The Studio Goes Where?
A recording studio is not just a pile of equipment. A recording studio is a place. Turning that pile of equipment into a studio means that you have to put it somewhere. The next obvious question is: Where? Once upon a time, the great majority of recording studios were set up in commercial buildings, but with the personal studio revolution those days are long gone. The great majority of studio owners are working with very limited budgets. Many that operate as businesses these days have to keep their rates low enough to compete, which means keeping overhead low if they want to make a profit. Personal studios (those not for hire) have budgets limited by the “disposable income” of their owners, which really puts the squeeze on what they can spend. If you are building a studio, most likely it must be somewhere in your home so that you don’t have the overhead of supporting another building.
Having the studio at home certainly has its advantages. You don’t have to commute to get there. You don’t have to be able to commit several hours in a block to justify going into your studio when you only have to walk a few feet to “go to work” or to “go home”. You are already paying for your house, so unless you are building an addition for your studio, the studio “rent” is essentially zero.
Still, having your studio at home can also present problems, the most important being the difficulty of keeping the studio and the rest of the house from interfering with each other. You need to separate the studio in some way from everything else as much as possible, and this can be quite a trick.
There are several possible options for where to put a home studio. Each has its good and bad points, so let’s take a look at each option individually.
Probably the most expensive, though also the most tempting, option is to build a studio behind or beside the house (if you have enough property to allow this). This is the easiest way to clearly separate the studio from general family activity. A friend of mine tried this some years ago, with interesting results. Fred (not his real name) had just bought a house on property that had formerly been part of a small farm. He had a pretty decent-sized lot, and there was a 2-1/2 car garage behind the house. His previous studio was a cramped space in the basement of a small rented house, and as a drummer he wanted a big room where he could get a decent rock drum sound.
His solution was to make the original garage his drum room. He built onto the front of the garage, doubling its size. In order to be allowed to build it that big, he had to make it “part of the house”, which meant attaching it to the house with an enclosed breezeway. He used proper double-walled construction, and when he was done, besides his big drum room, he had a good-sized control room, a hallway, and two isolation booths, one for vocals and one as an “amp closet”. He also included a bathroom and a furnace room, and put a nice sink and small refrigerator in the breezeway. Fred was able to do all his own construction, except for pouring the concrete, and only had to spend about $13,000 in materials to build his studio (I think material costs have more than doubled since then). The resulting studio space was pretty much equivalent to an average commercial studio, and was in fact larger than his original house. It was possible to record or mix there any time of the day or night without disturbing the neighbors with the noise.
Fred’s studio had its problems, too. First of all, his utility costs immediately doubled because of the cost of running the studio’s gas furnace and the electricity consumption of all the studio equipment (this was a full-on 24 track analog studio, complete with a large console and lots of outboard gear). Second, one of his neighbors targeted the studio because of an unrelated incident involving a dog. The neighbor complained to the city that Fred was running a business (which he was) on a property with a strict single-family residential zoning. The city’s perspective on this was rather interesting. They told Fred that it was OK for him to have a recording studio on his property, and it was also OK for him to have people coming in to record at his studio, but the minute he actually charged money for doing this he was violating the law. This pretty much forced Fred’s business underground (he could not advertise in any obvious way). In addition, with all the construction Fred ultimately more than doubled the value of his property, which significantly increased his property taxes. Fred ultimately gave up the studio and converted the space for other uses, as his construction business now pretty much takes up all his time.
Another, and somewhat less expensive, approach is to make the house primarily a studio where you just happen to live. If you are a single homeowner this is a practical possibility, but it is very difficult to manage if you have children (those with families do not need me to explain why). I have seen this done a couple of times, most recently at John Brandt’s old Song Garden Studio in Michigan.
The front part of the main floor, which was originally a living room, two bedrooms and an office/library was completely re-modeled. The living room became the main recording room (drums went there), what was the master bedroom became the control room, and the back bedroom and front library/office were set up as recording booths with glass windows looking into the control room. Custom bass traps and absorbers were built into the rooms to control the acoustics of the different spaces. The windows to the outside were closed up, with the outside walls reinforced with layers of OSB outside and layers of sheetrock inside and insulated with blown-in cellulose. There was a proper sound lock between the studio and the rest of the house, and another sound lock at the front entry to the studio. The original kitchen and bathroom remained at the back of the main floor, and the upstairs was renovated to provide bedrooms, a living room and shop space. The very tight construction of the studio area actually resulted in a net reduction in utility costs for the house. All in all the space worked very well, and excellent recordings could be made there, but the house had become a studio first, and a dwelling second.
A somewhat less conventional take on the “live-in studio” idea was the old Schoolhouse studio that once operated west of Ann Arbor. The building was, in fact, a one-room schoolhouse that was originally built in 1917 and expanded some time in the 1930’s. The main floor had one big classroom and a bathroom, and the basement had a kitchen/dining area, bedroom, control room and a furnace room. Henry “H-Bomb” Weck, the drummer from the band Brownsville Station, originally bought the place to live in because he saw the classroom as a really cool place to practice drums. It was somewhat later that he and Pete Bankert (who now runs Rock City studio in Ann Arbor) turned it into a studio. Other than running snake cables between the classroom and the control room, no special changes were made to the building. In particular, the acoustics of the classroom, blackboards and all, were very nice “as is”, so no effort was made to “convert” the space acoustically.
Most of us, unfortunately, do not have the luxury of taking the “studio first” approach with an entire house, so we have to pick some part of the available space to use as a studio. This usually leaves us with 3 choices of space to work with:
- A garage,
- A spare room, or
- A basement.
Of these, the garage is usually the most “separated” choice, and it may be the easiest place to put a room big enough to have decent acoustics. The downside is that the garage may also be the most expensive place to put your studio. To work properly as a studio space, the inside of the garage has to be finished, and the inside of the big door has to be walled off (leaving the outside “original” can avoid problems with the city over the conversion of the garage). The garage must also have a conventional entry door, or you will have to add one. If you don’t want to disturb (or be disturbed by) the neighbors, you will have to use double-wall construction. You will also have to heat and cool the garage, and doing so will significantly increase your energy bills. You will also most likely have to add power wiring, not to mention installing proper lighting.
Putting your equipment in a spare room (such as an unused bedroom) is probably the easiest and quickest way to get running. The room is already lighted and wired, so you may be able to avoid construction entirely. For some of us, in fact, this may be the only available choice. There are some problems, though. Again, sound leakage is an issue, not only with neighbors, but with the rest of the house. I have never yet seen any regular house that was originally built to be soundproof. The other important disadvantage is the size of the room. In most houses, most of the rooms are too small to properly support low frequency sound, either for recording or for mixing. Long ago the BBC determined that the smallest room size suitable for speech work was about 1500 cubic feet, and to handle low bass a room should be quite a bit larger. A living room may be that large, but most bedrooms are significantly smaller. Even with careful acoustical treatment, including bass traps, it is very difficult to properly “tame” the sound of the average bedroom.
Some time ago I decided that the best compromise for locating a studio in a house is the basement.
First of all, being partially underground significantly reduces both noise from outside getting in and noise from inside getting out. This is helped by the fact that the foundation walls of a house are fare more rigid, in most cases, than the rest of the exterior walls (the exception might be a house that is poured concrete or block all the way up to the roofline, as my last rented house was). This isolation can easily be improved a bit by having glass block in all the basement windows (this was the first thing we did to our current house after we bought it).
Next, in most houses, the basement is unfinished, which makes it likely that there is a relatively large unbroken space that can either be used entire or divided up in a way that works best for a studio. This gives you more control over the shape and construction of your studio. You can put any dividing walls where you want them. You can build the walls as you see fit, which is important because proper dividing walls for a studio generally need a higher standard of construction that that usually used in home construction. You can tailor the power wiring and the lighting to suit your needs, and you can provide for signal cabling in ways that would be more difficult if you had to modify existing construction. Not least in all this is the fact that it is a lot easier to build a control room window into a new wall than to add it to an existing wall.
The utility costs of a basement studio will be lower than those for a garage studio. The basement is already part of the house, and is likely already included in the heating and cooling system of the house. If it isn’t drafty, there is less heat loss from an underground space in the winter, and less need for cooling of that space in the summer.
There are disadvantages to the basement studio. There are three in particular that I find are worth attention here. First, in most basements the ceiling is lower than you normally want for a studio. The main reason that this is important is that is sets limits on your options for room dimensions, and there are spots where this is made worse by ducting and pipes that run below the joists, which can further limit how you can use the space. Second, it is very difficult to isolate noise from going between the basement and the first floor. If you are trying to do a serious amount of work, it will likely require special cooperation with whoever is upstairs, and possibly some negotiation over hours and circumstances of operation. Third, any space that is located under a kitchen or bathroom is subject to special risks in case of a leak or other plumbing failure. I have had to deal with this issue in two different houses, and I know of at least two other home studios that have had to deal with the “fallout” from plumbing problems, so this requires attention in planning.
Remember, walking out of the store with a pile of recording equipment is not the end of setting up your studio: instead, it is only the beginning. The space in which you operate is terribly important, and you have to start by deciding exactly where all of those new toys/tools will go. For most of us, that place will be in or around our home, and it is wise to be careful in choosing what part of your home to use. The best answer will not be the same for everyone, so you have to look at the advantages and problems of each possible choice for your own situation. For me, the basement works out best, and that may or may not be the case for you.