What do you need to set up your own sound studio? This article is intended primarily for those of you who are new to the world of music production and want to get started making music as a hobby. But if you’re looking to make your break in the industry and pursue a professional career in music production, this list will still serve as a good basis. The rule of thumb goes like this: the more money you invest in your studio, the more professional your hardware and software will be, and the more options you’ll have when it comes to sound design and composition. However, bear in mind that it also takes longer to master the use of high-end equipment and tools.
The mixer, with its many switches, buttons, faders and settings options, is optically the most impressive piece in any professional studio. It lies at the heart of all music production. The mixer’s task is to take separate, individual signals and route them to a single signal and mix them together. The sound of each signal, as well as its loudness and stereo position (panning), can be altered to balance with that of the other signals.
A mixer consists of multiple, individual input modules (channel strips). Each individual input module normally houses one signal (e.g. an instrument, a microphone). Depending on the type of mixer, each input module is capable of manipulating the signal, normally with an EQ and effects (reverb, delay). All signals flow into a master module—the master channel. The mixed total signal can also be modified here. What comes out of the master channel is what you hear.
If you want more of a digital music production experience, you can use the virtual mixer included with your DAW. An analog mixer isn’t really necessary for small productions that require very few recordings of real instruments (or none at all). An external sound card with input channels is sufficient. You could, for example, use the external sound card to record a microphone (e.g. for vocals, spoken word) and a keyboard, and use virtual instruments and plug-ins for the rest of your production.
The Sound Card
The sound card is responsible for playing back and recording digital and analog audio signals. Today, every computer possesses a sound card in the form of a small chip located on the computer’s motherboard. However, chips such as these have their limits and can only take your production so far.
These limits include sound quality and latency (delay). An example of a problem caused by high latency is delayed sound when playing a keyboard. You press a key, but the sound doesn’t come right away. This makes playing accurately nearly impossible. Simple projects can be produced easily enough using an onboard solution. However, if you want to use multiple software-based effects and tracks, things start to get a bit hairy. For high-quality recordings and sound, you want to go with internal hardware sound cards or external audio interfaces. These add-on devices are connected to your computer using standard interfaces. The higher the sound card quality, the better the noise suppression, latency, bit resolution and sampling rate.
Microphone and Pre-Amp
Microphones use a built-in membrane to convert incoming sound waves into an electric audio signal. They can be used to record voices and instruments, among other things.
The two most common types of microphones in music studios are the dynamic microphone and the condenser microphone. You can find more detailed information about microphone types and their uses here.
Pre-amps are available as external devices or as part of an audio interface or mixer. Many mic pre-amps also feature an extra input for instruments, which can be used for guitar or bass.
Spatial Hearing — Monitors and Headphones
Human hearing is capable of discerning where the source of a sound is located based on the direction from which the sound arrives. The hearer normally perceives sounds from a central position. If someone is speaking to you, you can tell if they are standing, for example, to the left or right of you.
An interesting question in digital music production is how natural spaces can be artificially reproduced. Loudspeakers are used for stereophonic and multi-channel output. In a studio context, these are called nearfield monitors. The general purpose of nearfield monitors is to convert electrical vibrations back into audible sound. To achieve clean sound, the frequency response should be as linear as possible. This basically means that the sound coming from one speaker should sound exactly the same when coming out of multiple speakers. The listening conditions (room and position) are also very important. In a studio without sound absorbers, the sound waves bounce off the walls and can deceive your hearing. But this doesn’t mean that your studio should be completely soundproof, since this can cause the sound waves to overlap and be just as deceiving.
To get a good stereo panorama, your nearfield monitors should be placed about 1 to 2 meters apart (3 to 6 feet) and be positioned and directed to form an equilateral triangle with the listener. The distance between the speakers and the listener, and the distance between the two speakers, should be the same. If the distance between your speakers is one meter (about three feet), you should sit one meter away. Your speakers should also be positioned at the same height as your head and ears.
It’s important to make sure you’re actually using nearfield studio monitors, and not hi-fi or PC speakers. The latter are designed to embellish the sounds they produce. Nearfield monitors, by contrast, have a much more neutral sound output, which allows you to imagine how your mix will sound when played in some other setting.
Headphones are a good alternative to loudspeakers. The advantage of using headphones is that the sound isn’t subject to the conditions of the room. They’re also useful if you need to keep noise levels down because of neighbors. For studio use, you want to go with closed or semi-open headphones, since these reduce environmental sound and prevent sound being picked up during microphone recording. You don’t want to use standard MP3 headphones or the earbuds that came with your smartphone. Get yourself a pair of studio headphones. It should be noted, however, that headphones are no replacement for studio monitors. They’re simply an alternative.
Whichever option you decide to go with, you should spend some time getting used to the sound properties of your chosen monitoring device by listening to a lot of music on it. This will help you get a feel for how things should sound when mixing.
Nowadays, a computer—complete with audio software, sound card and plug-ins—can be used as a complete sound studio. At least if you’re a proponent of digital music production.
Before you start thinking about putting a new system together, you should consider whether it’s worth investing money in professional-grade equipment (such as a professional sound card).
With programs like MAGIX Music Maker and Samplitude Music Studio, both of which were designed for Microsoft Windows, you don’t need to worry about choosing the right operating system.
Synthesizer and Effects
Apart from instruments that produce sound based on physical conditions (vibration), there are also electronic instruments such as synthesizers. Synthesizers generate sound electronically using sound synthesis. Sound synthesis makes it possible to reproduce natural sounds as well as create “new,” artificial sounds.
Synthesizers differ in their modes of sound synthesis: there are both analog (e.g. additive synthesis, subtractive synthesis) and digital synthesizers (e.g. frequency modulation, physical modulation and sampling).
Thanks to improvements in computer performance, synthesizers can be emulated with software instruments today. These virtual (native) synthesizers are loaded into a program via VSTi interfaces (Virtual Studio Technology instrument) and controlled, for example, using a MIDI master keyboard. You can read more about VSTi here.
Music Maker and Samplitude Music Studio include several synthesizers. You can also integrate as many virtual instruments from third-party manufacturers as you want.
You’re now ready to build your own setup and step into the world of music production. With Music Maker or Samplitude Music Studio, you’ll also have the right music production software. Try them out for free here.