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Building Your System: EQUIPPING THE PROJECT STUDIO ON A BUDGET OF $10,000, $25,000 OR $50,000

As the price/performance ratio of recording gear continues to drop, owning a personal studio that's capable of pro-level work is a reality for more producers,

As the price/performance ratio of recording gear continues to drop, owning a personal studio that’s capable of pro-level work is a reality for more producers, engineers and artists. With that in mind, Mix sent three writers shopping and asked each of them to come back with an equipment list for an ideal personal studio. Our editorial assistant, Robert Hanson, had an imaginary $10,000 to spend, freelance contributor Randy Alberts was given a faux $25,000, and Mix technical consultant Roger Maycock could pretend to spend $50,000.

Now before readers scream about how their favorite piece of gear was left out of this hypothetical buying spree, bear in mind that the studios described here represent three possible templates for outfitting a room. And within these virtual studios, there is plenty of room for substitutions and for modification plans to suit your production needs. Along those lines, we made a few assumptions-such as most people already have a computer-so the purchase of a new PC or Mac wasn’t included in the low-end budget. Additionally, items such as cabling, furniture, racks and acoustical materials-which are essential parts of any studio-aren’t mentioned, as the focus here is on the gear.

An obvious budget factor is gear you already own. In outfitting a studio, few of us start from scratch, and the 1915 Steinway B or rack of vintage tube processors gathering dust in your garage could be the centerpiece that turns your budget facility into a real gem. Also, for the most part, we’ve left out musical instruments; once you start throwing in the price tags for ’58 Les Paul gold tops, ’62 Fender Strats, some original Vox AC-30s and a 12-piece custom Drum Workshop kit, you’d be lucky to even have lunch money left.

Keep in mind, too, that though our writers went shopping for new equipment at retail prices, sources for used gear can be a real budget-stretcher. Great deals abound for the creative shopper, and sources such as trade magazine classifieds, local “Recycler”-type papers, trade-in stock at local dealers, “FS” listings on newsgroups and online auctions (i.e., Digibid, eBay) are all worth checking out, but the key phrase there is caveat emptor. Know your source and you’ll sleep better when buying pre-owned equipment.

Finally, be aware that prices can fluctuate widely, particularly on lower-end M.I. gear where the competition is fiercest. At the higher end, discounts tend to be shallower, as retailers rarely use high-ticket gear as loss leaders. The bottom line is that the prices quoted in this article should be used as general guidelines, rather than absolutes.

Got those checkbooks/debit cards/credit cards ready? Let’s shop!

THE $10,000 STUDIOCANDLES AND AMBIENCEWhen I imagine the perfect home studio, I see a dark-very dark-austere, macabre-themed room illuminated by a few candles and the reassuring glow of a computer monitor. I envision a recording environment where I can indulge all of my neo-industrial desires to track, tweak and mutilate whatever audio source strikes my fancy. I also predict a hefty bill from my interior decorator; I don’t know if I’ll find a cheap source for acoustical foam painted to look like splattered blood, but I’m sure that I can find enough ways to spend $10k on audio toys.

A LITTLE MORE VST THAN TDMThis is the “budget” dream studio; consequently, certain sacrifices have to be made. First, I’ll have to forget a full-blown Pro Tools|24/TDM platform; with an entry-level system hovering around $8k, I’d hardly have enough cash left for cables and mics. So, for tracking and editing purposes, I’ve opted for Digidesign’s Digi 001 system ($899). This is an excellent hybrid between plug-and-play ease of use and a system that actually does something. The package ships with Pro Tools LE, a stripped-down but still powerful version of its big brother, PCI card, and a breakout box, with a 2-channel mic/line pre, six line-level inputs, S/PDIF and ADAT I/O. For sequencing, arranging and the VST plug-in platform, I’ve also decided to pick up Cubase VST.

Installing Pro Tools and a separate sequencer on the same machine is nothing new; however, the rationale behind my choice is a little different. Pro Tools offers a very reliable tracking medium (due in a large part to the integrated hardware), with world-renowned editing capability. Unfortunately, the RTAS plug-in platform that Pro Tools LE supports is a starter kit at best-although some big-name companies do have products in development. Steinberg’s Cubase VST ($499) adds both a proven sequencing environment, as well as access to VST plug-ins and automation of VST instruments. To be honest, I’m really not interested in relearning to sequence with Pro Tools, and the ability to run VST instruments in tandem with Cubase is just too cool to ignore.

The host computer will be my modestly priced and equipped 400MHz G4 with 128 MB of memory, 10GB internal hard drive, 9GB Seagate Cheetah ($399) external hard drive for audio, SCSI port and a four-port USB hub. The Digi 001 system covers all of my bases audio-wise, but MIDI is still an issue. I love USB for one reason and one reason alone: 2×2 MIDI interfaces like the MIDIman MidiSport 2X2 ($169). Personally, I like to flesh out tracks on something as simple as a cheesy General MIDI synth and then go back and audition sounds off my higher-end units once I have an arrangement down and I can commit to audio. This previously required running two serial port interfaces (the cause of many headaches when I wanted to use the modem), but USB has made this practice a snap.

KILL THE MOUSEEveryone’s gripe, myself included, is how awkward it is to dial up parameters or mix audio tracks with a mouse. Thus, an external control device is a necessity. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find one box that would do it all, so I’ve opted for two. The first is CM Automation’s MotorMix ($995) control surface (distributed by Digidesign); the second is Yamaha’s 01V Digital Mixer ($1,699).

MotorMix not only offers control over any number of eight faders (volume and panning), but also provides expanded control over plug-in parameters, though only in Pro Tools. Furthermore, it’s expandable; four MotorMix units can be linked, yielding 32 independent faders, and it also has automation, hence the name. The only mousing-about that has to be done with this setup is highlighting sections of audio, moving the cursor and pulling down menus.

What this system lacks is the ability to record anything elaborate or complex. Enter the Yamaha 01V, boasting not only fader automation and snapshot presets, but 12 XLR/line level inputs and ADAT I/O via the MY8AT expansion board. Now the sky’s the limit; this will enable me to set up a full drum kit and record eight tracks (via ADAT) straight into Pro Tools, or I can just indulge in an elaborate amp-miking-voodoo exercise when the spirit moves me. Best of all, this setup provides both options and expansion possibilities.

BEATING A DIFFERENT DRUM WHILE DANCINGThat brings up the issue of microphones. Just because I have the ability to mike a drum kit doesn’t mean I’m going to do it anytime soon, and if such a project presents itself, a call to a local rental company or larger independent studio will take care of that. I need a couple of solid microphones that can handle vocals, guitars and beating everyday household items with a stick. For vocals and acoustic instruments, a Neumann U87 (about $3k list) is a bit out of my budget, but its newer sibling, the TLM103, offers a U87-derived capsule, similar performance and response, and fills the bill nicely at a third of the cost. For all the other odd miking situations that might arise, the Shure SM57 is a proven performer, and at $89 apiece, I can afford to pick up a few. SM57s are ideal for miking cabinets and monitors (one of favorite tricks for “livening up” sequenced drum tracks), and they can withstand some serious abuse.

TOYS AND MORE TOYSFor space purposes, I’m not going to delve into each of these items, but you gotta have some toys. I picked up Roland’s Total Percussion ($699), the Alesis Nanosynth MIDI module ($299) and Alesis QS6 synthesizer ($699), with the optional “EuroDance” and “Classic Synths” Qcards-$199 each.

THE FINAL TOUCHESAll that’s left to account for are monitors and a mixdown format. For my mains, I’m back on budget with the Event PS-5s ($499/pair), and while Randy Alberts wasn’t looking, I snuck into his dream studio (this is starting to get weird) and nabbed his $370 Sennheiser RS-8 wireless headphones. I’ve stepped on more pairs of headphones than I care to mention, and if they’re wireless, perhaps I won’t take them off and leave them on the floor when I’m stringing stomp boxes together.

The final touch is a $699 Tascam CD-RW 5000 recorder. What I really like about CD-RW format is what originally attracted me to Mini Disc (yeah, I actually bought one-stop laughing); I can put down a dozen different mixes of the same song without burning a hole in my pocket for blank media; the Tascam unit will also write standard CD-Rs.

BACK TO REALITYIn researching this article, I spent only a little more time than usual surfing the Web, poring over catalogs and irritating the staff at the local Guitar Center. What really scares me is that over the next few months I’ll be sacrificing every cent of disposable income to make as much of this a reality as possible…Wish me luck! – Robert Hanson

THE $25,000 STUDIO400 SQUARE FEET, TWO CPUS AND A LUNCHBOXAfter years of sore tendons, arms and fingers from computer abuse, you’d think a dual-computer, software-based studio would be the last thing I’d want to buy with Mix’s $25,000 slush fund. However, given the power of the CPU, and my desire to work with audio and music creation tools in-house and in the field, I couldn’t resist taking the plunge.

To fend off the physical effects of mousing around for a living, I paid close attention to ergonomics in putting this plan together for a friend’s just-built CPU Studios in a Pacifica, Calif., home overlooking the ocean. My first goal was to create a cross-platform environment with as many physical knobs, faders and dials as possible at arm’s reach to save on body decay. I also made it a priority to build a modular system that’s as potent for remote recording and collaboration as it is for in-house capture and music creation. So, the two-computer idea was hatched.

TWO CPUS IN EVERY KITCHENWith a goal of combining close-miked acoustic and rack-fed electric guitars with synthesis, sampling and as many plug-ins as possible, I drew up plans for a Mac tower and a PC-based portable. Because I already own a number of Mac and PC plug-ins, I opted to use my G4 Minitower as the main studio computer and my friend’s BSI Computer LCD-V8 portable PC as the remote module. The latter is a “lunchbox” Pentium III running at 700 MHz that holds six PCI cards-a powerful desktop PC that far outstrips any laptop in a rugged, portable case that technauts drool over. The QWERTY folds down from the front of the case to reveal a 13-inch LCD screen-tiny but good enough to use for monitoring a live performance or creating tracks on the road. An extra 21-inch monitor waits for the lunchbox when it’s docked in the studio for longer, vision-critical sessions.

To feed my healthy plug-in habit, I created a cross-CPU approach to access as many as possible. Since I already use Steinberg Cubase VST/24 on both platforms and have a sizable VST and DirectX plug-in stable, I decided to use Cubase as the base application on both the Mac and PC stations and build from there. My original software choice for the main Mac was Pro Tools, particularly for access to TDM plug-ins, but its higher price tag combined with my need for a second computer made PT the first of many painful gear-cut decisions. Having access to all VST and DirectX plug-ins on both platforms means there’s still plenty of sonic possibilities throughout the signal chain.

A LOADED LUNCHBOXThe BSI portable is fitted with 256MB RAM, CD-ROM drive, an 18GB fast SCSI internal drive, a second SCSI card, and a 36GB external drive ($600) largely dedicated to my large library of .WAV and .AIFF files and NemeSys’ GigaSampler ($229). The latter is one of many music creation programs installed on the PC, as I wanted this to be a potent remote music creation station as well as a solid record, edit and mix device. In addition to Cubase VST/24 ($499), there’s Sonic Foundry Acid Pro 3.0 ($259), Steinberg’s Reason ($399), ReBirth ($109) and D-Pole Filter ($139), Native Instruments’ Pro-Five VST plug-in ($199), Mixman Studio VST plug-in ($199), the Cycling ’74 Pluggo suite ($74), Opcode Fusion Filter ($199), Arboretum Hyperprism ($229), TC Works Native Essentials for Windows ($147), and Waves MaxxBass ($300).

The portable PC’s audio I/O is handled by the Ego-Sys Waveterminal 2496 PCI card ($429), which sports 4×4 analog S/PDIF I/O, although I didn’t find a way to make direct digital audio transfers from a PC to a Mac. Any ideas? Recording at 24-bit on the PC and routing the audio through a digital mixer to the Mac should be plenty clean. I wanted to avoid hauling a clunky breakout box around, yet I needed digital I/O and as robust an analog I/O cable breakout bundle as I could find. I liked the Waveterminal’s 24-bit/96kHz support, 32-bit internal resolution, and perfectly suited ASIO, VST, DirectSound and GigaSampler audio drivers for what else is on the PC. To relieve mouse-born tendonitis, I added CM Automation’s MotorMix ($995), a physical control surface with a small footprint and motorized 100mm faders, assignable rotary pods and mute/solo buttons.

For triggering Acid loops, GigaSampler samples, and the software synths, I needed just a simple 1×1 MIDI I/O and a small portable MIDI controller keyboard-MOTU’s PC MIDI Flyer ($67) and Roland’s PC 200mkII 49-note MIDI controller ($219), respectively. I could bring the Roland master controller mentioned below on the road, but it’s bulkier to carry around, and the mini-Roland fits just right.

SUPERCOMPUTE THISThe main Mac recording station is the 500MHz G4 Minitower with 256MB RAM, DVD-ROM drive, 10GB internal drive, a SCSI adpater card, and a 7,200 rpm LaCie 18GB external SCSI drive ($619). I liked the CM Automation MotorMix so much on the PC that I bought another one for the G4 ($995). Digital and analog audio I/O is handled by MOTU’s Audio 2408mkII interface ($995), and MIDI I/O is handled by its MIDIExpress XT USB interface ($319). Tascam’s CD-RW 2000 recorder/rewriter ($1,125) is the final output device, a powerful stand-alone that’s also portable.

I found a great bundle that includes the BIAS Peak 2.0 editor and Toast CD-burning software ($299) for mastering, and I’ve invested a fair amount of the booty into dynamics, effects and editing software, as well. Onboard the G4 with Cubase VST/24 ($499) is Peak, Waves Native Gold Bundle ($1,250), Antares AutoTune ($289) for pitch correction, Steinberg Loudness Maximizer ($399), TC Works Native Reverb for Mac ($549), and finally, just as on the lunchbox, Waves MaxxBass ($300).

IN THE PILOT’S SEATPositioned with plenty of room to get to the connections in back, the centerpiece of CPU Studios is a rack/synth/computer cockpit workstation that wraps the computers, monitors and MotorMix surfaces, all guitar/mic and synth I/O and control surfaces, a racked Roland VM-3100Pro V-Mixing Station with TDIF-ADAT card ($1,400), and a Roland A-33 76-note controller keyboard ($469) front center, all within arm’s reach from the comfy chair.

Partially sunk into the desktop and facing up at perfect 45Degrees angles are two 16-space racks to either side of the desk. To the right I can easily reach the synth rack, the left grabbing the guitar and microphone I/O rack. Everything feeds into the Roland digital mixer that sits just under the computer monitor shelf, perfectly tilted forward just behind the master keyboard. More than 60 empty rackspaces bristle out the workstation’s backside to fuel future studio daydreaming.

RACK ME UPThough software synths and samplers are integral to this rig, the real synth rack and its numerous knobs totally rule. Check it out: Nord Lead2 Rack ($999), Novation Supernova II R ($1,795), Access Virus B ($1,250), and a Samson PL 1602 rack mixer ($189) to submix ’em all to the digital mixer. Not including the Samson, that makes 219 real knobs and buttons in a 14-unit rack-but who’s counting? Gear-geeking aside, the ergonomics couldn’t be better.

The guitar/mic I/O rack to the left houses a Drawmer MX-60 Front-End One ($579) to preamp, gate, compress, EQ and tube-saturate two Alesis AM-61 mics ($1,940 with shock-mounts and two mic booms) and a Fishman Acoustic Matrix NT1 pickup ($125) for my 1960 Gibson J-35 acoustic. A couple of Line 6 POD Pro’s ($1,200) handle the electric guitar I/O, and another Samson mixer ($189) rounds out this juicy rack. I opted to leave out hardware guitar effects processors in favor of spending more dough on plug-ins, though the PODs sport a decent effects palette.

Finally, CPU Studios includes an Event Electronics Tria Triamplified Workstation Monitor ($999), a perfect three-piece, 320W companion to Waves’ MaxxBass plug-in that subwoofs down to 35 Hz, and some comfy Sennheiser RS-8 wireless headphones ($370) for overnight sessions. That comes to a final budget of $24,993 for CPU Studios; I’ll use the extra $7 for a movie to get me out of the house.

GREAT…NOW WHAT?I had a blast spending Mix’s money in designing this modular capture and music creation studio. It’s not as easy as it sounds to make budget, but doing so has inspired my friend and me to refine our actual project studios. The only problem now is I’ve filled my imaginary shopping cart at online retailers and local music stores enough to see my current setup needs serious funding-anyone have an extra $25,000 burning a hole in their pocket? – Randy Alberts

THE $50,000 STUDIOMULTIMEDIA AND BEYONDPretend you are the winner of the (virtual) $50,000 Dream Studio Contest. The studio that has been thoughtfully created for you is designed for production of songs, jingles for radio and TV, but it was planned with the idea of expanding into sound-for-picture and multimedia content such as games. Also, since this studio is just a figment of your imagination anyway, I decided that you already own a MIDI keyboard, sequencing software, a personal computer, and the necessary interface to tie these items together.

THE CORE INGREDIENTSThe focal point of any recording studio is the console, and your dream studio will revolve around the Mackie Digital 8*Bus mixer. You can keep track of 72 channels of audio, and the system can drive full-color monitors via a built-in SVGA video port. A PC-compatible keyboard and PS/2 mouse can be added for further system control. You’ll need three DIO8 TDIF/ADAT interfaces to connect to your multitrack recorder. MSRP: $9,995 for the d8b and $1,185 ($395 each) for three DIO8 interfaces. Assuming you don’t already have a video monitor, plan on spending $300 plus another $40 for a basic QWERTY keyboard and $25 for a mouse.

Our multitrack recorder is the Tascam MX-2424. The MX-2424 is a 24-bit, 24-track hard disk recorder with a 24-bit/96kHz 12-track mode. It also includes “bonus” control software for the Mac, and Windows 95, 98 and NT. To connect to the Mackie d8b, you need the IF-TD24 TDIF interface, and for backup, you’ll want the Travan TRD-NS20 Tape Drive. MSRP: MX-2424, $3,999. IF-TD24 interface, $499. Travan tape drive, $545.

For delivery of mix stems or surround mixes, many facilities and production companies require the Tascam DTRS format. We selected the Tascam DA-78HR digital multitrack recorder, supporting 24-bit audio data while retaining backward compatibility with existing 16-bit DTRS machines. MSRP: $3,299.

The master recorder for this system is the $1,699 Alesis MasterLink ML-9600, a combination hard drive/CD-R recorder with the ability to record/edit up to 24-bit/96kHz digital audio direct to its hard disk and burn this data to inexpensive CD-R blanks using a proprietary format known as CD24. CD24 data is written to disk as .AIFF files and can be read by standard CD-ROM drives, making its 24-bit files accessible to virtually any mastering facility, even if they don’t own a unit. MasterLink can also write standard Red Book CDs for compatibility with consumer CD players. MSRP: $1,699.

The dream studio’s video facilities include the Panasonic AG-DS555 S-VHS/VHS video. The machine has four audio channels (two stereo Hi-Fi, two linear with Dolby NR) and built-in SMPTE generator/reader with dedicated timecode I/O. MSRP: $4,000. The video monitor is the Sony KV24FV10 Wega 24-inch flat screen Trinitron monitor. MSRP: $599.

You’ll need a synchronizer to lock the entire setup. I bought the TimeLine MicroLynx and the optional $200 VSG PAL/NTSC video sync generator card. The MicroLynx carries a MSRP of $2,995.

MONITORING YOUR WORKFor surround and 2-channel monitoring, our dream system includes five Hafler TRM6 powered, mag-shielded reference monitors ($625 each) and the accompanying $695 TRM10S subwoofer.

To check boombox mixes, two Fostex 6301BEAV reference monitors ($229 each) combine an integrated 10-watt amp and 4-inch full-range driver. Besides delivering a big sound, they’re ideal where video production and multimedia work requires accurate playback that translates well to other small systems.

The AKG K-240 headphone is considered a studio essential. They’re not new, but sound great and are trusted by professionals everywhere. MSRP for two pairs ($173 each) is $346.

MICROPHONESEvery studio needs at least one, high-quality, versatile microphone that can accommodate a variety of recording situations. Here are two excellent, yet considerably different microphones and my choice in high-quality mic preamps. The RODE Classic II is a valve condenser mic that provides nine polar patterns ranging from omni to cardioid to figure-8. MSRP: $1,995. The Audio-Technica AT4050/CM5 multipattern capacitor microphone is a large-diaphragm condenser mic with three switchable polar patterns-omni, cardioid, and figure-8-and an outstanding reputation among recording pros. MSRP: $995.

The $2,195 GML (George Massenburg Labs) 8302 all-discrete-transistor, Class-A, transformerless 2-channel mic pre is a hand-built unit that requires a $475 external power supply.

SIGNAL PROCESSINGThe Roland VP-9000 VariPhrase Processor is capable of real-time manipulation of a sampled phrases’ pitch, time and formant via MIDI without inducing audible artifacts. VariPhrase technology enables the VP-9000 to instantly match loops from different sources to the same key and tempo, bend notes in real time without changing the phrase length, and modify the duration of notes held within a phrase. MSRP: $3,295.

Considered primarily for its lush reverbs, the Lexicon PCM 81 features 24-bit internal processing, a true stereo signal path, balanced analog I/O, full AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/O. At $2,995, it’s an invaluable component in the dream studio.

The TC Electronic FireworX features an 8×8 position routing grid. You assemble your multi-effects chains by placing the algorithms anywhere on the grid, at which point, they will be automatically “wired” together. Effects include Vocoder, Ring Modulation, Synth Generator, Formant Filter, Resonance Filter, Multitap Delay, Reverse Delay, Dynamics, Fractal noise and others. MSRP: $2,195.

For compression and equalization, the Avalon VT-747SP combines a stereo tube-discrete Class-A spectral-opto-compressor with a 6-band program equalizer, L-R output level and gain reduction metering and internal regulated power supplies. This unit is ideal for high-performance input signal conditioning, stereo bus compression-EQ, and analog mastering applications. MSRP: $2,495.

A FEW ALTERNATIVESHere are some alternatives to the items listed above. The Mackie HDR24/96 hard disk recorder has many features similar in nature to the Tascam MX-2424. In lieu of an integrated HD/CD-R mastering deck like the Alesis MasterLink, you may prefer separate components-in which case, you could consider the Tascam DA-45HR DAT recorder and the Yamaha CDR1000 CD burner. The CDR1000, in particular, is an outstanding model incorporating Apogee UV22 word-length reduction technology.

Speakers are a very personal item, and thus you may wish to audition models such as Event Electronics’ PS-Series or 20/20/bas monitors. Further, JBL Professional’s Linear Spatial Reference Studio Monitor series, including the LSR25P and LSR28P, make another excellent choice. One interesting speaker selection that caught me totally off-guard for small systems playback was the recommendation of (dare I say it) Radio Shack’s Optimus Pro-X88AV. Yes, you read it here! Radio Shack’s speakers were recommended by several knowledgeable pros.

DOING THE MATHIn case you haven’t yet pressed your calculator into service, the actual sum total for this dream studio is $50,644. I’m over the limit, but remember, the quoted prices are retail. If I shop carefully, I should be able to acquire every item and still have a budget for cables and other accessories to help interconnect the entire system. There are some truly wonderful products in this system and not all of them brand-new, which serves to reinforce the point that the best gear tends to hang around for a while.- Roger Maycock