Building A Small Home Studio

Hi there! This time I'm taking a break from my column on playing "outside" and want to write about getting started with digital recording using your PC. Obviously this topic is addressed to guitarists who are just getting started with digital recording and don't want to spend all their savings to build the studio. In other words we will keep an eye on the budget in this column.

In the eighties, the most common way to build a small home studio was buying a (analog) 4-track, headphones and a drum machine. This wasn't even very cheap and you were limited to 4 tracks unless you used the bouncing or ping-pong technique (making small submixes to one or two tracks).

Usually your parents wouldn't give you money to buy that stuff. Well, the good news is: Today they do (without knowing it)! In most households there is a PC standing around just waiting to be turned into a small digital studio, with little investment.

What You Need To Start Recording

If you're reading this, chances are extremely good you've already got a PC. So let's start by looking at what you need to start recording:

  • PCl do just fine for the beginning. You will need a lot of space on the hard disk since the uncompressed audio files are pretty big, so you should at least have about 20GB. Remember that you can start recording for a few months with less and buy a bigger, or second hard drive, later. Of course it's better to have 100GB or more. You can always get something better, bigger and faster when buying PC-stuff but I suggest simply starting with what you have and update later if necessary (or possible)!
  • Sound card
    If you are short on budget, just start by using the sound on board. If you have some cash available get a good sound card with better (analog to digital) converters or even multiple inputs so you can record several instruments at the same time. The overall quality of your recordings depends on the converters for a big part.
  • Monitoring
    Just use your HiFi-stereo to monitor your recordings, and get some good headphones too so you can work all day without disturbing your neighbors. The usual PC-speakers won't do the job here, so if there's no stereo in the same room better go with the headphones!

To this point you didn't have to buy anything to start recording but you will need some more stuff:

  • Recording software
    There are so many programs on the market and most of them have an older and cheaper version that will be good enough for the first steps. Among the most famous programs are Cubase, Logic, Cool Edit and Nuendo. You should get along well with them after a very short time if you are used to working with the PC. It would be great to get a program for mastering as well if you want to burn your finished tracks onto CD. Some programs already include the mastering facility so check the features of the multitrack program or get a different program for the mastering like WaveLab or Sound Forge.
  • Mixing desk
    Although you could go directly into the soundcard it's not advisable:
    1. It's uncomfortable to change input sources because the input is usually on the back of the tower.
    2. The input is sensitive and could get damaged quite easily.
    3. The input level can not be adjusted well enough. Some input levels are just too high for the sound card and could even damage the input stage.
    4. The cables are uncomfortable and don't get along well with the guitar equipment. You would have to use adaptors or strange cables all the time!

    Better get a small mixer that has at least the following features:

    1. A (XLR) microphone input so you can mike your amp, or record vocals, or record acoustic guitars.
    2. It would be cool to have +48V phantom power for condenser mics.
    3. You should have at least one effects loop so you can use the "send" to feed the input of the sound card and record that to the multitrack. This way it's very easy to adjust the input level for the PC-mixer and the recording software. Just set the PC-mixer's input level to the right value once, and from then on you just have to adjust the input level for the mixer's input.

    A desk with these features won't be very expensive and will make recording a lot easier.

  • Cables
    Connect the sound card's output to a stereo channel of the mixer, the sound card's input to the send of the mixer and the mixer's main out to your Hi-Fi stereo or headphones. After that you can do all connections on the mixer without ever touching the sound card again! That means you won't have to crawl behind the tower with a pocket lamp in your hand to make connections during a recording session.
  • Sockets (Power Outlets)
    You can never have too many sockets in a studio! Once you start using your favourite pedals or other outboard gear you will find they eat sockets like popcorn! You may want to get a switchable socket so you can turn off all power supplies with one switch after the session.
  • The Guitar Sound
    There are basically two ways to record guitar: Direct with a speaker simulation, or by miking up an amp.
    1. Miking the amp would only require a microphone apart from what you already have now. Also it usually sounds better and more natural. It is louder though, which can be a real problem in some cases... Nevertheless most guitarists prefer miking their amps in the studio.
    2. Recording direct allows you to record at any volume you like and can be done pretty cheap, too. Switching between sounds is extremely easy. There are a lot of products on the market that can do this, and also include a variety of effects, like some Zoom, Boss or Digitech multieffects. Also there are some high-class (and high-priced) real tube amps like the Mesa Formula One or V-Twin who let you record direct. (In fact a lot of modern amps have a recording out so you can use them for direct recording as well. Please don't forget the dummy load when disconnecting the speaker or you'll destroy the power amp section!)

    The possibilities are endless and you can achieve great results with both methods. Let's not forget the player makes the music!

Gee, this column got much longer than planned... let's finish with a short outlook on updating your digital studio in the future:

Next Steps

Once you have started recording, or once your budget has improved. you can start thinking about the following improvements and updates (some of them have already been covered):

  • Get a bigger hard drive, faster CPU and more RAM.
  • Get a better soundcard and a bigger mixer with nice EQs and more inputs, maybe even direct outs so you can connect, for example, 8 sources to your new 8-input soundcard. You would then be able to record a drum set or maybe even a full band.
  • Get real studio monitors.
  • Get sample CDs with great drum sounds if you want to do it without a drummer.
  • Perhaps you want to get a nice mic-preamp or outboard compressor to process the signal before recording it.
  • Get a second monitor (that could require a new video card) so you can have more windows open and have a better overview over the mixing, effects and the tracks.
  • If you use MIDI often, get a keyboard so programming becomes more convenient.
  • Get better or more microphones for different applications.

I hope you will achieve good results and wish you a lot of success with your recordings!

My PC based recording studio at home consists of a PC with a small 8-track mixer and a Hi-Fi stereo with JBL speakers for monitoring. This works fine for me for demos and smaller sessions. For bigger recording sessions like my CDs, I use my analog 24-track studio "The Jungle".

Feel free to contact me via e-mail with any questions or comments. Please check out the soundfiles of my two solo CDs and visit my web site.

Martin Behr is a guitarist from Germany who has studied at M.G.I. (Munich's Guitar Institute), released two solo CDs, and stays busy with studio sessions.

His latest CD is entitled "Law Of The Jungle", which documents his command of many musical styles, his great technique, his tone and feel.

Martin Behr