The Anatomy of a Home Recording Studio
We live in a day where it has never been easier for a church musician to have their own recording studio. The technology is in place to not only have great recordings at home; but at long last, the goal is also financially reachable. However, this presents its own problem in that many are asking: where do we start?
It’s sad to say that there are people out there who will load you up with a lot of gear that you may not need just to make a buck. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could sit down over a cup of coffee and talk with someone who could help us navigate the home recording studio waters?
I want to introduce you to just such a person. This person not only has his own home studio, but has produced several CD projects a mere 50 feet from his living room.
OK, big deal, you say. But what if I told you that this studio owner won the Song Seeker Award at the 2005 Saddleback Worship Conference, the Best Song award at Integrity’s Songwriter Retreat that same year; and his song “Hallelujah Song” was featured on Worship Leader Magazine’s SongDISCovery CD in January/February of 2006 (Volume #54).
Now that I have your attention, this issue I had the opportunity to sit down and learn from one of the best, Andy Cater, who serves as Worship Leader at Redwood Covenant Church in Santa Rosa, California. Andy leads and oversees worship each week for three services which draw over 1200 people every week. He has been involved in the Christian music community for over 25 years, and is really just a down to earth, good guy.
The following is a transcription of the interview I conducted with Andy while there was a chance to pick his brain about how one builds a professional studio setup on a limited budget.
TFWM: Andy, thank you so much for talking with us. Help our readers get to know you a bit. How long have you been involved in music and recording?
ANDY: I’ve been seriously recording music in studios since the late 80’s. I’ve produced a number of local artists, including myself, and also done four church recordings. For the past 20 years or so I’ve been recording, everywhere from someone’s garage or bedroom, to commercial studios in the area. I guess if you want to count it, I recorded with my friend, Steve Hindalong (now a well-known Nashville producer/songwriter of “God of Wonders” and “Beautiful Scandalous Night”) in junior high – I think we did it in his bathroom!
TFWM: What is the best advice that you could give me if I were to have a home studio?
ANDY: Know what your goal is. If you just want to get song ideas down so that you can show others what you are doing, then you may not need to invest as much in gear as someone whose goal is to create a commercial-quality recording. I’m a pretty practical guy, so I never like spending more money than I have to.
TFWM: Can you give us some real practical recommendations for someone who is considering a home studio, especially in the area of equipment and software?
ANDY: I’ve been using a PC so that’s what I’m most familiar with. There is some great software for PC; I’ve been using Cubase 3, mainly because a friend of mine was using it, and we could easily share files. I like the MIDI functions of Cubase, along with the audio recording functions. It is easy to use, but also very deep, with a lot of functionality.
Of course, ProTools is a great choice (available for both Mac and PC), and they make a wide variety of programs for all budgets.
I like the MOTU products for interfaces. I use the MOTU 828II which connects to the computer via FireWire. It functions very well and has never given me a bit of trouble. M-Audio makes some great products for the money as well.
Beyond that, there are things to consider like monitor speakers, microphones, preamps, etc. Just a quick look in a Sweetwater catalog will overwhelm just about anybody with all the choices there are. Monitor speakers are great to have, but I have heard of a number of people that have mixed complete recordings on a good set of headphones (I like the Sony MDR-7506’s for a comfortable and good sounding/flat headphone).
I use an AKG C414 as an all around condenser microphone; it’s great for recording acoustic guitars, violins, and good for vocals.
TFWM: My guess is that there are probably three levels of home studios; first being the basic shell of what is absolutely necessary (for the sake of the music industry please don’t record with less than this!), Secondly a level where we have some really cool add-ons that make our home studio “professional”, and finally, “the ultimate recording experience model”. Can you talk us through this and give our readers some real practical tips in processing this whole topic?
ANDY: Well, most studios use a computer for recording, so it all starts there. You can go very basic on the computer, but if you are planning to record more than a few tracks or want to use plug-ins or high-powered software, then you will need a beefy computer with a lot of RAM (1 Gig minimum) and strong processing power. The very basic level of a home studio includes a computer, an analog to digital interface (something that you plug a microphone or instrument into that converts that to computer language), software to record on, and a microphone. You can buy software (some software even comes free with A to D interfaces) that is inexpensive and does just basic functions of recording and mixing tracks.
The second level is taking a look at the A to D interfaces and microphone pre-amps and consider the quality of the recording. This is where you realize that it’s not just about recording something, but about how good it sounds and how well it works. Here you would make a significant purchase in DAW (digital audio workstation) software ($400+) that would give you more options in recording and mixing, as well as increase the quality of the recording itself. You would probably invest quite a bit to incorporate plug-ins (reverb, EQ, compression, pitch correction, mastering, etc) to help increase the quality. You would use quality microphones.
At the highest levels of a home studio, you would be spending significant money in having a very fast computer, the best software, a digital mixing console, high quality pre-amps for microphones, virtual or software instruments (synthesizers, pianos, drum tracks/loops), and high-quality microphones. With all these tools at hand, you have the equipment to create a commercial quality recording. Of course, there still is the part about learning to use the tools – it takes a lot of hard work and expertise.
TFWM: How important is it to use quality microphones?
ANDY: I think it is always a good idea to use the best microphone you can. I’m not sure that it is necessary to go all out and get a $5000 mic, but certainly it helps to start with quality. Another thing that people don’t think about is the quality of the microphone pre-amp involved. The A/D interface has a microphone jack, but using a better quality pre-amp can make a significant difference in the quality of the recording, even if your microphone isn’t the best.
TFWM: What role, if any, do acoustics play in recording?
ANDY: When it comes to recording, probably the best way to go is a dead room (however, I have heard of many a vocalist recording in their bathrooms, because they like the natural reverb there). When it comes to listening back to your mix, it’s best to be in an environment that is flat (does not accentuate any frequencies).
TFWM: What about effects? What are some good ones to have on hand?
ANDY: Certainly, you can’t make a good recording without having a good reverb, compression, limiter, gate, and parametric EQ. These are available from a variety of sources and some plug-ins (software) come with the software that you buy. Waves makes some great bundles of plug-ins and TC Electronics has some great software, as well as hardware.
TFWM: Andy, since you have been doing this for a while, I’m sure at times it seems like the learning curve seems impossible to scale. What encouragement can you give our readers who are listening in to our talk and feeling overwhelmed?
ANDY: I’d say to get to know others who are doing it, either guys from your local music store or in the community. It’s so much easier to learn from others, watching and interacting with them, than it is to learn it on your own. If you pay a professional $50 or $100 to spend a few hours with you, it would be well worth it.
If you can’t find anyone to connect with, and even if you do, many of the software products have tutorial or video instructions, and they are awesome. I know many of us are the kind of people that open a piece of software and start dinking around, spending hours upon hours learning to use the DAW software. But I’ve discovered that you learn so much more and more quickly, by watching the tutorials.
In terms of learning what to buy, I’d say start small, especially if you are new to the recording realm. You can always upgrade as you go.
Some of the best counsel I have ever received were Andy’s words about getting to know others. I am far more knowledgeable since we spent our time together. Having a friend like Andy to walk me through these waters is invaluable. Heed his advice and spend some time with others. My guess is that you may even develop some lasting friendships in the process.
By the way, make sure you check out Andy’s website at www.andycater.com and, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to drop him a note at email@example.com