A lot of Zambian youth out there are interested in music, and are running Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) off all manner of hardware and using stereo headphones or home theatre systems to mix or master their productions. I thought it would be nice to share a bit of my personal experience on the subject of how long it took me to setup my studio and what equipment I have for a strictly software-based production suite.
I first took an interest in Music in the early 2000s, and the first DAW used was a demo version of FL Studio 3.5.6. It never had great libraries and was positioned for the Electronic dance producers. Steinberg had just released version 1.0 of the SX and SL series of Cubase which was more appealing to Zambia producers, i.e. Roma Side. It wasn’t until late 2005 when I actually thought of delving into sound engineering and investigating what actually makes a great studio. The draw back in all this was: I simply couldn’t pick up a book on sound engineering and learn everything and why I need it. I found two invaluable online resources ZZSound and SoundOnSound, where they reviewed everything from Sound Cards, Sound isolation, Mics, Headphones, Studio monitors and acoustic treatment, etc, and also had audio clips you could listen to sample what they were talking about. Bear in mind, at that time YouTube wasn’t a thing in Zambia. The following is what I learnt:
- Soundproofing and Acoustic treatment are two separate concepts. Soundproofing involves stop the transmission of sound from one room to another. This can be helpful when recording live instruments with vocals, i.e. vocals with live guitars and drums. Acoustic treatment on the other end involves the prevention of sound reflection off walls, roofs and floors, or the build-up of bass in corners. I have a small room (2.4m x 1.8m) I record in, I have taken a third off to use as my vocal booth and the other section has my computer and other recording equipment. To prevent the leakage of fan noise from my computer, the partition between the two rooms is made of two walls I made from drywall boards, there is a 50mm air gap between the two walls and two separate doors. It’s not the most soundproof, but my mics are dead silent. In the vocal booth, I use Acoustic foam all around, and I am certain you can shape regular low density foam to do the same job. In the room I have my monitors in, I have similar acoustic treatment but with added bass traps in the corners to prevent bass build-up.
- Dynamic Microphones, i.e. the famed SM58 aren’t meant for studios. I get a tremendous amount of noise on recordings, and I often find myself using gates to silence lapses between words, furthermore, it’s hard to get the correct vocal range on a dynamic Microphone. This is mostly due to the fact that dynamic microphones aren’t very sensitive, therefore require a considerable amount of gain to achieve the same levels that condenser mic would achieve at a lower power. I have a Rode NT1-A Condenser mic and have an Audio Interface with 48V Phantom power to power it. It not only has tremendous clarity, it is also very sensitive at low gain, which is important when recording vocals.
- Your SoundBlaster soundcard is not meant for studios, nor is your 7.1 Audigy 2, while it may sound great to your ears, our of professional monitors your mix could either sound too bright, or too flat. Therefore, investing in a good Audio interface is a better place to start. Right now, most home recording studios either have the Focusrite Scarlet 2i2, the Presonus AudioBox 2×2 or anything around the same range. I have the Focusrite Scarlet 2i2, which I must say is an excellent little toy. It does not alter the sound in any way and delivers it in its truest form from microphone to monitors. Some people feel the need to have a physical mixer, but what are you mixing from the outside? At the same time, there are those that feel a control surface is a necessity in a studio, but I only see it as a luxury, as I am able to get by with my mouse and keyboard just fine.
- Get yourself a Midi controller for complex arrangements; or if you have a keyboard with USB functionality, you could make that work. Of course, you’ll get by with your mouse and keyboard, but a lot of times I find having a Midi controller has given me the confidence to take the monotony out of my mixes by making each pattern unique. I have an Akai MPK225, which is not exactly entry level, but that’s only because I waited for the American Black Friday and it was on sale for around the cost of the MPK Mini MK2. I can’t play Piano, but I over time I have memorized the keys and also learnt a few scales, so I can get by with a lot of errors.
- Your LG or Sony home theatre system cannot and should not be a substitute to studio monitors, Stereo sound is often exaggerated with deep basses, or very high highs and non-existent mids. I use the KRK Rokit 6 Gen 2 monitors, which have an excellent flat feel to them. I often find that I need to have more bass, however, I cannot afford a studio subwoofer yet, so I compensate with Closed back reference headphones. If you have the budget you could emulate Mag44 and go for the Rokit 8s which are well rounded monitors and with good bass along with the usual mids and highs.
- There’s a never ending debate around what Digital Audio Workstation to use, or what sounds professional and what not. I honestly don’t think that’s an objective argument as it is a matter of preference. For example, I found it very easy to learn and use FL Studio, then Adobe Audition, Reason and now my favourite Ableton Live. Whereas, other more seasoned professionals will tell you that Steinberg Cubase or ProTools is their thing. There are dozens of great DAWs out there, each with their own layout and style, and thanks to Steinberg, pretty much every virtual instrument will work in each DAW, from Nexus, to Sylenth, to Kontakt, you’re not as limited as you’d think. I often find that I can cook up a beat very quickly in FL, and can slice a vocal faster in Ableton Live. At the same time I find when I have to work with instrument effects (depth, reverb, or distortions, etc) Kontakt and Reason offer me richer sound options, and when I am doing a final mix, moving the entire project files to Ableton Live or Adobe Audition allows me to automate my project a lot better.
- Own a pair of closed back headphones for tracking. If you listen to acapella versions of even famous garage recordings, you’ll often hear a lot of sound leakage (i.e. Rihanna’s Rehab). However, closed back headphones are supposed to prevent that, you might hear very subtle leakage, but too much can be very distracting when two vocalists are recording simultaneously. I have the Audio Technica ATH-M20x and M50x which decent sound isolation. I am sure there are more expensive options out there, but when you’re on a budget, these cups do the job. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can use these headphones for mixing and mastering, they are not precise enough
- Mixing and mastering on a pair of headphones is a no no for me. The majority of your music is played on speakers and not headphones. Mixing on a pair of headphones takes away that depth that comes with monitors and some brands claim to be able to recreate that feeling, but I am yet to experience it. Focusrite does claim to have Virtual mixing gadget that you can use to simulate an actual studio when mixing and mastering, but I am yet to try it. If you do resort to mixing and mastering on headphones, get yourself a pair of the AKG K701 or K702, the Beyerdynamic DT770 or DT880s, or the Sennheiser HD650s, all of which will cost you over K1,000. I have sampled the Beyerdynamic DT770 and I noticed how flat they are, and how well they separate each instrument. That is important when mixing and mastering as it allows you get a precise idea of where your mix is going wrong, allowing you to clip off mids conflicting with bass-lines or highs that would distort vocal highs
- Get yourself a UPS, and if like me you cannot afford one, find a used one whose Inverter still works and hook it up to a car battery. Working in IT, I was able to find an old APC 750 which I use with 2 12V car batteries to keep my equipment on when ZESCO load sheds.
- Be patient and be prepared to spend a little cash on some of these things. Good music production is not cheap and if you want to go mainstream, don’t hold back. There’s some used stuff you can buy off EBay and other auctions. I have spent the last 10 years making all the above mistakes just because I couldn’t afford a lot of the equipment. But I learnt, after all manner of odd jobs, setting my goals on one thing and trying to save for it did help. It took me 6 months to finally afford to order my microphone, almost 2 years before I could afford my studio monitors. I was still short and was relieved when an Ebay seller was getting rid of his at a bargain because he didn’t find them to suite the genre of music he was into.
- In terms of where to buy all this equipment, I would regrettably say, I have been unable to source anything but the UPS in Zambia. I tried visiting the stores in the Town Centre Area in Lusaka, and was only able to find Chinese knock offs. However, with DotCom Zambia or Mercury Express you can source anything from Amazon or Ebay, you just need to find what you want. I often check the outright buy prices of new, refurbished or slightly used equipment and compare them with existing bids.