I love spending time in the studio with other artists and sharing knowledge. I've therefore decide to put together this page of 'ambient resources' to help others find the tools to express themselves. This guide is largely aimed at new artists who have read a little about music production and are thinking about putting together their first home music studio to produce sonic art or experimental music. When starting out it's sensible to minimise your spend on software and focus your outlay of capital on hardware items that will age favourably such as high quality headphones, monitor speakers, dependable microphones and a solid workhorse soundcard.
If you come across a term in this guide that you have not encountered before, this is a handy glossary of audio recording terms.
If you are starting from scratch, I highly recommend choosing a desktop PC over a Mac. PC's are more configurable, have greater backwards compatibility and are easier to repair and find parts for in the future. On the PC platform you are far less likely to have to upgrade your operating system, this passes on significant savings on both software and hardware (such as sound card obsolescence).
If you do side with a PC, purchase the computer from an audio computer specialist rather than trying to self build or find a bargain (both are sure fire ways of making a costly mistake!). In the UK Scan and Carillon can both be trusted to build good machines. I currently use a Carillon audio computer with a Intel i5 750 @ 2.67GHz processor and 8GB RAM. I run Windows 7 64 bit as my OS. The computer was purchased in 2009 and is still going strong. I anticipate running the same machine for another three or four years.
If you prefer to use a Mac computer, an iMac with Logic software is a good choice (feel free to skip on my recommendation of using Reaper as your DAW). If you intend to purchase additional audio plugins from third party vendors for the Mac platform, have a careful to look at the creators upgrade policy for OS updates; company policies do vary.
If you prefer to work on a laptop rather than a desktop go for a MacBook rather than a PC laptop.
SOUND CARD & MIDI KEYBOARD
If you're on a tight budget Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6, Steinberg UR22 or one of the smaller Focusrite Scarlett cards are all surprisingly good for their price. If you have a little more money RME and MOTU both make excellent products. The RME HDSP9632 is a good affordable choice for a desktop PC.
Pretty much any MIDI keyboard that feels robust and has a few faders and rotary pots will do. Little can go wrong with MIDI keyboards, so they are best purchased second hand.
CREATIVE SOUND PROCESSING / COMPOSITIONAL PLATFORMS
There's a lot of affordable professional quality music production software out there. The big software choice is your digital analogue work station. I use and recommend Reaper, which at the time of writing costs 60USD (about 40 GBP). It is very stable, fast and configurable.
wise to stick to a few carefully selected plugin effects and
instruments. Having a selection of a few simple tools will encourage you
to learn them fully, experiment and develop your personal sound. It is
very easy to lose your way once you start collecting and using powerful
I have a very small selection of software for an artist that has working with computers technology for over 15 years. I try to think of a software acquisition in the same manner as I would a hardware one; each plugin takes time to learn and appreciate. My personal gear list can be viewed here. I strongly advocate using just the minimum list of digital kit below for your first years of artistic activity.
Reaper comes with a great selection of plugins. You can supplement them with additional effects. The following affordable and free plugins come highly recommended:
Instruments are a much more personal choice than effects, so I'll just point you towards a few good ones to get you started:
STUDIO MONITORS, HEADPHONES & THIRD REFERENCE SPEAKER
Unfortunately it's impossible to buy useful monitors for under £800, therefore it is best to work on headphones until you can afford to buy a useful set of speakers. Working on good headphones means that the acoustics in your room will not adversely influence your mix. Perfectly acceptable mixes can be crafted by working on headphones alone. A useful guide to mixing on headphones can be found here. I recommend open backed Sennheiser HD650 headphones for mixing and the closed back Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro headphones for recording instruments. If you can't afford monitor speakers, it's best to make your music on a combination of headphones and hi-fi speakers and then mix on Sennheiser HD650 headphones.
Studio monitors and headphones are not a rapidly developing technology. Therefore you can spend a little more money in this section of you studio, safe in the knowledge that they will not become outdated or obsolete due to a technical innovation. The following monitors are recommended and can be purchased for under £1000 - APS Coax, Unity Audio The Pebble (there is no need for Bam Bam in a small studio) and Quested S6R MKiii all of these speakers are sealed box designs, with very fast transient response and good mid range detailing (check out Mike Senior's Mix Secrets For The Small Studio and read this excellent paper by designer Phil Ward to learn more about the benefits of sealed box monitor designs).
Monitor stands will significantly improve the performance of your speakers. The brand Ultimate Support built good stands at a fair price. Choose a product that is solid (not height adjustable) and can be sand filled (use children's kiln dried play sand). The MS-36B2 Studio Monitor Stand can often be picked up cheaply second hand. The MS90/45R is the newer version of this product.
It's also handy to have a smaller reference speaker. This should be a small, sealed box, single driver speaker. Sensible choices include the Avanatone Mixcube (active or passive) and Triple P Designs Pyramid (passive). Alternatively you can build you own Thomas Barefoot designed Killatone (passive). Only buy or build one speaker and listen in mono. I find a single Avantone Mixcube to be invaluable for helping to balance the midrange of my music.
An SM Pro M Patch V2 is a useful, affordable device to switch between your speaker sets, stereo/mono and controlling your listening volume. If you are looking for something more durable with a better feature set the Drawmer MC2.1 is an excellent choice.
You will need to buy a microphone or two. I use two CAD M179 microphones for recording instruments such as piano and one for recording vocals. Recording real sound sources is essential for the soul of your music!
During the creation of Echoes From One To Another, the hardware side of my studio consisted of a Yamaha QY700, Roland HS-60, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Yamaha TX802, Roland JV-1080, and an Emu e6400 Ultra sampler. Equipment that was deeply unfashionable at the time and therefore extremely affordable on the second hand market (the synthesizers were picked up for between 80 GBP and 120 GBP each). Nobody in 2006 wanted hardware sequencers or rack mounted synthesizers that required button pushing programming. Equally the HS-60 was seen as ugly and undesirable next to the almost identical Roland Juno 106. There are far more sophisticated, affordable software and hardware options in in 2017 that can be purchased new and second hand; however spend some time playing with the free VST instruments above before thinking about making an expensive purchase.
My daily composition routine (for personal work) is to compose for two hours every morning using Freedom as my count down timer. I start at 7am and finish at 9am. Doing so, I find that I can comfortably create seven to ten minutes of release quality music a week. The rest of my day is spent on commissions, sound design and other business interests.
Mason Currey's book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work may give you ideas for how to structure your creative time.
READING - If you are short on time, read in the listed order:
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
A Young Person’s Guide To Hustling In Music and The Arts (Lawrence English) - check out the amazing ROOM40 and learn more about Lawrence English - he knows how to hang tough!
FIELD RECORDING by Aino Tytti
am not heavily into field recording, therefore I have asked my more
knowledgeable friend, the sound artist Aino Tytti to pen this section.
In 2013 Tytti made a study of the Hellissandur Mast in Iceland for the UK label Touch. His sparse and inspiring twitter feed can be followed here. His live set from William Basinski's UK Arcadia residency can be found on Soundcloud.
internal mics on hand held recorders should be avoided. There is a huge
difference not only in sound capture quality from using external mics
but in the flexibility and creative work flow that operating this way
affords. However, if they must be relied upon, the internal mics on
models by Olympus and Sony usually come out on top in terms of
transparency of sound.
Most location sound recordists for film, TV and radio will say that you need a shotgun mic for directional detail and the classic mic for this type of work is the Sennheiser MKH 416. Like many in the 'non-broadcast' field recording community, I have moved away from using shotgun mics in recent years though and sold my MKH 416 some time ago. If more detail is needed, you can often get very good results just by moving the omni mics closer to the source and/or being creative with mic positioning. I find this gives a much more open, natural and ‘realistic’ sound than a shotgun.
If directional recording is important to you, for isolating a sound subject in a noisy environment or recording things at an inaccessible distance, a parabolic reflector is what you need. Parabolic reflectors work well with omni directional mics, so investing here kills too birds with one stone.
30% of what I record is through contact mics and hydrophones, which offer some fantastic opportunities for capturing textures, patterns and harmonics which are inaudible to the human ear. For both of these, I highly recommend the JRF series mics both in terms of sound and build quality and again will work well with the recorders noted above.
For your omni directional mics, you will need to put them in something to protect them from wind and handling noise. The Rode Blimp is excellent and offers the best value for money, allowing you to easily attach the mics to the internal structure. If you have plenty of money to spend, a Rycote enclosure will certainly offer better quality, albeit for a disproportionately large amount more money.
If you’re on a very tight budget you can make one yourself reasonably easily and quite a lot of field recordists start out with a homemade rig, which comprises of attaching the two mics to an upside down wire coat-hanger and putting small fluffy windjammers onto each mic.
Thank you Aino Tytti!