Building a Home Studio

As studio equipment has become increasingly accessible, plenty of musicians are building themselves home studios and creating all kinds of material from their own home. I spoke to trombone players Chris Traves and Robbie Harvey to hear how they use their home studios and what advice they have to offer anyone interested in building one themselves.

Jane Salmon: Tell me a bit about what you do. What first encouraged you to build a home studio and how did you start out?

Chris Traves: I’ve got a small home studio built on top of my ‘end of terrace’ house. I physically built a third floor that contains a Control Room, Live Room, Vocal/Soloist booth and even a Bathroom/Jacuzzi!

I do a lot of vocal recording and have produced many albums both instrumental and vocal. I do quite a lot of location recording, including venues such as Ronnie Scotts, Cadogan Hall, 606 Club and Boisdale Club. I have also been lucky enough to work on quite a few films and TV shows. I do quite a few sessions at home on the trombone too; clients send tracks over and I add the lower brass (and quite often other instruments…).

I have always been interested in technology – in fact I’m quite a techy nerd! I studied A-level Physics, Computer Studies & Music and, whilst at school, had ambitions to go to University of Surrey, Guildford to study on the now famous Tonmeister course.

Unfortunately I discovered Youth Orchestras and beer and after a particularly successful summer course, returned to school to find my fellow pupils had been offered places at university. I had forgotten to fill in my UCCA form. So I ended up at music college, which was a jolly good thing!

So it was many years later – after I was fortunate enough to get a really long run in the West End with ‘Chicago’ – that I started to indulge my passion for recording and built my studio.

Robbie Harvey: I started to invest in some home recording equipment just over a year ago. I was working away from home for six weeks on a show and decided to buy myself something as evidence that it was all worth it!

Spending time in recording studios had always made me curious and keen to learn more about the technical side of recording. I made an album with my quintet a couple of years ago, which was a turning point for me. It made me realise that having more knowledge and experience of the recording process would give me more influence over the sound I am looking to achieve.

When recording your own projects it is easy to turn up at a studio and just concentrate on playing, assuming that whoever is engineering will make the correct decisions, but the engineer may not have the same ideas as you! Communication is the key, and having your own studio helps communicate your musical aims in the relevant terms.

There is so much to learn, especially when working in a great studio with a great engineer.

JS: If a home studio on a budget is possible – what are the essentials?

RH: It is possible to get surprisingly good results on a budget and at the same time you can get some terrible results with expensive gear!

CT: A decent laptop or desktop machine will be the first step. I’m not going to bang on about the benefits of Mac or PC – I have both. I still think a decent PC will beat a Mac any day, but you do need a decent PC. A budget model will probably cause problems, I would recommend buying something from a company that specialises in music computers. The benefit of the Mac is that pretty much any model nowadays will suffice.

Next, you will need an Audio Interface – again you can spend as much as you want, but maybe aim for the entry level gear, around £150-£200 with 2 mic channels IN (with phantom power) 2 channels OUT and headphones OUT. It’s a good idea to get one with midi too, it will save on the cost of a separate midi interface – and also save on USB ports.

Many of these interfaces come with bundled DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software. Once you’re up and running I would invest in the full version – they all do the same thing! Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Sonar & Digital Performer are probably the most popular – the choice is yours.

Many budget microphones are available, most of them excellent. The trombone is a strange beast to record; a mic with too much definition sometimes makes the instrument sound too breathy. If you’re on a tight budget you could start with an SM57 – great for all brass actually. My absolute favourite for the trombone is the Coles 4038 – instant trombone sound, no EQ necessary! (around £700).

You’ll also need a mic stand, mic lead and headphones – all relatively cheap.

RH: These elements will allow you to start experimenting with recording. You will find yourself adding to your setup as you progress and new equipment will no doubt identify itself along the way.

I would always try to buy the best you can afford, it is better to buy something that you will get the use out of rather than having to upgrade it shortly afterwards. I go for quality over quantity.

Beware! It is a slippery slope – you may soon find yourself trawling through forums and YouTube videos in the middle of the night looking for answers!

JS: What advice do you have for someone wanting to start recording from home?

CT: Dive in! Start recording, make mistakes and learn. With digital recording, as long as you do not clip the audio, it should record ok. Do experiment with mic positions, room and acoustics, a recording can be ruined by the sound of the room, try hanging duvets up behind and in front of your playing position. A carpeted room is probably better, curtains are good and don’t forget to turn your phone off.

RH: Always start with the place in the room that sounds best to your ears. Experiment with moving furniture, opening wardrobes, shutting the curtains etc. to see if you can help rectify any sound reflection problems you may have. The more you experiment the more you will get to know the sound of the room and be able to identify any issues that may be captured in your recordings. The same goes for equipment. Spend time really getting to know your equipment before you splash out on extra gear.

CH: I find that sound proofing is not too much of an issue for sounds coming in to the room. With a trombone in front of a mic, very little gain is necessary – so extraneous sound doesn’t really spill on to the mic. This will be different when recording quieter instruments such as strings and guitars – more isolation may be necessary depending on your location and proximity to the airport. As for sound leaving the room – well, I’ve got the best understanding neighbours!

JS: What are your thoughts on home studios vs. renting a professional studio?

RH: There are benefits with both. A home setup can grow with you and adapt to your needs over time. Investing in studio time in a quality recording studio can be well worth the money. Recording your own projects can sometimes give you more flexibility and control with less time constraints.

There is no substitute for a well-established studio with quality gear and talented and experienced engineers, but obviously this comes at a cost. It is up to you to weigh up the options and decide on what’s best for you and your budget at the time.

CT: Obviously, with the small set up outlined above, you can only record one instrument/track at once. If you wanted to record a larger ‘live’ ensemble, the bigger professional studio might be necessary.

I offer a location recording service, which I hope is now negating the need for a large pro set up. Please read more here.

JS: How has running a home studio influenced your playing career?

RH: It has made me much more aware musically and sonically of what is going on around me, especially when working in studios. It has made my ears more critical and encouraged me to listen in a much more detailed way.

These days it is vital to become an all-round and versatile musician within as many genres as possible.

Getting into recording has given me a new path to explore and although I am relatively new to it, I am enjoying the learning process of it all.

CT: I have been lucky since setting up my studio, it has become another job alongside the playing. After ‘Chicago’ closed, my studio pretty much paid the mortgage.

I love having the varied and talented musicians over to record their individual projects – but I also enjoy sending out tracks for other guys to add their instruments to in their own studios – subsequently returning the multi tracks for me to mix.

The business is changing and we all have to move with it.

Thank you Chris and Robbie for your fantastic contributions.

Featured in The TrombonistSpring 2016.