Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (January 2009)

Building a Home Recording Studio

By Bryan Bergeron

Options Various options available for creating a home recording studio range from a pocket digital recorder and built-in microphone in your bedroom to a dedicated, acoustically treated room with the latest computer hardware and software tools, professional microphones, mixers, and signal processors. Budget is obviously a consideration, as is available space. A popular, low-cost option ($350 and up) is a studio in a box. This is an all-in-one, stand-alone recording appliance, such as the 64-track Boss BR-600 Digital Recorder, with built-in microphone, drum machine, and signal processing effects. A laptop or desktop computer with an analog-to-digital interface for capturing sound and associated software, as well as microphones and preamps, is a modest cost solution. A computer offers more flexibility and room for growth than a studio in a box.

Power I’ve learned — the hard way — that the first thing to be aware of is the seemingly odd standards of the music industry. For example, the power supply polarity used by effects pedals and other audio peripherals is often ‘reversed.’ That is, it’s common practice with audio gear outfitted with coaxial power connectors to have the outside of the jacket positive and the inside negative — exactly the opposite of most consumer electronics. I’ve mistakenly plugged in a standard power brick to a preamp, which resulted in a fried one. You can avoid this mistake by clearly marking your music power supply bricks to distinguish them from your standard polarity bricks.

Computer Tools Another industry standard that you’ll discover is Digidesign’s Pro Tools. This software and hardware combination enables you to record and then manipulate sound on your PC. There are numerous software options for both PCs and Macs. For example, I use Logic Studio on a Mac. However, Pro Tools is the entrenched standard. Regardless of your computer hardware and software, you’ll need lots of disk storage and, more importantly, high throughput. Think fast terabyte drives. Expect to use 0.5 GB or more for an eight-track recoding of a 10 minute song.

Cables Cables and connectors for recording are specialized. When selecting cable, think thick copper to minimize resistance losses. Conversely, when you select high-impedance microphone and instrument cables, think shielding for noise reduction and minimum capacitance per foot to minimize high frequency loss. Bulky XLR and old-fashioned 1/4 inch still handle most of the audio signals in a home or professional recording studio. While on the topic of impedance matching, consider that microphones, guitars, and other instruments typically present a high-impedance output (15K–1M ohm) which is much higher than the typical low-impedance line input to an analog-to-digital converter. You'll need a preamp or a direct box to compensate for the impedance mismatch and assure the signal level is appropriate for your input device. A direct box can be as simple as a transformer with input and output connectors.

Signal Processors Stand-alone, floor, and rack-mounted signal processing options — filters, amplifiers, and various effects — can help you achieve the tone you demand. At a minimum, you should consider an eight channel virtual or hardware mixing board. A mixer allows you to adjust levels of various inputs and combine them into a single mono or stereo track. I prefer the feel of a real hardware mixer over a virtual mixer defined in software.

Ground One of the headaches of connecting a half-dozen amplifiers, effect boxes, and computers together is that you have to pay attention to ground loops. Often, the only practical way to remove 60 Hz hum from the audio signal is to lift the ground on one or more devices in the signal chain. This can be accomplished by using a 3-to-2 pronged adapter. Some gear has a built-in ground lift switch. There are obvious safety issues associated with lifting the ground in an AC powered device. In short, don’t allow your body to complete a ground fault circuit.

Information You can be the best circuit designer in the world and find yourself lost in the vocabulary and sheer volume of choices in the home recording world. Prepare to spend some time in your local music store or, better yet, with someone who has a system up and running. And avoid the common misstep of designing your home recording studio one component at a time. You could run out of money before you're through and end up with a mismatched, expensive system. Better to configure the entire system and then look for the best price. Of course, you can save money — and have fun — by making your own cables, effects boxes, and signal monitoring devices. NV