by discussing the evolution of my home studio and by sharing some of my trial-and-error
experiences, others may find something worthwhile to read. Or not. What the hell. It's
My studio had a roaring good beginning: six bottles of Samual Adams and several glasses of
red wine. Now I'm ready. Beneath the wall-to-wall carpeting in our front bedroom lay the
home's original oak flooring. This room served as my office, and I had grown bored with
all the damned carpeting that smothered the whole house. At least one room needed to have
the hardwood floor exposed. Around 2 a.m. one Friday night, long after the queen of the
castle had fallen asleep, I took to hollerin' at that beige crap I had fallen face-down
upon, and before dawn, I'd rolled up every last thread of it and packed it the hell out of
there. All the giggling and snickering about doing something I might regret after I
sobered up came to a stop when I cut myself twice. So I slept off a few of those beers
before removing the tack strips that held the carpeting in place. Anyway, with the glad
assist of friend Alcohol, my bedroom studio was born.
The room is square, which is most unfortunate from an acoustic standpoint, 8 feet high by
11¾ feet by 11½ feet, with walls of sheetrock and/or rosewood paneling and a six-foot by
four-foot window on the north wall. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but the room
modes and standing waves were a nightmare, although I didn't realize it or do anything
about it for nearly two years. Poor acoustics have an amazing impact on a studio, entirely
bad, and though I didn't know why, I could certainly tell that something was
wrecking my mixes. More on that later.
The closet is three feet deep and six feet wide along the west wall. I dismantled the
sliding closet doors and gave them the heave ho, along with everything inside: clothes,
boxes, knick-knacks, and especially, everything that wasn't mine. This
not only opened up the room a bit and altered the perfect square, it created a nice
display area to store my guitars. The storage space from the two floor-level drawers was
too valuable to take out (although I considered it for several days) and I also kept the
overhead shelf for storing excess gear.
Closet with the doors removed. I installed hooks for hanging cables and left the
clothes bar for straps and whatever. Note the MiniTrap on the wall in the rear.
The Gear Bug
About a year before I ripped out the carpeting, my brother, Doug, had shipped me
his old Tascam Portastudio 244, and that was all I had for recording. For the preceeding
25 years, the highest level of recording technology that I had ever experienced involved
two cheap, portable cassette recorders and their condenser microphones. I would record a
rhythm and vocal track on one tape, then mic both the cassette output with a second layer
of lead guitar and/or vocals over the first. I didn't get very far, although I learned a
lesson or two about overdubbing and found great assistance with the songwriting process.
So when the Portastudio came along, I was a bit wowed, not to mention overjoyed. It served
well as a custom little home four-track recorder, and it was the cat's meow in its heyday.
But the cassette recording format frustrated me because it recorded at 3¾ IPS, which is
faster than standard cassette time. (A 30-minute tape would only last 15 minutes or so.)
So nothing I recorded on the 244 could be played on anything but the 244. I understood the
reasoning well enough: the faster the tape ran while recording, the better the audio
quality would be. But lacking a second tape recorder to convert the 244's audio line out
to standard cassette time, I had no way to hear my work on other systems. Even worse, I
couldn't give my demos to anybody else for feedback. This situation lasted at least a
year, until Nick La Salle announced around 1999 or 2000 that he'd purchased a DigiDesign
001 with ProTools. Doug also spoke with a high degree of satisfaction about his own
digital recording efforts, which was why he gave up the Portastudio: he said he wasn't
ever going to use it again. For some damned reason, I had believed that I could not afford
to collect the gear necessary to outfit a home studio, but those two finally woke me up to
stop being such a tightwad and to start springing for some equipment.
Actually, since working with the 244 and
getting my first taste of true multi-track recording, and all the possibilities that it
offered, they may not have needed to say anything. I had tasted chocolate ice cream for
the first time. And it was sensational. So I bought a Tascam US-428, partly because
it wasn't orbitally priced, and partly because of the way Tascam modeled the unit after
their Portastudios. I naively thought that I would learn digital recording in a matter of
days or a couple of weeks, because I was already familiar with terms like panning, trim
and fader. Terms like clipping, compression, EQ, headroom, mastering, mixing, standing
waves, velocity and innumerable others, all crucial concepts to the recording engineer,
remained far from my lexicon.
US-428 connects to my PC via USB. Plenty of professionals and pseudo-professional
engineers scoff at USB, and I understand why commercial studios would not use it. But for
a home studio, where you're not recording more than two inputs at a time, it works.
didn't take long to realize that I needed decent monitors. Computer speakers are cheap and
don't reproduce music on the quality level that you really need if you're trying to mix
your recordings down to some degree of universally listenable music. I saved my money for
eight months, and finally was able to spring for a pair of Mackie HR824s, which are just
sensational monitors. They weren't cheap, but they do sound brilliant.
are a few recent shots of guitars, monitors, and other room view.
The learning curve is steep with all this gear, if you're new to it. But
it's cool. And there are plenty of websites that have tons of information. Through
constant reading about recording techniques and the general information-gathering process,
I found Ethan Winer's postings at www.recording.org about acoustic treatments about a
year ago, and started wondering what my mixes were lacking. I had trouble getting the bass
to sit correctly in the mix, and oftentimes my recordings sounded muddy. In a well-mixed
song, every instrument sounds transparent. You hear everything in its own space without
trouble. When you can't really discern instruments clearly, hearing just a mash of sound,
I would call it muddy. A good portion of my problem was that the standing waves and room
modes were discoloring the sound as I arranged my mixer settings. If a deer were to fall
off the deck into your above-ground swimming pool, hypothetically, the waves would spread
outward until hitting the edge of the pool, then bounce back in toward the center and
collide with the waves that are still spreading outward. This is exactly what sound waves
do in a room. (Meanwhile, the fricken deer will struggle to get out in a blind panic until
it drowns from exhaustion and stupidity. And you then have a thousand-dollar repair on
your hands, plus a giant dead corpse that you have to bury on the side of county road in
the dark if you don't want to dig a big hole in your yard. I could write a book about
those stupid bastards.)
for an experiment that your wife will appreciate, fill your bathtub with cold water, then
drop a ceramic cup full of hot coffee into the middle and watch the waves. (I did it by
accident, ha ha.) This resembles what it is like trying to mix music in a small, square
room. Like having a small, square bathtub. So I purchased four bass traps from Mini Traps,
only because I learned a lot from Ethan, and because I like the fact that they're
adjustable and easy to move to a new location. The traps helped absorb some of the bass
frequencies and I found my mixes improving.
Which brings me to where I am today. I've just moved to Camino, California. And I'm
preparing to build myself a custom recording studio from the foundation up bigger
floor, higher ceilings, and with acoustics in mind right from the start. It's also higher
up in the mountains and farther out in the forest than I was before. Where snow happens.
a member of the die-hard Kate Bush fan club!