Wednesday, February 18, 2009

There's Nothing Like Home Cookin'

By coincidence, I've had several people ask me lately about my home recording studio. Since the advent of the internet as a means of sending professional quality audio to practically anywhere around the world, home studios have been springing up all over the place. Radio jocks who were prone to building something at home anyway, now find a practical use for all their junk. VO artists can work at home and get more done by spending less time driving from one client to another. Snowstorm? Mudslides? Alien invasion? No problem.

But what is involved in building a home studio? Do you need to hire a professional to acoustically deaden the room? How much should you spend on a microphone? Do you need a mixer, or just a preamp? And do you even need a preamp? How do I get my cats to stop playing with the mic cords? ARRRGH!
Dig that crazy pop filter. Frank Sinatra during a '50's era Capital session working with a classic Neumann U47 with a homemade pop filter taped on. See, even the Chairman of the Board needed duct tape engineering. Ring-a-ding-ding.

I ended up sending a very elaborate email to a friend about all this, and I thought I should post it here as well to help anyone else who might have these questions. So, sit back and enjoy.

I wish a had a digital camera to take a photo of this office, but all my money goes into this office. That's the thing about home studios. It's always something. You would be appalled at the ceiling that was damaged by a leak last year. The floor is littered with books other junk that has nowhere else to go. And there's a cat sleeping in my chair in the corner. On certain days I record things in between "panic barks" from the dogs next door. One day I had to wait a few hours until the city finished cutting down a tree on the next block. It's never perfect, but the convenience of a home studio outweighs the drawbacks. When gas hit $4, I was living high on the hog.

The Late Great Don LaFontaine used a Manley reference condenser in his home studio. He made millions voicing movie trailers. He needed it to pay for that mic.

My equipment is very basic, as the studio has to pay for itself in billing. If were pulling in $2,000 a month, I'd spring for a Neumann U87, because the mic would pay for itself within a few months.

The U87. $3,800 last time I checked. And I check often. Forgive me, Father, for I have coveted my neighbor's microphone.

BUT, in order to get the most out of that mic, I need an ART MPA Gold Preamp 'cause I want to be able to use my ribbons. And so on... So, I keep things simple.

My current go-to mic for spots and high energy stuff is a CAD D189.
It's a dynamic road mic that compares well to the Sure SM58, the industry standard for that type. In fact, it's a little too hot. (a preamp issue) so I put a windscreen on it and work it close. A dynamic mic will sound great this way. Between the close miking and the hypercardiod pattern, the room echo is almost gone. The mic is held in its shock mount clip on a boom stand.

Who says China can't build something right?

You gotta have a boom to position the mic where you want and reduce rumble. Spring for a good boom stand now, so you'll be ready when you screw on that two pound studio mic in a year or two.

Don't skimp on the mic cable. Get 22 gauge or better. If you start getting police calls on your recordings, mic cables and connectors are your first suspect.

Yes, there are mics that connect straight to your computer via the USB port. These are called, believe it or not, USB Mics. They are condensers powered by the USB port. The Samson is probably the best you'll find. Personally, I'm not sold on them. They can be noisy, as they are intended for podcasting or quick and dirty rough tracking. (The real advantage is using one with your laptop on the tour bus.) But I won't hold it against anybody for trying one.

If you're in a hurry, and all you have is a laptop, a podcaster kit like this one from Samson is a cute little outfit. But you'll want to upgrade soon.

In my opinion, you want a mic that can be plugged into PROFESSIONAL grade equipment. For the same money, you can buy a CAD D189 like mine and use it with any preamp or mixer on the face of the earth.

Yes, a preamp makes a difference. I started out with an old Shure PA type rig, the kind you'd find broadcasting high school football games. It died. My emergency fix right now is a Radio Shack 4-channel mixer, and it sucks. (Sorry Tandy. But, you guys are great for consumer grade stuff, or if I need a mic cord RIGHT NOW!) I just put in an order for an ART Tube that'll let me select the impedance for my new Trion 7000 ribbon mic. Lesson learned: don't try to cheat by skimping on the preamp.

This little gem will warm up my mics, as well as my studio in the winter.
If you were doing a radio show live, or recording a 50's-60's Boss Radio style show, you would need a mixer, turntables, etc. Otherwise paste it together in a digital audio work station (DAWS) which is how everybody does everything nowadays. I'd go with a good preamp rather than a mixer. The big market pros turn up their noses at mixer in-board preamps. Snobs.

Computers: you want a desktop, in case you decide to upgrade the soundcard. My Gateway came with a B+ card that gives me a noise floor of about 110db. That would be unacceptable in a pro recording studio, but it works for a voice track. The good news is just about any brand name computer these days can handle audio editing without breaking a sweat. Just make sure you have "line in" and "line out" jacks on the back. Don't use the mic jack on the computer. It's a noisy, nasty thing that will send noise back into your pro mic. (It'll destroy a ribbon.) This jack is for toy mics. Put a piece of tape over it and forget it.

How much memory? As much as you can afford. How much hard drive? Same answer. Buy memory sticks for backups and use them often. Archive stuff you want to get off the hard drive with the CD-ROM burner.

Of course, you want good headphones and/or speakers.

High-speed internet is a must.

Anti Virus Software: Avoid Norton. Norton refuses to obey your commands and starts a full scan right in the middle of a project, locking up your editor for minutes at a time. I use AVG's free version. Works great.

DAWS: Try Audacity. I love it. It's free, and it doesn't crash. This is "open source" software, which means it's free and legal, but you can make a contribution if you want. You can also hack in and change the code, if you're into that. Let's see, hundreds of dollars for a DAWS, or a free app that'll do everything. You do the math.

If you must pay for one, DAWS fans come in two religions: The Adobe "Cool Edit" folks, and the Sound Forge folks. Usually, if you love one, you despise the other. If you've been using one at a radio station and you like it, stick with it. My only advice is steer clear of old versions of "Cool Edit" that tend to crash.

All DAWS create a mountain of files that form the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when you save a session. That's where your hard drive goes. Get organized from the start. Name your sessions in a logic you understand and stick with it. Set up a regimen of deleting old sessions after you've archived it. I save sessions for six months on hard drive before they go bye-bye.

Studio Acoustics: This is the part that will test your nerves. You don't need to spend hundreds on fancy foam or carpet on the walls. Grab some carpet cutouts at the bargain store. Use heavy curtains on the walls. Or, stick the mic in a closet full of clothes. Furniture helps. I just bought a decorative screen at Hobby Lobby for about $50. Throw a blanket over it and I've got a sound baffling. I still need to deaden this room more, so the work continues.

Well, there you are. That's a lot in one sitting, so let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and about those
ribbon mics I keep mentioning. You have to love them to put up with them. Don't get into a big hurry to upgrade to "boutique" mics or something expensive. VO guys tend to get into Mic Envy competitions. My wife says she knows what that vintage RCA 44 is really representing. But to misquote Freud, sometimes a microphone is just a microphone.

This? I don't need this. I bought because it was on sale. Yeah.

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