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.