Stu-Stustudio.... Part 1: Foundations
Updated: Jun 11, 2022
Let's break down my studio configuration and discuss the ideas that drive it.
I don't know about you all, but lately, every time I think I have the perfect** layout in my studio, something either changes by choice or by requirement, and it feels like the whole thing blows up. While my studio setup has always been a bit of a constant evolution, the intervening time since the start of the pandemic has been especially bad for its stability.
First I moved everything to my commercial space in Philly, then after finally getting that arrangement perfected, the pandemic hit, and as a nonessential business, I wasn't allowed to be open and active, so home again it all came.
Then I spent lockdown shuffling things around the house and trying to work out an ideal setup. What resulted was pretty intense and rather extreme for a small bedroom (and ran about as hot as a data center's server space when it was all powered). And as effective as it all was, with literally every piece in the racks available via patch bay, and controlled from the Cirklon, it was cramped, and I eventually found myself more intimidated than inspired by the layout.
So what did I do? I moved it all back to the commercial studio again, of course.
With lockdown fading into the past and it also being clear that most of the businesses in the building had never stopped operating during the restrictions, it seemed safe to rejoin the world and make proper use of my space again. But there was one remaining problem: the studio was across town. If I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, good luck getting it down. And spending significant portions of time there with a newborn on the way (and at this point, actively within the household) had previously generated some strife on the homefront.
So I decided to split things up.
Most of the gear went back to the main studio, but I kept a small setup at the house, too, to ensure I could capture ideas and practice concepts when I was at home. I decided to center the home studio around Elektron gear (I already had the Analog Rytm, and added to it an Analog Four and an Octatrack) since I found the combination inspiring.
So with a giant sigh of relief I thought to myself "I'm finally done rearranging."
I hunkered down, focused on rebuilding, and even started building the foundation for a modular society. We even had a really nice event on October 15th, 2021 where Aqeel Aadam talked about some of his recent tracks and overall philosophy.
Then, on October 18th, 2021, a brother of a high school kid, armed with a semi-automatic, mowed down a bunch of people on my block at home, with two dead in the process (neither being the intended target, and one being a 66-year-old passer by who died almost immediately from a shot to the head). I was making tea in my kitchen at the time and saw it all happen. The feeling of terror as my wife shielded our just barely two year old daughter and kept her away from the windows was enough for me to say then and there that we were out.
This was also on the back of a string of other incidents, including a car chase where two vehicles were opening fire on each other, one with a fully automatic assault rifle, as they sped throughout the entire city. They happened to drive down a neighboring block spraying bullets as they went. The police found hundreds of spent casings just in one single location a few blocks from my house. And this was considered a "nicer" neighborhood in Philly. Six years prior, when I had bought the house, things were quite peaceful there, but something is drastically changing in Philadelphia.
In fact, just two days ago a kid was shot multiple times in the abdomen as several people opened fire on him as he sat in his car. At least 23 shots were fired. This was a half block from our old house.
But I digress, this is not the point of this post. I just aim to express why a sudden decision was made to leave.
And guess what leaving meant?
That's right. Moving my studio again. But this time it meant moving both of them, and doing it quickly.
After a rather harrowing search for a rental that was actually big enough to house us (because I wasn't about to buy another house in that kind of a rush) and rural enough for us to feel like we were making a significant change, we landed on a place that wound up being both affordable and perfectly sized. Between my wife and I (admittedly, mostly me), we could easily occupy a good portion of a warehouse with all our gear, so finding something safe and affordable that's actually big enough and zoned residential was no easy task. But we succeeded. The move started mid-November for the studio, and Dec 1st for the house, and now 4 months later, here we are.
We're relatively settled in at this point, though not fully, and I'm still tying up some loose ends with the other property. Lucky for me, my exit from my old studio was extremely smooth despite only being part way through a two year lease extension, as that building and area is in high demand.
My progress hasn't been the speediest (although it also hasn't been too bad, considering everything). And as I said in a prior post, my other work is a bit chaotic right now, as well. But since I'm in the process of finalizing my whole setup still, I realized that this was a pretty good opportunity to document it all, as there may be some ideas in here that could be helpful to others.
** there's no such thing as a fully perfect setup, at least on most project studio budgets, as there is always some degree of compromise required. You can only get as close as you can and iterate to close the gaps as much as possible.
Why would any of this matter to anyone but me? Well, as it turns out, I've spent a lot of time over these past several years "workshopping" my studio flow to make it as immediate and frictionless as possible. That's not the easiest feat when you have as much gear as I do but don't have the budget to have a professional studio designer build something custom for you.
In the end it requires a lot of time, learning, and dedication, but you can land on pretty decent results just with the bits and bobs available from consumer outlets, and go from there.
And while not everyone will have the budget to configure things exactly as I have, there are a lot of ways you can implement these ideas in smaller and more simplified configurations.
So let's start with a breakdown of the various sections of the studio and their purpose, and then we can dive more deeply into each to explain how it all ties into the larger whole.
There's way too much to cover for us to get through it all in this single post, so this will need to be a series, but we'll start here with the foundations and build up to the final result. It should be fun, and hopefully we'll all learn something in the process!
I should start by saying that before I had the idea to write this piece and film this series, I actually thought I was almost done with the setup phase, and hadn't really thought to document any of it. But then, after a few weeks of working with my rather cumbersome modular wall (pictured above), I realized that I should probably wait to finalize everything until I had completed a planned upgrade to a large Needham cabinet (double 21U, still in production at the time of this writing). And in talking a bit with friends about the overall lack of good studio setup videos on YouTube, I realized that it might be beneficial to folks for me to lay this all out and give a window into my process.
The interesting thing about this, for me, is that I am actually still working out how to handle some of the additional configuration in the new space, and I fully expect to rework some of my current concepts in the writing and filming process, as I definitely haven't solved all the things yet at this phase, but that's all part of the fun!
So let's start with the goals of this configuration, since it will help explain each piece in context as we go. The idea for the studio is to incorporate the following:
A solid and transparent mix position with plenty of hardware power, software integration, and automation available.
Easy access to gear that is important to interact with from the mix position, such as preamps, channel strips, and audio interfaces.
Permanent patching of all hardware synths and samplers to multiple destinations. Recording should be able to be achieved at the click of a button for any device in the studio, including the modular synth. We want zero barrier from idea to execution.
Live mixing and monitoring of multi-channel compositions as they are being formed, without the need for the computer's involvement, or use of its near-field monitoring setup (using a multi-channel mixer and dedicated amplification, in other words). The computer should only be required as a capture device and for final mixdown.
Integrated MIDI control of any sound source in the studio, via the Cirklon. It should be the compositional hub of the entire room, and ideally controlled from either the MIDI controllers at the mix position or the dedicated, directly connected controllers at the composition position oriented around the modular synth.
Full USB integration of any enabled device back to the main workstation.
Independent power and monitoring of the modular, for self-contained compositions and sound design.
Integration of turntables and Serato interface for sampling vinyl and capturing live DJ sets.
Easy access to the full electronics workbench for repair and customization, and for building custom devices and DIY eurorack kits.
Permanent setup for amp collection and effect pedals with wiring into the patchbay for easy reamping and routing of the pedal board to other devices.
Permanent top-down video station for filming hardware reviews and tutorials, and content for social media posts.
Permanent multi-camera setup for live streams and performances with associated OBS template.
Whew! That's a lot! With this much intended functionality, and just me putting it all together, you can maybe see why this configuration can take quite a bit of time to set up and perfect, and why all the geographic moves are so destructive to my output and overall productivity.
But that's ok! While we do indeed intend to purchase a house again in the not-too-distant future, we're pretty happy here for now, and I don't think we'll be needing to uproot everything again just yet. We'll probably just wait until I finish everything and lock in the last detail! (I hope I'm kidding).
So with all that in mind, let's start with the thing that influences every other decision we make in this process.
So let's face it: no one builds a permanent audio production space in an open field. You can't have a studio without a room. And if, like me, you don't have the means to build yourself a custom structure to house your gear, you're pretty much stuck with what you've got and have to make the most of it.
My studio's not actually located inside the house we're renting, but instead about fifty feet away in a commercial building out back on the same property. It consists of an entryway and two rooms, separated by a folding wood divider.
The entryway is a small 6.5' square off the main room. The main room is about 22' x 17' with several windows and a wide (7') opening to the 12' x 17' back room. Here's a diagram:
As you can see, our starting point isn't exactly ideal.
Generally speaking, when dealing with the orientation of a mix position in a basic, rectangular room, you want to align the desk to the length of the room, evenly spaced between the two longest walls, giving the sound the longest path to travel before you start dealing with reflections.
Because of this, I originally considered placing the mixing desk in the back room, like so:
This initially seemed ideal, but once I started considering all the other gear, some clear problems began to arise. For one, it wasn't all going to fit in there with the desk, and once I started picturing how to split it reasonably between the two rooms, I began to get nervous sweats from all the images of having to dart back and forth, hitting record and running to the other room to play a synth or whatever, not to mention all the cable runs and difficult logistics of how to then arrange the main room in any way that made sense.
If I were planning to record live bands mostly, and needed a control room, this would be the way to go, but as a one man show that's usually recording my own music, this was more trouble than it was worth.
Also, from a treatment point of view, a larger room is always going to be better from the perspective of managing bass, and since the main room also has higher, less reflective ceilings in addition to everything else, I started realizing that I was going to have to compromise a bit for the sake of sound, and deal with the awkward layout that was almost certain to arise from it.
This narrowed down the options considerably. With all the above factored in, and one other principle that I'll discuss in the next section, I was basically down to two places for where the desk could go.
So let's start getting into detail for the first goal on the list...
The Mix Position
When it comes to ideal listening position (again, we're talking rectangular rooms, specifically, here) the best starting point will always be based on the 38% rule, wherein the listening position is located 38% of the distance from the front or rear wall along the room's longest dimension. I find the effects of following this principle especially noticeable when your room dimensions begin to exceed 15' x 12' though it applies for all room sizes.
My mixing desk isn't the most ergonomic, but it's large and well-built and accommodates an 88 key keyboard in a slide out tray, and plenty of rack gear, should I need it. I actually customized mine from the layout in the link to include a shelf that spreads across the two upper racks to allow for enough room for two 27" monitors (or an iMac Pro and a 27" 5K monitor in my case) to sit side-by-side. Turns out, though, that for me, this winds up placing the screens uncomfortably high and far away, so I don't actually use any of the upper racks, and have removed them from the desk entirely.
As a result, I don't really use any of the rack space in the desk, either, opting instead for a tall standing rack (which I'll get into in the next installment of this series) but it's there should I need it somewhere down the line.
So, we've got a decent sized desk in a decent sized room. Following the 38% rule, we calculate the ideal listening position to be 38% of 21.75' (261") or 8.265' (99.18") from the front or rear wall (along the length). That means our two options are either of the following:
Now, the listening position doesn't exist in isolation. It's actually the convergence point of the left and right channels in a stereo pair, which should be equidistant from the listener. If you're monitoring in 5.1 or higher, the formula is going to be a little different, but I'm working in stereo here for this setup. This means that the left monitor, right monitor, and the listening position where they converge, actually form an equilateral triangle. You can use setups other than this, obviously, but your stereo image will be compromised. For an ideal image, the third point of the triangle is the sweet spot.
That means that, when we factor in the size of the desk (which determines the distance between the two monitors) and the properties of the monitors themselves (Adam A7X + Sub10) we wind up with two possible positions for the desk, as follows:
Now, at first, option A might seem ideal. It's not terribly awkward to pass by the desk on your way into the space, there's a solid wall behind it (with a view!), and it allows unhindered access to the back room, which could be a great space for loud amps, or other sound sources that you may want some distance from when tracking.
But there's a problem.
When working with a configuration like this, symmetry is our friend. And while we're already sounding pretty good here just by the sheer dimensions of the room (if I didn't already mention, it has 12' ceilings, as well) I don't want to ignore treatment completely. In addition, due to some of the other requirements listed above, the near-field monitors won't be the only monitoring system at play in this configuration. There will also be a set of PA speakers for amplifying the mixer when working without the computer. I want to arrange some bass attenuation for all of this, as well, in the form of some existing corner bass traps I already own.
Because of this, the entryway poses a much larger issue than the wide entrance to the back room with the wooden panel divider. With position B, we maintain symmetrical side walls and corner space for the bass traps and additional amplification, and while it's a bit awkward, having to walk past the desk to enter the back room doesn't present much of a problem overall.
I can sometimes be a "grass is always greener" sort with choices like this, constantly wondering if it would have worked better to take the opposite path. But this type of rumination tends toward torture rather than producing any useful outcome. And having worked in the resulting space for some time now (having committed to this decision early on in the setup process and move) I'm going to avoid belaboring the point (though it sure is tempting!) and say this is our path forward.
When you include the bass traps and pair of JBL PA speakers, the layout looks more like this:
Pretty good! As you can see, the positioning of the PA begs for a front-of-house style placement for the 24-channel mixing board that's going to be outputting to them, but we'll get into those details in a future installment.
As you can see, we've really just started scratching the surface here. There's so much more to talk about!
In the next installment, we'll go into deeper detail on the hardware setup for the mixing desk and start to dive into our second goal, which will start us exploring the 30U standing rack and what exactly it contains.
I look forward to seeing you there!