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I started writing this after doing some work for media design studios. It crystallized years of discussions about studio building and how the entry point is so much different than even 10 years ago. Like many, I've made a fair number of poor buying decisions. I hope in helping others make better decisions, quality everywhere will improve. I also hope to help others understand that you can build a great quality setup a reasonable prices.

This is still very much a work in progresses. Any feedback is appreciated.

-*-*-

The key to building a good studio on a limited budget is to not spend $200 today when you simply are going to have to replace it. There is plenty of equipment that you can get on a budget that in the future you won't want to replace it so much as augment with another quality tool. The best kit is tools that you continue to use, with pleasure, even after you buy those $2000 Great River pre-amps and the Pendulum compressors components.

studio design:

* computer as the central mixer, control center and processor within the studio.

** moderate amount of external inputs from external sources, such as processing, mics, or instruments.

* home or project studio; design, advertising, gaming firms, or production house

Equipment

User choice for computer. Obviously a system with good I/O performance is ideal. Areas to pay attention to is RAM, Hard drive space and performance, and front side bussing throughput.

audio computer interface: 8in/out analog minimum, digital IO recommended (ADAT, S/Pdif, AES/EBU)

patchbay: minimum 48 point. should be easy to change the routing styles (normalized, parellel, half-normalized)

mixer: optional and as an addition to the patchbay/DI recording process, not as the central routing. Go from pre-amp to audio interface rather than pre > mixer > interface; cut down on noise and audio coloration.

Pre-Amps

Along with AD convertors, pre-amps are vital in getting sound into any digital system. They ensure that you capture a quality recording. You should never try to fix post recording what you could have improved during tracking. The less heavy handed you can be at each stage improves the overall quality of recordings.

The following pre-amps and direct injection boxes are solid fixtures of any studio.

FMR RNP 2 channel $475

Grace $600

Telefunken V71DI $550

Manley Tube DI with EQ $575

There are fantastic pre-amps at the $1000 to $1500 price point which anyone who brings in the majority of their source material from external to the computer should seriously consider. Pre-amps are an oft overlooked and under-valued component to studios, yet are one of the most vital in getting that 'big' or 'full' sound. Pre-amps are not only for Mic recording, in a mixer-less studio, they assist in getting a strong signal for recording. Keyboards often can benefit from being passed through a quality pre-amp on the way to recording. Adding them in the mix down stage to a track via a effects loop can bring out some life and provide a something extra.

In the $1000-$1500 market, check:

Great River ME-1NV $1100

Speck Mic-Pre 5 $1000

John Hardy M-1 personal $1000

John Hardy M-1/2 series $1100 to $3000 depending on number of channels

Compressors

Provides control and contour to your audio as it enters the system. This is not for smashing the sound but to get a consistent level and signal (I suppose you can smash the sound as much as you like, but good dynamics seems to be a fading art which I liked to see brought back.)

Post tracking you can loop the outboard processing into your mix down process through the audio interface.

I've not been overly pleased in the lower cost market so there isn't much to recommend, however, the FMR is one of the great values of all time.

FMR RNC 2 channel (2 stereo channels) $175

more upscale:

Empirical Labs Distressor $1300

The true stars in the Compressor/Limiter market live in the $2000 plus market.

Pendulum Audio, Manley, Chandler, among others.

Mics

I find individual taste play greatly here and I only limited experience with a handful of Mics. Always try them out before buying.

To quote for the rec.audio.pro FAQ:

Under $300 per pair. (Frankly, it's worth spending more than this if you possibly can.)

Audio-Technica Pro-37R. Not the flattest thing on earth, but cheap and does the job. Requires phantom power.

Shure 849. Pretty much the same mic as the Shure Beta Green 4.0, for less money. Battery or phantom.

Under $400 per pair. (These mics are still a compromise, but good for non-serious use.)

Audio-Technica ATM 33a. Resistant to overload and reasonably quiet. Battery or phantom.   Octava MK-012. Multiple capsules! High mic-to-mic variability: listen to the ones you're buying. Phantom.

Shure SM-94. Probably a lower-spec version of the SM-81. Battery or phantom.

Under $600 per pair. (If you are taking other people's money, this is the least you should pay.)

AKG "Blue Line" (391, etc.) Versatile microphone family, many interchangeable capsule options. Less top end than some.

Audio-Technica 4041. A clear-sounding, if somewhat bright mic, available in matched pairs. A fine choice.

Crown CM-700. A nice sounding mic at an excellent price. Rather low output: use it for close micing.

Shure SM-81. Common studio utility condenser. Not overly bright, reasonably quiet, very popular.

There are plenty more upscale including Earthworks, Nueman, Soundelux, Royers.

Outboard effects

First of all, with a computer, with outboard effects are you should be very picky. The sub-$1500 market is full of okay but not great boxes that can be match by with readily available plugs. Why choice a $500 or even $2000 reverb unit when you could buy Altiverb or Space Designer instead?

That said if you still want outboard effects, take a look at the Kurzweil Rumour and Mangler. Both are about $550.

Stompboxes, petals, and various distortion box: useful and low cost way to provide a bit of noise into the system. UE multi-effects series, electro-harmonix, Frostwave, moogfooger, some handbuilt mystery box you found on the side of the street.

Audio Interface

Audio Interfaces are the new mixer inputs. Finding a series which you can grow by adding extra IO interfaces to is ideal.

8in/8out is just past desired and almost required, particularly if you forego a central mixer.

RME Multiface $950 Provides 18 In/Out in total. 8 sets analog, ADAT, digital, midi Can added easily additional Interface boxes for more IO

MOTM 828mkII $750 20/22 input/outputs. 10 Analog IO, ADAT, digital

Ego Sys OCTA-fire $450 8 analog IO including 4 pre-amps

Digidesign 002 rack $1200 Pro-tools software only.

However, if two input channels (but 6 or more) outputs are what you want the following are solid choices:

Emagic A26 (was 2|6) $275

M-Audio 410 $399

Monitors

Save your money and buy spend the $1000-$2000 (or more) and you'll be better off long term. If you simply cannot, take a look at the KRK V4 or the perhaps the MAudio BX8 and the Yamaha Ns-10 replacements (the MSP5), your milage may very. You may even look to high-end home audio like Paradigm with made the fantastic Mini MkIII? (now discontinued) or NHT Super Ones.

Speakers you should really check: ADAM, Dyna Audio, Mackie, Genelec

A whole section here could be devoted to getting a acoustically decent space to work in, but that is quite an undertaking. Please understand great speakers are only part of making a solid monitoring setup.

Misc

Digital control surfaces: CM Automation Motomix, Mackie babyHUI, Machine control surface - $800-12000 - handy to essential if you like to mix on the fly or record live fader movements. There are an number of lower quality controller keyboards, fader boxes, etc. Find what works for you.

Patchbays. I like the Behringers and there are others to choice from. Never like Hosa or Fostex.

Individual cables rather than snakes (Snakes while providing less mess generally have more quality issues).

-- BenPhenix - 11 Jan 2004

One very important issue (imho) is getting your studio noiseless. Nowadays some computer manufacturers are finally doing serious efforts to silent their products (eg Apple G5, Carillon Systems audio PC, ... ). Nevertheless I think you seriously should consider to provide in a separated and ventilated machineroom. But then you have to think about extension cables. You should search trough the Internet for KVM extension cable (KVM=Keyboard Video Mouse). If the distance is not to far you can perhaps use a wireless keyboard+mouse.

For your equipment you should look at the maximum allowed extension distance for USB, Firewire, Optic fibre, TDIF (tascam), Coax, etc. You also should figure out where your cdr-player and other equipment will be put, internal in the pc in the remote room or with firewire and on your desk. Recent Harddisk recorders also produce considerable fan noise level, getting you to look for remote control boxes.

My studio is very noisy by bying the cheapest computers with the cheapest fans. I can assure that there was a moment, after bying a new PC 2 years ago, I couldn't work any more because of the terrible noise. Even with headphones it was not longer bearable. Then I found http://www.quietpc.com/ and discouvered that it really helps to buy better fans and that you can silent the most noise, but the price is high and there is still noise left. Even our dear Capybara, being a relatively silent machine, contributes to the overall noise level.

I can not explain how relaxed I get when I visit real silent studios.

-- DirkVeulemans - 11 Jan 2004

I prefer a digital mixer as the "control center" of my studio. It's more flexible and stable while providing a very good price/quality ratio. You can always bypass its preamp...

As Dirk mentionned, silence is everything. My smartest move in years was buying everything to put my computers and Capy in a spare room. The remaining ambient noise comes from Behringer' DDX3216 fan wich is very quiet.

-- KarlMousseau - 28 Jan 2004

 
 
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