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Building Your Own Home Studio: Pt. 1

When done properly, a homemade studio can be a surprisingly affordable venture, one that utilizes relatively inexpensive materials and requires surprisingly little construction know-how.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on February 21, 2006 by

Let’s face it, anyone who isn’t completely devoted to the idea of making music from scratch can’t possibly know what it’s like to want a space in the home devoted to the recording arts. Sure it’s okay to build a new deck, a laundry room, a tool shed. But a recording studio in the basement? What kind of nut would actually get all excited about snaking XLR cable through a 6-inch wall?

Regardless, I believe it’s your God-given right as a free thinking, tax-paying individual to be able to turn 100 square feet of unused space into your own private Hit Factory, if you so choose. Life’s too short to not have what you really want.

So maybe that’s not quite how I put it to my wife a few years ago when I announced my intention to begin work on a two-room recording studio below decks, just days before she was scheduled to take off on a one-week trip to Cancun. The argument that I would be sparing her the worst of the impending sawdust cloud didn’t fly, so I immediately ditched the prepared text and started yammering phrases like “soundproof,” “big,” “you’ll love it,” and, when all else failed, a pathetic “cause I wanna.” She headed off to the airport still skeptical, and probably spent half her week waiting for a phone call from the emergency ward of the local hospital.

But I prevailed. And now I’m here to tell you that if I can do it, you can do it too.

But hey, enough of my yapping. What do you say? Let’s build!

Yes, I can
I know, you’re probably thinking things like, “It’ll cost too much,” or “I don’t really own any nice gear,” or “I don’t know that much about carpentry.” Sure, fifty grand, ProTools and Bob Villa would definitely come in handy right now, but they’re not necessary. When done properly, a homemade studio can be a surprisingly affordable venture, one that utilizes relatively inexpensive materials and requires surprisingly little construction know-how. And because a home studio is often situated in a previously unused remote space (like a basement, garage, shed or loft), it need not be a “handsome” job either.

Which brings us to the subject of carpentry skills (or lack thereof). I came into this project armed with one circular saw and two left thumbs, but managed to fumble my way through (and without losing my thumbs either). Frankly, a DIY home studio is the perfect learn-as-you-go project for the mechanically challenged, one that allows a generous amount of trial and error and, in some instances, actually caters to clumsiness. Case in point: When building a proper sound room, you don’t want your walls to be perfectly plumb. That’s fine - I couldn’t build a straight wall if I tried.

That said, in order to make this a truly low-overhead deal, you will have to do most of the job yourself (within the bounds of reason, of course). Basic woodworking, electrical, drywall and carpet-laying can all be tackled on a DIY basis (of course there are a few minor annoyances like possible building-code violations, but we’ll get to that later). Naturally, you can job out any or all of the above, but obviously the expense ratio goes up exponentially. I took a few quotes, then hired my nine-year-old, who offered complete painting, fastening, and clean-up service for about 50 cents an hour.

Of course, there may be a few tense moments when you’re standing there alone late at night, your hair covered with a blend of sawdust and Homasote fiber, wondering how you got yourself into this mess in the first place. To keep things in perspective, consider lining up a few knowledgeable sources well in advance who you can pester on a moment’s notice.

Sound Checks
What’ll it cost? It varies, but if you’re not shelling out big time for labor (and you already have some basic recording gear), it’s entirely possible to do a complete (modestly sized) two-room studio for as little as $1,000-$1,200. Your final tally will depend on several factors:

Found objects. I was fortunate enough to have a few friends in low (i.e., existing basement studio) places who generously supplied me with studio glass, acoustic foam, and other essential items that would have otherwise set me back a few bucks.

Build, don’t buy. Why make a bigger expense tab when you can make it yourself? By slapping a free table top my neighbor was giving away onto an unused base I had kicking around, I was able to put together a serviceable mixing desk; when the room was finished, I turned some of the leftover lumber into speaker stands and bookshelves.

Shop around. Drywall and sound-insulating board - your main ingredients - are fairly evenly priced, though lumber and other supplies can vary greatly, depending on your area. Call around for quotes before you get started. However, even if the local lumberyard can’t underprice behemoths like Home Depot, the fast, free delivery may be well worth the difference (carting around sheets of drywall is no picnic, believe me). But avoid paying top dollar whenever possible. Your lumberyard may be willing to cut a deal on oversupply, remnants or other items destined for the junk heap. When it came time to cover the floors, I scored some quality indoor-outdoor carpet remnant with pads that required cutting and fitting but cost less than $100. Though I would have preferred wide pine planks for the walls, the building supplier down the street made it well worth my while to take away their overstock of 1” x 6”.

Choosing Your Spot
Start by making a rough plan of the space you’ll be using. Attic space seems logical from a soundproofing standpoint (since the sound source will be above the main living area) but may require ample air conditioning during the summer months. Basements, on the other hand, are often partially insulated (especially in newer homes), usually have a bulkhead for easy access from the outside and, if you build off a corner of the room, have a pair of walls to work off of. However, basements are also prone to dampness, so it will be necessary to run a decent humidifier (particularly during the summer months) in order to prevent your studio from turning into a mold factory.

How much territory do you need? Obviously, the bigger the recording room, the more space you’ll have for amps, mics, and separation; similarly, a larger control room is theoretically better suited for playbacks. On the other hand, if conditions warrant a smaller studio, so be it. Due to various constraints, my music room ended up being a cozy 12� x 11�, my control room another 12� x 11� but with bump-outs that brought it down to around 12� x 7� at the narrowest end. Not totally kosher by some acoustic standards, but there are several ways you can side-step conventional studio-design criteria and still wind up with a suitable workspace.

One good method for turning an under-sized space into a good-sounding room is to add a few angles to the floor plan. I discovered this purely by accident when I decided to turn the underside of the adjacent staircase that leads down into the basement into a 6� x 6� storage area. No small feat, since the stairway required a double wall of drywall, newly cut pine risers, and a combination plywood-soundboard covering on the underside. As it turned out, the resulting alcove not only served as a convenient place to store extraneous mic cables, but it also prevented my room from becoming a little box of bouncing sound waves.

Tools
The more the merrier, but at the absolute minimum, you’ll need the following items: a good circular saw for cutting up lumber (with a pair of sturdy sawhorses); a sharp straight-edge knife for cutting soundboard, drywall and carpeting (with a generous supply of back-up blades); a chalk-line for accurate measurements; a cordless drill or, at the very least, a powered screwdriver; plus the usual compliment of building necessities (measuring tape, spirit level, small hammer for tight corners, etc). If you’re short on supplies, treat yourself to a few new items before you get started. Don’t skimp - the right apparatus will make the job a whole lot easier for only a few extra bucks.

Obtaining The Materials
Essentially, your first load of supplies will consist of three main items: a generous pile of 8� lengths of 2” x 4” and 2” x 3” lumber; an even larger pile of 4� x 8� sound-absorbing board and gypsum board (drywall); and a really big pile of wood fasteners (2”) and drywall screws (1-1/4”). You could just get everything delivered all at once, but you really don’t want to clutter up your main work area with items you won’t be needing for another couple of weeks. I was lucky enough to have a building supplier right around the corner who made same-day deliveries (and whose driver turned out to be a guitarist - I got priority service once he found out what I was up to).

Anatomy of a wall. When it comes to sound-deadening, it’s tough to beat good old Homasote, a dense structural board made from cellulose fiber. Homasote divides easily with a sharp knife, is light enough for one-person installations, and when used as an interior surface is perfect for soaking up excess volume from drums and amps. Another ingredient in the sound-stopping formula is drywall (a.k.a. sheetrock), which can be used for ceilings and exterior walls. The contrasting acoustical properties of the drywall and Homasote complement each other, improving sound reduction qualities. The 4� x 8� half-inch sheets of drywall are fairly unwieldy, but can be cut easily enough with a straight-edge knife. Fiberglass insulation behind the walls helps prevent sound from escaping as well, and also keeps the rooms climatized. Be sure to use insulation with the proper ‘R-value’ (a measure of its resistance to heat transmission) in order to get the right amount of thickness, but don’t overstuff - better to have a little air space than a solid mass of fiberglass (R-11 is fine for most applications).

Let there be layers. Whatever materials you choose to use for wall and ceiling construction, there is one thing that everyone can agree upon: layers rule. The more layers in the studio wall, the less chance of sound seeping through (and, as in the example above, making layers from different types of material is the best way to go). If your wall has a total thickness of anywhere from 4-6”, you should be satisfied with the results. Even if you’re an acoustic guitarist who’s not planning on making a ton of noise, remember that you want to keep outside noises out as well. For instance, I have a forced hot-air furnace and hot-water heater located right outside my control room that sound like an F1 tornado when operating at the same time. Reducing that noise to a faint murmur became a top priority once I got going.

Let there be air. Since dead air is a natural sound barrier, whenever possible allow some space between the layers in the walls and ceilings.

Drop your ceiling. A common practice for reducing sound transmissions through a ceiling is by using a so-called resilient metal channel (or “Z-channel”), a thin insulating metal framework that isolates the ceiling drywall or Homasote (attached to the underside of the channel) from the floor joists above.

Pine away. For extra soundproofing insurance, consider adding a layer of shiplap pine to the interior walls. Not only will the pine provide an additional sound barrier, it will also add warmth and tone to the room (not to mention that it looks and smells great as well).

(in Part 2: Putting it all together)

(For more tips on classic tools and techniques, check out Dave Simons’ new book, “Analog Recording: Using Analog Gear in Today’s Home Studio,” from Backbeat Books)

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