A PC based home studio (part IIc)

Part IIc: Chosing Hardware: Other peripherals like monitors (for sound, not visuals), a mixer, microphones, outboard gear etc.

The basic idea behind a good purchase of equipment for your home studio is that you buy things that don't become obsolete too soon (OK, except for the PC, but that's something you can't change anyway). That means, try to buy things that won't need to be replaced by your next purchase. Consider two things before any purchase: Do I need this? and Will I still use it 6 months from now? This can be hard for guitarists - if we get a GAS attack we tend to buy a bit planless sometimes - I'm sure you know what I mean. How many pedals or amps have you owned and sold again because they didn't really fit your needs? ;-) Well, try to avoid that, although buying gear is fun in itself, using gear that really works the way you need is even more fun. So don't waste your money. Building such a home studio is bad enough already, because you'll notice you'll have GAS not only for guitars&s, but for microphones, eqs, tube compressors, software etc.

Let's assume you have a fine PC with audio card and midi interface (should you need it) already (see parts IIa and IIb). The problem is, you still can't hear a thing. So you need some speakers. The best solution is to get some good studio monitors, but you can make do with your stereo for a while, if at the end of the money there's still so much month left. By the way, whenever I talk just about monitors in this or future articles, I mean the *audio monitors*, not the PC display monitor, except as indicated.

The Monitors

You can of course set up your existing stereo system for monitoring purposes.
This will work if you have a good, powerful pair of speakers that sound pretty balanced to your ears. You can live with this for a while, but I highly recommend that you get some dedicated studio monitors at some point in the future. Why? Well, HiFi speakers are usually build to sound *good*. What I mean is they are designed to please the ear, to sound good with the most material. They just try to sound good all the time. Sometimes they'll have a dip in the midrange of the frequency response, to take that hard mid attack out of the sound. Often they have a pretty fat bass response, that goes down to pretty low frequencies, but they lack focus and tightness in the bass. This is fine for your living room, but it can be more difficult to mix on them, because of the spongy bass response you have a hard time noticing what's really going on down there and probably you'll overlook certain problems of your mix.

Studio monitors, on the other hand, are usually designed to sound as linear as possible, to have a most flat frequency response. This is because you use studio monitors to find out what you really have recorded, and if it sounds good or bad. So that you can spot the bad recordings and improve them. Or you'll notice that the bass of your mixdown is flabby, because you have too much low end on the rhythm guitar. They will usually bring out more details and are generally more revealing. They also do not forgive mistakes you make during the mix - and you will notice bigger differences in sound quality between CDs you know than you noticed before. That's what happened to me at least.

A few words on monitor speaker placement:
Place your monitors at eye level. The two monitors and your head should form a triangle with equal sides if viewed form above. This means the distance between the monitors should equal the distance between you and either speaker. Turn the cabinets a bit inward so they face you. If you now sit down in the spot I described and listen to some music, you should get the best possible stereo imaging and the most accurate reproduction. Good stereo imaging does not only mean you hear both sides, but you must have the illusion if you close your eyes, that every instrument or voice is located at a spot between the both speakers. The lead singer (usually panned to the center) should seem to stand directly in front of you. And if you listen to a well produced record, the instruments should come almost from a three-dimensional room that extends to behind the speakers (even if there's a wall in reality). If you move around, you'll notice that you will leave the area that has this effect. You will still hear both speakers, but the proper stereo imaging will be gone. This area I described above is called the "sweet spot". Try to be in the sweet spot while you mix down your tracks.

If you have powerful speakers that put a strain on your ears during extended listening and editing sessions, try to place them a little above eye level (about 50 cm max), this will make listening easier, but you will have to stand up to fully enjoy the sweet spot.

For our PC home studio, two kinds of monitor sizes are interesting: near field and direct field. Near field monitors are usually really small (like the JBL control 1 for example). You would place them to the left and right of your PC monitor. If you had a big hardware console they'd be placed on the meter bridge. The idea is that the sound that reaches your ears comes from the speakers alone, and that the reflections on room surfaces are negligible. That way it doesn't matter that much if your room has bad acoustics - which will probably the case, since this is going to be a home studio anyway. Those near field monitors have normally a pretty thin bass response due to their dimensions. So it is common to use them together with a subwoofer.

Direct field monitors are a little bigger, and you'll want to place them a little farther away. The idea behind them is that still most of the sound comes directly from the speakers and only a little bit from room reflections. At the same time those speakers are big enough to deliver good bass without a subwoofer. A common size is a cabinet with a 20cm (8") woofer and a 2.5cm (1") tweeter. These are usually ported, too. If you have little room and have to place the cabinets with their backs to the wall, take care that you get cabinets with the bass port on the front. Else the port is useless and the sonic balance of the monitors suffers. If those speaker are that near to you, a 2-way system is better, because sounds from less sources have to mix before they reach your ear. If you can by ear tell that the trebles are coming from another direction than the bass, that's no good. Imagine a big 3-way box you are sitting close to: the sound will lose its homogeneity.

Now you can get passive monitors and active (powered) monitors. In my opinion, for a home studio like ours, powered direct field monitors are pretty ideal. They eliminate the need for another poweramp, their components (amplifier, crossover and speaker chassis) are usually well matched, and a direct field monitor delivers enough punch to serve as your sole monitors without the need for bigger speakers or a subwoofer. If you can't make that much noise (due to neighbors), get some near field monitors and a good pair of headphones. Well, get the headphones anyway, you'll be glad you have them, and they're not that expensive.

Mackie makes some fine powered direct field monitors (they're called "824" or so if I remember right). Also the 20/20bas from Event are very nice (I have those), they are available as a passive version (20/20) too. Genelec also makes very fine monitors (but pretty expensive), and JBL, or Alesis...

And last, but in no way least: NEVER EVER buy a set of monitors without listening to them! Don't buy them because someone told you that he/she loves them. Let your ears decide! You can buy a soundcard unheard, even a mixer, but never monitors! That is because studio monitors still have different characteristics even though they try to be as honest as possible, and you still have to like the way they sound. You'll be listening to them for countless hours...

The mixer

Remember question 4 form part I? If you have decided that you want to mix with an analog hardware mixer, you should get one that has at least 2 times the number of mono channels than your soundcard has ins and outs. If you have a 8in-out-soundcard, get at least a 16 channel mixer. At least that's what I would do :-) In that case you will need a lot of outboard gear too and you are aiming at something bigger than a pc-based home-studio (emphasizing the "home" part).

Anyway, you should have a small mixer around: not to mix with it but to distribute audio signals, set recording levels, for its mic preamps and to control the volume of your monitors. It is not so good an idea to connect your powered monitors directly to the soundcard and control their volume from the software. First, it is more tedious than some hardware faders, and second and more important, reducing the level of the master output signal in the digital domain means that you also reduce its resolution.

Get a mixer with at least as much mic inputs (that means mono channels, too), as your soundcard has physical inputs. Take care that the mixer has "direct outs" for recording on 8 or more mono channels. A three-band eq with semi-parametric (with frequency control) mids and 2-3 aux channels should also be present. An additional stereo input to get the output of your soundcard back is also good.

Aux channel means the following: at a certain point in your mixer's channel, the signal is taken and fed to a dedicated output, the aux output. The amount of signal from this channel that is fed to that output is controlled by the "aux send" poti in the channel strip. The "aux send" poti can be located before or after the channel fader. Aux channels can be used to make a separate monitor mix for live applications. In that case you would use pre-fader aux sends. Or you use them as FX-send potis to control the amount of signal that is fed to an external FX processor.

The mixer should also feature phantom power. Phantom power means that DC voltage (usually 48V) is fed to the microphones via the microphone cable. Condenser microphones need power to operate, and most of them are not able to run on batteries, so their phantom powered. Phantom power is common with most mixers, but maybe the smallest around don't feature it (or DJ mixers or the like). Don't worry about your dynamic mikes, by the way. Phantom power does not harm them. And you won't get electrical shocks when touching the mike :-D

Mackie makes fine small mixers, or Spirit/Soundcraft, or Allen&Heath... the mic preamps on those are pretty decent, too.

Another way to go is a small digital mixer, like the Yamaha 01V or the small Roland ones. Those have usually an ADAT digital I/O, that means 8 channels of digital I/O. Remember part IIb? If you want a digital mixer then you should get a digital only soundcard and use the mixer's converters. But think about it: PCs are already damn powerful digital mixers and are easily customizable and upgradable. Digital mixers have the advantage of being portable and having hardware faders to mix with. Mixing with a mouse on a PC screen can be tedious, I know. Maybe you should think of a midi faderbox to control your software with, if you don't need portability. Plus, you can save all mixer settings together with the project you're working on on the PC (this is total recall at its best!). Whereas you have to worry about saving your digital mixer's settings in some way together with the song.

Conclusion: I think, mixing within the PC is the best way to go, when building a PC based home studio. You can worry about big hardware mixers if you want to do live sound reinforcement or bigger studio work. But even then your PC is not obsolete - you can still use it for editing, doing multitrack work etc. The trick is to set the whole thing up so that it can grow with your needs. So you can start small and get bigger when your bank manager is smiling again at you :-)


Now this is difficult to discuss since people tend to have such different opinions on microphones. I think I'll do an extra article about microphones later on. So here I'll give real few recommendations. Often, microphones are sold for different purposes, but that's really just for advertising. You can use a vocal mike to mike your guitar amp, or a snare drum... if you're on a budget and don't have lots of different mikes, try experimenting.

What are your basic microphone needs (if you start buying some)?

If you want to record vocals, get a decent dynamic "vocal" microphone. The Shure SM58 is a classic "industry standard". While there are better vocal mikes, it's good value for the money, everybody knows them and they're really sturdy (although once a local guitarist dipped his '58 into his beer and licked it clean - this it didn't survive, but the show was great ;-)

For miking a guitar amp, a dynamic microphone is also a good choice. The SM57 by Shure is often used for this purpose. It can stand a bit of abuse, too, and can serve as a vocal mike, too, if your budget is really tight. It's big brother, the Shure Beta 57A sounds a bit warmer.

For acoustic instruments, like acoustic guitar, piano etc., a good condenser microphone would be the first choice. Affordable ones are for example the Rode NT1 or the AKG C3000b. You need phantom power for condenser mikes, see above.

Microphones are a matter of taste, try to test them before you buy to hear if you like their sound.

So if you don't want to record acoustic instruments and only want to do vocals and mike your amp, you can get away with buying one SM57 in the beginning...

Outboard gear

This means other studio electronics in general - FX processors, compressors, eqs etc.

Your goal for a home studio should be to do as much as possible with your PC and save your money on outboard gear. Especially digital FX processors are a bit useless - you want your PC's processor to handle FX. If you plan to buy a FX processor nonetheless, get one with a digital I/O that matches your soundcard, so you can interface the processor and your PC in the digital domain and avoid quality loss due to many AD/DA conversions.

What can be really useful is a compressor/limiter/gate combination. Sometimes you will want to compress a vocal signal even before recording it, and having a limiter around to max out the recording levels without encountering digital clipping can be nice (more on rec levels and clipping in a later issue). It is not a must-have, though, you can get away without pretty well. It is probably most useful if you're gonna do a lot of acoustic recordings.

Buy a high end microphone preamp only if you have a high end microphone and a highend sound card to go with it. Having the most sophisticated tube mic preamp to amplify a SM57 fed by a guitar amp and then recorded by a soundblaster is like using Monster Cables (TM) with a korea strat copy and a transistor practice amp. Well, not that bad, since the SM57 is really decent. But you get the picture. If you buy a decent mixer, it will have pretty decent mic preamps built in, and unless you're into expensive condenser mikes, you won't need another preamp.

What can be interesting though are things like the mindprint envoice (http://www.mindprint.com). This nifty device is a complete channel strip in 19"/1U. It contains: mic, line and instrument input, 3-band eq and a tube-compressor-circuit (which isn't pure tube, but good nonetheless). This thing is on my own wishlist at the moment :-) Very handy for the small home studio, and due to it's instrument input interesting for guitar and bass use.

Focusrite (www.focusrite.com) have a very attractive new line of products for the home recordist, the "Platinum Series", with affordable prices. Be sure to check them out.

As for other FX or eqs or the like - buy only what you think you need in the signal chain *before* recording. Adding FX during the mixdown is much handier done in software, and in software there are even FREE FX plugins available on the internet, some of which are on the same level with expensive FX from the big players. Where to find those and how to use them will be explained in a later article.

If you're beginning to set up your recording suite, buy only outboard gear that you desperately need - try to do as much as you can with the software and with the PC. After a time of practicing recording and mixing, you will be much more confident about what you really need - because that still depends on your recording style, what kind of music you make etc.


In your recording home studio you'll need a lot of cables of different lengths and for different purposes. You could of course everytime buy a new cable when you need one, but it is cheaper to make them yourself. Get a soldering iron (for electronics, 25W *max*), and practice a bit. Get good quality cable material - good microphone cable for example, you can make all your line and microphone cables from it. And get good plugs - you'll need 1/4"-TS (tip-sleeve, like your guitar cable) and TRS (tip-ring-sleeve, for balanced signals) plugs, and XLR male and female plugs for microphone cables. Great plugs are made by Neutrik. In the end you'll save quite a bit of money if you make your own cables. And time. Imagine you need that special cable *right now*, and it's sunday night, 11 p.m.? Good thing to have a soldering iron now!

Now I've talked a lot about audio hardware, you should have a vague idea about what you need, and what you want to buy (or at least in what direction you want to gather more information about equipment). But to run the whole setup, you'll need a bit of software for your PC, too. So the next article will be about what software you need to get up and going.

The next part will be:

Back to Part IIb

Part III: Chosing Software

Back to the index page

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