Patching, Levels, and Monitoring
There are a few other vital areas to talk about that don't really fit anywhere else here. These include essential gear like patch bays, important information about setting proper levels, and setting up your studio monitors and monitoring setup. Understanding these will really help complete your knowledge of home studios and what components go into them.
Patch Bays to the Rescue
If you have a lot of gear that gets plugged in and replugged often, you're going to love a patch bay. A patch bay (shown in FIGURE 8-2) doesn't look like much. But don't let looks fool you; this is one powerful piece of gear.
Audio patch bay
On the front panel are lots of input jacks; on the back panel are lots of matching jacks. Instead of crawling around the floor, repatching (reconnecting) all of your gear, you can leave it permanently plugged in to the back of the patch bay and use the front to make connections. Patch bays are also great for mixers that have rear connections because you're saved from the headache of crawling around or lifting up the mixer every time you need to patch something. If you have a small studio, you might never need one, but as you grow in size a patch bay is essential. You won't find a professional studio without several patch bays.
Understanding Input Levels
Setting a proper recording input level is essential. A full signal is best. You always want to record as loudly as possible without clipping (overloading the input, causing distortion) the input or preamp. Every recording device, even the cheap tape 4-tracks, has a meter that shows you the level of an incoming signal. FIGURE 8-3 shows what a typical meter looks like.
Usually the displays on a meter light up green at the bottom and red at the top. Just like a stop light, red on the meter means stop. Why? Because you're clipping, and you need to adjust the level. Your goal is to stay green most of the time and let your loudest parts stay away from the red, although it's okay to get close to it. By keeping the levels high when you record, you'll maximize the signal-to-noise ratio and drown out any noise you might have. If you record too softly, you'll have to boost the signal during mixing, and that boosts the noise along with it. No matter how loudly you record a signal, you can always turn it down later when you mix.
Setting Up Your Monitors
If you choose to monitor through headphones, setting up your monitors is as easy as plugging them in and placing them over your ears. If you're going to use monitor speakers, setting them up is almost as easy. First, place the monitors level with your ears; placing them on the floor just won't do. Face them slightly in toward each other so that both speakers focus their sound at the middle of your head. If you were to draw a line from your head to one speaker, to the other speaker, and back to your head, the line should form an equilateral triangle.
Monitor speaker triangle
Monitors are also referred to as “near field monitors” because you shouldn't be too far away from them. You should sit less than 5 feet away from your monitors (3 or 4 feet away is optimal), and set up the monitors that same distance from each other as well. Use balanced cables, not instrument cables, to hook up your mixer or recording machine to your speakers.