I have spent more time scratching my head over equipment layout over the years
than any other problem in my home project studio. The trouble is that there seems
to be no ideal solution for one person studio operation. Bear in mind that the
engineer/musician is operating a mixing console, keyboard, synth modules, effects,
multitrack, stereo tape recorder, sequencer and probably a few other things at
the same time. 'At the same time’ is the key phrase, because apart from
the stereo recorder used for the final mix, all of the other equipment is in use
all the time. You end up bobbing about from one piece of equipment to another.
There’s no studio layout to suit all circumstances but let’s have
a look at the example of a keyboard playing recordist who wants to work quickly
and effectively from a fixed position.
The first problem our keyboard orientated recordist will have to face in laying
out the studio is whether to have the master keyboard or the mixing console
in front of the speakers. Of course, pro studios always have the console in
front of the speakers, because that is where the engineer sits. The keyboard
player can go somewhere else, probably to a less than optimum listening position.
When you are the engineer and the keyboard player you have a dilemma. Do you
want the best quality sound when you are track laying, or when you are mixing?
For many people, mixing will win out. But there are advantages the other way.
For one thing, it is much more inspirational to hear the best quality sound
from the optimum listening position while you are recording. Or why not have
two pairs of speakers and a conveniently placed switch so that you can have
the best of both worlds?
Let’s say you have opted to have the console in front of the speakers.
Now where do you put the keyboard? To the left of the console? To the right?
In parallel with it so you have to turn right round to play? I’ll go for
the left, at right angles to the console. I choose this option because it gives
me easy access to the input channels of the console, which are conventionally
situated on the left, and they will be in use together with the keyboard as
the recording progresses. The computer sequencer will go nicely behind and above
the keyboard. Next comes the sampler and synth module rack, assuming you have
these items. This has to be very close to the keyboard. If you need to edit
the sounds as the recording progresses, and let’s assume that you are
an adventurous swashbuckling recordist, you will need to be able to plonk the
keys with one hand while you tweak the expander with the other. There is no
substitute for having these two within an armspan! If this is so obvious, why
do some people have set-ups where it can’t be done?
The armspan factor dictates that the expander rack is facing the monitors.
The expander modules really ought to be at keyboard height plus, or if they
are lower than the keyboard then consider angling them upwards. It is no use
having to squat to get at awkward-to-adjust machinery. Place things like power
amps and other equipment that you can set and forget at the bottom of your racks.
The right hand side of the console is still vacant, so it looks like a good
place for the effects rack and patchbay. Once again, preferably this should
be positioned so you will not have to bend down. Apart from equipment that you
can more or less set-and-forget, the patchbay should be the lowest thing in
the rack. Why? Because the patchcords will droop all over the controls you need
to get at if it isn’t. Only put equipment below the patchbay that you
know you will use less often than the patchbay.
When you have decided on the layout and have a pretty good idea of how you
want things operationally, it’s a good idea to go back and consider the
set up acoustically. Remember that the hard flat surfaces of the equipment cause
the kind of reflections that we don’t want. Since we can’t make
the equipment itself absorbent (although we can do something for the sides of
the racks), the only option we have is to make sure that the reflections don’t
go anywhere harmful – i.e. into your ears. If you draw a precisely dimensioned
diagram, you can draw in the path followed by the direct sound coming from the
speakers. Remember that sound reflects at the same angle at which it strikes
a surface and you will be able to draw the pattern of reflections. Are any of
them hitting the engineer’s ears? Then angle the equipment so that the
reflections aim into a more remote part of the studio. This is not audio black
magic but a way of fine-tuning the sound of a room by very simple methods –
and you can’t say that it costs any money to consider how your equipment
is angled. By now, as long as your console isn’t too wide, you should
have a system which you can operate without leaving your comfortable seat. I
haven’t included the positioning of the multitrack, but it could be worked
into the set-up quite easily, or you could put your hand in your pocket and
buy a remote control (why don’t they come with infra red remotes like
TVs and videos?).
If the layout I have devised doesn’t suit your studio arrangements, then
I hope that the procedure I have followed, considering how the acoustics and
the different pieces of equipment interact, will help you work out your own
layout plans more easily. Every set up involves weighing up compromises between
acoustics, convenience and versatility. Make one factor better and it is likely
the other two will suffer. Think carefully about how you want to work in your
studio and you will get the compromise that suits you best.