Home studios have their roots in convenience, but technological advances have made them a necessity for any musician working on a deadline or collaborating with other artists.
StudioViolinist Anna Bulbrook, a member of the Los Angeles rock band Airborne Toxic Event since 2007, saw her side work grow to the point that she had no choice but to create her own workspace, which led to her renting a room at Bedrock L.A. in the city’s Echo Park neighborhood.
Much as her studio space is packed with the tools of a touring musician – mic stands, Fender amps, a small drum kit – it has, more importantly, become her writing and recording workspace. She finds the space has helped her beyond having a convenient place to work on side projects such as the Bulls, a band she leads with Marc Sallis of The Duke Spirit, and her work scoring for visual media.
“Aside from getting a clean signal that isn’t degraded or blown out, [recording] has taught me to think a lot about arranging,” says Bulbrook, who moved into Bedrock in early 2014. “I’m tracking so that I’m able to communicate my ideas to an engineer, so that when I got into a proper studio, I can bang it out.”
Nearly everyone busy converting a garage or spare bedroom into a recording studio agrees technology has advanced to the point that professional results are within a few mouse clicks and a relatively minor investment. Bulbrook assembled her computer, hard drive and pre-amp setup for under $5,000; television composer Mike Suby, whose work on Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Vampire Diaries is recorded in a converted den in his Pacific Palisades, Calif., home, spent $11,000 on a recent Apple computer and hard drive setup.
“Once you have the computer set up, you’re $200 from scoring films,” says composer Kevin Saunders Hayes.
In London, Downton Abbey composer John Lunn has seen a significant change in recording over his 25 years of writing for film and television as well as his own operas.
For Downton Abbey, he records the temp tracks in his basement studio on a two-computer system that uses Logic for MIDI and ProTools for recording. He records the piano in his home using two AKG C-12 microphones, takes the hard drive to a studio to record live strings and then returns home to do a final mix.
“I’ve been using that system for the last five or six years, and someone would have to come up with something groundbreaking for me to change,” says Lunn, who uses the Vienna Symphony Orchestra library for his temp tracks. “We only stopped using 24-track two-inch tape seven or eight years ago, and this has become a streamlined system.” Studio time with musicians is reduced “vastly.”
His next project is Last Kingdom, a BBC series about Vikings and Saxons set in the ninth century. He is using a collection of modular synthesizers, playing and manipulating their sounds in ProTools, combined with percussion ensembles, the lyre, which he has taught himself to play, and Danish singer Eivør, who records in Denmark.
“I’m trying hard not to use a sample library or (software) synths because everyone uses them,” Lunn says.
“Once you have the computer set up, you’re $200 from scoring films.” – Kevin Saunders Hayes
A generation of musicians has grown up with easy-to-use software, beginning in most cases with Apple’s GarageBand and upgrading to ProTools and Logic. “We probably spent too much time using GarageBand,” Bulbrook says of Airborne’s recordings, the last of which, Dope Machines, was largely recorded in band leader Mikel Jollett’s kitchen. “The sound quality is so much higher [in Logic], and there are tools that become available. Those are things you didn’t think about.”
Lunn, Hayes and Suby got their starts when professional studios were the way to work in the business. Hayes, who, at his home studio, has scored 45 independent films, countless commercials, artist demos and orchestral music for his silent movie theater troupe, Vox Lumiere, began in the pre-MIDI days of 48-track boards, two-inch tape and patch bays; Suby’s first film project – in 2003 – was a collection of sessions with guitar and drums followed by string players laying down tracks.
On Suby’s second film, 2004’s The Butterfly Effect, he turned in a demo that frightened the producer. “He was in a panic,” says Suby, a Berklee College of Music-educated guitarist who also scores ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and USA’s Project Runway. “He couldn’t hear how it would sound once it was recorded with an orchestra. And I don’t blame him – it sounded horrible.”
With the quick turn-around time on series television – two or three days being the standard – Suby has seen technology keep pace with demand.
“It’s astonishing how far it has come. Drum kit software, strings done in the best studios in the world – they sound tremendous. The reverbs they have been making the last five years are just spectacular.”
In 2000, Hayes converted his garage in the mid-city section of Los Angeles by building a room within a room so that interior walls touch the garage’s frame. He went the traditional route – a space that could accommodate six or eight musicians and a separate control room.
Three years after he started, professional studio tuner Bob Hodas helped him upgrade the studio with relatively simple items – burlap and recycled denim on the walls, and foam in the corners for sound absorption plus a 4-foot-by-6-foot piece of peg board bowed out at six inches for a vocal area. “That was a dramatic improvement,” says Hayes, who earned a master’s in composition at the Hartt School of Music.
Kristy Hanson, a singer-songwriter with two LPs and an EP under her belt, is in the process of learning what Hayes did a decade and a half ago: how to tune your home workspace. Hanson and her husband, recording engineer Mike Chiaburu, are building a garage studio in their Encino, Calif., home.
The initial problem is that recordings sound “ringy,” Hanson says, and they’ll be tackling that issue before she starts to use the space for her next project later this summer.
The couple started working on the space in January with a goal of creating a venue where friends could perform as well as record. They started with flooring and extra thick drywall, and they have been experimenting with rugs and curtains to tune the room.
In their prior home, the recording of demos meant clearing a space in part of the house; last year, she transcribed songs for a musical workshop on a tiny keyboard at their dining room table.
Eventually, she says, “it will help me to have a separate space to work with a recording setup rather than drive to a rehearsal space or clear out an area in the bedroom and set up equipment. It adds efficiency and provides a mental space for writing. It’s a mental decision – you’re going to work. A home studio provides a professional dividing line from your personal life.”
Start Your Studio
Once a computer and an interface software have been secured – Logic Pro and Apple are often mentioned as favorites – musicians offer their tips on creating a quality home studio.
Invest in decent microphones that suit your taste.
Film and TV composer Mike Suby uses a Neumann U87 for vocals, a Russian microphone for acoustic guitar and ribbon mics for woodwinds. Downton Abbey composer John Lunn primarily uses two AKG C-12s – always for his piano – and has two Neumann U87s as well. Composer Kevin Saunders Hayes uses a Langevin CR-3A microphone. “Because I’m at Bedrock [studios], I can borrow an amazing Telefunken microphone,“ says Anna Bulbrook of Airborne Toxic Effect and the Bulls.
Step two purchase? “A tube pre-amp and a good analog-to-digital converter,” advises composer Kevin Hayes.
Tune your room. Rugs, foam, even pegboard and burlap sacks can help get a professional sound. “The worst surprise is when you take your recording to another studio and it sounds nothing like what you heard in yours,” Hayes says.
After the computer and interface, invest one step at a time. “You can do an amazing amount with one decent microphone and with a great pair of headphones; you can get pretty far,” says Bulbrook. “I did that for quite a while before I got decent monitors. Then you can really go down the rabbit hole.”
Make the demo good enough, but don’t labor over it. “People don’t have imaginations anymore,” says Lunn, “so you need to get pretty close to the final score to get people to sign off. But you don’t want to waste too much time on mock-ups – they will be replaced.”
Record your own samples. Suby has been collecting and recording his own samples for a dozen years. “That’s how you make your score sound different from others,” he notes.
Equipment for round two of purchases. “Compressors are the next frontier for me,” says Bulbrook. “I’m understanding that a bit better, and I know that will take my recording game to the next level.”
Drums or no drums. A kit eats up space in a hurry, and all musicians take it into account when creating their workspace. Hayes has room for a trap kit; Mike Suby does not. “We have a piano, and we’ll add a drum kit soon,” says Kristy Hanson of her space in Encino, Calif.
Trade. Remember, you’re a musician, and offering your services in exchange for borrowing some equipment is commonplace, especially in complexes where many musicians work.
It’s OK to be overwhelmed. “You already have to have so many skills just to be in a band,” says Bulbrook, listing everything from making videos to marketing. “You’re running a business, and you have to hustle. I get a little overwhelmed, but having the space helps keep it all sorted.” Hayes notes, “When I was starting, I heard Henry Mancini speak, and he said you are not in the music business, you are the music business. I’ve taken that to heart ever since.”
Glossary of Terms
- Fender amps
- Produced since the mid-1940s, the sound quality of Fender Amplifiers made them the go-to amps in the early years of rock ’n’ roll.
(clean, degraded, blown-out)
- A representation of sound. As it passes through electronic components, variables can compromise the result by not processing all of the sonic information (degraded) or distorting elements of the sound (blown-out).
- An electronic device that amplifies a signal from a microphone or an instrument and transmits it to a main amplifier.
- Temp tracks
- Recorded music used temporarily in film or TV show scenes to give a composer a sense of what the director is looking for.
- Logic Pro
- Apple’s digital audio workstation and MIDI sequencer software application.
Musical Instrument Digital Interface
- Standardized in 1983, MIDI refers to the protocol, digital interface and connectors that allow electronic musical instruments and computers to connect and communicate with each other.
- Avid Technology’s digital audio workstation used to compose, record, edit and mix music and audio.
- AKG C-12
- A studio condenser microphone designed for use in sound recording and broadcast studios that is among the most popular microphones in the world.
- 24 track 2-inch tape
- Developed in the late 1960s as an improvement over 1-inch audio recording tape, 2-inch 24-track became the most common format in professional recording studios throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
- Modular synthesizers
- Analog synthesizers with individual modules that are connected together with patch cords or a matrix patching system.
- Sample library
- Music libraries that sell recorded sounds of instruments and other music-makers.
- Apple’s software application for recording multiple tracks of music unveiled in 2005.
- 48-track boards
- A recording board with 48 individual inputs.
- Patch bays
- A panel with input and output jacks that allow a user to easily change signal flow from music-making devices and instruments in a studio.