Recording Preparation and Studio Organization

It is really important to have an organized studio. Set aside a day for this, and it will save you weeks in the coming year, not to mention immeasurable inspiration killing frustration. You need to make it easy for yourself to be creative, and hard for yourself to get distracted.

Recording Preparation and Studio Organization

Organized is a different thing from appearing tidy. Scoop up all your cables and tuners and notes and headphones and stuff them in a drawer and the room will appear tidy. And you will spend an hour of your next session untangling everything and finding what you need. Hide all your patch cables and tie them up in bundles behind the desk and things will appear tidy, and it will take you an hour to get behind there and patch in a “B” set of speakers or a new midi controller.

Organized means that the stuff that you need is easy to identify, easy to reach, and easy to do what you need to do with it. A well-organized studio might actually appear pretty messy, and if that’s a problem with a significant other or some such, then you might need more than a day to figure out the right compromises. A studio is a workspace, like a garage or a woodworking shop.

There are three categories of stuff in your studio:
1. Stuff you need to access regularly, and that needs to be right at hand.
2. Stuff you only need to access rarely (a few times a year), that can be stored away.
3. Trash

Notice that there is no category for stuff that might be useful someday, or that you plan to work on when you have spare time. If it were useful, you’d have used it. If you had spare time, you’d already have worked on it. Here’s a hint – old magazines are trash.

The useful wisdom in them is either already on the internet, or has been or will be published in book form for that day 3 years from now when you need to search for it. And when that day comes, the chances of your actually finding the article you needed in three years’ worth of old magazines is nil. There is no Google for old magazines. Trash.

Bad cables are trash. If you’re going to fix them, put them in a brown paper bag and do it this week. If the week goes by and you haven’t fixed them, throw them away. Cables that crackle when touched, or that hum, or hiss, or that have to be plugged in at a certain angle to work have no place in a recording studio. Same with broken instruments, broken headphones, obsolete electronics, old speakers and computers, and so on.

If you have trash that has value, put it in all in a box, and write a date on it by which time you will sell it. If that date goes by, and you have not sold it, take thebox of stuff down to the Salvation Army or Goodwill and make someone’s day. But make the decision that you are running a studio, not a junk shop. Which is more important, to eliminate the distractions and time-wasters that get in the way of your music, or to squeeze the few extra bucks from your old soundcard?

I know this thread might seem like it’s getting away from “why your recordings sound like ass”, but the little stuff matters. A lot. Organization makes for better recordings than preamps do. Seriously.

Go to the hardware store and buy the following (it’s all cheap):

  • Sturdy hooks that you can hang cables and headphones from. Pegboard, in- wall, over-door, whatever. Dedicated hooks for guitar cables, mic cables, patch cables, and computer cables.
  • Rolls of colored electrical tape. From now on, every single cable in your stu- dio will have one or more colored stripes on each connector. So when you see the mic over the snare has a red stripe and a white stripe, and you go look behind the desk or the soundcard, you will see a white stripe and a red stripe and you will know instantly where the other end of the cable is plugged in. Headphones should be similarly marked (assuming that you ever have more than one set of headphones in use at a time).
  • Velcro cable ties. Every cable will also have a velcro cable tie affixed to it, so that you can easily coil up slack.
  • Extra batteries. Every studio should buy batteries in 10-or 20-packs. You should never have to stop a session to look for batteries, or for a lack of bat- teries.
  • No-residue painter’s tape. This is very low-stick masking tape that you will use to label all kinds of stuff. Stick in on the console or your preamps and mark gain settings for different mics and instruments, stick on guitars and keyboards to mark the knob settings, stick it on drums to mark the mic loca- tions, stick it on the floor to mark where the singer should stand in relation to the mic, whatever. Peel it off when you’re done and no sticky residue.
  • One or two universal wall-wart power adapters (the kind with multiple tips and switchable output voltage). A broken wall-wart is a bad reason to hold up inspiration, and having a spare handy makes troubleshooting a lot easier. Keep in mind that a replacement wall-wart has to have the same polarity, approximately the same output voltage, and AT LEAST the same current rat- ing (either Amps A or milliamps mA) as the original. So splurge for the 1A/1,000mA one if they have it. If you’re not sure what the above means, find out before experimenting.

Next, go to the guitar depot and buy the following:

  • 5-10 sets of guitar strings of every gauge and type you are likely to record. This means 5 sets of acoustic strings, 5 sets of electric strings, and each type in both light and medium-gauge, assuming that you might be recording guitars set up for different string gauges (this includes friends or bandmates who may come over with guitars that haven’t been re-strung for months. Make them pay for the strings, but have them. Charge them double or more what you paid, really). These strings are meant as backup insurance for the times when there is a string emergency, not necessarily to replace your existing string-replacement routine. So they can be the cheap discount ones. They only need to last through one session, and are there for the occasions when a guitar needs to be recorded that has dead strings. Watch for sales and stock up.
  • 2 extra sets of bass strings, same idea.
  • A ton of guitar picks, of every different shape, size, material, and texture. Go nuts. Don’t skip the big felt picks for bass (although you can skip the ex- pensive metal picks if you want – they suck). You are going to put these all in a big bowl for all to enjoy, like peanuts or candy. Or better yet, in lots of little bowls, all over the studio. Changing picks is the cheapest, easiest, fast- est, and most expressive way to alter the tone of a guitar, and it absolutely makes a difference. Just as important, holding up a session to look for a pick is the stupidest thing that has ever happened in a recording studio. Don’t let it happen in yours. Make your studio a bountiful garden of guitar picks.
  • Drum heads are a bit trickier, especially if you ever record more than one set of drums.

You might have to save up, but get at least one set of extra top heads for your best drums, starting with your most versatile snare. The whole idea is not to hold up a session over something that is a normal wear-and-tear part. The long-term goal should be to buy replacement heads not when the drum needs them, but when you’ve just replaced them from your existing stock of extras. Sad to say, it’s also not a bad idea to keep your eyes peeled for deals on spare cymbals, especially if you have old ones or thin ones or if you record metal bands. (Again, this is stuff that you should make people pay for if they break, but it’s better to have spares on hand than to stop a session).

If you commonly record stuff like banjo or mandolin, then splurge for an extra set of strings for these. If you record woodwinds on a semi-regular basis, then reeds are an obvious addition. Classical string instruments are trickier, but if you com- monly record fiddle, then pick up some rosin and a cheap bow, just to keep the sessions moving.

Pad of paper

One of the most important things any studio should have is an ingenious device known as a pad of paper.
You may already own one and not even know it. This should have a dedicated, permanent spot in easy reach of the mixing desk (please have extra pens to go with it). Your hip pocket is a great place. Its purpose is to record “to do” and “to buy” items as soon as you think of them. Even better if you can have separate ones for each. Its value will become immediately apparent. The “to do” list is the place to write down things like “find best upright piano preset”, or “create new template for recording DI-miked hybrid bass”, or “find better way to edit drum loops”, or “re-write bridge for song X” or whatever you think of that needs to be done while you are focused on the deliverable goal that we talked about above.

This pad should be different from the one that you use to write lyrics or recording notes, assuming you use one. The idea here is to have a dedicated place to write down the stuff that could otherwise become a distraction while recording, as well as a place where you can capture recording-related ideas as they come up, and set them aside for future consideration in the sober light of considered reflection.

It should also be a place to write down stuff you wish you had, or wish you knew more about, so that you can shop and research in a systemic way. If you find yourself fumbling around with the mixer and the soundcard trying to get enough headphone outs or trying to rig up an A/B monitor comparison, then write it down. You might be able to rig up a simple setup on a Saturday afternoon, or you might decide it’s worth getting a cheap headphone amp or monitor matrix (Behringer probably has one of each for $30).

If you can’t find the right drum sample or string patch, don’t stop recording to look for a patch now, instead, get the tracks laid down with what you have and make a note to look for better samples tomorrow. Tomorrow, you might have a totally fresh perspective and realize that it’s not the samples that were the prob- lem, but the arrangement. Or it might turn out that after a good night’s sleep and with fresh ears, it sounds just fine. Or maybe you do need to find better sounds. In any case, it will be a lot easier to keep the processes seperate, and to focus on the issue at hand. Your pad of paper makes everything possible.
Anything that distracts your time or attention should be written down. Don’t try to solve it right now, instead set it down as a problem to look into in the future.

Storage, furnishings, accessories

You need storage and furnishings for your studio. It should be stable and quiet. Things should neither be falling over nor rattling. This does not have to be expensive. Places like Ikea and office-supply stores sell sturdy computer desks that are just as good as dedicated-purpose “studio” desks. You should play various loud bass tones and suss out your studio for rattles before you start recording. Do this periodically, since things loosen over time. Duct tape, wood glue, silicone caulk, and rags such as old T-shirts are useful for impromptu rattle-fixing. I think the best studio desks in the long haul are probably just plain, sturdy tables. A big, open, versatile space tends to age better than a preciously-designed contraption with fixed racks and speaker stands and shelves and so on. It’s easy to put those things either on top of or underneath a plain table, but it’s hard to rearrange stuff that’s permanently built in.

Avoid cheap chairs with lots of wheels and adjustments, they are apt to rattle and squeak. Plain wooden or even folding chairs are preferable. Herman Miller Aeron chairs are excellent studio chairs, kind of a de-facto standard, but they’re expensive, and complicated knockoffs are sometimes worse than simple, silent hard chairs. Musicians often benefit from a simple bar-height stool without arms, for a half-sitting, half-standing position.

If you are on a tight budget and need racks, they are ridiculously easy to make. Just build a wooden box with sides 19” apart, and screw your gear into the sides. Road worthy? Probably not. But infinitely better than just having the stuff sitting in a pile that will inevitably get knocked over. You can even cut the front at an angle pretty easily if you are marginally competent. A quick sanding and coat of hardware-store varnish and it looks like actual furniture. Best part is you can build them to fit your spaces and put them wherever you want.
Keep your eyes peeled in discount stores for plastic toolboxes and drawer systems. The cheap soft-molded plastic stuff is a great place to store mics, cables, ad- apters, headphones, tuners, meters, CDs, and all that other stuff. Soft-molded plastic bins might be sticky and crooked to open, but they tend to rattle and res- onate less than metal or wooden stuff, unless you are buying fairly expensive.

Unless you are going to forbid drinks in the studio, you should make space for them in places where people are likely to be. The floor is a bad place, but is vastly better than on top of keyboards, mixing consoles, or rack gear. I like little cocktail tables with felt floor sliders on the bottom. They are inexpensive and movable and having a few of them makes it easy to be a fascist about saying that drinks are not allowed on any other surface, ever.

Boom-type and/or gooseneck-type mic stands are a studio necessity, and are sadly expensive, for the stable ones. If you must use the cheap $30 tripod base, then un- derstand that you are putting the life of your mic on the line every time you set it up. Budget accordingly. Do not put an expensive vintage mic on a cheap, flimsy stand. They all get knocked over, most sooner than later. The best deals are probably the heavy metal circular bases that are commonly used in schools and insti- tutions. Plan on either putting them on a scrap of rug or on little sticky felt fur- niture sliders or something to deal with uneven floors, and to provide a modicum of decoupling.

Please own enough guitar stands to accommodate every guitar that will be in use in your studio. Guitars left leaning against anything other than a guitar stand invariably get knocked over, which screws up the tuning and endangers the instrument. Bear with me, there is juicier stuff coming.

A Place for everything

I’m late for a show, but I forgot something important.
The key to organization is a place for everything and everything in its place. The PLACE FOR EVERYTHING bit is the most important.

In a well-organized tool shop, you’ll likely see a pegboard with hooks and marker outlines of every tool. They’ll have outlines of each hammer, drill, pliers, and so on. Hex drivers will be kept in a specific drawer, screwdriver bits are kept in a little canvas zipper-bag, nails and screws are organized by size in rookie kits or drawer boxes, and so on. Everyone knows where to find anything.

Your Mom’s kitchen is probably similar. Plates in one cabinet, spices in another, pots and pans in another, tableware in this drawer, cooking spoons and spatulas in another, sharp knives in this place, canned goods in that, and so on. The point with both of these is that it is obvious when a thing is in the wrong place. A wine- glass does not go in the spice cabinet. Plates do not go in the knife drawer. Drill bits do not get hung in the hammer outline of the pegboard.

Your studio should be the same way. When you set out to organize it, and you don’t know where to put a thing, stop. Your task is to decide where this thing goes, where it will always go, and where everything like it goes. “Everything goes in a drawer” is not an acceptable answer. You might have to buy or select a thing to put it in. But it is important to make a decision.

Knowing where to find a thing and knowing where to put it are the exact same question. If you don’t know the answer to either one, then you have to get organ- ized. Every adapter in your studio should be in the same place. Every wall-wart should be in the same place. Every battery should be in the same place. All kinds of tape should be in the same place.

Spare drum keys should be in a specific place, as should guitar strings. All soft- ware should be stored in the same place, along with the passwords and serial numbers. Cables should be coiled and hung on hooks, according to type and length, so that you always know where to put it when you’re done, and so that you always know where to get it when you need it. If I come to your studio and gift you a new piece of gear or ask to borrow a piece of gear, you should know ex- actly where it goes or comes from, without having to think about it, and before you decide whether to accept.

If you have a thing and really can’t decide where it goes, put it in a box and mark a date on it one year from today. Put it aside. If a year goes by and you haven’t opened the box, deal with it as trash, above. The point is to keep the stuff you need ready and accessible. And this means getting rid of the stuff that’s all tangled up with it. Your time in the studio should be spent on making music recordings, not on sorting through junk piles or looking for a working cable.

Yeah, arguably the best reason to record in a professional studio is the organiza- tion and division of labor. Partly having someone knowledgeable to deal with the technical stuff, but also just having someone experienced, who can say, “yeah, this will sound good in the final mix”, or who can nip in the bud approaches that are going to be problematic. But of course that doesn’t fit into the the tagline “make professional recordings on your computer.”

The preceeding post was some compiled opinions and excerpts from threads written by some great folks on the Gearslutz forum, the moderator mentioned their was no problem with us creating our own version with the information, so the following is some of the best information and concepts that i believe you, my readers will find especially helpful. Bottom line is i couldn’t have said it any better, these concepts and ideas are top notch, and pure gold. You can read the entire 53 page massive thread if you’d like, here. http://forum.cockos.com/showthread.php?t=29283

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