Topher home recording studio, Part 5: Nihon Nash Studios. Turning pro.

Acoustics, vibe and usability absolutely matter.

Old school (above, c. 1991) vs. newer school (below, c. 2007). Ah, the importance (so slowly learned!) of a tiny bit of attention to looks, acoustics and ergonomics…

Nihon Nash Studios
Spruce Grove, Alberta

My home studio journey started small — a little cassette four-track with used and borrowed keyboards grew into a modern (but limited) computer-based digital system with real synths, guitars, and vocals. But looking back on the string of studio setups I’ve had through to this point in my story, they’ve basically been functional, ugly and mobile (I moved a lot, from one rental situation to another) instead of inspirational, pretty and settled — ie, professional.

That changed in the early 2000s when I got married and we bought our first home, a small bungalow in the Edmonton metro area. That bungalow had a basement that was unfinished, except for one bedroom, which was the obvious choice for me as the spot for my studio: a dedicated room, in a basement where the concrete walls would help in controlling the sound leaking in and out.

So I set up my studio, just as I always had before: computer desk and stack of keyboards in the same manner as I’d done since high school. And my reaction (subconsciously) was, “Blah.”

It functioned, but I hated it. Why? I knew I was ecstatic to have a standalone room for my studio for the first time. I was very appreciative of that relatively luxurious space. But as I used it to make music, it soon became clear I would need to take the setup more seriously than in the past.

Turns out turning pro meant paying attention to the things that had nothing to do with computers and synths, and everything to do with being a human in a working space.

Here’s how I successfully built my own studio, complete with vibe, acoustic treatment, and thoughtful layout, including audio clips and practical how-to tips learned from my own experiences.

Creating Nihon Nash

This room was essentially a human-sized shoebox — a 12’ x 24’ drywalled bedroom with a flat ceiling and paper-thin carpet laid directly over the concrete floor, with no adhesive or underlay. The sound inside the room was echoey and tinny, the light was dim and grey, and I soon found myself hating being stuck in an ugly basement room, cut off from light and life.

It wasn’t a creative space at all. I knew it and felt it in my heart. And I knew I had to do something about it.

Now, when you know in your heart your studio isn’t great, and something just feels off, it’s tempting to leap to buying new mics or a new mixing desk or any other kind of drool-worthy toys. But in this case, the answer was in things I had never worried about before: acoustics and vibe.

It was time to make my first “permanent” studio, Nihon Nash, and paying attention to acoustics and vibe would make it become the best setup I had to that point, hands down.

Nihon Nash Studios

Setting Out on the Upgrade Path

Step 1: Books. 
I started reading up on building home studios. Today there’s a treasure of tutorials and videos online that walk you through everything you need to know (one of my favourites of late is the Recording Revolution). At that time, the most helpful things for me were books, and a couple of good ones were Home Recording Studio Basics and Home Recording Studio — Build it like the Pros, as well as a few back issues of EQ and Electronic Musician magazines on the topic. Very helpful.

Step 2: Arrange the space, according to the laws of physics. 
I measured the room and figured out where I should place my mixing desk. I learned how you place your monitors facing directly at you, making an equal triangle with the two speakers and your head being the corners of that triangle. The desk itself needed to be in the middle of the short wall, making the room symmetrical. Also, I bought new cables and power bars and arranged the keyboard gear where it could be used comfortably, instead of piled up beside the desk, limited by the length of the cables I had been using for a decade.

Step 3: Acoustic treatment. 
I couldn’t really afford to buy real acoustic treatment for the walls (the funny looking panels and foam you see on the walls of real recording studios). So I made my own by buying a stack of 2’x4’ fibreglass floating ceiling tiles, and making panels by glueing two of those tiles back-to-back inside a simple wood frame, which I then could hang on the walls like a picture. I made four of these (two on the side walls, halfway between the speakers and my chair, and two on the back wall behind me, at the point directly opposite the speaker), plus I used an old painting and stuffed it with a couple of ceiling tiles to make it a form of acoustic treatment as well, and placed that on the wall behind my desk, facing me. I also bought a couple of bales of fibreglass insulation, and used them as cheap-and-easy bass traps by placing them in the back corners (left in their bags, just as they’re bought from the store). It might not have been sexy, but it sure made a world of difference to the sound of the room.

Step 4. Environment. I’m no interior designer, but for better or for worse (in this case better) I rarely let something like that stop me from doing what I think needs to get done. I wanted the room to be as bright as possible (because I hated being down in the basement), and I liked the colour orange at the time because it was bold, and because I had read somewhere that it’s a colour known to stimulate creativity. So after repairing the cracks in the existing drywall, I bought bold orange and bright white paint and started rolling. I bought a matching orange-and-white throw carpet from Ikea for the floor to dress up the ugly carpet. I bought higher-wattage ceiling light bulbs and added some task lamps (and an orange lava lamp of course) to add more light and visual interest. I bought bamboo curtains and white Ikea corner tables, so I could tastefully hide the bags of insulation in the corners. I bought lots of plastic tubs and baskets to organize all of my various cables and accessories in the closet. I hung Japanese-flavoured decorations and paper lanterns. I even made my own semi-cool turntable table out of cinderblocks and leftover plywood.

Step 5. Create!

Add these steps together, and I had created a studio that for the first time I was happy to show to other people.

It was a creatively-inspired place, while also well organized and with acoustics that were the best I’ve ever been able to wring out of a home setup.

It was here that we recorded the follow-up Caffeine Sunday synthpop album I Wish I Could Film Tonight in Black and White as well as the Blue and Orange EPs.

I also did a number of small one-off projects and remixes in that studio. It went from a drab cave that I hated, to a a great creative space I loved to work in.

Caffeine Sunday Audio Examples!

Here are some examples of the music recorded at Nihon Nash:

Lessons Learned: Studio Setup Takeaway Tips

Looks matter. 
Superficial? Nope. Call it vibe, call it creative atmosphere, call it subliminally comfortable, but do not ignore the “coolness” factor when setting up a studio. It’s not a nice-to-have. It is practical and necessary. During this time, I discovered that you really need to pay close attention to the environment to which you are going to dedicate so many hours of your life. When I was done making over this room, I had a special place I wanted to be in, rather than a dead room I dreaded going to. Think maybe that makes a difference in what you create?

Science matters. 
Until this studio, I didn’t worry about acoustics. I just cared, “How do I set this up so I annoy the fewest amount of roommates/neighbours?” But as this example showed, even a modest amount of research, experimentation, and effort paid to arranging and acoustically treating your room makes a brilliant difference in your enjoyment of the music you create, and the quality of the mixes you do. Try to set up your room symmetrically. Put your listening position at exactly the right distance from your speakers (use a measuring tape and make sure you and your speakers are making an equilateral triangle). Buy or DIY some absorption and strategically place them on your walls and ceiling. Don’t go nuts with this — you can get sidetracked and go broke and never write anything. But it’s worth learning the basics. It just has to be good enough for you to enjoy. But it has to be good enough for you to enjoy it!

Organization matters.
It’s not obsessive compulsive, or nerdy, it’s a stress reliever and adds to the vibe of your studio to have your various kinds of junk organized in tubs, baskets, hooks and shelves. Buy a bunch of smallish Rubbermaid storage containers, and put all your XLR cables in one, your 1/4” cables in one, your RCA cables in one, and so on. Even take time to label them.

Bonus tip:
Once you set up the room in a way that works very well, and you’re happy, buy (or make, if you’re all DIY with your cables) all-new cables for your studio. 1/4” patch cables, power cords, USB and MIDI cables, even footswitches and power bars. If you’re like me, and you gig as well as record, it’s a huge time saver to be able to unplug all your instruments and carry them off WHILE LEAVING ALL THE CABLES BEHIND. I wish I had figured this out years ago. Makes adding the instruments back into your studio way faster, too, meaning when inspiration strikes you’re more likely to hit record, instead of thinking “man I gotta get around to re-hooking-up all my gear so I can start recording again some day.”