If you're putting together a studio, you want to spend your money on cool stuff: valve microphones, vintage synths, stupidly loud speakers that will pin your listeners against the rear wall, that sort of thing. But what do you actually need to make your studio work? Boring things!
In this video and transcript, SOS Editor In Chief Sam Inglis counts down his unsung heroes, the Top 10 items that won't make your heart beat faster — but will prove vital in the heat of a session.
What's in your Top 10? Let us know in the SOS Forum topic!
What is it? It’s a small active loudspeaker. It doesn’t sound very good, it won’t play loud, and I’ve only got one of them. So why is it so vital? Well, on any session that I do, this will be permanently set up in the live room for talkback, even if the musicians are on headphones. Because everyone’s natural reaction at the end of a take is to remove their headphones. And then I’m frantically gesturing through the control-room window. Communicating over a loudspeaker allows everyone to take off their phones and have a proper conversation. Worth its weight in gold.
They say that in London, you’re never more than six feet from a rat. There’s a similar law of nature that applies to recording studios, which says that you’re always slightly too far away for comfort from the nearest headphone socket. When you’re setting up a session you want to be able to put the musicians where they sound best and where they can see each other properly, not where they can reach the headphone amp. So, you need some of these. Headphone extension cables. Not sexy. Not cool. But absolutely vital. However, all headphone extension cables are not created equal. Don’t buy ones like this. They are crap, and your headphones will constantly be cutting in and out. Spend the extra and get ones with a proper locking connector like this.
When we think of a recording studio, we think of a big fancy-ass mixing desk like this. Now this is the sexy bit — preamps and EQ and faders and stuff — which is cool but if I’m honest, kind of optional. This is the boring bit definitely not optional. Because this is the master section, where we handle monitor control and talkback. As you can see, those buttons have been used so much that all the legending has worn off. So I said this bit was optional, and if you don’t need it, you can replace all this with one of these. It’s a monitor controller. It lets me do things like talk to the artist, switch speakers, listen in mono, turn the level up or down… not interesting in any way, but try running a studio without one!
I hope we’ve all got the message by now that cheap mic stands are a false economy. If you’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on a top-quality studio mic you don’t want to be sat there watching in horror as it plunges to the studio floor. So over the years I’ve picked up a lot of heavy-duty mic stands and my mics have thanked me for it. However, no matter how many I get, I never seem to have enough of these. Short mic stands. Now you might think, well, an ordinary boom stand can do that, but it can’t. If you want to get a mic right inside a bass drum, or under a snare, or down by someone’s knees — you need the right tool for the job.
I’m sitting in it. Now there are supposed to be sound acoustic reasons why control rooms should have hard floors, but I think the main reason for it is to allow the engineer to zoom around on a wheely chair. And if you have a large console, that’s not trivial, because you will be moving from one end of it to the other all the time during a session. What’s also not trivial is that you could be sitting in this chair for ten, twelve, fourteen hours without much of a break. Make it a good one.
It’s a funny thing about audio interfaces that although they might have everything else you need to record a track, they never have enough headphone outputs. I don’t think I have ever seen an audio interface with more than two headphone outputs. I don’t think I have ever recorded a band with fewer than two musicians. So, you’re going to need one of these. Boring, but vital. And although it feels like it’s physically hurting your wallet to spend more than you absolutely have to on boring things, it is so totally worth getting a good headphone amp. Cheap ones with external power supplies won’t go loud enough without distorting, they won’t let you run multiple feeds for different musicians, and they won’t stay still.
This is a DACS Headlite, it must be fifteen years old, it’s built like a tank and if you turn it up more than halfway it will literally cook your head. So, not the cheapest option, but absolutely money well spent.
Going into the studio does strange things to musicians. And, let’s face it, musicians are quite often strange people to start with. So, you’ll quite often find that guitarists will turn up at the studio without spare strings, or drummers won’t have brought a drum key, or that they’ve somehow got through their entire career without ever having heard of moon gel. And if something breaks at nine o’clock on Sunday night, you’re not going to be able to pop down your local mom 'n' pop music store and pick up a replacement. And that will be the one time in the drummer’s life when he actually punches a hole in the head of the snare drum. So, be prepared.
I think it’s fair to say that a DI box scores fairly highly on the boring front. Good ones like this cost a surprising amount of money, and they don’t make any sound or do anything interesting to sounds that something else has made. So you might be tempted to think I’m just going to plug things straight into my audio interface, why do I need to waste money on one of these? Well, the answer is that that will work just fine — until it doesn’t. And the point where it doesn’t work will inevitably arise at the worst possible time. Yes you need a DI box if something’s buzzing and humming. Yes you need a DI box when the bass player turns up with the worst amp known to humanity, because a good DI box will allow you to tap off the signal at a point before he or she has irretrievably murdered it. Yes, you need a DI box. Or five.
The last but one thing I’m going to talk about in this series is so boring that I can’t actually even illustrate it. Even if you’ve watched all the other episodes with avid interest, the mere mention of this word is going to get you thinking about emptying the dishwasher. I’m talking about insurance. Studios are not magic buildings. They burn down. They get burgled. They flood. They’re also places where people can injure themselves and sue you. So you need insurance, and you need the right insurance. Don’t assume that your household contents insurance covers your home studio, because if you do paid work for clients, it probably doesn’t. Don’t assume that your security arrangements are OK just because you haven’t been broken into yet. Because if they don’t actually meet the insurance company’s standards, you won’t get anything. Take insurance seriously, because you don’t want to experience the alternative. And yes, I know I sound like your mum.
Studios, and people who run studios, accumulate stuff. Broken stuff that you never got around to fixing. Stuff you picked up cheap cos it was collection-only. Stuff that musicians left behind and never collected. Stuff, stuff and more stuff. And when you have stuff, you need space to put all that stuff. And that space is called storage and no studio on earth has quite enough of it. Which is why I’m sitting on the roof. I think if I ever build a studio from scratch, I’m going to devote about 80 percent of the floor space to storage. And then I can spend all my time on eBay.