Setting Up a Small Recording Studio UPDATE

February 21st, 2012 | by Jeff Towne

Small Studio

Intro from Jay Allison

One of Transom’s most popular features ever is TOOLS Editor Jeff Towne’s primer on setting up a small recording studio, but the page hasn’t had an update in six years. So, Jeff has created a completely new version, covering computer and software selection, the requisite hardware, along with equipment recommendations in various price ranges and pretty much everything you need on this topic, all in one place. There are links to individual tests of gear, manufacturer’s sites, downloads, etc. etc. (One interesting new thing: ProTools is becoming dislodged as the go-to choice for documentary production.) This is the kind of useful, generous advice that makes us all love Jeff Towne.

From Jeff Towne

It’s easier and more affordable than ever to set up a small studio, whether at home, or as an auxiliary production space in a larger facility.

As the trend toward smaller, less-expensive, more-powerful recording gear continues to accelerate, it gets harder and harder to stay on top of the latest innovations and deals. It seems like we updated our recommendations for setting up a home studio only yesterday, but in fact, a few years have gone by, and several important things have changed. We’re temperamentally more likely to wait and see if the latest, greatest thing is really stable and reliable and useful, rather than continually staying out on the bleeding edge, so we might not include that virtual mixer that you control with your mind, until we’re sure it’s reliable. Ultimately we’re more interested in getting work done, and doing it efficiently, than in having the coolest, shiniest, geekiest gear. Keep in mind: if your current set-up is working for you, you may not need to make any changes. But if you’re feeling constricted by your old home studio, or if you’re setting one up for the first time, here’s what we think you might want (at least for the next few days…).

More than ever, the computer is at the heart of the modern studio. But what kind of computer? Smartphones are getting more and more capable with each new model, but they’re still not quite powerful enough to base a home studio around. Tablet computers, such as the iPad, are getting close, and even today, one could build a basic recording/editing/mixing station around one, but you’re still better off building your basic studio around a more-capable computer, at least for now.

The chip speed, RAM and storage space that are standard on most new computers have increased to the point that it’s no longer necessary to get the biggest, fastest flamethrower of a computer in order to do basic audio editing and mixing. Audio-editing applications often have specific system requirements; so if there’s a particular program you’d like to use, check the compatibility requirements for that program. In most cases a moderately powerful off-the-shelf computer will be sufficient.

For instance, the recent versions of AVID’s Pro Tools (version 9 or 10) require a minimum of 2 gigabytes of RAM, 4 gigs is recommended. Most computers built in the last few years have fast enough processors and large-enough hard drives to install and run the program. But if you’re thinking of using an older computer, or even when buying something new, it’s always safest to check: there’s a document listing compatibility for both Windows and Macintosh systems here.

Most other audio editing programs are much less specific about computer requirements. Adobe Audition’s requirements are less stringent than AVID’s, but there are still some threshold values for computer performance, listed here.

Hindenburg JournalistOne of the things we like about Hindenburg Journalist is that it will run well on even relatively modest computers. There’s one foolproof test: download the free 30-day trial of the software and see if it works!

Hindenburg Journalist 30-day trial

You can find our review of Hindenburg here and an update here.

REAPER is also pretty forgiving about hardware, a moderately powerful computer running Windows XP or 7 (and a few earlier versions…) or Mac OS X 10.4 and above, should have no problem running the software.

More about REAPER

You can find our review of Reaper here.

We’ve long been Pro Tools supporters here at Transom, it has long been something of an industry standard, and the LE versions offered a relatively affordable entry point. But recent changes in the product line have made it a little harder to recommend, especially for beginners. While we applaud the removal of the requirement to buy and attach a specific interface in order to get the program to even run, the price for the software has increased rather dramatically, to about $600. There is still an M-Powered version that’s sadly still tied to certain interfaces, which gets pricey by the time the software and hardware are added together. The inexpensive SE version that comes bundled with some interfaces, USB mics or keyboards is extremely limited, and we can’t recommend it for serious production.

So, while many of us still use Pro Tools, we’ve started to also look elsewhere, and Hindenburg Journalist, REAPER and Adobe Audition are looking like better tools for audio documentary production.

The Computer

Apple computers have long been popular for audio work, partly because of the predictability of the internal hardware. There are fewer possible variations of configurations than there are in similar Windows systems. On the flipside, Apple operating system and/or hardware upgrades often require significant rewriting of the software that runs on it. A few years ago, the switch to Intel chips created some situations where older software would no longer run. More recently the introduction of the Lion operating system created similar compatibility problems with some software, and dropped support for the Rosetta emulation software that allowed certain legacy applications to run.

iMac

Even with those caveats, Apple computers are generally ready for audio editing out-of-the-box, and require little or no customizing to make them good foundations for a small audio production studio. The iMac is a simple solution, and even models that are a few years old have sufficient power to run most audio software. Even a Mac Mini has robust enough specs to host most Digital Audio Workstation software. As mentioned above, the MacBookPro laptop is a viable host for professional audio applications, while the MacBook Air is not as sure of a bet. The internal solid-state drives should work OK, but are not officially supported by some applications, such as Pro Tools, and the limited number of external ports can be a problem.

On the Windows side, recommending a specific machine is difficult because there are so many possible different configurations, but most currently-available systems running Windows 7 will have sufficient power to run most editing programs. Check the requirements of the particular application you would like to use to be sure. As with most computer issues, faster chips and more memory are always helpful.

Of course, there still are circumstances where it’s a good idea, even required, to get an old-fashioned tower computer with extra internal drive bays and lots of slots to upgrade RAM and install external cards. If one is recording many tracks simultaneously, or mixing down very large sessions with lots of real-time plug-ins, it still may make sense to get a flamethrower of a tower computer, and invest in a system that uses additional cards to carry some of the processing load. Professional recording studios and film production facilities very likely still need that kind of rig, but Transom readers tend to be doing more modest productions with fewer tracks and relatively modest plug-in loads.

Hard Drives

It’s still good practice to store audio on a separate drive from the one that’s running your system software, although drives and processors are so fast these days that you can often get away with saving the audio and session files for simple productions to a computer’s main system drive. If using a tower computer with multiple hard drive bays, an internal SATA drive is recommended. If using an external hard drive, Firewire is still preferable to USB on Macs, and those connections are only offered on the MacBookPro, not on the Air. Firewire is NOT recommended for Windows 7 machines; especially for Pro Tools, USB 2 is preferable. Newer data transfer formats such as Thunderbolt are too new to be officially supported by most software, and the official lists of approved and compatible hardware change often, so it’s always best to check with the official manufacturers’ websites.

External hard drives with larger capacities, smaller footprints and lower prices are being released on a regular basis, so having sufficient room for storage and backup is more affordable and convenient than ever. The convenience of being able to easily move a project from one computer or studio to another makes an external drive very attractive.

As is the case with many aspects of its operation, Pro Tools has very specific requirements for external hard drives: here is a list of requirements for Pro Tools 10. In general, Firewire is recommended for Apple computers, and USB2 for Windows computers. A minimum disc rotation speed of 7200 rpm is recommended as well. Although most other software is not as rigid in hard drive requirements (even Pro Tools will often work fine with drives with inferior speed ratings) using a high-performance drive will reduce the risk of problems when using any editing program, especially if a production uses many tracks, lots of edits, or multiple real-time plug-in effects.

LaCie-RuggedFor portability, we like LaCie Rugged drives. They’re small, quiet, have multiple connection options, and can usually run on bus-power, which means no external power supply is required. As the name indicates, they’ve been designed to survive some level of shock, although it’s still a good idea to be gentle with them. The rubber sleeve on the outside doesn’t provide all that much protection by itself, shock-absorbing bumpers inside the case are much more important, but the sleeve, and curved corners make the drive scratch and dent resistant, and less-likely to damage other objects packed around it in a backpack or gear bag. You can even get different-colored sleeves to quickly distinguish multiple drives from one another.

For archiving and back-up purposes, we like large-capacity RAID drives, set to RAID level 1, which mirrors your data on two drives to provide greater protection from physical drive failures. Again, LaCie “big” drives provide a lot of value per dollar, but there are good products from G-Technologies, Glyph and many others. Make sure that RAID 1 (mirroring) is available, if you’re looking for the security of redundant data.

Laptops and Tablets

Laptop Audio EditingUntil recently, laptops were not great candidates for the main engine of a serious studio. There are still some downsides: a larger screen is preferable when doing detailed editing and mixing; a full-sized extended keyboard often makes using keyboard shortcuts a lot easier; adding audio interfaces, external hard drives, accelerators and dongles can be a challenge with a laptop’s limited ports and expansion slots. But many of those problems can be overcome. Connecting an external monitor and/or keyboard to a laptop is generally pretty simple, and hubs can usually add a few more USB ports when required. Fewer and fewer applications require additional horsepower in the form of external cards or accelerators, so it’s no longer obviously preferable to get a large tower computer with available expansion slots.

Small, inexpensive NetBook computers were proliferating a while back, but Tablet computers have largely supplanted them.  Neither of those is especially well suited for heavy-duty audio editing and mixing. That will surely change, and the large touchscreens on tablets may soon be the ideal audio workstation control-surface. There are already a few audio recording and editing apps that run on tablets, but they’re not quite ready to build a studio around. Yet…

Most of us already own a computer for other uses, and while devoting a machine solely to audio editing is an excellent policy, it’s rarely practical. In most cases, your existing computer will be just fine to host your audio editing, requiring no additional expenditures, or only minimal ones, like adding RAM. While it’s entirely possible to run multiple programs at once, even while editing or mixing audio, many problems can be avoided by reducing the number of processes running simultaneously on the computer, especially when doing a final mix, or export. Background activity, such as an email program checking for new mail, can sometimes interfere with an audio program, which may have needed computer resources at that moment, so it’s good to reduce, or eliminate potential conflicts by quitting out of other programs when doing critical audio work.

The Interface

There’s been a major transformation of the Pro Tools universe since the update to version 9 and 10. For many years, a proprietary interface was required for Pro Tools to even start up. One needed an MBox or 002 or some similar interface made by Digidesign, or M-Audio, if you were using Pro Tools M-Powered. But with version 9 and above, it’s no longer required for the user to use any hardware interface at all, the software can run on the computer’s built-in audio hardware.

So Pro Tools is now like most of the other audio applications out there: you can pick the audio interface you want, or use none at all. Here at Transom, we still think it’s a good idea to use an external audio interface, particularly if one is recording anything in real-time, such as narration to a story. If one is exclusively importing sound files that have been recorded elsewhere, it’s less crucial, but an external interface also provides superior playback quality over a computer’s built-in headphone output, which makes monitoring more accurate. We still use our M-Box2 Mini as a front-end for Pro Tools 10, even though it’s not required.

It’s certainly nice to have the option of not using an interface, especially when traveling with a laptop. (Note: Pro Tools now requires an iLok USB key to run, so there still is a piece of hardware that must be attached to the computer at all times, but at least the iLok is smaller than most audio interfaces, so it’s a little less bulky to carry or have plugged into the computer. The iLok also can function properly on a USB hub, which audio interfaces usually do not.)

There still are a few audio interfaces that are structured as cards that install in a tower-style computer, but it’s much more common to use an external device that connects via USB or Firewire. Some computers have a built-in audio input, usually for a microphone, but those inputs are rarely of sufficient quality for reliable use. Most Apple computers have not had analog microphone inputs for some time, requiring that a USB or firewire interface be used.

Mobile Pre USB InterfaceUsing a USB or firewire interface is a good idea in any case, even if your computer has a microphone input; the inside of a computer is a very electronically dirty environment, and not ideal for amplifying a low-level signal like microphone audio, without picking up hums and buzzes and other noise from surrounding circuitry. The quality of the microphone preamp makes a difference, and computer manufacturers are not going to spend a lot of money to put an especially nice microphone preamp in as standard equipment. So you’ll get better results with a good external interface. The differences in playback quality are less extreme, but an external interface is likely to have quieter, cleaner, more accurate Digital-to-Analog converters, resulting in truer audio in your speakers or headphones.

Many interfaces come bundled with some kind of audio editing software, but it may not be the one you want to use. Most software will accept audio from almost any interface, provided it meets ASIO or Core Audio standards. M-Audio makes a wide range of USB and Firewire interfaces. Edirol also makes a number of good USB interfaces, as do Tascam, Mackie and many other manufacturers. Make sure to get a model that’s designed for what you need to do: there are interfaces designed to accept signals from turntables, from electric guitars, from microphones with XLR cables, etc. Some only transmit one channel; more commonly a USB interface can send between two and four channels into the computer, and monitor a stereo output. There are larger, more expensive interfaces, often using Firewire, which can transmit large numbers of independent channels simultaneously to and from a computer. In many cases, a single channel USB interface is sufficient if what one is primarily doing is recording narration.

We think the M-Audio MobilePre with its two XLR microphone inputs provides a good balance of capabilities, quality and price.

CEntrance Mic Port ProThere are very small USB interfaces that simply connect a single microphone to a computer’s USB jack. This can be a compact and affordable solution if the only real-time input one needs is a single microphone. If you might want to record two or more microphones simultaneously, in order to have separate mics on a guest and a host during an interview, or to mic multiple interviewees, or for recording stereo music or ambience, it’s worth investing in an external interface designed for such purposes. It’s sometimes technically possible to combine multiple USB devices into a virtual hybrid input device, but many audio recording programs don’t know how to handle that kind of input, so you’re better off with an actual device with multiple inputs.

If you only need one channel for a single mic, USB adapters such as the Centrance Mic Port Pro or the Shure X2u offer hardware input gain control, a hard-wired headphone jack, so there’s no monitoring delay, and very good sound quality.

Mic Port Pro

X2u

Microphone

You could also use a dedicated USB microphone. There are more and more good-quality USB microphones available, but it still feels like a better idea to get a good-sounding microphone that you can use in different contexts. The simplicity of connecting a single cable between the mic and the computer is appealing, but there might be some occasions when you would like to use that mic with your portable recorder, or plugged into a mixer or an external preamp or processor, and a USB mic will not allow you to do that. So, it’s better to get a mic you like and add an interface, which leaves you more options.

Studio Projects LSMThere are a few mics that offer both an analog output and a USB output. We like the Studio Projects LSM, it’s compact, flexible and sounds good. Blue Microphone’s Yeti Pro offers the same combination of outputs, with slightly more clunky design. The Audio Technica AT 2005USB is a dynamic mic with a hand-held design, but it comes with a tripod desk stand.

Studio Projects LSM

Yeti Pro

AT 2005USB

USB mics, or these combination mics, can be plugged directly into a computer via USB, and will appear to most audio recording programs as a USB interface, and can be selected as the active input. They all have headphone jacks as well, allowing direct monitoring of the microphone, as well as audio played back from the computer if desired.

Choosing the best mic for your needs is a huge topic in itself so please see the Transom Mic shootout.

We’re hoping to update this to include some newer mics, but in the interim, there are some excellent resources on the web, including shootouts by the folks at Recordinghacks.com; among those, two that focus on Podcasting, meaning that they’re looking at spoken-word voice recording, rather than sung vocals or instruments.

best-200-podcasting-condenser-mics

ultimate-podcast-mic-shootout

B-1 Microphone For an announce mic, the best choice depends on how your small studio will be used. If it’s mostly for production, with very little recording of important voice tracks, there are loads of cheap, decent condenser mics out there. Find one you like from the Transom mic shootout! Studio Projects B-1 mics are very good utility mics for $99. Or drop $300 on a Shure SM7 or an EV RE20 for a classic radio sound. If you want warm and silky, the Neumann TLM 103 sounds pretty amazingly close to a U87 when used as an announce mic, but for $999 instead of $3,000.

Computer-based editing and mixing has become so central to the audio production experience that sometimes little else is needed. A decent computer, maybe an interface, a pair of headphones, and an internet connection might be all one needs. But for greater flexibility there are a few more pieces that can be helpful.

The Mixer

Mackie Onyx 820iWe used to always include a mixer in a small studio set-up; it was crucial for feeding different sources into your recording set-up, for adjusting your microphone gain, for feeding various sources to your speakers. But the last few times we’ve set up studios, the mixer never got plugged-in. Surprisingly, in many small studio set-ups, it’s a superfluous piece of gear. A mixer is quite useful if you do need to input several real-time sources into your computer, or easily play back different devices through one set of speakers.

But if your production process is based around importing soundfiles from a flash recorder, or delivered to you as files, you probably don’t need a mixer. Even if you record live narration or basic two-track interviews, you might be fine recording and monitoring via a USB interface.

However, if you do record from multiple sources that need to be loaded in, in real time – such as old analog recordings, multiple microphones, or telephones – a mixer can make life much easier, eliminating the need to continually rewire the studio in order to audition materials or record. If you use a phone hybrid to record phone calls, a mixer, especially one with an aux send, allows you to make a mix-minus feed to fully use the hybrid to send and receive audio. Having a good-quality mic preamp or two can overcome a common deficiency of audio interfaces. There are some relatively compact mixers that are fairly inexpensive and very capable, yet have better preamps than most USB interfaces; those mixers can be a good front end for a more modest interface.

Mackie mixers have long been favorites in small studios, for their balance of price, quality and flexibility. Ironically, these mixers that were originally revolutionary in their low cost are sometimes now considered to be on the expensive side. There are indeed some less expensive options currently available, but Mackie remains an excellent value because of their high-quality mic preamps and solid construction.

The Mackie 802 VLZ3 has 3 mic inputs, and a total of 8 channels. It has an aux send which would allow you to route audio to a phone hybrid, or make a separate headphone mix. It sells for about $200. There’s even a 402-VLZ3 that has 2 mic inputs and one stereo line-in that might be sufficient for the most basic of set-ups, and that’s only about $99.

Yamaha makes some inexpensive models that are still very functional. The MG 102c is only about $100 for a 10-channel mixer with 4 XLR mic inputs and 3 more stereo line inputs, a pretty amazing bargain for so much flexibility.

Yamaha MG 102c

One option worth considering is the Mackie Onyx i-series mixers, which have built-in firewire interfaces. You get the flexibility of a mixer, the quality of Mackie mic preamps, and the simplicity of a single device to connect to your computer. The Mackie Onyx 820i is almost identical to the 802 VLZ3 mentioned above, but has even better mic preamps and adds a second aux send, which can help with complex routing. And most importantly, it can send each channel to your computer via Firewire, eliminating the need for a separate interface. It sells for about $400.

Mackie Onyx 820i

Several other manufacturers also make mixers with built-in interfaces. It’s important to be aware that many USB mixers can only send their stereo output to the computer, while others can send each input channel as an individual track. The multiple track option gives greatest flexibility, but might be overkill for some studios. Even the stereo-only option can be quite convenient because it eliminates the need for a separate computer interface.

Speakers

KRK RP8 speaker

Although it’s tempting to save money and space, and avoid annoying the neighbors by doing all your audio work on headphones, good monitor speakers are a crucial part of any studio. They don’t have to be huge, or especially powerful, but getting a pair of speakers designed for that purpose is an important part of getting a good mix. Headphones are excellent for checking fine detail, but it’s very difficult to balance foreground and background elements in a way that translates well to speakers when mixing on headphones. Small plastic computer speakers are adequate for basic auditioning and rough editing, but will not accurately present the full range of the sounds you are working with.  You’re likely to miss shifts in ambience and other details that will be apparent on better speakers. It’s especially easy to overlook low-frequency rumbles and thumps, such as noise that results from wind, P-Pops, mic handling noise and traffic, when mixing on small computer speakers. That can result not only in an unbalanced mix, but uncontrolled low-frequency energy can also interfere with the proper operation of compressors and other level-management tools, making your mix sound weak or uneven.

What you specifically want in a small studio are called “Near-Field Monitors,” which are designed to be placed fairly close to the mix position, to minimize the effects of the surrounding space. That said, the acoustical environment still has some effect, but less than when speakers are placed far away. There is a continuing arms race on among the manufacturers of compact, self-powered monitors, with more and more affordable, decent-quality, options every day. These speakers, which contain their own amplifiers, making set-up and wiring even easier, are excellent choices for a small studio. Simply plug the line-level output of your mixer or audio interface into the powered monitors, adjust your levels, and you’re done. M-Audio, KRK, Mackie, and many other companies have self-powered speakers (sometimes called “active monitors”) with 4”, 5”, or 8” woofers at excellent prices, from $300-500 for a pair, and remember, you don’t have to buy an additional power amplifier.

It’s overly simplistic to say that bigger is better, but in many ways it just comes down to physics: it’s very difficult to get deep bass from a small speaker, so if your physical space and budget allow it, you should consider going for a speaker with the largest woofer you can. Subwoofers can compensate for a small speaker’s inability to reproduce low bass frequencies, but getting all the elements properly aligned so that they create a realistic representation of your audio can be a challenge. Many affordable subwoofer-based systems are more concerned with creating dramatic room-shaking effects for movies and video games than they are with simply filling-in some missing frequencies in a speaker system’s response, so be careful when using a subwoofer – too much drama in your playback room is likely to make you mix the bass poorly.

Ideally, you should check your mixes on more than one type of speaker: see if it sounds good on your big studio monitors, does it still sound good on the little computer speakers? How about headphones? Eventually you will learn how to find a balance just by listening to your main speakers, but make sure that your primary listening set-up can give you as much information as possible, by not skimping on those studio monitors.

KRK Rokit-rp8

KRK Rokit-rp5

M-Audio BX8 D2

M-Audio BX5 D2

Mackie MRmk2 Series

The Room

The subject of acoustical treatments for your listening space is more complicated than we can cover in this article, but if your space is not overly hard and reflective, or extremely resonant at a particular frequency, the proximity of the near-field monitors should overcome most acoustic problems, One doesn’t need a perfectly-tuned space in order to make decent mixes. Place the speakers so that the two monitors and the spot where you’ll sit will make an equal-sided triangle, and position them at about ear-level when you’re in your working position. Keep a clear path between your ears and the speakers (it’s tricky to keep computer screens out of the way, but it’s crucial that you do) and try to soften or break up any hard, flat surfaces between you and the speaker (like your desktop), which could create interference from sonic reflections. Don’t get the speakers too close to a wall, or too far into a corner; the bass response will be affected.

If you’re having problems with echo, or a resonance problem that sounds like a ringing or unnatural build-up of certain sounds when you’re listening, you may need to do some treatment of your room. There are good resources on the web. Skip the cardboard egg-cartons on the wall, they don’t really do much of anything, but some strategically placed acoustical foam might. Even without investing in a full-on studio treatment, just getting some soft materials on your walls, like drapes or other heavy fabrics, will help a lot. If you can break up plain flat surfaces, especially behind your mix position, you’ll reduce many problems. Professional studios use specially built diffusers for that, but if you can place a bookshelf or some other irregular surface that will scatter audio reflections, it will help.

If you need to record your voice in your studio, a whole other universe of complications arises. You need to isolate the mic from extraneous noise, from both inside and outside the room, and you need to reduce reflections and echoes of your voice as it arrives at the microphone. Sound isolation is very difficult without major construction: blocking sound requires mass and air gaps.  Acoustical foam will not eliminate traffic noise from the road, or block the sound of your neighbor’s dog barking, nor will it allow someone to sleep in the room next door while you crank your speakers. Foam and other non-structural acoustical treatments can make your room sound less echoey or boxy, but you can’t make a truly soundproof booth or control room without some serious construction.

SE-Electonics Reflexion FilterIf you have a relatively quiet space, but you’re getting too much room-sound in your mic, you might want to buy or build something that isolates your microphone while you’re recording. Several companies make baffles designed to surround a microphone and block extraneous noise from polluting the main sound source. They have varying levels of success with that: simply putting some foam on a curved piece of plastic, or in a fabric cube, can’t fix most acoustical problems, and can sometimes make them worse. The more elaborate (and expensive) devices, such as the Reflexion Filter from SE Electronics, are quite good: the multi-layered design comes closer to effective, even, acoustical treatment. But even the simpler devices, including the home-brew foam-in-storage-cube constructions, can offer some improvement if your room is too echoey. Just remember, none of them are a true sound booth; you can’t get a clean recording with one of these if the neighbor kids are setting off fireworks outside your window. But they can be quite effective if you just need to reduce the echo and resonance of the room you’re in. It’s also helpful to have some soft materials behind you (perhaps drape a quilt over something) and it often helps to have something directly above the mic, perhaps a piece of acoustical foam placed on top of the baffle.

SE-Reflexion Filter Pro

SE-Project Studio Reflexion-filter

Primacoustic Voxguard

The Portabooth

Read a Sidebar about Mic Baffles here.

External Processing

mic processorMost professional studios have racks of high-end preamps and processors, and if you will do a lot of voice recording in your studio and the budget allows, having at least one high-quality mic preamp might not be a bad idea. Microphones put out a very low-level signal, and the preamp that raises that signal to line-level makes a big difference in the sound quality. The preamps built into mixers or interfaces are often perfectly sufficient, but rarely as good as a dedicated external unit.

In general, rather than using Compression and Limiting and De-Essing and EQ when recording, it’s safer to just record clean and use software plug-ins that process the voice the way you like, saving the settings for each announcer you work with. There’s something to be said for recording through “voice channel” hardware boxes which put a nice preamp, a compressor, some EQ, and a de-esser all in one device, but it means you have to commit to a certain sound at the time of recording, and if you get your settings wrong, you have to live with it. Improper settings could give you a voice track that’s over-compressed, or has no high end, or is lispy from too much de-essing, and you’re stuck with it! If you just get a nice clean voice recording, say via the very good mic preamps in the Mackie Onyx mixer, you can tweak it later with some plug-ins in your editing program. If you do get an external mic preamp to give you some more clean gain than you’re getting from your mixer or interface, make sure it’s not adding unwanted artifacts at the same time. There are lots of inexpensive mic preamps that bill themselves as adding “tube warmth” or other attractive-sounding attributes. It’s true that a high quality tube-based preamp can lend a pleasing character to some sources, but most of the little cheap boxes add more noise and distortion than warmth. That effect might be just right for some circumstances, especially in music-making, but for standard narrations in audio documentaries, clean and unaffected is better.

Read more about Audio Processing here, and here, and here.

Outboard compressors and EQs used to be important components of any good studio, and there are still appeals to a good piece of hardware, but the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of plug-in processors is hard to resist. Most audio editors come with a selection of basic plug-in effects, which in many cases may be sufficient for most production work. A good Compressor can even out the differences between loud and soft sounds, giving a voice, or other sound, a bigger presence. Equalization can control specific frequencies, reducing boominess or shrillness, or adding sparkle to a dull sound, or fullness to a thin one. The built-in compressor and EQ in Hindenburg Journalist do an amazingly good job, especially given their very simple controls. And Hindenburg’s Voice Profiler does an almost magical job of applying just the right Compresssion and EQ to make a voice sound good in a mix. Pro Tools ships with a wide selection of plug-ins, including separate 1, 4 and 7-band EQs, a Compressor/Limiter and a De-Esser to reduce excessive sibilance. Adobe Audition comes with many built-in effects as well, including excellent noise reduction. REAPER includes extensive ReaPlugs, including very flexible EQ and Compression plugins.

The effects plug-ins provided with your editing software may be more than sufficient for most productions, but there are additional options as well. All of these audio editors can use third-party plug-ins, if they’re in the proper format: usually VST, AU, RTAS or the new Pro Tools plug-in called AAX. It’s worth double-checking to make sure that a third party plug-in will work with your audio editor of choice.

There are many specialized third-party plug-ins to choose from: we’re particularly fond of those created by Waves. The plug-ins can be purchased one at a time, but they’re usually more affordable in bundles. Although many of these plug-ins and bundles are expensive, the company runs periodic sales, and individual retailers often offer better prices than the Waves website does. Some of the smaller packages, such as the Native Power Pack and the Renaissance Maxx collections each contain a good array of processors, including great-sounding EQ and compression plug-ins. The Waves L-1 limiter and its very similar successors the L-2 and L-3 are our go-to dynamics processors, controlling the loud peaks of an audio signal, providing a transparent way to increase the overall level of a mix without creating distortion.

The Package

Once you have the computer and software you want, here’s what we’d recommend:

A good small studio:

  • A Mackie Onyx 802i mixer/interface – $400
  • Mackie MR8v2 Active monitors – $500
  • Waves Renaissance Maxx Plug-ins -$260
  • Shure SM7 mic – $350

That’s about $1500 (without a computer or editing software.)


If that’s a little steep,

  • M-Audio Mobile Pre 2-channel USB interface – $150
  • KRK Rokit5 or M-Audio BX5 or Mackie MR5 monitors – $300
  • Native Power Pack Plug-ins – $225
  • AKG Perception 220 Microphone – $180

That’s about $850 (without a computer or editing software.)


Want something less pricey? This would still be pretty good:

  • (No Mixer)
  • Shure X2u Mic-to-USB interface – $100
  • KRK Rokit5 or M-Audio BX5 or Mackie MR5 monitors – $300
  • Audio editor’s provided effects – $0
  • Studio Projects B-1 Microphone – $120

That’s only a little over $500 total (without a computer or editing software.)

Of course, there are many other pieces of gear and software that would work just fine. We’ve concentrated on a few that we’ve had good luck with here at Transom, and that we find to be good values. You might prefer different specific pieces, but hopefully the rough guidelines we’ve drawn here will still be helpful. Feel free to add recommendations for your favorite pieces in the comments.


36 Comments on “Setting Up a Small Recording Studio UPDATE”

  • Tom Nordby says:

    it the top photo in this issue, who makes the small ‘board’ below the right speaker?

  • Jim says:

    Great Piece – Thanks for doing it.

    Question: I have a M-Audio Profire 2626 that I’m thinking of replacing with a Mackie Onyx 1220i – Do you think the mic press are better in the Mackie?

    • Jeff Towne says:

      I do. M-Audio mic preamps are usually very good, but the Mackie Onyx versions are even better. I’ve made a lot of musical recordings with Onyx mixers that have prompted questions about what boutique preamps I was using. There are so many elements in the equation that it’s hard to say how much of an improvement you’ll hear, it might be subtle… So I wouldn’t necessarily switch unless you’re definitely disappointed with the sound you’re getting currently.

  • In discussing audio software, you make no mention of GarageBand, probably the most flexible and easy to use audio tool available today. And it’s cheap. I can even use it on my IPad or I phone for less than $10!!!

    • Parker Webb says:

      I was thinking the same thing while reading this. GarageBand is great! And GB comes with instructions for creating audio/video podcasts.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      Good point: Garageband is a perfectly viable tool, and if it’s working for you – great – there’s no reason you can’t keep using that program to make a podcast, or radio show or a musical composition. However, its focus is much more on creating music than on the typical kinds of editing and montage construction that is typically used in audio storytelling. (Of course you can say the same thing about Pro Tools, and most Digital Audio Workstations…)

      I’ve talked to a lot of beginning producers, many of whom have told me that they started out using Garageband, but were getting frustrated by some of the conventions and limitations of that program. But I’m quite sure that it’s just fine for many circumstances, and if you find it easy to work with – by all means keep using it! And of course there’s a pretty smooth pathway to upgrade to Logic if you want to bump-up to more sophisticated tools.

      Given that it’s free or cheap on most devices, and that you can use it on an iPad, which is pretty cool, it’s a great place to start, and perhaps you’ll find that it’s all you need. If you discover that you’d like a few more options, Hindenburg Journalist and Adobe Audition both have free 30-day trials so you can always try them out and see if they speak to you…

  • C.B. Glynn says:

    Thanks for putting together this overview. I do digital storytelling, so my need it to record stories and interviews. However, I may have the opportunity to record some solo music sessions (one person singing and playing guitar), but that is a secondary need. Recording stories is primary. I am currently trying to upgrade my Mac system from a small plug in USB mic and GarageBand, so I will study the links you provided for guidance. However, I do have one question. On site suggested using Apogee One with my MacBook, but I don’t know anything about it, Would that be something else to consider? of should I stick with the basics in your article?

    • Jeff Towne says:

      The Apogee One is simply a USB interface, although it’s one with a few tricks up its sleeve! It’s impressively tiny, and even has a built-in microphone, so you could indeed record straight into your computer with only this device.

      That said, I have a hard time imagining that the tiny built-in mic is going to rival a more specialized microphone in terms of audio quality, so I’d think you really want to still get a serious announce mic. The Apogee One has a special break-out cable that has an XLR connector, so you can use conventional microphones, and it will even send phantom power to condenser mics. Needing a special adapter cable is a little problematic – cables sometimes go bad, or what if you lose it? It’s not something that you can replace by making a run to Radio Shack!

      Apogee is best-known as a maker of high-end microphone preamps, so I’ll bet that the sound quality is pretty good, but I haven’t had a chance to try one out for myself. But it’s certainly worth considering, along with interfaces from M-Audio, etc. If you want something really tiny, the Mic Port Pro or X2U are even smaller than the Apogee One…

      • CB Glynn says:

        Jeff, Thanks for your comments and your article. After posting my comment I re-read your article and tried to find separate write-ups on the Apogee ONE. All that said, I came back to your article and decided to go with your middle package (i.e., the M-Audio MobilePre and AKG Perception 2200 mic with the Hindenburg Journalist. I need to delay getting the monitors at this time, but I have them on my wish-list. Of course that brought up another question. Since I am a real novice, can you explain what capabilities the Native Power Pack Plug-ins would provide. Is that something I need to record stories from folks?

      • Jeff Towne says:

        CB – you certainly can get away without any third-party plugins, such as the Waves Native Power Pack, in fact it’s probably a good idea to start out with the effects that come with your editing software, and then only adding-in if you feel like you need to. Hindenburg has a very nice EQ and Compressor, they’re basic, but sound good and are pretty easy to use. The Waves plug-ins will give you some similar, more-tweakable tools, but that’s getting pretty advanced.

        We especially like the Waves L1 limiter that comes in the Native Power pack, (or the L2 or L3 – they’re each a little different but work similarly) and you can sometimes buy those plug-ins all by themselves for a reasonable price. Those limiters are especially good at controlling peaks while sounding natural. That said, the Hindenburg Compressor has some hidden complexity, although it’s a fairly gentle compressor at low settings, it changes to more of a limiting function when encountering sounds well above the threshold, so you may find that the built-in compressor in Hindenburg is good enough for you.

        That Native Power pack has some nice EQs too, with precise control over the shapes of the EQ curves, and other nudgey things. And it has a nice de-esser, which can really help if someone you recorded has really sharp, sizzly S sounds. You can address that with EQ, but a de-esser is better.

        But again – if the budget is tight, I’d wait and add plug-ins later. In fact I’d suggest saving up for good monitor speakers first.

      • CB Glynn says:

        Thanks Jeff, I will work on getting the monitors in the near future. I appreciate your advice and your article.

  • Excellent article, Jeff. Even though I have a home studio I had to read through just to check…

    FYI you mention under the Windows section that an external HD on USB2 will work for ProTools. That’s not true. The thoroughput on USB2 even on a fast HD is around 32MBps which will result in all sorts of ProTools gripes. You’re actually better off using an internal HD than an external USB, but either situation is not ideal.

    I ended up getting an eSata drive for audio which makes ProTools much happier. FWIW I mix on a laptop with a 2nd monitor, I limped along with a netbook-grade laptop for a little while but it become clear that ProTools REALLY wants a machine with better guts. And unless you buy a higher-end machine you will likely not have an eSata interface on the Windows platform anyways. So that’s a pretty significant factor if you’re evaluating a Windows-based laptop for audio editing. Either go with a more lightweight DAW or review the ProTools recommended laptop list carefully. I have a 2-yr old HP EliteBook line machine and have been very pleased with it.

    Another thing which I could go on about is compatibility between Mac/PC platforms. The whole reason I moved to PT from Adobe Audition was to be able to share my mixes with a colleague with a Mac-based studio. It proves not to be so easy. While my audio HD has plenty of inputs (FW400, FW800, USB and eSata) a Windows NTFS partition cannot be written to on a Mac, sometimes it can’t even be found, and so I usually actually dump my mix to a cheapo USB hard drive formatted to FAT32, then move it to my colleague’s FW mac drive.

    I suppose you could write a new article just on that!

    – Fred

    FinalRune Productions/Radio Drama Revival

    • Jeff Towne says:

      Hi Fred, I suppose the viability of an external USB2 drive depends on the computer, and the program, and the complexity of the project. I absolutely agree that it’s potentially a problem, but I have worked with a few people who kept their Pro Tools projects on external USB drives, for editing on Windows laptops. Their projects functioned just fine, but they probably only had 3 or 4 tracks, at 16-bit 44.1 khz, and no plug-ins.

      And you make a good point about drive format compatibility between platforms: as with the drive speed, sometimes it will work smoothly and other times you may need to just through hoops, such as copying the project onto a compatible drive. That is a good idea for a column, or at least a sidebar, we’ll keep it in mind!

  • Larry Vaughn says:

    I’d like to find a way to quickly adjust audio levels in Final Cut Pro. I shoot and edit mini-doc type web commercials
    and I break up the audio track to individually set the levels, after I get the actual audio content edited.

    Would Hindenberg work for this purpose? It seems to spend too much time doing this manually. I’d have to export the audio track into Hindenberg and back into FCP.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      I’ve heard some rumors about Hindenburg supporting OMF (an interchange file that allows exchange of project information between different programs) in the future, so you may at some point be able to export a Final Cut project as an OMF, import into Hindenburg, take advantage of its intuitive leveling protocols, then export the audio back to the video editor. BUT! That doesn’t exist yet (March 2012.) There are work-arounds: you could export each track of your video project as a continuous WAV file starting at 0:00:00, then import those tracks into Hindenburg (or any audio editing program) and re-build the session by simply starting each track at 0:00:00. Then, after doing your level adjustments, you export the final mix, or solo each track and export each track, one at a time, from the audio program, making sure to start each track’s export at exactly the same time location, then re-building it in your video editor. The better solution is to use an audio editor that supports OMF. Pro Tools 9 and 10 support that natively, or it can be purchased as an option for earlier versions. Importing an OMF will create a project with clips arranged as they were in the video editing program, complete with volume information. Those clips can then be tweaked more extensively in Pro Tools, then either mixed down internally or re-exported as an OMF. That process gives you lots of control, but it’s not quick or easy… If you want quick and easy, you may have to wait, and keep your fingers crossed that Hindenburg will indeed offer that function soon!

  • John Pemble says:

    Excellent 101 oriented article about getting a DAW started with the right links to drill each topic down further. The no hard and fast rules approach gives flexibility in choosing the right components that jive with each producer.

  • Tom Bamford says:

    I have used Adobe Audition in my radio production work for the last 3 years. I find it very flexible and, while I haven’t begun to explore all it’s capabilities, I am still finding features that enhance and accelerate my work. Is there some reason you don’t mention it?

  • James Delahoussaye says:

    Thanks Mr. Towne for the great update!

    I’m very green when it comes to audio production and it’s equipment.
    Last year I took a Radio Techniques class at my college, unfortunately, there wasn’t as much hands on experience with their equipment as I was hoping for, but I was able to produce a few simple commercials and a 9 minute documentary on Audition (which I admit I’m pretty proud of).
    I at this point, I really know only the basics of recording and editing, but I enjoyed the experience enough to want to invest in the some equipment and learn everything I can at home.
    ———
    I was looking at the AKG Perception 220, and read what a wonderful, but also sensitive mic it is. My room does pick up sounds from outside neighbors and the occasional lawnmower. Would Hindenburg’s software help with blocking out unwanted noise, or would the Native Power Pack aid me in some isolation?
    Maybe I should record in my closet… that’s padded enough.

    Also, I’m traveling up to Maine this summer to meet some old family friends; folks that were all hippies and lived on boats in the Caribbean during the 1960s/70s. I thought it would make for some great stories.
    Could you recommend a rugged mic and recorder that a novice like myself could use out in the woods?

    Again, thank you!

    • Fred says:

      Hmmm I’m a young hippie who lives in the woods of Maine (and has one of few off-grid audio post-production studios in the world I’m pretty sure). FWIW I love the Sony PCM-M10 recorder, it works fine as a standalone recorder and I had great results pairing it with the RODE NTG-2: http://www.finalrune.com/our-south-african-love-the-sony-pcm-m10/

      Let me know if you do make it up! Sounds like fun; I live in the Southwest part of the state…

      – Fred

      • Thanks for your comment Fred.
        I’ve been spending a lot of time reading through Transom reviews and forums about the pros and cons of different recorders and mic pairings. It seems like your NTG-2 setup sounds great, when you can get the precise pickup from the mic and then use M10’s internal mics for ambient sound.
        Also, I’ve enjoyed looking through your website, and plan to start listening to some of the audio stories posted. :)

        I have to admit, as a pure amateur, I know I don’t NEED this equipment. I should just be happy with a simple recorder and a dynamic mic. I don’t do this for a living and I’ll be teaching myself as I go a long…. but then again… I do love my gadgets. Maybe I should be happy with a DR-40 or even something smaller…
        (The big brother DR-100 is now the same price as the M10, hmmmm).

        Do you ever find yourself missing xlr inputs? Do you worry about the integrity of that mini jack?
        Also, what king of monitor headphones do you use?

        Thanks!

      • finalrune says:

        James,

        Cool! If I only had to get one device, I would just get a portable recorder and use it sans mic. Seriously, for voice interviews it will be fine, in fact I’ve done it on several. You’re more apt to carry a small recorder with you for interesting experiences anyways, and then you don’t need to find a place to stuff an XLR or mini cable, a good shockmount for your mic, etc. I did an interview with the PCM-M10 and you can hear what you think: http://www.radiodramarevival.com/episode-265-anti-starc-realities/ (2nd half of the show)

        The Zoom line is good, too, though compared to the Sony’s they feel a little more ‘toy’ ish though the sound quality can be good. I have no experience on the Tascams so can’t speak for them, though I’ve heard good things.

        Oh monitors… I have a nice pair of Sonys (MD7506) for my serious field work, but a lightweight pair (can’t even remember the name now) which I can beat up for taking in the field. When you have a lightweight recorder and are trying to capture ‘slice of life’ sound vs. a planned recording event, I go for as light as possible, I monitor so I can get the levels right but I’m not too critical on the nuances of the sound, as I am when I have actors in the field for instance.

        – Fred

  • Adeel says:

    Great Article! I hope you can help me with an issue. M using Shure Sm58/Mxl Condensors, Mackie 6 Channel Mixer, M Audio fast Track and Cubase for my home Studio setup. Recording track by track is the technique i use. Everything works just fine.

    its just that when i record vocals, id like to be able to variate the volume of the recording vocals according to the volume of the playback music im recording vocals for without changing the actual level of recording. ok i know this is tricky to write down. What happens is if the vocals are coming in too loud and i can hear myself a lot over the music, i am unable to open up and sing freely and vice vice versa which turns out a poor recording. with all the research ive done on the internet and the types of setups with various kinds of mixers ive yet to find a solution for this. The soundcraft compact 4 or 10 seem to solve this problem but they dont make em any more.

    Can anyone help me with this please?

  • Aaron Read says:

    Jeff, do you know if anyone has tried (or succeeded in) using multiple USB microphones and a software-based mixer, eschewing any hardware at all?

    I’m tempted to pick up a couple of cheap USB headset mics and plug ‘em all in at once and see what happens. Or maybe they need to be different makes/models so the computer recognizes them as separate (or maybe they need to be same so each doesn’t try and grab exclusive access to the sound drivers).

    If that can work, it’d be a minor revolution in the sportscasting world. No longer would you need an external mixer, nor an external device for connecting back to the studio. Two headset USB mics, one crowd sound USB mic, and Skype (or even Windows Media Encoder or Shoutcast/Nicecast) would be sufficient.

  • Jip Cole says:

    I have MacBook Pro with Retina Display for the 2880×1800-pixel resolution of the new 15.4-inch retina display connecting a 30-inch Dell 3007WFP-HC monitor using thunderbolt cable i buy from this site: http://www.kanexlive.com/thunderbolt-cable. The effect is somewhat underwhelming, given that the native resolution of the Dell 3007WFP-HC monitor is 2560×1600 pixels. In resolution scale option the highest resolution is only 1600 X 1000. Is there any configuration to do to maximize the resolution of my monitor?

  • If you need to use a Windows NTFS formatted drive on a Mac, then Tuxera will do it for you for. You install that on the Mac Works fine on my Macmini 2011 and means that I can also copy across large video files and use a colleague’s Windows NTFS formatted drive

    http://www.tuxera.com/products/tuxera-ntfs-for-mac/

  • jess e says:

    Studio projects lsm doesn’t have headphones jack.

  • gilberto says:

    need a recorder

  • Dhruv says:

    first of all thank you for posting this.. kind of clear some of my doughts..
    I want to ask few questions.. please help out.
    I am planning on making my home Recording/Mixing studio..(kind of )..
    and I have Pro tools HD10.. I have decent system..
    Specs;-
    4GB DDR3 RAM, windows 7 premium (64bit),320 GB SATA III HDD,3.0Ghz processor(Dual core).

    I can run PT on this ystem fine..but can’t put more than 10-15 plugins ..(system crashes)..
    I was thinking of buyin a pre-amp, a microphone, external DSP (but,my system doesn’t have a Firewire or PCI connection). I can use an adapter (usb to firewire/pci)….
    so what should I buy.. and how can i connect them.. so my PC don’t crash everytime I put 11th plugin.. thanx.. :D

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