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Getting Started In Music

Frequently Asked Questions By Mike Senior
Published March 2001

All of the studios depicted are ideal for their owners, but they are all very different. What you need for your home studio will also be unique.All of the studios depicted are ideal for their owners, but they are all very different. What you need for your home studio will also be unique.

The answers to some of the more basic questions we receive at SOS might seem obvious, but they are, in fact, more complex than they appear. Mike Senior sets about answering the unanswerable...

We receive a large number of basic questions here at the SOS office, questions which are not only constructed of very few words themselves, but which also appear to require simple, if not one‑word answers. Yet it is these questions that are often the most difficult and time‑consuming to answer effectively, often because of the assumptions and over‑simplifications inherent in them. What's more, the issues raised by these questions often don't fit neatly into any particular topic, so it can be really difficult to know where to look to find advice of the most basic nature.

So, we've decided to bring together all of these questions, and I'll be providing what answers are possible to them within the next few months. So if you're at square one with something relating to music recording then read on...

Q. Can you tell me what I need to start a basic home studio?

This is extremely difficult to answer in a way that will hold for all the possible situations, because the whole question of gear choice is such a personal decision. There are so many factors involved in selecting suitable equipment, because it has to be suitable for you. Price is often an important, if not overriding, issue for many readers. However, the cheapest unit is not always the best choice, and there are other equally important considerations when it comes to ensuring you get value for your hard‑earned cash.

Getting Started In MusicFor example, it is vital that you understand the requirements of the type of audio work you are involved in or are planning to do. The styles of music you'll be concentrating on will inevitably affect your needs: while a quality GM sound module might be invaluable for jingle writing, allowing you to dial up musical styles quickly, if you were writing Trance music most of the patches would probably be left unused and the lack of serious real‑time control would quickly become very frustrating. Likewise, what a producer of house music might be well advised to spend on a sampler and RAM, a producer of spoken‑word programmes for radio might perhaps be better off investing in a couple of good condenser mics and some high‑quality preamplification.

The way in which you go about the musical tasks that you have set yourself will inevitably be important in narrowing down the field for retail therapy. If, for example, you realised that you wanted to record your whole band simultaneously for a live feel, then there'd be little point in getting any recorder which could only handle recording a maximum of two tracks simultaneously.

Getting Started In MusicWhen specifying a studio setup, you also have to make sure that every new unit fits in with any equipment you already have — and I'm not just talking about paintwork, however excrutiating various combinations of 'groove gear' may look. You might have tapes and discs that you wish to use in your new production environment, or you may want to swap files between different pieces of software or digital hardware. You may also have hardware peripherals, such as expression pedals or SCSI devices, which you would also like to incorporate.

Furthermore, whatever you spend your money on needs to be able to cope with any future purchases or foreseeable new duties. If you know that you will eventually want to buy a digital recorder or a MIDI sequencer, why not ensure that every new purchase features the requisite I/O to communicate with these? Likewise, if you're likely to want to drag your kit to gigs, then it might be a little short‑sighted to invest in bulky studio‑only gear which may be tiresome to take to gigs and which may not appreciate being left to the tender mercies of your average roadie or inebriated punter.

Getting Started In MusicAnd, finally, remember that setting up a home studio isn't just about choosing the correct gear — it's also about putting it in a suitable acoustic environment and connecting it together correctly. You can have a brilliant selection of music equipment, but if your listening room sounds awful and your cables are picking up interference and mains hum then you're hardly going to be getting the best out of your investment.

Back issues of SOS provide a number of useful articles to help you out when specifying your first home studio. What's more, there are seven years of past SOS articles available free of charge on our web site, so there's no excuse not to be well‑informed when you buy for your setup. Here are some features that will be of particular interest to the first‑time buyer:

  • David Mellor's four‑part Equipping A Home Studio series (December 1997 to June 1998), discusses this whole process and provides a number of trial setups, while Paul White's five‑part Planning Your First Home Studio series (March to July 1995) is also extremely informative.
  • If you're thinking of using a computer in your studio, then Paul White's three‑part Setting Up A Desktop Studio series (August to October 2000) and Martin Walker's Buying A Ready‑Made PC Music System (October 1998) will help you to understand what you'll need.
  • Paul White's All About Studio Power & Wiring article (August 1999) will assist you in deciding how best to connect your equipment for the most reliable operation and best audio quality.
  • Worried about what your listening room is doing to the sounds you're hearing? Paul White's Practical Acoustic Treatment series (July to November 1998) will help you put your mind at rest.
  • Recording brass, drums, or electric guitars in a home studio can be difficult without disturbing your neighbours. What's more, outside noises can play havoc with the recording of delicate sound sources. So you owe it to youself to check out Paul White's Practical Studio Soundproofing series (February to May 1998) if you're going to be able to record all the instruments that you want, when you want, and how you want.

Q. About how much should I be looking to spend adding a mic/compressor/reverb to my setup?

Getting Started In MusicThe amount of money you should spend on any piece of equipment will inevitably depend upon the rest of your setup. The important point to bear in mind is that your recording system is only as good as its weakest link. If you buy yourself a top‑of‑the‑range voice channel, you're only likely to get your money's worth if you make sure that you have a quiet recording environment, a top‑of‑the‑range microphone, and a seriously high‑quality analogue or digital recorder. If you're recording from a cheap mass‑produced mic to a cheap soundcard installed in your office computer, then a top‑of‑the‑range voice channel really won't be able to justify its price tag.

Whether a Joemeek VC3Q or a Focusrite ISA430 will be best suited to your needs rather depends on the rest of your studio setup.Whether a Joemeek VC3Q or a Focusrite ISA430 will be best suited to your needs rather depends on the rest of your studio setup.Whenever you have some money to spend on your recording setup, it's worth also making sure that what you're about to fork out for is actually going to give you the greatest increase in performance for your money. It could be that what you're looking to spend on a voice channel would be better spent on some acoustic treatment for your recording room, some proper audio cabling, a filtered PSU, a quieter fan for your computer, better monitoring, or any number of other even less exciting items which often make a much greater impact on the quality of your finished recordings than any processor can. If you're wondering whether you're getting the greatest improvement in your studio's performance for your money, then check out Paul White's Making A Difference series (SOS August and September 2000), which ought to help you decide the matter.

Q. Do you know any studios that have jobs going? Or any that are offering work experience?

The simple answer to the first question is that studios rarely, if ever, make any appeals for new recruits — it is, in fact, so rare for any studio to advertise vacancies that I'd probably be a little suspicious if I saw such an advert anywhere. The simple fact of the matter is that very few people in the recording industry are willing to recruit anyone they don't already know fairly well. And, given the combination of technical skills, personality, temperament and stamina which go together to make up a successful recording engineer (or even studio assistant), it is not surprising that studio managers are wary about rushing into employing the first young hopeful they meet. The only real exception to this is where experienced engineers are being sought by larger operations, such as post‑production studios and broadcast studios — however such engineers would not probably need to be told where to look for such vacancies.

The fact that you have asked the first question implies that you don't have much in the way of experience in the recording industry, which means that the second question is much more relevant to you. If you are willing to do unpaid work experience, then you can turn the system of 'only employing people we know' to your advantage — if you can get yourself into a studio, even if it is only to sweep up and make tea, the studio staff will get to know you. If you learn fast, remaining enthusiastic yet unobtrusive, then they're also likely to decide that they like you as well, and will want to keep hold of you if they can. There are precious few studio assistants who are any good, and studio staff know this, so even if they can't afford to pay you then they'll probably try to keep you interested in working for them by getting you more involved in the recording process. If you are indeed a great assistant, and they don't offer you a job, then you'll at least be able to walk away with a great reference for when you seek further work experience at a more high‑profile studio — and the road can lead ever upwards with a little luck.

However, you have to realise that these things may not happen fast. If you're unlucky, you might have to do work experience for months before anyone thinks of paying you at all, and you may have to work freelance for a couple of years before you get anything like a permanent assistant's position. Once you've acquired a little studio experience, you ought to know what sort of life you're getting yourself into, though it's worth checking out David Mellor's series on becoming a recording engineer for this as well (SOS April 1999 through to SOS June 1999).

What I have, of course, glossed over so far is how you go about getting your first work‑experience position. But that is because, in order to stand the best chance of landing such an opportunity, you have to have come to terms with all of the above. However, beyond this, there are no secrets to the actual process of applying for work experience. Because you're probably going to have to work for a while unpaid, you'll have to take that into account when deciding which areas you'll be able to apply to, but after that it's just a case of a lot of hard work and persistence. Unless you're lucky enough to have an uncle who owns a commercial studio, you're going to have to get down to mailing a CV and covering letter to the manager of every studio within your catchment area, following up all those letters with phone calls. The Showcase directory (which can be ordered through the SOS bookshop and may well be in your local library) and others like it will be able to provide you with the names and addresses of many of the studios in your area, though you may also have to do more in‑depth detective work than that, particularly if you live outside a major city — speaking to local musicians, music teachers and radio stations can often lead you to the more out‑of‑the‑way studios.

A few general things are worth bearing in mind, though. Firstly, keep your CV short and leave out anything that isn't going to interest a studio manager — if it ends up filling only half a page, then so be it. Secondly, write a covering letter stressing your enthusiasm and your ability to work unpaid, because these are the main things that studio managers are looking for. If you seem keen (and meticulous enough to proofread your letter carefully...) your CV might, possibly, get a look and your name might even be recognised when you follow your letter up with a phone call.

Sadly, studio managers are unlikely to consider anyone much older than about 25 for work experience, simply because they want applicants with energy, humility and pliability. What's more, beginning a studio career is not compatible with any of the personal or financial commitments (ie. friends, family, mortgage) that people tend to accumulate as they get older. However, there are other ways into studio work than those described above, which may be the only option if you're in your thirties or if you cannot afford to work unpaid — you'll just have to go at it by working freelance somehow or another.

All sorts of people with the right skills manage to become engineers and producers, even though they often start out working as engineers only in their free time. I know one successful producer who started his career as a welder, building a studio in his free time and teaching himself to engineer and produce as he went. One of the great things about the music industry is that talent and persistence are often enough to bring you success, even if you don't follow the tried‑and‑tested career routes. It's just that it's well‑nigh impossible to provide any sort of concrete careers advice for this, partly because being self‑employed involves being flexible enough to take up opportunities whenever and wherever they present themselves. There is plenty of information available about such people (TV, radio, books, magazines, newspapers and web pages, for example) to get you started, and the only other basic advice I'd give is that you need to be extremely well organised, you need to have access to legal and financial advice, and you need, above all things, to persevere.

Q. Should I use my computer for music or choose dedicated hardware instead?

This is a common question which vexes many musicians. Some software companies might have us believe that hardware studio setups are a thing of the past, but it is worth taking the time to weigh up the validity of this assertion for yourself. It is certainly very tempting to think that you can simply install a couple of software packages and a soundcard into your existing home computer, at a cost of only a fraction of what a studio would cost in hardware. However, you should remember that what you'll get won't really be very much like a hardware studio at all, and not all of the difference is likely to be welcome. Not least, working with a cheap soundcard on a general‑purpose home computer is unlikely to provide a very reliable system. Even if you manage to avoid audio glitches and timing problems (for example, because of conflicts with office, Internet and games software), it's probable that bugs, workarounds, crashes and reboots will be an inevitable and recurring part of your recording experience. If 'time is money' to you, then expenditure like this could soon add up.

While using a PC for music offers a lot of power and flexibility, there is also still much to be said for dedicated studio hardware such as the Yamaha AW4416.While using a PC for music offers a lot of power and flexibility, there is also still much to be said for dedicated studio hardware such as the Yamaha AW4416.One common reason why many people go for dedicated recording hardware is because most affordable computer systems aren't well‑suited to live performance or location recording. Typically, desktop computers are either too bulky, fragile or unreliable for the demands of such environments — you don't want your computer crashing during a live set, however forgiving you might be of the occasional breakdown within a studio environment.

There are also other reasons why some people still opt for dedicated music‑making hardware even in a studio environment. Many musicians feel uncomfortable with the screen/mouse/keyboard interface, particularly if almost the entire production environment is within the computer. Even if you don't mind doing a lot of mousing around, team work can still be frustrating where, say, one person wants to program a software synth patch and the other wishes simultaneously to tweak a virtual equaliser. What's more, if your central computer stops functioning then your studio could completely grind to a halt, whereas even the main mixer going down in a conventional studio wouldn't stop synths, mics, effects and multitrack recorder from continuing to be used. Another important problem that can be encountered when using computerised music systems is the processing delay when monitoring through them, which can cause difficulties when overdubbing.

If, like so many other musicians today, you do opt to pursue the computerised option, then you would be well advised either to specify and acquire a separate computer for your music applications, or else to investigate the concept of having different boot drives for music and general‑purpose uses. In the former case, it is worth talking to a specialist music computer retailer, rather than going for a computer specified for office or Internet use. Even though music‑specific systems may seem, on the face of it, to be more expensive, Martin Walker gives a number of very good reasons why it is a good idea to go to the professionals — see his PC Musician article in SOS April 2000. Also, be aware that you might still require a certain amount of hardware alongside the 'complete home studio in your PC' software — computer music systems will usually benefit from high‑quality hardware preamps and A‑D/D‑A converters, as well as from MIDI keyboards and dedicated music control surfaces.

If you opt for having multiple boot drives on your existing desktop computer, then it would be worth going into it well‑informed. Once again Martin Walker has provided a lot of useful advice on this topic — check out his PC Musician article in SOS May 1998.