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A SOUND Investment - Designing a Home Recording Studio

Black Enterprise, Dec, 1999 by Dawn M. Norfleet, Monique R. Brown


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.
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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 budget.


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 money."

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 professional recordings.

"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 right retailer.


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.


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 all."

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 your niche."

Michael Borneo


Full-time manager of communications at Royal Bank of Canada.


Gospel music and CD reproduction. Aims to have his studio fully functional by January 2000.

Studio space:

Basement in three-family home in Brooklyn.


Fully soundproofed separate control room, wood floors, ADAT, DAT and Cubase sequencer computer-based recording ability.



Kenny Seymour


Professional musician, producer and songwriter. Keyboardist for various popular artists, including Jodeci and Chico DeBarge.


Rhythm & Hues, hip-hop and jazz

Studio space:

Walk-in closet in a New York City high-rise apartment building.


Because his space is not soundproofed, he uses headphones for late-night recording on his largely digital setup.



Patrice Rushen


Musician, composer and arranger. Currently working on a new solo album and soundtracks for movies.


Jazz, rhythm & blues and movie soundtracks

Studio space:

Transformed a 3-car garage into a professionally designed studio.


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 only digitally.

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 quality.

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.

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