Getting your studio organised doesn't necessarily mean investing in expensive studio furniture or being a DIY whizz. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser explain how they made the most of their space, and pass on some hints and tips for a tidier life.
For years, our recording gear was arranged around our studio room on a motley collection of furniture, mostly consisting of various cast‑offs from other rooms in the house. It was generally rather untidy and sometimes inconvenient. Then, a few years ago, we saw an article written by Mike Simmons about Studio Ergonomics (see SOS September 1993) in which he described the way he had laid out the small studio area under the staircase in his living room. He'd used standard Spur shelving to some extent, and his main work surface was simply a piece of worktop supported at either end by small filing cabinets. We were taken by how neat and compact it all looked, and when we eventually got around to sorting out our own studio environment, we thought we'd use a similar approach. However, we didn't have two small filing cabinets on which to support a work surface, and it seemed perverse to buy some to hold up what's essentially just a big shelf! So we decided to see if we could do the whole thing with Spur shelving. Like most non‑professional musicians, we didn't have the means or the inclination to turn our gear/playing room into the equivalent of Abbey Road Studio 1: we just wanted a system that would be tidy, efficient and comfortable to use, would look businesslike, and didn't alter the fabric of the room too much (if you ever want to sell your house, this may be a consideration: can you turn that spare bedroom back into a spare bedroom fairly easily? It isn't every potential purchaser that wants an 8‑track programming suite/studio in their new abode).
Staying On The Shelf
Spur shelving probably isn't the absolutely cheapest way to construct a built‑in studio area, but it certainly is versatile (you can change the shelf configuration whenever you want), and since it dismantles so easily, you can take it with you if you move house. Also, if you're not some kind of DIY genius (we're not) it's super‑easy to conceptualise and put up. If you're not familiar with this shelving system, it consists of metal battens, called uprights and available in different lengths, which are U‑shaped in section and feature pre‑drilled pairs of slots at regular intervals along their length. These are screwed into your wall (how many you need depends on how big an area of wall you need to span) and matching metal brackets are slotted in to support your shelves. Shelves can be solid wood or melamine‑covered chipboard, but the amount of weight the shelves will carry varies according to the shelf material you use (see 'Shelving Statistics' box). Almost all DIY stores stock this type of shelving system, though they vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer. They're usually also available in different colours (most often white, cream and black). If you match your shelves to the metal supporting parts, it can look really smart. An all‑white system will feel spacious and light, while an all‑black system would look suitably hi‑tech.
Weights And Measures
We had a flat expanse of wall, about nine feet across, and we planned that this would host much of our gear. We wanted a main work surface, at desk height, and sufficiently deep for comfort: this would support a computer monitor and keyboard, a mixer, and an 8‑track open‑reel tape recorder, plus any other little bits that needed to be squeezed in. Above this would be as many shelves as we could fit in, all of which would run across the full width of the wall. These didn't need to be quite as deep as the main work surface, but we had to make sure they would be deep enough for gear like a DAT machine, cassette decks, small analogue monosynths, and so on. Nearfield monitors would also go on one of these shelves. Towards the top of the wall, the shelves could be a lot narrower, as we were planning to use the top couple for books, disk boxes, open‑reel tape boxes, and so on. And why let all that space under the main work surface go to waste? Like Mike Simmons, we decided to put in two long narrow shelves, which would also house books without getting in anyone's way.
The next step was to check on the commonly available sizes of uprights and brackets (the deeper the shelf you use, the longer the bracket you need), and lengths and depths of ready‑made shelving board. We found that the longest length usually available, approximately eight feet, was just about right for our wall, and the shelves were available in lots of different depths, including a two‑foot depth that was perfect for a main work surface. The manufacturer's recommendations dictated that we use five uprights to span our wall, and when you want the resulting shelves to take a lot of weight it's not worth skimping in this area. Likewise, with brackets, we used ones that were almost as long as our shelves were deep, just for safety. One thing that's very much worth knowing is that you don't have to buy the fixings packs made by the manufacturers of the shelving systems. These are invariably just a handful of overpriced screws and wall plugs, and if you examine them and make a note of their sizes, you can then find the hardware area of the shop you're in and get bags containing hundreds of the same‑sized bog‑standard screws and wall‑plugs for the same price as a dozen or so of the 'special' ones.
When you assemble Spur shelving, the nature of the design means that a small gap, of around an inch to an inch and a half, is left between the back of the shelf and the wall. This is perfect for snaking cables behind to connect up your gear, but if you do this, be aware that any items with captive mains plugs will have to have their mains plugs removed to let you pass the cable behind the shelf, then re‑attached (or wait until everything is in place before you fix the shelves to their supports). You'll also have to take off the plug again if you want to move the item in question too far from its original position. We perched a couple of multi‑way mains outlet sockets on the upper shelves (with the leads going behind the shelves) to accommodate gear that needed to be higher up — this was both for tidiness and because few mains leads would be long enough to reach the floor from a height of a little over 1.5 metres. Plan carefully when you begin to spread out the gear on the shelving system, to avoid unnecessary messing about.
One very neat thing about Spur shelving is that you can use little 'shelfettes' anywhere you like, across any number of uprights, to make the maximum use of the space between your main shelves. Halfway between our main work surface and the next shelf up, we have two extra brackets supporting a 22‑inch wide shelf, which houses a rackmount Kenton MIDI‑CV interface and Emagic Unitor8 MIDI interface, close to our Mac computer. This gets them off the work surface and means that their controls are very easily to hand. Pretty much by accident, our metal uprights ended up being 19.5 inches apart (measured from the inside edges of the uprights), so studio‑standard 19‑inch rackmount units fit really nicely on shelfettes. Bear this in mind when you space your uprights.
Think ahead about the height of your main work surface. If you're careful about this, you may be able to fix it so that a mobile 19‑inch rack on castors can just roll under the work surface when not in use. We already had a mobile rack, which was rather too high to do this, but advance planning may let you make use of the idea. What did work out rather well was our main workstation synth positioning: when this is on its simple X‑stand at a nice height for playing, it just pushes under the work surface when not needed, which looks tidy and gets it out of the way completely.
When you begin wiring up your gear, make maximum use of 'snakes' or 'looms': traditionally, you'd buy a drum of multicore cable and solder the connectors yourself, creating a custom wiring loom. But if you don't have the skill or patience to undertake this particular bit of DIY, you can choose from any number of ready‑wired snakes. Typically, you'll find them in 8‑way or 16‑way configurations, with jacks on both ends, jacks on one end and phonos on the other, and so on. They come in varying lengths and they really keep wiring mess to a minimum (SOS sell some nice ones, in the Hosa range; an example price would be £27.90 for 3‑metre phono‑to‑phono, phono‑to‑jack or jack‑to‑jack snakes). Other options include MIDI snakes (ideal if you want your MIDI interface near your computer, while keeping sound modules and samplers in a distant rack), insert point snakes and EDAC looms for use with Alesis's ADAT digital multitrack (if you use the EDAC multi‑pins, all the ADAT's ins and outs are reduced to a single, highly compact connector). Also, as with any medium‑to‑large studio setup, seriously consider setting up a patchbay system: it makes life so much easier, and although it's a bit of a pain to do from scratch, you feel pretty smug when all you have to do is plug in a couple of little patchcords to connect a noise gate to the insert point on mixer input 13, instead of footling around at the back of the mixer and rack all the time. Once again, a little planning will go a long way: for example, if this is the first time you've wired up a patchbay, start by counting all the connections you'll be bringing out (taking note of where non‑normalised or semi‑normalised operation would be appropriate) in order to ascertain the size and number of patchbays required. Even draw a wiring diagram if it'll help you conceptualise the end result. Paul White's recent article on wiring patchbays, in SOS March 1998, will prove invaluable during your planning stages.
The whole system took us less than a weekend to put together and re‑wire, and is showing no sign of strain at all, despite having been in use for many months. It cost just under £300, but that total also includes four extra uprights and the brackets and shelves needed to fill an alcove elsewhere in the room which is now used for storing magazine binders and more books. This isn't dirt‑cheap, granted, but when you bear in mind that a dedicated studio table, from one of the commercial manufacturers, could set you back almost that much by itself, the system starts to look pretty cost‑effective. And anyway, aren't you worth it?
- When it comes to lighting, the clip‑on lamps you can buy in many DIY and lighting shops are perfect for the kind of shelving system described in the main article. They simply clip onto a shelf, and you can point them where needed and move them whenever you want. They also don't get knocked over, as standard lamps tend to do.
- A venetian blind is a very suitable window covering for a project studio. Not only do they look more businesslike than flowery curtains, but their slats can be angled at will to cut glare on your computer screen, while also letting in enough light. In addition, you can angle them so that no‑one can see from the outside what you have in your room — a good security feature.
- Storage of spare leads can be a problem. You can keep them in plastic bins or stacking boxes, but they usually end up in a messy tangle. Our solution was an ordinary wooden coat‑hook panel, featuring six brass double hooks (and costing under a tenner from a DIY store), screwed to the inside of the studio door. If you sort out your leads and range them according to size on the hooks, you can usually find what you want quite quickly. They do make a bit of a racket when you open or close the door, but it's all part of the rich tapestry of home recording... If you have a closet or tall cupboard in your studio, you could hang your leads off the inside of the door of that, instead of using the main door.
- Get yourself organised with a dry‑wipe board or a cork board for a spare corner of a wall. People forget stuff distressingly easily, but if you scribble your latest master‑plan, the thing you really must do, or even some motivational phrase on a board that's in front of you all the time, it works wonders for your memory. We found one for about £5 in an office supply shop, and it's half dry‑wipe and half cork‑board, so we can pin little notes on it too.
- Make your patchbays look professional (and easier to read) by setting up a template in any graphics package so that you can type the routing labels instead of hand‑writing them in those titchy little spaces designed for leprechauns to write in. This is very easy to do if you have a computer and printer. Alternatively, Studiospares can sell you a pack of sticky labels produced by patchbay manufacturers P&R Audio and pre‑printed with a selection of useful legends. You get two sheets for a mere £1.99
- If you set up a Spur shelving system and find you have a teeny bit of space left at the top of your wall when you've calculated the optimum spacing of your shelves, put in a very narrow shelf and use it for storing a row of DAT or cassette tapes. You might then find you need a stool to stand on to reach the tapes (the classic Kick‑step takes up very little space and can also be used as extra seating in the studio).
- According to our last reader survey, about half of you out there own a guitar. If you have one, or especially if you have more than one, it saves floor space if you buy a couple of guitar hangers and hang the guitars on a wall. It also saves you from falling over them all the time.
- If you've decided to go ahead and re‑design your studio layout, you're going to have to embrace the painful reality of unplugging all your carefully constructed wiring and taking apart your existing setup. While you're at it, do think about whether anything else needs doing in the room. If you need a new carpet, say, or the skirting boards could do with a lick of paint, get it sorted now, if you can, while everything is awry anyway.
- Once you've got everything set up and looking neat, a couple of things will help you keep it that way. Some items of gear work a lot better in the long term if they're kept dust‑free (notably mixers) and a few fitted dust covers wouldn't go amiss. There are commercial manufacturers (see 'Manufacturers & Suppliers' box) that make these. Failing that, a mini vaccum cleaner with a tiny nozzle can be very useful; Maplin sell one for under £15. Or watch out in those 'Hi‑Tech Tat' catalogues that periodically fall out of your Radio Times for tiny nozzle attachments that go on ordinary vaccuum‑cleaner hoses.
Pay attention to what the manufacturer of your shelving system recommends when it comes to spacing of uprights and brackets, and shelving load capacities. Leaflets are almost always available where you buy the bits, and it's important that you adhere to the guidelines in them, otherwise your shelves will bow, or the uprights will start to come away from the wall — or both.
One other thing you'd be well advised to look at if you're revolutionising your studio is a decent chair (or chairs). If you spend a lot of time recording, you might as well be comfy — especially when Argos have a really good deal on a nice office chair at the moment. You can find it in their catalogue as 'Swivel Office Chair', and it beats out the adjacent 'Home Office Chair', which is a tenner cheaper. It features smart grey upholstery, nice squashy padding, a gas lift for seat height adjustment, back height adjustment, and back angle adjustment, just like real office chairs have to have these days. At £59 it's less than half the price of similar chairs we've seen in office supply shops. It is self‑assembly, but doesn't take too long to put together (by the way, if the castors keep falling off, you haven't pushed them in far enough), and it comes with arm rests which you can choose to attach or not (if you want to sit in your studio chair and play guitar, you might prefer to leave them off).
Manufacturers & Suppliers
- Studiospares can sell you practically everything you need for your studio, including leads and plugs, patchbays, and a selection of racks and rack accessories. Write or call if you'd like a copy of their catalogue.
- Patchbays: the following companies make patchbays that have been reviewed in past issues of SOS.
- Mobile racks: Studiospares sell a couple of mobile racks, but you can also check out the following:
- All sorts of electronic components and accessories, including the miniature vaccuum cleaner, can be obtained from Maplin Electronics. You can buy their catalogue in WSmith, and it's available on a Windows/Mac compatible CD‑ROM, for just £1.95, as well as in paper form (be warned, though, that we found the CD‑ROM rather inaccessible and unsatisfactory when compared to the traditional catalogue).