What is a Recording Studio?
Traditionally recording studios have been thought of as a soundproofed complex with a live room (where instruments and vocals are performed), a vocal room (for lead vocal singing) and a control room (for recording, editing, mixing and mastering the sounds produced in the live and vocal rooms.) This view of a recording studio reached its heyday in the late 60s when stereo went mainstream with the introduction of FM car radios and home FM receivers and amplifiers (a stereo system) hitting the market. In 1979, FM radio overtook AM radio in audience size. It was peak record label time, and recording studios were in great demand for the next 15 years.
Then, several things happened. The home computer (personal computer) took off, the Internet was born, music distribution channels morphed and audio recording switched from analog to digital. Analog equipment was big, heavy and expensive. Gear was operated by physically turning knobs, not clicking a mouse. Common tools like compression and EQ used to be stand-alone hardware units, now they are either included in your DAW or available as a software plugin.
Digital audio has changed music forever. Now, gear and software are small, portable and comparably inexpensive. The tape machines, audio console, monitors, patch bays, etc. in an “old school” analog recording studio used to occupy a couple hundred square feet and cost a couple hundred thousand dollars (1990 dollars). In today’s digital world, everything you need to accomplish the same recording studio tasks can fit in a briefcase and cost you less than $5000 (2019 dollars). This accessibility has led to whole new genres of music—most obviously everything related to electronic music which in turn has spawned live DJs and electronic dance music.
In recent years these advances in digital audio technology have changed perceptions of what constitutes a recording studio. Today, there are essentially four types of recording studios.
The bedroom home recording studio. In the beginning, this is probably where you will start. The equipment needs are few, the budget is friendly and the space requirements are minimal. Here’s what you will need to get started.
• A computer. Get the best you can afford. Make sure it has plenty of RAM as music software is memory intensive. A desktop usually will give you more bang for the buck, but a good laptop will work just fine and give you the added advantage of being able to take your recording studio on the road. Make sure you have ample room on your hard drive as music tracks take up a lot of space.
• A DAW. This piece of software has replaced the mixing board and signal processors of the analog days. The DAW allows you to record, edit and mix music on your computer. Even the most expensive DAW is budget friendly. We suggest that you look at Ableton, Logic Pro (MAC only) and Pro Tools first as they are the most compatible with professional recording studios which is something that could come into play down the road.
• An audio interface. This is how you get audio from analog or acoustical sources (microphones, guitars, etc.) into your DAW and then back out to your speakers or headphones. Make sure your audio interface is compatible with your DAW and that the interface connectors are compatible with your computer. An important consideration is the number and type of your inputs and outputs. Inputs are either mic, line, optical, DI or MIDI. If you are a solo artist you can probably get by with 2-4 inputs. If you are looking to record bands you will probably need at least 16 inputs.
Plan ahead, not only for the type and number of inputs you will need today, but for what you want to record down the road.
• Headphones. You need to be able to hear what you are recording, mixing and playing back. Closed back headphones are best for recording tracks as they provide great isolation. Open back headphones are best for mixing tracks as they provide better sound quality but suffer from poorer isolation.
• Microphone, mic stand and POP filter. If you are going to record vocals or acoustic instruments you will definitely need at least one microphone. Different microphones are better in certain situations than others. Your choice of microphone should be driven by what you plan to record with it. If you plan on recording vocals, you’ll probably want a POP filter—while not essential, they are cool looking and do serve a purpose.
• Studio Monitors. While you can record, edit and mix using just headphones, nothing beats having a great pair of studio monitors—especially when more than one person needs to hear the playback at the same time. Unlike consumer speakers which tweak the sound (i.e. accentuate the bass for dance tracks), studio monitors provide a perfectly flat frequency response with flaws and all.
• Cables. Cables are essential to connecting your inputs to your audio interface and your audio interface to your monitors. You’ll need some of these.
The dedicated room home recording studio. Your next step in the progression towards a professional recording studio is to take your bedroom studio and move it into a room that is dedicated as a recording studio. Not only will you have more room to work with, your workflow and acoustic environment should improve with a dedicated room setup. What separates the dedicated room home recording studio from the bedroom recording studio is the additional space and what you do with it. This comes from building a better acoustic environment by using the following treatments.
• Bass traps. They offer broadband absorption across all frequencies, especially the lower frequencies.
• Acoustic panels. Besides absorbing low-mid range to high frequencies, they are designed to tame standing waves – a common problem in home studios caused by sound waves bouncing between parallel surfaces and over-emphasizing a specific frequency.
• Diffusers. These create a natural ambience while retaining the “liveliness” of a room by dispersing all frequencies in a random fashion.
The semi-pro recording studio. What differentiates the semi-pro recording studio from the home studios is the number of inputs you can record at the same time. While this probably doesn’t matter much if you are just using your studio to record yourself, it will matter if you are planning to make a career out of recording music other than your own. Adding on to the number of inputs you can record simultaneously is very much gear driven with a few software upgrades as well.
Here are just a few of the things you can consider.
• Microphone preamp
• Headphone amp
• Virtual instruments
• MIDI controller
• Electronic drum kit
• Control surface
The professional recording studio. What differentiates the professional recording studio from the semi-pro studio is primarily a function of space. The pro studio will likely have multiple dedicated live rooms for instruments and vocals. It might come with a floating floor to isolate the studio from external noises (like passing trucks). They also will probably have a few expensive “toys” that offer a few refinements over what you are already using.
• Digital convertors. You already have a digital convertor built into your audio interface. Digital convertors are stand-alone units that convert analog input signals into digital ones and convert digital output signals into analog ones.
• Master clocks. In order for digital signals to sync up they need to be driven by a digital clock. Your audio interface currently serves as the master clock—the sync source that everything else follows. A stand-alone master clock takes this one step further.
• Analog gear. Digital audio software plugins have replaced stand-alone hardware that was used for effects like EQ and compression. Many professional audio engineers prefer the sound quality of analog devices for these and other effects.
The bottom line is that a recording studio is whatever you can afford it to be. Rather than get caught up in defining what type of recording studio you have or want, you should concentrate on what you plan to use your recording studio for and build it accordingly.