2 Recording Experts on How to Get Pro Sounds in Amateur Studios

Making an album used to require signing a recording contract, securing a budget, hiring a producer, scheduling expensive studio time, and traveling to that location to record. Of course, things have changed, and thanks to technology, everyone can now record from home. But that doesn't mean everyone knows what they're doing (or how best to do it) when it comes to sound and design.

Reverb has written plenty before about setting up a home studio, from the most basic necessities to mic'ing techniques and more. Here, we're speaking with two unparalleled experts in studio design—John Cuniberti and Wes Lachot—to get their expert opinions on how to make your amateur studio sound as professional as it can be.

John Cuniberti began his career in the 1970s, playing drums in Eddie Money's band The Rockets. From there, he moved on to live sound engineering, and then studio work. He has produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered countless albums in every genre. Guitar aficionados know him for his work with Joe Satriani—and as the designer and manufacturer of the Reamp (with Radial Engineering buying his trademark and patented circuit in 2011). He built studios in the Bay Area, opened a mastering suite at Plant Recording Studios in 2000, and 11 years ago began working from home.

"The room I'm in is about 23-by-15, something like that, with a 10-foot ceiling," he says. "I can produce better mixes here than any studio I've ever worked in, and I've worked in a lot of them, big ones, on API, SSL, Neve. Because I have total recall, I can spend the time, and if I get tired or burned out, I can leave without the clock ticking. I'm under no pressure. I think most of the engineers who mix in the box will tell you the same thing. There's no going back," he says.

"When I worked at The Plant in Sausalito, it took me an hour to get there in the morning and two to three hours to get home. That was five hours out of my day spent in my car. Now, with no commute, I get as good or better results here, so my clients are happy. Do they miss going to the studio for the big hang? They don't get any of that anymore, and there's no more prestige involved, but they end up getting records that they're thrilled with, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters."

To learn more about John Cuniberti, you can check out his website here.

Wes Lachot studied theory, composition, and jazz piano at Berklee College of Music, and remains active as a producer and session musician. Based in North Carolina, he designed his first studio in the mid-1980s, while pursuing a career as an engineer and producer. The eclectic music scene was, and still is, thriving, and at the time, Lachot had the good fortune of being mentored by originators like Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. Today, as president of Wes Lachot Design Group, in Chapel Hill, he is recognized as a foremost authority in acoustics and design principles. His knowledge and hands-on approach are called upon by audio facilities of all sizes and recording levels across the US.

Coming from a self-taught design background, with years of study, he remarks, "I didn't realize it would take the rest of my life to solve the problems I was encountering. I thought maybe I could read a book, and the next thing you know, you turn around and it's been 10 or 20 years. I do appreciate the DIY attitude. People taking the reins and deciding they're going to do something, rather than waiting around for someone else to do it, is a healthy thing—that's for sure. But sometimes you do need to call the pros."

To learn more about Wes Lachot, you can check out his website here.

So, taking all the lessons they've learned from building studios and making records across the changing tech and tides of the industry, what's their advice for home recordists making music now? Or those looking to level-up to a full project studio?

Focus on Your Room's Acoustics

Cuniberti: [A] mistake people make when building a studio, whether it's in their bedroom or commercial space, is they don't spend enough time, energy, and money on the acoustics, and they spend too much money on the bright, shiny things. The industry that sells gear is very, very good at getting you excited about owning recording equipment. It's sexy, and bass traps are not. You see these pieces of equipment being used in videos, and you think, I need that to get "that sound." They'll spend $2,000 on a microphone, but only $500 on acoustic treatment. They will soon learn that a microphone isn't going to fix the most significant problem they have, which is an environment that isn't suitable for recording music, mainly acoustic music. It's just not going to sound good.

"The sound that you hear coming out your monitors is 50 percent the control room's acoustics. It's not just the microphone and monitors."

In the beginning, people don't spend enough time researching what the room needs to produce a high-quality recording. The sound that you hear coming out your monitors is 50 percent the control room's acoustics. It's not just the microphone and monitors. So in budgeting a startup type of recording studio, I would put a lot of money, maybe half of it, toward acoustics, because the rest of the cool gear I can buy later.

One of the problems is once you start building a studio, it's tough to undo it, and you are usually stuck with the results. I would suggest going slow. Hang some acoustic panels in the obvious places and then do some recording and mixing. Then add more if necessary, or try diffusion panels instead of absorption. The room will speak to you and tell you what it needs.

Acoustic Treatment on Reverb

For the person recording at home, you can do something relatively simple. There's a company called GIK Acoustics; you can go online, and they have excellent information on design acoustics for your room that is quite affordable. They sell kits for, say, a bedroom studio, or something slightly larger, for $1,000 that will make your place doable.

I go into these guys' home studios, and they have a rack of 500 modules that's probably close to $10,000 worth of gear, and then they'll have purple foam rubber stuck on the walls. To me, that makes no sense at all. There's no way they're going to get an adequate mix in that room without proper acoustic treatment. There are a few companies that sell well-designed acoustic treatments that have information on how to measure your room. A lot of them offer computerized programs that you can input the shape and size of your room, and it will calculate exactly what it is you need to control it better. I wouldn't even think of building any recording space without that initial investment. That would be the first thing I would spend money on.

Lachot: The way I got into the studio design business—I was a recording engineer for 20 years, and I started from the grassroots, very low-end equipment. And found that by improving the acoustics, I could make better recordings cheaper than by buying... I didn't have money, but I proved with recordings that you could make more improvements per dollar by making the acoustics better than you could by going out and buying fancy consoles that I couldn't afford, and fancy 2-inch tape machines, and things like that that my competitors had. I had to do it with "This room sounds better."

But people don't want to hear that they can use a cheap mic and a good room. They'd rather buy the mic because it's sexy, and there are glamorous pictures in the magazines, and it's tangible. Acoustics are a little intangible. You have to close your eyes and imagine them, and that's difficult sometimes. But I think more and more people are becoming familiar with acoustics. Now that everybody has recording capability, even on their cellphones, the acoustics are even more important for people who want to differentiate; people who want to be in the business and making better recordings.

So how do you do that in the home? One word of advice I have for people is to determine how much sound isolation they need, and not overdo the sound isolation. A lot of do-it-yourselfers will spend too much money adding extra layers of drywall and so on to their home studios, and they're actually causing more problems than they're solving. Now, some people need to do that. Not everybody needs the same amount of isolation. If you've got a neighbor whose window is eight feet from your window, I understand, and a lot of people do these days. Houses are very close to each other, and in that case you might be better off in a basement.

But often, people will read online that you should use two or three layers of drywall and glue, and they'll make rooms that are so isolated that they have worse standing waves problems, because the more separate you make a room, the more the standing waves are an issue and the worse the room sounds. It's ironic, but sound isolation and sound quality are inversely proportional. As one goes up, the other goes down, like a seesaw. So you don't want to waste money, certainly, making your sound quality problems worse. When I read online stories of people building their own studios, that's one of the biggest problems I see.

Beware of These Common Mistakes

Cuniberti: I can't emphasize this enough: spending too much money on the wrong stuff. So how do you get people to get the right stuff? This is very hard, because if you have a limited budget, which most people do, you have to get specific about what is it that these people do, and what is the absolute minimum signal path or equipment or acoustic treatment that is needed to achieve their goal.

A great example—and there's been hundreds of these examples—but if you talk about the Billie Eilish record [When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?], which is probably the biggest record in the world right now, that was recorded in a bedroom with an iMac and a UA Apollo, and I think maybe a Neumann TLM 103. We're talking about less than $10,000 worth of gear, and nobody is complaining about the sound of that record. They didn't need a parking lot, three bathrooms, a maintenance staff, and a large Neve console. Because music has been reduced into genres at this point, I don't think there's much demand for the multi-room studios that try and service all types of music with a staff of 30 people.

Billie Eilish - "Bad Guy"

Lachot: If you're not going to build a studio, and you're in your home and doing the best you can, I do recommend getting professional speakers. Not home audio speakers, but professional monitors. I mean near-fields, for home, on stands. The quality of the monitors really does matter.

What they've probably heard a million times is not to over-deaden the room, because if you just put foam everywhere, you're going to lose so much high-frequency information and you're not going to be able to mix properly. The old adage is, "You treat the room from the bass up," just like you mix from the bass up. You deal with the bass frequencies first in treating the room. If you deal with the high frequencies first, you're going to lose too much high frequency. You simply can't put carpets and things like that down until you've dealt with the bass. Then you see if there's any more need for high-frequency or midrange absorption. But bass trapping and bass absorption is really where it's at.

Next Generation Acoustics' Corner Bass Traps

I don't recommend that people do soffit monitors [mounting them to the wall], the way we do at professional studios, at home, unless they spend several years researching how to do that correctly. The nice thing about speakers on stands is that you can move them around and work on your listening position. Speakers on stands generally aren't trying for super-low-frequency bass response, which is a good thing, because you're really not going to get the bass right until you build a professional recording studio, so why have a speaker that's flat all the way to 20 Hz when that's not really going to be possible anyway in a bedroom or living room. Better to have speakers that are moderate and roll off at 38 or 40 Hz, like some of the better brands of near-fields.

Cuniberti: They have a lot of choices in monitors at pretty much any price range that you can imagine. Again, the kind of music you're working on would influence your decision of monitors. Given the size of the room and the control room, and the acoustic treatment you have in that room, that will dictate your choice of monitor speakers, or at least it should. You don't want them too big or too small. But the size of the room should influence your size of monitors, no question about it. You need to be able to hear what's going on in the low-end. You can't have something that is bass-light. There is software available, Sonarworks, that you can employ that will help equalize your monitors in your room. I would recommend that, provided you understand how to do it properly with their calibrated mic. It can go a long way to creating a better monitoring environment. But again, the acoustics of the room are going to dictate how much work the Sonarworks software needs to do, and it's just not going to solve all the issues.

Buying Guide: Studio Monitors
Learn More

What They Wish They Had Known

Cuniberti: Probably the most talked-about common mistake, certainly one I made, was spending too much time on the wrong stuff. When you're trying to learn how to do something, you want to spend a lot of time experimenting, and when you're given an opportunity to, let's say, record a band, for instance, you might spend an hour trying to get the kick drum sound. You quickly learn that nobody cares about that. You learn that you've just eaten up two valuable hours that could have been used to get a better vocal performance. I think new engineers spend too much time on the wrong stuff in an effort to learn how to do it well, and that's understandable, but [it's] not great for the client if you run out of time.

"What inspires us to be recording engineers is typically we've heard records by people that inspire us."

What inspires us to be recording engineers is typically we've heard records by people that inspire us. We say, "Oh god, it sounds so great! I want to be able to do that." When you finally find yourself in the studio, and you've got a band in there, you're trying to make that record that's in your head. You're trying to achieve that sound. But that band isn't there for that. That band is there to record their songs. Whether it's a demo, the beginning of a recording project, or whatever it is, their goal is to get their performances recorded, and that clashes with an engineer's desire to get themselves educated in how to get a great drum sound.

So the biggest mistake people make when they're first starting out is they focus on the wrong stuff, and they don't look at the big picture. They don't realize that this is a service business. You're there to serve the artist and not the other way around.

Lachot: The very first studio that I built for myself, quite a long time ago, like many people, was in a house—in a living room and dining room that I combined to make one into a tracking room and one into a control room.

What I learned the hard way was that no matter how nice a set of home audio speakers you think you have, they're usually not appropriate for mixing, especially in an untreated room. That's the lesson everybody learns when they first take their mixes to the car: They don't translate, and the bass is totally wrong. This was probably back in 1981, sitting in my Plymouth Duster and wondering, Why isn't this bass right? A friend of mine said to me, "Maybe what you're finding out is that you simply can't make a professional-quality recording in a living room. You have to build an actual recording studio." And I thought to myself, He's right. That began the quest of reading books and learning how to do that. But you can't get the bass right—you just can't—without doing things that are fairly expensive.

Record For Quality, Not Listening Devices

Cuniberti: As a recording artist or an engineer/producer who is dedicated to producing the finest art you can, you do the very best work, and you don't worry about the current delivery method. What got me into music was hearing music come out of my parents' mono car speaker in the '60s. I heard things that inspired me to get into the music business. Those same records also sounded great on hi-fi stereo systems, and many still do.

"You can't hit the moving target of hundreds of playback devices available today or predict what people are going to do to your mixes with EQ."

Yes, care needs to be taken to get a proper balance, and you do need to take into consideration who the customer is. You also need to playback reference recordings in your control room to have some idea of what your room and gear are doing. However, you can't hit the moving target of hundreds of playback devices available today or predict what people are going to do to your mixes with EQ.

Now, if you want to check your mixes with earbuds, that's perfectly acceptable, but I wouldn't tweak the hell out of it and make it so it doesn't sound good on speakers, because how many styles and types of earbuds are available now? And I'm sure they all sound completely different, so there would be no end to it. Ultimately, people are going to adjust their playback systems so they can hear the music they love the way they want to listen to it. You almost have to trust the consumer in that sense.

If they want big, throbbing, booming bass, they're going to go to their equalizer in their car or playback system and crank the low-end up in order to hear the music the way they want to listen to it, and there's nothing you can do about it, and [you] can't predict that in advance.

Lachot: Literally, it happens to me—people say, "Check out this tune," and they turn on their phone. But you know what it reminds me of? When I first started listening heavily to the radio, and The Beatles were still putting out hit songs every few months, I listened to a little transistor radio at boarding school, after lights-out, on an earbud. It was tinny and it sounded a lot like an iPhone sounds, and you know what? I was loving it! It was what I lived for. I wasn't thinking that it was too tinny. I was intrigued. And kids today don't care that it's a cellphone. They're thinking about the music, the culture, the information, and the ideas.

I'm glad that the producers of those records I was hearing coming through the little, tinny earbuds had made those records good, so that later, when I grew up and got a real system, I could really hear The Beatles, and that the bass was great on Abbey Road, and so on. George Martin made beautiful, pristine recordings. He and the other producers didn't decide back then to dumb it down because everyone was listening on crummy little 45s, and we shouldn't either.

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