The home studio environment can be incredibly sophisticated these days, very much capable of recording, editing, mixing your tracks to a high standard in the comfort of your own tailored musical space. I would like to present some ways of optimizing the home studio environment and ensuring that it is as productive and good sounding as can be.
If there is one area which will provide multiple benefits it is acoustic treatment of walls, corners and ceiling. Basic acoustic treatment can ensure both your recordings and mixes are better. Acoustic treatment does not come across as one of the most interesting of purchases for the home studio but you will hear the benefits on every recording and mix.
Initially it is wise to tame the early reflections from the side walls relative to your monitoring position. This can be done with acoustic foam tiles (10cms thick ideally) and also Rockwool/Owens Corning type products (a 1m x 1m sized placement would be a good starting point). Once this is installed you could also consider a ceiling cloud which is a similar construct but attaches to the ceiling between yourself and your monitors. This is a great way to improve the focus and accuracy of the stereo image when mixing. Bass traps are more bulky and often neglected due to their size but you can make good improvements by straddling corners of the room with slabs of Owens corning or Rockwool type products. A basic frame can be prepared to hold the slabs and they can be covered in fire retardent studio fabric. With acoustic accuracy comes more focused recordings, a more natural and even tonal balance and mixes that will translate better to other playback systems.
Most home studios will have a set of monitoring speakers, the positioning of the speakers has a direct impact on the quality of sound you hear. Ideally you should create an equilateral triangle with your head and the 2 speakers at each of the 3 corners (including your head). Try to align the tweeter at ear height on a robust set of speaker stands.
Speaker stands give your monitors a non resonant anchor point which can focus the sound and reduce resonances that can blur the stereo image and add unrelated sonic information to what you hear. If it is not possible to use stands then purchase neoprene (soft rubber) mounts or a sheet so that you have provided some basic isolation from any desk or shelving that your monitors are placed on. If at all possible try and locate your monitors away from the corners of the room and also try and bring them into the room 0.5meters as opposed to being close to the wall. This reduces ‘bass tip up’ / ‘boundary effect’ which can reduce the accuracy of the low frequency response of the speaker. This is especially true of rear firing reflex loaded speakers. (that have a bass reflex port towards the rear of the speaker panel)
Having a good quality condenser mic will always be a useful addition to any home studio equipment inventory, this type of microphone is very versatile and produces a crisp, clear and well rounded sound for vocals and spoken word. They also perform very well on acoustic instrumentation such as acoustic guitars. An indispensable studio addition, if you select a model with pad switches you can even record sources that produce high SPL signals and use a pair for example for drum overheads. Ensure your mic preamp arrangements can provide 48 volt phantom power before investing.
These days disk space is fairly cheap and most sound cards can record at 24 bit, this is highly recommended. It allows you to record your audio signals at a lower level (peak at -14dBFS) and yet still retain very high fidelity compared with 16 bit recordings. This usually means less distortion as well because the electronics in mic preamps and mixers is less heavily driven creating a cleaner less distorted sound. Distortion is to be avoided at all costs in the home studio, you can always add controlled amounts after the recording has been made but it is virtually impossible to remove once unintentional distortion has been created at the point of recording.
One very useful and often overlooked addition to a home studio is the use of a small, single source mono speaker with a focus on the mid range. In professional studios it is common to see a single small sized speaker as well as near field monitors. This type of speaker was most commonly known as an Auratone as this was the company which historically manufactured them. Avantone now make a modern version and I suggesting using just one and routing your mono summed mix down to the speaker from time to time. This allows you to check mono sum compatibility and also provides a ‘no messing around’ mid range check. These type of speakers despite their simplicity allow you to get a very clear picture of whether your vocals sit right and whether your snare and other mid range elements are well balanced. All reproduction systems play mid range and so it is a critical area of the mix to get right.
Another tool of great value is an SPL meter. (Sound pressure level meter) Realistic and Adastra make a basic analog model which allows you to see in decibels the level that you are monitoring the music at. This allows you to aim towards the 80dB SPL ideal where the human ears response naturally even out (read up on the “Fletcher Munson curves”). In addition it allows you to see what your daily exposure is to sound levels and ensure you protect your all important hearing by keeping exposure within safe limits. (Check out your local authorities recommendations online)
And finally analog warmth is a much talked about quality when working with digital audio. If you have some nice analog equipment thats great but if not, all is not lost when it comes to making warm recordings and mixes. Warmth is a subjective term but most people agree that subdued high frequencies contribute to a subjectively warm sound. Try experimenting with some analog emulations in software form. (EQ’s and compressors) There are many great analog emulations available as software plug ins. In addition you could try some tape saturation plug ins and do not hesitate to use the humble low pass filter or high shelf to cut excessive high frequencies to produce a smoother and less harsh sound. A great tip is to add a low cost ribbon microphone to your gear list and use it as a supplementary microphone when recording any given source. When blended in with your main mic choice you can produce a more mellow and rounded sound which can produce the desired warmth at mix down time.