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A SOUND Investment - Designing
a Home Recording Studio
Black Enterprise, Dec, 1999
by Dawn M. Norfleet, Monique R. Brown
HERE'S A STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO BUILDING YOUR OWN
HOME RECORDING STUDIO AND TIPS ON TURNING A PROFIT
MICHAEL BORNEO, 42, ALWAYS LOVED MUSIC AND DABBLED
IN IT WHENEVER HE COULD FIND the time. "I played
in a band and wrote songs," he recalls. "But
I didn't see much of a future in music, so I pursued
a career in telecommunications." After all,
20 years ago the only people Borneo saw with in-house
recording studios were the affluent, and it didn't
seem that his dream of having his own setup was
remotely within his reach.
That was until Borneo rediscovered his muse a few
years ago. While working as a communications consultant
for his own firm, Telecommunication Services Corp.,
he got a project requiring him to install a local
area network and telephone system in a music studio.
"I wrote some songs for the owner and he was
impressed," says Borneo. That was all the encouragement
the corporate professional needed to approach a
commercial studio and begin the production of a
demo tape. Unfortunately, the high cost of renting
studio time, engineers and music equipment quickly
soured him on going the professional route, so Borneo
purchased a keyboard and some other odds and ends
in hopes of banging out tunes himself. Before he
knew it, his dream was reborn. "I kept purchasing
more and more equipment to get better quality until
I found myself with a studio," he says.
Although Borneo's experience was a little more complicated
than it sounds, the development of small-scale or
"project" studios has become a lot more
common in recent years. New trends in the music
industry are responsible for the surge. According
to Anthony Collins, instructor at the Institute
of Audio Research in Manhattan, "Ten to 20
years ago, record companies sent their artists to
commercial recording studios for their demos and
recordings. Now some record companies give artists
advance money to purchase their own project studios."
With the fees of larger commercial studios ranging
from $75 to $300 per hour, "record companies
realize that by investing in `project' [home or
small-scale] studios, they can save money while
giving the artists more creative flexibility,"
Collins adds. Now, professional musicians and even
wannabees like Borneo can master record producing
from their homes without breaking the bank.
If you're ready to build your own in-house recording
studio, here are some tips on how you can determine
the type of tools you'll need and where you can
purchase the equipment within the confines of your
TAKE THE GUESSWORK OUT OF GEARING UP
Before you hit the music stores, determine your
equipment needs. The type of music you plan to write
largely impacts the kind of equipment you need or
whether you should consider building a project studio
at all. Today's popular music--rhythm and blues,
hip-hop, gospel and jazz--are perfect candidates
for project studio technology. Alternatively, music
that requires orchestras often needs more complex
acoustical setups for quality recording.
Think about the tools you'll need with the product
in mind. If you're only interested in recording
some musical ideas for yourself or a band, then
perhaps a 4-track analog recorder, such as the Tascam
Porta 02 Multitrack Recorder, priced at around $160,
will suffice. However, if you plan to make a profit
from your venture by starting a music production
business or creating professional-quality demos,
then you should acquire equipment that is as close
to CD quality as possible, say Peter McIan and Larry
Wichman, the authors of The Musician's Guide to
Home Recording (Music Sales Corp., $24.95). Remember,
the more technologically advanced your home studio
is, the easier it will be to match the technology
of the commercial studio where you choose to do
your final mixing. On the other hand, Borneo warns
against purchasing products before you have a clear
understanding of their performance. "Ensure
you have the right equipment and know how to use
it effectively for your desired results," he
cautions. "That may not require spending more
Of course the best way to ensure you get the right
equipment is to seek professional advice. Borneo
started with the Internet, where he came across
Auralex Acoustics Inc. (www.auralex.com), a firm
targeted to hobbyists that specializes in sound
reinforcement, broadcast and recording equipment.
The site allows consumers to purchase products,
access the firm's consulting engineers and download
online instructions, including "Acoustics 101"--a
guide that Borneo says was most helpful.
Patrice Rushen, a three-time Grammy Award-winning
recording artist, also turned to the pros when she
did a complete upgrade of the eight-year-old project
studio she has housed in her garage. For the most
part, you can design a quality recording studio
to suit any living space--without altering the structure
of that area--since home recording gear is small
and portable. "However, if you are looking
for a top-quality recording environment, you need
to seek out a studio design consultant to discuss
structural changes," advises Dave Carlock,
professional audio sales consultant at Los Angeles-based
Westlake Audio Inc. (see Professional Audio Consultation
Services). Rushen got advice on every aspect of
her Southern California workspace, from acoustical
design to the purchase of equipment: "The final
musical sound and quality produced at my studio
must be competitive with commercial studios,"
she insists. As a result, she purchased ProTools,
a software-based program for high-end and topnotch
"It can do major record-label quality, from
recording to mixing in the computer," says
Carlock. At $20,000 for just the software and some
basic accessories, ProTools is currently the most
expensive recording program on the market; however,
with 64 tracks of recording capability and editing
ease, professionals like Rushen and Carlock find
the program invaluable.
But determining the type of equipment you need is
only half the battle. Now it's time to choose the
NARROW YOUR SELECTION
Type in "home recording studio" in any
Internet search engine and you're sure to a get
a large selection of companies offering musical
equipment. So how do you determine which gear outfitters
make the cut? Borneo says comprehensive research
will help you better understand which equipment
you need to purchase from specialty stores and which
you can buy from general merchants. "All companies
push their own products, but you have to know what
you need and why you need it," he explains.
Since Borneo familiarized himself with the products
he required for his studio, he didn't go to an acoustics
store for Homosote (a soundproofing material)--he
shopped at the less expensive Home Depot.
Carlock recommends that whenever possible, you purchase
equipment in person from a local dealer rather than
through mail-order catalogs. "Mail-order houses
and volume chains typically have a little better
pricing but finding a knowledgeable salesperson
can be tricky. Just remember: if you live in Chicago
and your house is on fire, you want to be able to
call the Chicago fire department, not the one in
Florida or Indiana. The same applies for pro audio
gear." If you have to return defective equipment,
the cost of overnight shipping could diminish the
savings on the initial purchase, Carlock warns.
But no matter how much you save, music equipment
can be expensive. Here's how you can pay for it.
BE FRANK ABOUT YOUR FUNDS
Once you've determined what your equipment needs
are, take a realistic look at your wallet. "It's
important to establish what your budget is up front,"
Carlock advises. Knowledgeable proaudio sales associates
and consultants in equipment stores such as Sam
Ash Music can help you get your studio up and running,
especially since many of these consultants have
studios of their own. Travis Milner, an owner of
a commercial jingle-writing company, Soul'd Out
Promos, points out that many music stores have payment
plans and credit cards to make the overall cost
of studio equipment more digestible. Whether you
choose to join a payment plan or not, get as many
opinions as you need until you find the products
that suit your requirements and your pocketbook.
Says Carlock: "Work with someone who's compassionate
about your ideas and goals. An `expert' who's shortspoken
and indifferent to you may not be an expert after
And don't feel pressured to buy everything at once.
"I'm a big fan of purchasing equipment in stages,"
Rushen says. Do your research, consult catalogs
and seek the best prices on your purchases, as you
would with any other investment. Finally, take the
time with the instructions and products to get the
most out of your investment. "If you learn
[to operate] your equipment to the fullest,"
Collins explains, "you can take a thousand-dollar
board and get almost the same [professional quality]
as one in a bigger studio." In the long run,
it's about the quality of the product you create,
not how fancy and expensive your equipment is. Borneo,
who used his annual bonus and credit cards to purchase
his music equipment, is glad he built his home studio
in stages. Although the process took a few years,
the timing allowed him to upgrade his skills, home
in on the type of music he wanted to produce and
determine the kinds of services he wanted to offer.
Come the year 2000, Borneo plans to market his business
to churches and schools. "It's worth the investment
for me," he proclaims. "And there's definitely
a market out there. It's just up to you to find
Full-time manager of communications at Royal Bank
Gospel music and CD reproduction. Aims to have his
studio fully functional by January 2000.
Basement in three-family home in Brooklyn.
Fully soundproofed separate control room, wood floors,
ADAT, DAT and Cubase sequencer computer-based recording
Professional musician, producer and songwriter.
Keyboardist for various popular artists, including
Jodeci and Chico DeBarge.
Rhythm & Hues, hip-hop and jazz
Walk-in closet in a New York City high-rise apartment
Because his space is not soundproofed, he uses headphones
for late-night recording on his largely digital
Musician, composer and arranger. Currently working
on a new solo album and soundtracks for movies.
Jazz, rhythm & blues and movie soundtracks
Transformed a 3-car garage into a professionally
ProTools computer-based recording program
$80,00, including equipment, studio design and rewiring,
computer, software packages and ProTools
ADAT An eight-track digital recorder developed and
manufactured by the Alesis Corp. It uses standard
VHS videocassettes for information storage.
ANALOG A close but imprecise method of copying sound.
Analog recordings require complicated editing, which
can be a drawback, and produce "tape hiss,"
but many professionals consider certain instruments
or mixes recorded with analog technology to have
a "warmer" sound than music projects recorded
DIGITAL An electronic format that is designed to
duplicate sound while affording extremely accurate
control over any changes you might wish to make
in the copy. Digital recordings do not have the
tape hiss present in analog copies. Experts recommend
the digital technology for pro-quality sound.
MIDI Musical Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI
is digital communication that allows you to transmit
sound information produced on one MIDI instrument
to another unit, and to manipulate information digitally.
PROJECT STUDIO A relatively small-scale studio designed
for an individual's work, from demo to commercial
SEQUENCER A digital unit that allows you to program
beats, lines of music or entire songs and record
them in its memory. Although it may be a separate
unit, many MIDI keyboards and drum machines come
with a sequencer.
WORKSTATION Nearly self-contained digital recording
units that allow you to record and mix. Later models
include special effects.