the ultimate guide to building your first home studio even if you have no idea where to start

The Ultimate Guide to Building Your First Home Studio, Even if You Have No Idea Where to Start

A quality recording has a lot to do with the skills of the people using the studio, the equipment that is used, and how the studio is set up. These are the fundamentals you need to know when attempting your first recording session.

The importance of room acoustics is grossly underestimated by beginners when first starting to record at home. Expensive studio monitors and an excellent condenser microphone will not automatically produce great sound.

The budget for a home studio should have a big chunk set aside for the acoustic treatment. Often, people don’t realize that until the money is spent. You can save for the future, but some things can be done now.

What equipment is needed for a home studio?

The list of items needed to record music in your home includes the following.

  • Computer
  • Mixcraft
  • Audio Interface
  • Keyboard
  • Microphones
  • Headphones
  • Studio Monitors
  • Cables

What are the computer requirements?

If you already own a computer, whether it’s a Mac or PC, chances are you can start out with that computer. However, a computer more than six-years-old might not perform as well as you want it to. The hard drive must be reasonably decent, and at least 8GB of RAM is needed. A laptop can be used, but it is best to keep it plugged in while recording. Laptops attempt to save energy. The performance will suffer.

What function does Mixcraft serve?

Mixcraft is a software used to publish directly on YouTube, record virtual musical instruments, do non-linear edits and effects, and record multi-track compositions. The current version 8 of Mixcraft has many built-in synthesizers and old vintage analog synths emulations. Most people are kept happy for a long time using this setup. Mixcraft is compatible with Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, and 10.

Why are audio interfaces needed?

The device that bind the guitars, microphones, and computers together and transfers that sound to your computer is the audio interface. Typically, computers have only one stereo plugin for audio equipment connection, and they usually are not adequate for recording. That’s what an interface is for.

Audio interfaces are also used for recording and overdubbing. Use ASIO (Audio Stream Input Output) whenever possible as you record. Do not use ASIOII. It allows ASIO-only supported programs to use other audio devices. Be sure your interface supports ASIO.

Mixcraft also supports CoreAudio (WaveRT). It works fairly well but is not as tight. Audio interfaces have connections for MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), phantom power, line inputs, and microphone inputs. The price ranges from $50 to $1000. The appearance of some interfaces resembles old automated faders and mixers with tracks that follow track levels in Mixcraft.

What kind of keyboard is best for a studio?

MIDI is the way keyboards and synthesizers communicate. It is more or less a high-tech player piano. A MIDI controller or keyboard is needed for music to be played into Mixcraft. Keyboards vary with your needs.

You need to decide if you want a full 88-key weighted keyboard or a small desktop model for noodling. An audio interface with a MIDI input eliminates the need for a USB keyboard. Some keyboards have sliders, buttons, and knobs that are useful in controlling a variety of track volumes.

What kind of mic is needed?

Mixcraft supports two kinds of microphones: USB microphones or traditional XLR condenser or dynamic mics. The standard XLR is best hooked to an audio interface when recording music with vocals. When recording casual performances or podcasts, a USB microphone in CoreAudio (WaveRT) mode will do nicely.

What headphones should be used?

Not all headphones are of the same quality. The bass is emphasized on some new ones. A decent set of headphones is needed to avoid ‘bleeding’ into new tracks when you are recording. If speakers play back a track, the microphone picks it up, and it becomes part of the track you are recording. Headphones are needed for clean vocals.

Why do I need a monitor?

Even high-end studios use them. Speakers that come with computers are usually intended for gaming. Studio monitors reflect sound more accurately than computer speakers. They do not boost or EQ any frequencies.

Studio speakers are also known as Flat Response Speakers. When testing mixes, you want to listen to the song at various locations such as your phone or your car. Headphones can be used, but experts don’t recommend using headphones for mixing.

What are the cable requirements?

The cables needed, are dependent on what is being done. Line instruments such as guitars are connected with ¼-inch audio cables. When using an XLR mic, you need XLR cables. USB devices require USB cables.

What is the most critical factor to address in a home studio?

The acoustics have more to do with sound quality than anything else in the studio. Here are some tips for designing an efficient treatment setup for a home studio. Sound starts at a source and projects outward in every direction.

Only a small portion travels straight to a microphone. The sound going directly to the microphone has no interaction with the room, so the tone is unaltered and the frequency remains pure.
The remainder of the sound randomly bounces between other room surfaces, and some of the reflections reach the microphone. Reflected sound can ever so slightly change the original sound.
The reflective surfaces and the size of the room have an impact on the change being small or large and bad or good. Most rooms produce lousy quality sound.
Rooms with good acoustics such as a grand cathedral require a lot of space and money to build. Most homes have neither.

In 1960, the impressive machine called the Echo Chamber was invented. Engineers used it to simulate a room’s reverb, other than the room where the recording took place. Technology has grown more sophisticated. Today, digital reverb software programs can reproduce virtually any acoustic environment sound.

When novices learn of the acoustic treatment benefits, they frequently make purchases without diagnosing and evaluating how extensive the problem is. To make a diagnosis, work around the room clapping your hands as loud as possible.

Listen carefully from every spot for reverberations. A harsh metallic ringing is the worst case scenario. It commonly occurs in rooms that are small and cubical. The best case scenario is a pleasant reverb that usually happens in large rooms with complex diffusive surfaces and high ceilings.

What you’ll hear is probably somewhere on the spectrum. The worse it is, the more absorption that is needed to make sound dry. The better it is, the less acoustic treatment is required.
Nearly all rooms will benefit from some acoustic treatment. As a point of reference between good and bad, perform the clapping test in various rooms and make a note of those that sound best.
As you install acoustic treatment in the studio, continuously use the clapping test to observe the change in sound. Each new addition should make ringing less prominent until it completely disappears.

How can acoustics be improved?

There are three elements of acoustic treatment. They are bass traps, acoustic panels, and diffusers.

Bass Traps

Bass traps absorb low frequencies. They are the essential acoustic treatment element to be added to the studio. If you can afford only one thing, make it bass traps. Porous bass traps absorb broadband.

They are useful for absorbing mid to high frequencies. Many people erroneously believe acoustic panels are the ‘go-to’ weapon to combat studio acoustic problems. They are nearly ineffective in the absorption of the lowest bass frequencies.

Foam Panels

Before the fake reverbs can be added, the real reverb has to be removed. The removal is accomplished with foam panels on the studio walls. They absorb reflections that would otherwise be recorded.

Because they are thinner, they do offer more surface area. Acoustic panels provide greater wall coverage with a smaller price tag. They kill standing waves that exist between parallel and opposite walls. Bass traps cannot do that because they are located in corners.

Diffusers

There is disagreement among experts about the use of diffusers. For small rooms, the diffusion effectiveness is substantially reduced or neutralized. Project studios may not use expensive diffusers. Many people do not use them. Others use tons of diffusers.

In theory, only direct sound from the instrument reaches the microphone. In practice, people have discovered absorption works best when combined with a type of acoustic treatment called diffusion.

When all the sound reflections are removed with absorption, the sound may be uncomfortably ‘dead.’ The solution is to allow some reflections to remain and use diffusers to scatter them. Untreated reflections are problematic.

They become trapped in one spot. They amplify some frequencies and cancel out others. Natural frequency balance is destroyed. The natural tone is preserved when diffusers scatter reflections and keep them from getting trapped.

Commercial diffusers are expensive. Most home studios do not use them. It is wonderful if they are used. In that situation, the standard location is the ceiling and upper position of the walls. Anything at head level and below will absorb initial reflections.

The right combination of diffusion and absorption can transform your home studio into a room capable of world-class recording. There are still a few things beginners need to understand to apply the principles.

The best advice is to get absorption under control first, then add diffusers if you feel they are needed. There are all-in-one packages that avoid the hassle of buying the elements individually. Complete ‘room packages’ eliminate the guesswork and simplify the process.

Installing Acoustic Treatments

When the acoustic treatment materials are assembled, there is still another step in the process. Three key areas of the studio that must be defined. They are the trihedral corners, dihedral corners, and the wall.

installing acoustic treatments

The trihedral corners are the points where the walls and ceiling or walls and floor meet. Think about the corners of a cube.

Dihedral corners are the lines formed when the wall and a wall, a wall and the ceiling, or the wall and the floor meet. The edges of a cube are an excellent way to think about them.
The priority is the trihedral corners, then the dihedral corners, and finally the wall.

The trihedral corners are the first consideration because they are the areas with the most significant impact. Three sets of parallel planes converge at those points. Absorption located at the corners catches room modes from three dimensions, it works three times as efficiently. Dihedral corners work on two dimensions. The walls work only on one.

How are acoustic elements installed?

There are four basic steps to set up an acoustic treatment. The first step is mounting bass traps at each trihedral corners.

how are acoustic elements installed

Place acoustic panels along the dihedral corners. Bend the acoustic panels in the corners of the room to form air gaps. The air gaps provide maximum low-end absorption.
You may not want to use all the acoustic panels for that purpose. The next task requires the most acoustic panels in a package.

Two parallel walls tend to reflect sound waves back and forth in the same area. Some frequencies are amplified. Others are canceled. The problem is avoided by placing the acoustic panels flat against the wall.

They need to be spread evenly throughout the room. If the number of panels is limited, avoid mounting panels directly across from each other.
Stagger the positions by mounting them in checkerboard fashion along one wall and an opposing dark/light checkerboard on the wall parallel to the first.

acoustic elements

Musicians frequently mistakenly interchange two terms: soundproofing and acoustic treatment. They are completely different. Acoustic treatment aims to control sound reflection in a room so that better sounding recordings are produced.

Up to this point, the described acoustic treatments are strategic for live rooms. The strategies are meant to provide an excellent sound from anywhere in the studio. Pro studios use control rooms. There, the primary goal is maximizing the studio monitors accuracy from seated position mixing.

The acoustic strategy for control rooms is different. Most homes use one room as a live room and a control room. The acoustic treatment needs to be a ‘hybrid’ plan that blends elements from both strategies.

Can acoustics be improved when the budget is low?

Typical do-it-yourself methods include carpeting, cup holders, and egg crate foam. They do not work and can make the situation worse by ignoring low frequencies and absorbing the high frequencies.

Solutions that do work include:

  • Close-miking
  • Using dynamic mics
  • Household absorbers
  • A ‘Mattress Vocal Booth’
  • Reflection filters

Close-miking

Close-miking positions the microphone as close to an instrument as possible without ruining the tone. The direct sound is increased, and a portion of the reflected sounds is decreased. The acoustic impact of the recording is minimized.

Dynamic Mics

As a rule, dynamic mics are less sensitive than condenser mics. Less ambiance is picked up. Less ambiance is a desired trait in poor acoustic rooms. Dynamic mics should be used in untreated rooms. Their use is especially needed on vocals because of the enormous difference they make.

Household Absorbers

Manufacturers want you to believe their acoustic foam is the only material that will work. Any porous, soft material like couches, blankets, pillows, or clothes offer similar absorption. Chances are you have plenty of these items in your home.

Storing some of them in the studio is an economical solution. It may not have a professional appearance as a ‘real’ acoustic treatment, but it will help a lot. Stack things as thick as possible to absorb frequencies evenly.

An even better solution than blankets and pillows is the ‘mattress vocal booth.’ Lean an old mattress directly behind a singer as they perform. A heavy, solid-core mattress must be used to achieve efficient broadband absorption. Face the most sensitive side of the microphone toward the mattress to avoid incoming reflections.

Reflection Filters

For those who find acoustic foam too expensive, but blankets and mattresses, not an attractive option, a reflection filter is a great in-between. Reflection filters absorb reflections before they enter the room. A semicircle absorption panel mounts to the microphone and wraps around the mic neatly.

Sophisticated acoustic treatments work better. Reflection filters cost about a tenth of a standard room package, there is no setup, and they work decently. Using reflection filters along with the other DIY techniques will make recorded sounds 1000 times better than a bare room.

How can a studio be made soundproof?

Soundproofing and acoustic treatment are both valuable. They are not interchangeable. Soundproofing minimizes the sound level traveling in and out of a room. It is done by blocking sound with dense, heavy building material and sealing air gaps in windows and doors. This process allows recording whenever you want without disturbing your neighbors or them bothering you.

There are four soundproofing techniques. They are:

  • Adding mass
  • Damping
  • Decoupling
  • Fill air gaps

Adding Mass

The walls of a studio require a lot of mass to prevent vibration in response to energy from sound. Building additional structures from a material such as Sheetblock, a mass loaded vinyl, add mass to the studio.

Efficient soundproofing is measured with a Sound Transmission Class (STC) metric or Sound Transmission Loss (STL) metric. STC can be misleading because it uses one number for the whole frequency spectrum. Poor ranges from 20 to 30; average from 30 to 40; and good from 40 to 50.

Dampening

Dampening is similar to adding mass. It converts sound wave energy to heat. Green Glue is sandwiched between two rigid panels such as medium density fiberboard (MDF), plywood or drywall. Two tubes are used for a 4’ by 8’sheet. It can be added to the walls, ceiling, floor, or door.

Decoupling

Sound vibrations from one structure in the studio transfer freely to another structure that is in direct contact. Decoupling blocks the transfer by isolating contact points. A pliable, dense rubber is typically used.

Other means of decoupling include a floating floor, double walls, isolated layers, and isolated studs from the ceiling, walls, or floor. A combination of techniques contains any resonance that develops in the studio.

The final soundproofing task is sealing the little holes and cracks, making them air-tight. Tools needed to do the job include acoustical caulk, foam gaskets, or automatic door bottoms. Soundproofing is a job that requires skill, money, and time.

Most home studios either skip soundproofing or use limited resources to make improvements. Outside noise is typically periodic. You can likely find quiet hours to work in peace. Inside noises are constant, which makes it difficult to find suitable solutions.

Computer noise is a common problem in recording studios since the computer and microphone are forced to be in close proximity.

Solutions include:

  • Creating maximum acoustic separation
  • Using a laptop stand
  • Getting or building an Isobox
  • Using multiple rooms

An Isobox is a soundproof enclosure for the computer. It uses a silent cooling fan to protect against overheating and an alarm that warns of any problems.

How do you create quality sound?

Recording a song is a complicated process. There are four basic steps:

  • Recording
  • Editing
  • Mixing
  • Mastering

How are vocals recorded?

Instrument recording techniques lie in the hands of someone who positions the mic. The performer does the control for vocals. It is a tricky technique for a singer inexperienced in a studio recording.

Vocal recording is a skill everyone needs to know, no matter what the music style. It is the part of the song that listeners pay attention to. Recording vocals demand the best work. Beginners may find all the techniques, gadgets, and knowledge overwhelming.

Anyone can improve the sound in little or no time. It begins with the right microphone. Employing fancy techniques is less important than avoiding common problems.

Those problems are:

  • Foot noise
  • Poor room acoustics
  • Popping
  • Proximity effect
  • Sibilance

Popping

Popping is the sound the mic makes when ‘p’ and ‘m’ sounds are produced. To avoid popping, sing into the microphone at an angle that is slightly off-axis.

Sibilance

‘S’ and ‘f’ sounds emit high-frequency blasts called sibilance. Software tools such as multiband compressors and do-essers mask the sibilance. Putting a pencil over the mic diaphragm also helps. A rubber band can be used to secure it in place.

Proximity Effect

A cardioid mic exhibits a low-end frequency response boost. The effect becomes stronger as a sound comes closer to the mic. A low-end boost that appears and disappears randomly is annoying. The proximity problem is solved using a pop filter or omnidirectional mic.

Foot Noise

Certain floors allow every footstep to be heard. The noise a singer makes when tapping a foot travels up the mic stand and to the recording. Shock mounts create acoustic isolation between the stand and the mic.

Some singers like to add effects before recording because they sound better. It is best to add effect when recording is over because every added effect increases the probability of missing a problem.

De-essers make hearing and avoiding sibilance difficult. High-pass filters make it challenging to hear popping. It is hard to hear level changes when a compressor is added. Being off-key is hard to detect when auto-tone is added.

Instrument Recording

The four standard instruments needed to record are:

  • Guitar
  • Bass
  • Keyboard
  • Drums

Methods used in pro studios may not apply to a home studio. Not having adequate tools makes things a bit more challenging. You will need a microphone collection. Every product mentions the mic’s polar pattern.

Omnidirectional, figure 8, and cardioid are three terms repeated over and over. Few people understand what they mean and how to apply them. Recordings with the wrong microphone polar pattern are doomed.

Recording artists need to learn the skill of stereo recording. Most home studios don’t attempt stereo recording. They either lack the gear or the knowledge. Some have never heard of it. You now know why recording sounds amateurish.

Editing

No matter how carefully recordings are done, there are always mistakes that need to be fixed. The process entails arrangements, comping, noise reduction, and time and pitch editing. After editing, mixing blends the arrangements into a cohesive unit.

Mixing

Studio monitors do not hold the same importance they once did. Many independent musicians, working in home studios, use headphones as the standard method of mixing.

There are advantages and problems associated with mixing on headphones.

The benefits are:

  • Freedom to work in silence
  • Privacy
  • Location freedom
  • Less expensive
  • Greater attention to detail

The problems can be avoided or minimized by choosing a quality pair of headphones. In pro audio circles, mid to high-end open back headphones are used. The only time something else is needed is when mixing while tracking.

Commercial studios have separate control and live rooms. In home studios, where the engineer and musician share one room, headphones are needed for both people. Open back headphones do not work in a room with a live microphone. They don’t isolate the sound. The biggest problem with headphone mixing is sound from a mix done only on headphones does not have the same quality when played on studio monitors.

Each system hears music differently. There are differences in stereo imaging, frequency response, and crossfeed. Stereo images sound wider on headphones than monitors. The difference is quite noticeable.

Center panned instruments sound as though they are in front of your on monitors. The sound seems to be between your ears on headphones. Manufacturers add a high-frequency roll-off to headphones to compensate for high-frequency sounds that are louder close to your ears.

The bass is not felt like it is with monitors. A bass boost is sometimes used to compensate. The lowest bass frequencies are a struggle to reproduce on headphones. An additional higher bass frequencies octave boost sometimes compensates.

The left monitor is heard in the left ear and the right monitor in the right ear. A split second later, each ear hears from the opposite monitor at a volume that is slightly lower. The sound reception is known as crossfeed.

With headphones on, no crossfeed exists. The brain dislikes what it perceives is missing information. To fix the problem, avoid hard panning. Use open back headphones. Or use a crossfeed plugin.

As your work in the studio increases, you will begin to hear things others don’t. You are starting to understand sound and how the brain and ear interpret the world that surrounds us.

The technical names for the skills you are learning are:

  • Binaural hearing
  • Understanding decibels
  • The Fletcher Munson Curve
  • Digital Audio

Binaural refers to listening with both ears. The Fletcher Munson Curve refers to the way human ears perceive difficult frequency.
When recording, a guide for instruments to follow is needed. The tempo can be set with a pre-recorded drum loop or a click/metronome. Songs that don’t have a steady rhythm can use a scratch track that is created by a single or group of instruments then over-dubbed until the original is ‘scratched.’

The drums and bass instruments are the first to record because that is what bands, playing together follow. Acoustic guitar can be recorded if a song has no drum or bass. The first recording is the foundation.

Adding horns, synths, piano, rhythm guitar, etc. creates a chord structure. A combination of instruments usually forms the melody. The most dominant instrument, typically vocals or lead guitar, should be the first addition. Fill in the gaps with supporting melodies. Add color to the recording by adding flair to the main track such as sampled sound effects, piano fills, percussion fills, and background vocals.

Balance faders so no instrument sounds too soft or loud. Pan so each instrument has its stereo image space. Equalization crafts a frequency spectrum for instruments, so they do not compete for the same frequency.

Comprehension levels out each instrument’s dynamic range so that every note is heard and the entire mix sounds louder. Reverb creates a three-dimensional space that adds a sense of depth and unifies the instruments.

Automation changes settings at points in a song to give a mix a sense of movement. After the song has been through the process, it is re-recorded to a single stereo file. The term is commonly known as bouncing.

Mastering

Mastering is not always done in home studios. Only if you record professionally or merely want the best sound possible, are mastering techniques necessary.  They include:

  • Maximizing loudness
  • Balancing frequencies
  • Stereo widening

When the sound is perfect, the track is converted to an appropriate sample rate/bit depth.

To conclude, putting together your home studio can be overwhelming and may seem as complicated as your music itself. I hope this article provided you with some conclusive information on where to start, what essential pieces of equipment you need and how to troubleshoot common sound issues, even if you’re on a budget. Creating beautiful music is one thing, but a space that allows you to record your sound in a way that does it justice can be just as important. Rock on!

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