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How to Build a Personal Studio on Any Budget

Jul 1, 2002 12:00 PM, Steve O
Electronic Musician

As you can imagine, we EM editors are often asked to recommend gear for a reader's studio. Of course, we regularly evaluate gear in our reviews, and we can try to help with specific problems, but your personal studio is, well, personal. The right gear for your situation depends on your existing gear, goals, budget, and way of working. After all, no one product is right for everyone.

The closest we can come to answering those pleas for help is to consider what we would buy if we were building new studios. You and your friends have varying goals and tastes when it comes to designing a personal studio, and so do our editors. When I assigned Marty Cutler, Brian Knave, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, David Rubin, and Geary Yelton the task of mapping out personal studios from scratch, based on clearly defined (if imaginary) budgets, each followed his own muse. I set the rules, offered advice, challenged assumptions, and edited the results.

We consulted freely, but each editor made his own choices, specifying the gear he would buy if building a real studio rather than spending play money. We used the same process you would: we created a budget, determined what sort of projects we wanted to take on, and assembled our wish lists, keeping in mind how the parts would work together as integrated systems.

We aren't saying the products in these eight studios are necessarily the best of their kind - although some are. This is not a variation on our annual Editors' Choice Awards. We have selected quality products that integrate well to form studios the editors want to own and use.
Past is Prologue
If you have been reading EM for the past four years, you may understandably have experienced déjà vu when you read the title of this story. Indeed, our July 1998 cover story had the same title and theme. "Build a Personal Studio on Any Budget" was one of our most popular cover stories. The time seems right to revisit that theme: our choices have changed, and so has our staff. Our 1998 studios were created by Brian Knave, Dennis Miller, Jeff Casey, and yours truly. Knave and Miller contributed again this time and are joined by Marty Cutler, Gino Robair, David Rubin, and Geary Yelton.

The 2002 version follows roughly the same format we used four years ago: we outlined plans for eight studios, half with computers and half without, complete with price lists and manufacturer contact info. But we divided it up differently this time: two studios are based on portable digital studios (desktop hard-disk recorders that integrate a mixer and effects), two are Mac-based (more or less), two feature Windows PCs, and two eschew computers in favor of a rackmount modular hard-disk recorder, a mixer, and outboard gear.

In 1998 hardware samplers were still a major item, but you will find only one in the 2002 edition: a keyboard workstation with a sampling option. Furthermore, we followed one of today's hot trends: one of our "Macintosh" studios is, in fact, a hybrid that uses a Mac for most work but also includes a Windows PC dedicated to sampling.

Dealing the Dough
I assigned the funny money differently this time than in 1998. In the earlier story, we specified two studios - one with a computer and one without - at each of four price points: $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, and $32,000. This time we decided against strictly parallel budgets because it generally costs more to assemble a "classic" studio without a computer, using discrete devices such as modular hard-disk recorders and mixers, than to buy a comparable portable digital studio or computer-based system.

For the computer-based studios, I gave Yelton $5,000 in play money to build a Mac-based system, and Miller got $5,000 for his Windows-based recording rig. I encouraged them to enhance their studios' capabilities with freeware or shareware, a wise choice when you have a low budget. At the high end, Rubin designed a mostly Mac-based studio for $15,000, and Miller got another $15,000 in funny money to build a high-end Windows wonderland.

On the hardware side, Cutler delights in portable digital studios, so he received $2,500 to build a low-budget studio based on one of the integrated devices and $6,000 for a more elaborate portable-digital-studio-based solution. Robair was given $10,000 for his lower-end, traditional-style, computerless studio, and Knave was the big spender, building a traditional studio without computer for $30,000.

I allowed a bit of slack, but not much. Miller blew his $15,000 budget by $103, but he pleaded so piteously that I let him get away with it. Rubin ran over budget by $78, but I consider an overrun of one half of 1 percent to be insignificant in view of his ambitious sound-for-picture studio design. Everyone else stayed within a few dollars of his target, except Cutler, who came in $38 under budget on one studio and $56 under on the other.
Rules of the Game

We assumed we were starting from scratch, but we stuck with the major pieces and did not consider such items as cables, mic shockmounts, pop filters, stands, patch bays, acoustic treatment, studio furniture, power strips, extension cords, and personal instruments (such as guitars). Obviously, you would need most or all of that stuff in an actual studio, but including it would have made an already large story almost unmanageable. Interestingly, none of the editors opted for AC power conditioners, although Cutler, Knave, and Rubin put uninterruptible power supplies on their wish lists for future expansion. Power conditioners are like acoustic conditioners: you can work without them, but it isn't a safe practice.

To ensure that these studios could actually be built for the prices stated, we only chose gear that is currently in production, and to the extent possible, we used manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP). Each manufacturer has its own pricing policies, and street prices vary widely, so that was the closest we could come to a level playing field. We made no attempt to account for sales tax. On the other hand, you undoubtedly can find discounts on many items, and in some cases, you can buy used equipment; that should cover the sales tax.

We had a blast designing these studios, and we hope you will find our choices and explanations interesting and useful. No matter what we choose, you will surely disagree with some of our selections because we can only tell you what we would buy and why. By putting our choices in the context of designing a (more or less) complete studio, however, we hope to provide a framework that is both practical and meaningful.
- Steve O

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