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Seven Essentials for Your Home Studio
In this piece, the Abbey Road team share their knowledge to help guide you on how to achieve the best results from your recordings.
At Abbey Road, we’re often asked about how to get a home studio up and running so, in part one, we outline the gear you’ll want to consider. And we highlight the essential pieces of equipment if you’re recording on a budget.
Nothing here is an endorsement; this is just some of the kit that we’ve found works well in smaller set-ups – and is a whole lot more affordable than what you’ll find at Abbey Road!
1. Audio Interface
What exactly is an audio interface?
This is a device used to connect your audio sources (microphones, guitar, keyboard etc.) to your computer. It converts analogue signals into digital signals so they are compatible with your computer software for recording. Audio Interfaces also work in reverse, by converting digital signals from your computer into analogue signals for playback over your loudspeakers or headphones. You’ll need an audio interface if you want to record external audio into your computer.
For a basic recording set-up, it’s unlikely that you’ll need more than one mic input for vocals and one instrument/line-level input. Many modern interfaces offer practical ‘combo’ inputs that accept both XLR and 1/4-inch jack cables.
Another point to consider is MIDI connectivity. If you have or are wanting equipment that requires a MIDI connection, it may be worth investing in an audio interface that offers both MIDI in/out ports, so you have the option to connect your MIDI device to your computer.
Below are a few examples of interfaces to get started:
Audio Interface Set-Up Flow
At Abbey Road, we have the luxury of over 800 microphones in the collection spanning iconic Neumann mics of every era through to Telefunken, RCA and AKG. But that’s not necessarily going to be the case in your home studio! Here is a brief overview of some of the most popular types of microphones and polar patterns:
Condenser microphones, also referred to as ‘capacitor microphones’, typically pick up more detail than dynamic microphones and are popular for recording vocals and more subtle sounds. The capsule diaphragm follows the movement of sound waves and creates a change in capacitance between the diaphragm & backplate. This converts the movement into an electrical signal ready for amplification.
A condenser microphone can be the right choice for somebody who is looking to start recording high-quality vocals and acoustic instruments/sounds with their studio set-up.
Dynamic mics are one of the most common types of microphone and are less sensitive at capturing sounds compared to condenser mics and can work well at recording high sound pressure levels (SPL). The moving coil design of dynamic mics helps to make them robust and they work well at rejecting ‘off-axis’ sound, which is sound that doesn’t enter directly into the front of the microphone. What’s more, dynamic microphones do not require any Phantom Power (48V) to work.
Interesting Fact: Alan Blumlein, a celebrated EMI engineer, designed and patented the iconic EMI HB1E microphone in May 1931, which was one of the finest ‘moving-coil’ microphones of its time – read more about the HB1E here.
Ribbon microphones are quite expensive, particularly fragile, and much less common than dynamic and condenser microphones. They work in a similar fashion to moving-coil dynamic mics, but use a thin metal ribbon (typically aluminium) suspended in a magnetic field that detects sound pressure and converts the movement into an electrical signal. The ribbon is lighter than the moving-coil design and therefore works well at capturing the nuances of sound waves more accurately.
Ribbon mics are generally figure eight polar pattern, meaning they pick up sound from both sides of the microphone, and usually these mics are passive (no phantom power needed).
Microphone Directivity & Polar Patterns:
Picking the right type of microphone is one thing, but understanding the directivity characteristics is also an important factor to bear in mind. Microphone directivity can be explained as a microphone’s sensitivity to sound arriving from different directions. For example, microphones used at live events are designed to be sensitive to sound entering directly in front of the mic (from the singer) whilst being less sensitive to sound coming from behind the mic (crowd noise).
Understanding microphone directivity can help to avoid unwanted ‘spill’ or ‘leakage’ of sound and feedback during recording.
Your First Microphone:
A large diaphragm condenser microphone is probably the most versatile as a first microphone. A large diaphragm mic is particularly suited to recording studio vocals and is versatile enough to record acoustic instruments. Don’t forget that additional power is required to record with condenser microphones – make sure your audio interface is capable of suppling 48V phantom power!
For something a bit special, you might want to look at the Abbey Road / Chandler TG Microphone, which is a high-end large diaphragm condenser microphone, used by producers from Vance Powell (Jack White, Beck) to Howard Willing (Snoop Dog, Smashing Pumpkins). Take a look here.
3. Studio Monitors
What are they?
These are loudspeakers designed to give you a true representation of the sound being played, with minimal colouration of the sound. Monitors are important if you want to start mixing to a professional level in a home studio set-up.
You may have heard reference to how particular bits of audio gear can colour the sound. Some domestic Hi-Fi systems deliberately alter the sound to make it more appealing to listeners, whereas studio monitors aim to colour the sound as little as possible and thus give you the best ‘true’ representation of the sound. You might also have heard or read about flat response monitors – where any colouration is avoided. Sadly, this is not actually possible – all loudspeakers affect the sound to varying degrees.
In summary, studio monitors aim to provide a reference that is accurate enough for a producer or engineer to make critical judgements about a certain sound or the general balance of the mix. Mixing your tracks on studio monitors helps to produce a final mix that can translate well to other playback systems e.g. car sound-systems, headphones, laptop speakers, larger PA systems.
Your First Pair of Monitors:
In our view, Nearfield studio monitors are often the best way to go with small, home studio set-ups, as they aim to produce minimal sound colouration, so you can critically listen to sounds more accurately.
Set-up correctly, a pair of monitors can provide precise stereo imaging in small areas. Some studio monitors include built-in bass and treble tone controls to help you compensate for unwanted room acoustics. Monitor bundles may come with isolation pads to place your monitors on. Isolation pads help to de-couple the monitors from hard surfaces (tables/stands) and prevent unwanted vibrations.
Bowers & Wilkins is the official speaker partner at Abbey Road, but here are some entry-level monitors to consider:
Studio Monitor Placement
Here are a few tips that may help with the placement of your monitors
If you’re listening through loudspeakers in a room, then the acoustic and reverberation properties of the space can influence the perceived quality of the sound. If your chosen listening/recording room is excessively absorptive (dead) or excessively reverberant (too many sound reflections), the musical quality can deteriorate and listeners can become fatigued over time.
There is a wealth of information available online regarding room acoustics and accessible treatments to improve the overall sound quality – here are a couple of quick pointers to get you started.
1. Symmetry is a good thing
When listening through a stereo set-up, different room shapes can greatly affect the sound coming from the left versus the right speaker. The best result can be accomplished in a symmetrical room but understandably this is unrealistic in many situations.
Try not to place your speakers in the corner of the room and for the best stereo imaging, monitors should be set-up as an equilateral triangle (600 angle) between the left speaker, right speaker and the listener’s head – see the below diagram.
- Get your monitors at ear levelPosition the tweeters of your monitors at head height (ear level) so that your ears are directly in-line. If your speaker stands /console / desk won’t allow you to get your monitors high enough, use speaker stands to elevate them.3. Consider reflections from nearby hard surfacesHard surfaces reflect sound the same way a mirror reflects light. Windows, drywall, mirrors and any non-absorptive surfaces are all examples of hard, reflective surfaces. Unwanted reflections can have a negative affect on sound quality and therefore your final recording or mix. There are many ‘room treatment’ options available online, designed for DIY treatment of room acoustics in the hope of improving the acoustic properties of the room.
The subject of room acoustics and appropriate treatment is a vast subject area underpinned by mathematics, so we won’t get into that here. However, it is worth mentioning comb filtering as a common issue in home studio set-ups. Comb filtering is a form of acoustic distortion caused by room reflections. When direct sound from your monitors combines with reflections from the wall/room, it creates unwanted peaks and notches in the perceived sound. This is caused by constructive and destructive interference and can create problems during recording and mixing process.
Whether you are in Abbey Road or in your home studio, a pair of headphones are essential for monitoring during the recording process. There are many different headphone brands available on the market but they largely fall into two categories – closed-back headphones and open-back headphones.
Closed-back headphones are the most common and are used for recording and overdubbing, where they allow for you to hear the backing track and monitor your recording in real-time. Another important note is that closed-back headphones provide more isolation from external sounds and helps to avoid sound from your headphones entering your microphone. You cannot monitor using loudspeakers as the sound will ‘spill’ into your microphone and you may create a feedback loop!
For critical listening, open-back headphones can often provide a more natural listening experience. They can be good for working on mixes for long periods of time but not so useful in busy environments or when recording in close proximity to a microphone.
Bowers & Wilkins is the official headphones partner at Abbey Road. Their P5 wireless headphones are under £300, look great and fit in with trend of the increased adoption of using wire free equipment at home (and while on the move).
It’s also worth noting our new Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin, developed in partnership with Waves Audio, brings the acoustic environment of our Studio Three control room to your headphones.. For the first time ever, you can produce, mix and hear music from inside the iconic Studio Three.
5. MIDI Keyboard (USB)
The MIDI protocol was developed in the early eighties as a form of communication allowing computers, hardware and musical instruments to communicate with one another. MIDI used to be transmitted via specific MIDI cables whereas modern MIDI keyboards and controllers are capable of transmitting MIDI via a USB cable.
MIDI keyboards don’t have built-in sound engines and don’t make any sound on their own, they only send MIDI data to control your music software, the sound is generated inside your computer by different types of virtual software instruments and plugins.
Some MIDI keyboards have additional hardware MIDI controls such as rotary controllers (pots) and faders, which also send MIDI (Continuous Controller) data to your computer software. These controllers can be assigned to your software and plugins parameter controls, so you can have hardware controls for your software.
If you are just starting out, then a 4-octave controller keyboard should be adequate, especially if space is an issue. 49 key controllers are sufficient for many producer or singer-songwriter set-ups. They don’t require a lot of space, are reasonably priced and give you hardware controls for your digital instruments and sounds.
6. Computer / Digital Audio Workstation
Whether you have chosen a Mac or PC for your studio set-up, it’s a personal choice and largely down to what you are comfortable with and prefer.
You can find arguments for and against both platforms but one point worth noting is that some music applications can be exclusive to one platform – for example, the popular Logic Pro X digital audio workstation (DAW) is only available for Mac. Similar to how some smartphone applications are exclusive to either iOS or Android.
Your computer will become the hub and brains of your studio set-up, taking audio in via the audio interface, processing the audio within your software and sending it back out to your headphones or loudspeakers. It is important to take into consideration processing power, Memory and storage space when selecting a computer for your studio set-up, here are some Mac and PC ideas to get you thinking.
What is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)?
A Digital Audio Workstation is audio recording software that allows you to record multiple tracks, which you then mix together to create a final audio file. The workstation you use depends highly on what you feel most comfortable with. Logic Pro X is the step-up from Garageband which is an all-round, versatile workstation used for live recording and electronic productions – if you are working on a Mac, this can be a great entry-level workstation.
Suggested DAWs for Macs: Logic Pro X, Pro Tools or Ableton
Suggested DAW for PCs: Pro Tools, Ableton, Cubase or Reaper (free)
Ableton Live is another well-respected Digital Audio Workstation which also works with PC, however it’s mostly associated with electronic production. If operating a PC – Pro Tools, FL Studio or Ableton are the three DAWs that are well respected for this platform. For a free 30-day trial of a Digital Audio Workstation, Reaper offers a complete digital audio production application for computers, offering a full multitrack audio and MIDI recording and editing toolset. Reaper also allows for multichannel tracks that are required when working with Spatial Audio.
7. Cables and Accessories
One of the most commonly used cables, the quarter-inch jack (6.3mm) is used to connect mono (one-channel) signal such as those from electric guitars and amplifiers. They are distinguishable by the one black ring around the plug indicating a mono (one-channel) connection.
Similar to the quarter-inch jack, the balanced or stereo jack cable is the same size as the quarter-inch jack (6.3mm) but is capable of carrying stereo (two-channel) signals. Stereo Jack cables can be identified by the two black rings on the plug itself – indicating a stereo (two-channel) connection.
Mini stereo jacks are smaller versions of the quarter-inch stereo jack. Instead of being 6.5mm in diameter they are 3.5mm instead and are typically used in smaller devices such as smartphones and laptops etc.
XLR cables are balanced cables used in a variety of pro audio applications. They are commonly found with three pins as connectors on the male end and three sockets on the female end (see picture).
The most common uses for XLR cables are for connecting microphones to a mixing console/interface and also for connecting loudspeakers in live environments. E.g. connecting front of house and monitor speakers to the mixing console.
The RCA cable is named after the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and was created back in the 1940’s to connect a phonograph to domestic radio sets. This is how they came to be known as ‘phono’ cables. They are still important today and you may be familiar with these cables if you have set-up a CD player with a Hi-Fi system or DJ turntables.
RCA cables carry stereo signals and are colour-coded – the red plug is the right channel and the white plug being the left channel. You can find phono to phono connections and phono to minijack connections for compatibility with a host of audio devices.
And that’s it! So hopefully this helps set the foundation and fundamentals for what goes into a home studio set-up on a budget. In our next instalment, we will explore the equipment for the home producer / engineer looking for the next step up.