3 Studios, 3 Budgets

Nov 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Robert Hanson, Kevin Becka and George Petersen



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We asked three gearheads to select the equipment for a recording room. Each was given a different virtual budget — $20,000, $60,000 or $175,000 — for his favorite goodies. Despite spending imaginary cash, a lot of thought and creative wrangling went into the process, and with appropriate substitutions, additions and/or deletions, the studios presented here should provide useful insights into equipping your facility, whatever the budget. It should be noted that the emphasis here is strictly on gear rather than acoustic treatments, room construction, etc. As in all endeavors, your mileage may vary. Happy shopping!


$25k Music Studio

Dream Studios

Project Studio


The $20k Project Studio

By Robert Hanson

My imaginary setup is an “entry-level” $20k project studio that can handle composing, sound design, voice-over and mixing in stereo. The system leans heavily on software instruments and processing, while incorporating several different DAWs for working across multiple formats. (All prices will be the actual retail or approximations thereof unless noted.)

I'll start at the Apple store. The main computer is a dual 3GHz quad-core Mac Pro for $3,599 and a refurbished 23-inch Apple Cinema HD display for $749. To save a few bucks, I'll skip any extra factory RAM, hard drives or extras, mousing over to www.otherworldcomputing.com to score 16 GB of RAM (using 4GB modules) for $919 and two 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 SATA II hard drives at $151 each, which augment the Mac Pro's standard 320GB drive. With this configuration, four open RAM slots and one open hard drive bay remain, should you need to upgrade down the road.

The goal of this studio is to be able to work across several different DAWs based on project/client needs. Converters have a profound effect on the quality of your creations, so this is no place to skimp. My main audio interface is an Apogee Ensemble ($1,949), supplemented by a $1,200 Digidesign Digi 003 Rack. In terms of DAWs, the Apogee is tailor-made to work with Logic Studio ($499) — an obvious choice for composing. For working with loops, alternate arrangements and sound design, Ableton Live 7 ($499) is another go-to product. On the Pro Tools front, the 003 includes the latest version of Pro Tools LE, but to up the track count to 48 and get some of the pro features (Multi-Track Beat Detective, SoundReplacer, etc.), I added the $495 Music Production Toolkit option.

Now there's approximately $10k left for monitors, outboard, mics, controllers and additional software. For monitoring, a cost-effective option that delivers professional accuracy is Blue Sky's ProDesk 2.1 for $1,258. This system uses two audio interfaces, and switching cables behind a desk is a nightmare, so Mackie's $299 Big Knob lets me switch between audio interfaces while providing talkback capabilities and allowing for another set of monitors in the future. Outboard needs here are fairly minimal. Both audio interfaces have decent onboard preamps, but for critical recording, a dedicated, boutique-quality channel strip is a must. My pick for this application is Universal Audio's LA610 Mk II ($1,599), offering a preamp, EQ and optical compressor in a 2U chassis. For miking vocals, single acoustic instruments (guitar, winds, etc.) and possibly the occasional guitar cab, these three microphones should cover things nicely: BLUE Blueberry ($999), RØDE NT4 stereo condenser ($529) and a pair of Shure SM58s ($160 each).

Composing and sound design are at the forefront of this setup, and M-Audio's Keystation Pro ($499) master MIDI keyboard features a hammer-action keyboard, 59 assignable controls (faders, knobs, etc.) and 10 rewritable presets. Now some cool software instruments and effects will take this system over the top. For instruments, samplers and guitar amp emulation, the Native Instruments Komplete 5 bundle for $1,149 includes all 11 major NI products including Reaktor 5, Guitar Rig 3, Kontakt 3, Akoustic Piano and the like. Most composers would be hard-pressed to run out of fodder with this package. For mixing chores and to access some classic hardware emulations, Universal Audio's $699 UAD-2 Nevana 32 package offers more than twice the DSP power of the older UAD, and it includes 32 channels of Neve 88RS and a host of other UA plug-ins. And finally for restoration chores, I'll spend a little extra on the Waves Restoration Bundle ($1,800) — as any user will attest, this bundle includes some of the finest noise, hiss and pop-removal tools available.

The total comes in just under the $20k mark, so with tax, cables and other unmentionables I'm slightly over budget. However, I've included a few luxury items — especially on the software front — that could be omitted without seriously affecting the functionality of this imaginary project studio.


The $60k Package

By George Petersen

As my cohorts spec'd Mac systems, I'm going for the pure power and speed of a PC. The emphasis is a hybrid of traditional and virtual production, while keeping my eyes — and ears — on performance and serious fidelity. And with $60k in (virtual) cash to spend, I'm going first class.

At the heart of the studio is a PCAudioLabs Standard Black (no frills) enclosure. Don't let its drab exterior fool you. Under the hood of this $2,585 beast is an Intel Core2 quad 3GHz Q9650 CPU, with 4GB RAM, 320GB system drive, two 1TB data drives, dual DVI ATI Radeon HD3470 graphics, Pioneer 20x DVD burner, Silent Treatment sound deadening, FireWire 800 card and the ever-stable, dependable Win XP Pro. Options include Vista, AMS chipsets, rackmount case and many more. Display-wise, I have two 22-inch Viewsonic VX2240W LCDs with DVI interfacing — each at $409 list.

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