Open Rec

Discover the essentials for creating a stellar home recording studio

Over the past few decades, the home studio has gone from a novelty to an extravagance to a staple of modern recording. Today nearly anyone can capture pro-studio results without ever leaving their home. In fact, much of the music we hear every day began in repurposed basements or spare bedrooms.

But with new production gear hitting the streets daily, outfitting a recording studio can become a confusing—and pricey—affair in a hurry. Investing in the wrong studio monitors or microphones can quickly eat up any home studio budget. Questions abound: Where do you begin? What gear do you need? What gear do you not need? What are the home recording essentials?

We posed these questions and more to expert C.J. Vanston, a veteran producer, songwriter, keyboardist and engineer who’s toiled countless hours in his own personal studio—and has worked with such artists as Prince, Bob Seger, Joe Cocker, Steve Lukather and Def Leppard. Plus, his film soundtrack and composing credits include This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show and Sweet Home Alabama.

How did you start recording?
I’d been in cover bands as a keyboard player back in Michigan, and I got hold of a TEAC four-track Portastudio that I’d bring onstage. I was so fascinated by this multitrack format and the ability to overdub parts. I watched this technology develop from reel-to-reel and cassette into what it is now.

What’s your studio like?
I have a studio that’s separate from my home now. It’s 2,000 square feet, but it’s still a personal studio. We mostly record in the control room. It’s a small but well-designed acoustic space, which is still very rare for personal studios. A lot of guys just get an office, set their stuff up in there, and expect to get pro results. I don’t think there’s any real line between a pro studio and a home studio. It’s really about the guy running it.

Why build a home studio?
A home studio lets you make lots of mistakes and not have to write a big check for it. I’ve seen it—a new artist comes to town and wants to get all these great players together and take it to Capitol Studios with a video guy to tape the whole thing. At the end of the day, they’re dropping $15,000 for the day. And no matter what, it’s a crapshoot—you have to take what you get. Yet you can use that same money and put together a home studio that lets you make mistakes, and if something doesn’t turn out, you can change the groove or rewrite the chorus. If you’re not making mistakes, checking out options and turning down ideas, then you’re not trying hard enough.

What can one accomplish at home?
You can get a lot done in a home studio. For instance, I work with Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap. Chris is a very accomplished musician. I set him up with a Logic system in his studio, and now he’s able to demo stuff, post it in Dropbox for me, and we get a lot of work done that way. The guitar part that’s in the theme song for HBO’s Family Tree is what he did in his home studio. Another example: I’m working on a new album with the band Toto. Each guy is bringing in stuff from his own home studio, and it sounds amazing. These parts are all going to end up on the record.

What are the limitations?
Recording drums—that’s when you hear it right away. I hear guys do great guitar stuff and programming to create cool songwriter demos, but very rarely do I hear someone mic up drums in a home studio and make them sound great. That takes special talent, a lot of experience, and the right equipment. Vocal production can be tricky, too. But lots of people will take a record right up to that point. Then they go into a professional studio to replace programmed drums with real drums.

What gear should you invest in?
One of the most important things is a good mic pre[amp]. I use a Universal Audio 6176 channel strip, and it sounds amazing on everything. But I have Neves and other nice pres as well. That said, I’m not attached to a boutique or vintage microphone idea. I use a Shure KSM44 for almost everything I do in some capacity. I got a call once from Michael McDonald’s manager asking what I used to make his voice sound so good, and he could hardly believe it was this $700 microphone. So it’s not the price of the gear that’s important but rather choosing the right gear. It’s also important for musicians to pick a platform that matches what they’re doing. A lot of people go with Pro Tools, because that’s what everyone knows. I think programs like Logic, Digital Performer, PreSonus Studio One and Ableton Live are way more flexible for musicians.

What shouldn’t you buy?
I’ve seen people spend a lot of money on super-expensive speakers, and let me tell you, it’s not worth it. JBL just came out with this new monitor, the LSR308. They’re stunning and sound great out of the box. I thought, “Oh great, here’s another $3,000 pair of speakers.” But I didn’t care, they sounded excellent, so I said I’d take a pair. It turns out they’re $250 a piece.

How about acoustic treatment?
It’s usually completely lacking. Your average home-studio guy may be able to figure it out, but I don’t really think they should. It’s the sort of thing where you want to call an expert. You can’t beat actually having an expert come into your room. If I want guitar on a track, but I don’t play guitar, I’m not going to try to learn it. I’ll hire a guitar player. Acoustic treatment is a real voodoo science. Even if you read up on it, you probably won’t understand it. One more thing: Acoustic treatment doesn’t have to be ugly either. I recently saw some treatment by a company called Lamvin—it was beautiful and not that expensive either. If you’re serious—if you think you’re going to make money by recording—you need to invest in your room.

Any other advice?
One of my dear friends was [late producer] Greg Ladanyi, who used to put on a pair of headphones with a long extension cord and walk around the room while the band was playing and move mics—looking for the hot spot where they sounded the best. He could hear what the mic sounded like on each instrument and saved lots of time that way. Your headphones have to sound great. If I were putting together a studio today, I’d start with the headphones. Your money comes from making musicians comfortable enough to play their best, and if they can’t hear themselves or each other, then the magic you’re there to capture simply doesn’t happen.

—Phil Selman

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