experimenting, seeing what happens, try new things and figuring out or reading up on how and why it happens. This is one of the reasons I find working on music to be fun: the work is very hands on.
-James W. Pennington