Home Entertainment: House Music

  • Brent Butterworth

Digital technology has transformed the home recording studio as completely as it has refashioned photography and communications. Only 15 years ago, most in-home studios relied on mixing boards as bulky as billiard tables and multitrack tape machines the size of Smart cars. Now, a single computer can perform all of these machines’ functions and many more, greatly simplifying the setup of an in-home recording studio.

"It’s worth the time, effort, and money to do it at home instead of traipsing to the studio every time you want to record something," says Rick Ruffin, a Nashville guitar collector who recently built a recording studio in his home to give his wife, Shelley, a place to record her next album. The studio is "one of the most-used rooms in the house," Ruffin says. "I love just to listen to music in there. When I first heard that monitoring system, it was one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve ever had."

Homeowners build studios for a variety of reasons: to record their own performances and compositions, to record church and school groups, or to encourage their children’s musical pursuits. Nashville-based home entertainment designer Carl Tatz suggested that the Ruffins add a recording studio to the custom home theater they were building. Tatz envisioned it in an adjacent space, which would allow the studio and theater to share an equipment room.

Oklahoma City restaurateur Ted Curtis uses his home studio as an escape from his daily routine. "In the restaurant business, we are successful because the chips and salsa are always exactly the same," he says. "I needed something in my life that wasn’t predictable, that dealt with the creative side of things. Recording is a clean slate; you might have some idea of where you are headed, but you never know exactly what will happen. I wanted to be near my family and be able to create good music."

Curtis’ original goal was to have a space to record his own music and that of several musicians from his church. However, his design was so successful that big-name clients—such as country stars Toby Keith, Blake Shelton, and Bryan White, and pop-music group Hanson—eventually recorded there. Despite this, Curtis says his studio exists for his own enjoyment, not for profit. "It’s more like owning a racecar than owning a business," he says. "It really isn’t a commercial enterprise. When people ask to record here, I only do it if I want to take on the project."

The basic elements of a studio are the control room and one or more recording spaces. The control room, the heart of the operation, contains most of the recording equipment and serves as the recording engineer’s base of operations. The engineer will use the space to create separate recordings, or tracks, of vocals and instruments and mix them into stereo or surround sound.

Electronic instruments such as keyboards, bass, and guitar may be connected directly to the recording gear and played in the control room. Vocalists and acoustic instruments require a separate space so that sounds made by the engineer and the studio gear do not leak into the musicians’ microphones. Though such recording spaces must be isolated acoustically from the control room, a window or video monitoring system typically enables performers and engineers to see each other. Recording spaces range from vocal booths large enough for only one singer and a microphone to great rooms that can hold a small orchestra.

The studio designer or acoustician focuses primarily on perfecting the control room. According to Tatz, "Nothing’s more important than having accurate monitoring. You don’t want to mix something so it sounds great in the control room, but then it sounds like hell on another system in a different room." Consultant Bob Hodas, who did the acoustical fine-tuning on Curtis’ studio, adds, "Sometimes guys take the mix out to their cars to check it out, because they don’t trust the studio monitor system. If their studio is set up right, they won’t need to do that.

"Most of the acoustical problems in a control room are related to bass," continues Hodas, whose projects have included tuning for the chief engineer’s mastering room at Abbey Road Studios in London, the Sony BMG Music Entertainment studio in Tokyo, and other world-class facilities. Bass frequencies tend to resonate inside a room, much as sound waves resonate inside a flute. The dimensions of the room will amplify certain bass frequencies and diminish the volume of others. Unfortunately, because of the way bass resonates, different points in the room will experience different anomalies. To identify these problems, both Hodas and Tatz perform a series of measurements using specialized microphones and audio analyzers. They then employ acoustic treatment devices and electronic equalizers to fix any problems they find.

One of the keys to the success of the Ruffins’ studio is the location of the control room, directly above their garage. "If the control room is [somewhat isolated], then sound is less likely to leak out into the bedrooms and wake the baby," Tatz says. "If you can’t manage that, you’ll probably need to invest in some degree of sound isolation."

Tatz uses a variety of techniques to isolate sound, depending on how quiet his clients want the studio to be and how much sound leakage they can tolerate. The most drastic and effective technique involves building a room within a room—a completely new set of walls, ceiling, and floor constructed inside an existing space and isolated from the surrounding structure by pliable substances such as closed-cell foam, neoprene, or even steel springs. This technique, commonly used in professional studios, is often called "floating a room."

Not surprisingly, Curtis and his studio designer, Francis Manzella of Francis Manzella Design in Mahopac, N.Y., also decided to construct Curtis’ control room atop his garage, where the room is fully isolated. "Otherwise," Curtis explains, "the sound might have bothered the neighbors." He also chose to create three recording spaces: a highly reverberant, or "live," space primarily for drums; a "semilive" space with a piano; and a vocal booth covered with absorptive foam. "The drum room was the toughest," he says. "It was a playroom before, with an 8-foot ceiling, but we needed to raise the ceiling up to about 11 feet to get the sound right."

Because the Ruffins’ home theater is directly adjacent to their control room, Tatz ran wires between the two areas, so that the theater could double as a recording space. However, the family also uses other rooms in the house for recording when they need to accommodate larger groups of performers. "We recorded musicians from the National Symphony in our living room," Ruffin says. "The room has a two-story ceiling, and by hanging microphones from the balcony we got a cathedral-type sound."

The core technology behind most professional recording studios—and most serious home studios—is Digidesign’s Pro Tools, a system that combines recording/mixing software and devices that connect the computer with musical instruments, preamplifiers, and mixing boards. With Pro Tools, one can record multiple tracks at once, mix in stereo or surround sound, and add countless audio effects. A fully equipped, top-of-the-line Pro Tools HD system—including the computer—starts at roughly $20,000. More modest Pro Tools packages are also available.

An individual can direct all of Pro Tools’ functions with a standard computer mouse, keyboard, and monitor. However, many professionals and serious amateurs prefer to use a "control surface," which resembles a sound-mixing board but actually controls Pro Tools rather than processing sound on its own. Some traditionalists, including Curtis, prefer the sound and feel of a traditional analog mixing board; he relies on a 16-foot-wide console made by Amek-Neve, a brand revered by audio engineers for the sound and longevity of its products, which are no longer being manufactured. (For that matter, some hard-core traditionalists still record on analog tape because they prefer its warm sound.)

Both Curtis and Ruffin also stress the importance of high-quality microphones to the success of their recording projects. When asked to cite their favorites, each immediately mentions one brand: Neumann, an 80-year-old German company whose products captured the best of Sinatra, Streisand, and many other famous vocalists. In fact, Curtis prefers the Neumanns made during Sinatra’s heyday. "I think vintage mikes still sound better than most of the ones made today," he says. "They are expensive, though. A vintage Neumann U 67 costs about $5,000 right now, but it is one of the best all-around microphones you can get. There are some great new mikes, though. Wunder Audio makes a fantastic clone of the Neumann U 47 called the CM7, and it costs about $6,500, versus about $10,000 for a good used U 47. Telefunken USA is also making a reissue of that mike for about $7,500. The problem with vintage mikes is that they are not very reliable, while the reissues are."

That is not to say that Neumann mikes are the universal prescription for great recordings. For certain tasks, such as recording guitar amps and drums, engineers rely on mikes from AKG, Shure, and other companies. Anyone who wants to build a home studio should plan to assemble a collection of microphones—a process that Ruffin claims was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the project.

Pro Tools has made outboard audio processors such as equalizers and compressors technically redundant, because their functions are now incorporated into the software or available as aftermarket plug-ins. Nevertheless, some recording enthusiasts praise the sound of outboard analog audio processors, especially ones that employ vacuum tubes. Curtis raves about the sound from old Pultec tube equalizers and the more modern outboard electronics from such makers as TC Electronic and George Massenburg Labs.

The monitor speakers are almost as important as the recording gear itself. Ruffin’s studio relies on two sets of Dynaudio monitors (one large, one small), while Curtis’ collection includes a pair of large Adam S5A monitors, a pair of midsize Yamaha NS-10s, and even a pair of old RadioShack Minimus 7 minispeakers that he picked up for $80.

Curtis, Ruffin, and the professionals they consulted all agree that power and ventilation are vital to the success of any home recording studio. Recording gear—especially the old-school products Curtis favors—can generate tremendous heat. For Ruffin’s studio, Tatz created an equipment room where the air temperature can be adjusted separately from the temperature in the studio. As Ruffin puts it, "If you kept the studio cold enough to keep the equipment running well, you would freeze to death." Curtis says, "I would never have specified as much air-conditioning as Francis did—I thought he was nuts—but I’m glad he did it, because the control room stays at 70 degrees even if we have a dozen people in there."

Both Curtis and Ruffin also advocate the use of power-conditioning products in order to rid incoming A/C power of noise and hum, as well as to prevent spikes that could damage valuable equipment. Both rely on power conditioners from Equi-Tech; Manzella took the additional step of adding a separate isolation transformer for Curtis’ studio in order to feed his power-hungry Amek-Neve mixing board and all of the studio’s electronics, except for the air conditioner and the lights.

With so many factors to consider, assembling a top-notch home recording studio is a complex project that can cost, according to Curtis, anywhere from "about $100,000 for a 500-square-foot studio with Pro Tools to more than $1 million for a large-scale studio." Asked for a few words of advice for aspiring home recording enthusiasts, he recommends "good electrical, gear, and acoustical treatment, and a systems designer/integrator to help you. Even if you can do it all yourself, bringing in professionals makes it a more enjoyable experience."

Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis, 510.649.9254, www.bobhodas.com;
Carl Tatz Design, 615.354.6242, www.carltatzdesign.com;
Francis Manzella Design, 914.248.7680, www.fmdesign.com;
Digidesign, 650.731.6300, www.digidesign.com;
Neumann, 860.434.9190, www.neumann.com

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