A Studio Reflects How We Work
(The twelfth installment of a multi-part series about building a personal studio, originally posted at emusician.com on January 27th, 2011.)
If you can judge the health of the economy by the NAMM show, our industry seems to think we’re moving towards recovery. I base my own judgment on the schwag I get: In a good economy, the inside of my suitcase resembles a NASCAR when I come home, with tons of branded goodies that I pass along to my kids and students; When times are tough, I’m lucky to leave the show with a guitar pick.
This year, I flew home with a dozen t-shirts, several cloth bags, and, yes, a handful of plectrums. But looking at a more realistic set of measures, this year’s NAMM show was a biggie. Attendance was an all-time high and there was no shortage of new product announcements.
Remarkably, I didn’t come home with the post-NAMM depression I usually feel after several days of non-stop hype and hyperbole. First, it didn’t seem like the usual race to the bottom, where companies announce tons of me-too products at ever lower price points. Instead, there seemed to be a move towards innovation and quality, with an increase in startups and smaller companies showing useful and well-built gear.
More importantly, I felt there was a renewed emphasis on creativity—music making, engineering, songwriting—rather than just collecting or upgrading. Many people talked about how they work and what they can improve upon with what they have. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re no longer dazzled by talk of 192kHz sampling rates or pure analog signal paths. People are making great music—and great sounding music—on an iPad, for goodness sake: That’s a wake-up call for many. As Frank Zappa once said, “Shut up and play your guitar,” or whatever your main axe may be.
As a tech journalist, my main interest has always been the educational side of things. I like helping people get the most from their gear, rather than promote the seasonal upgrade cycle. With that in mind, I was honored this year to be invited by EM Editor Mike Levine to be on his NAMM panel “Maximum Output from Your Home Studio” along side Carmen Rizzo and Alessandro Cortini. Twice nominated for a Grammy, Rizzo is a producer/engineer who has worked with Trevor Horn, Seal, Coldplay, Alanis Morissette, Supreme Beings of Leisure, and Paul Oakenfold, among others. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Cortini has collaborated with Nine Inch Nails, Ladytron, Muse, and Christina Aguilera. I was in impressive company.
Levine had prepared a list of questions that covered various aspects of the personal studio, such as setup and workflow, and near the end of the hour we took questions from the audience. What struck me most about the discussion was how much each of the panelists differed on basic subjects like mixing, the use of DAW templates, or the sound conditioning and isolation that we have in our studios. It was a clear reminder that a personal studio is, well, personal. Each of us sets up our space based on what we need and how we work. If everything comes together, the workflow and ergonomics successfully support our creativity.
Rizzo’s studio, which is no longer in his home, is far from soundproof, but that doesn’t bother him. He said that if a vocal take is interrupted by sirens or a fly-over, he simply waits for the noise to subside before starting again. He’s fully prepared to track and mix in that room, even though it hasn’t been designed for either purpose from the ground up. He set it up so that it sounds good to his ears, based on his years of experience, and then he gets to work.
Cortini’s home studio is even more humble. In the interview I did with him for EM, he noted that he sold his Fender Rhodes because he didn’t have the space for it—his basement studio at the time was too small. He had boiled everything down to the barest essentials, getting the high-quality sound he wants in the least amount of space. For example, he uses a small, lunch-box size set of Tonelux modules as the front-end of his DAW.
He and Rizzo are comfortable mixing their own projects inside the box, using controllers rather than a mouse when they need to move faders and knobs, and neither of them uses DAW templates when they begin a song. Both of them said they were interested in starting fresh with each project, which is clear when you look at the innovative artists they’ve worked with.
By comparison, both Levine and I use templates in our DAWs when we need them, because they help us quickly capture a musical idea before it disappears. That way, we don’t have to start from scratch and create the various tracks and effects buses we normally want. Of course, a template goes out the window if we work with someone for the first time, but otherwise it comes in quite handy.
I definitely share the overall aesthetic that Cortini and Rizzo have of being open to inspiration and not getting set in your ways. Ironically it was the fact that I had recently built a studio that seemingly put me on the opposing side of our discussion.
After answering questions about the design elements of my new space, it started to feel as if I was advocating for purpose-built studios with expensive features like custom windows and wall treatment. But in my case, I had the rare opportunity to piggyback a tracking room onto a general remodel, so I decided to fulfill my specific needs rather than follow the dominant studio paradigm you see in all the books about designing your own studio—tracking room, mixing room, vocal booth, storage closet.
Flexibility is a priority in my space, as is isolation from the outside world. Unlike the others on the panel who work primarily with electronic sources, much of my interest is in capturing acoustic sounds, and the prevalence of leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and UPS trucks in my neighborhood made it tough to track the quieter instruments without some sort of motor noise sneaking in.
And although I’m just as happy to mix in the box on projects that I need to get out the door quickly, I would rather mix the releases I care the most about in a well designed, sonically tuned studio, preferably with a second set of ears that I trust so I know the results will translate on any playback system.
But when I started this project, I wanted to be able to both track and mix in my studio, which is why I chose the path I did. At this point, the main gear areas are on wheels so I can move them anywhere in the room, such as my mobile tracking/monitoring station and laptop table (see Fig. 1) and portable preamp/effects rack (see Fig. 2). All I have to do is unplug the power and audio cables from the stand-mounted speakers and wheel the mobile station to where it’s convenient or out of the way, depending on the circumstances.
Although I have yet to figure out which angle makes the most sense in terms of positioning my gear for mixing (so that I get the least amount of room-related frequency artifacts), I have some ideas on how to make it work. Once I find the sweet spot for the monitors and any conditioning required, I’ll attempt to make things as portable as possible, so I can set it all up at precisely the right position when needed, then put it away when it’s time to start the next project. As you can see by the empty racks, I’m still in the unpacking and wiring phase.
Table of Contents
Let me leave you with a bit of advice I took away from our panel discussion. The topic of hard-drive storage came up during the Q&A: The more projects we do, the more drives we seem to accumulate. Consequently, you need to find a way to easily identify what’s on the drives. Carmen Rizzo’s excellent suggestion is to print out a screenshot of the drive contents and tape it to the outside box. That way, as you’re looking for something, or if you were to find the drive won’t boot up, you’ll be able to ascertain its contents easily.
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