Getting Started

Today we purchased a home in New Hampshire. We moved here from California to participate in the Free State Project, and it’s always been a dream of mine to build a proper music studio. Previously, back in California, I had filled a bedroom to the brim with recording gear. But as my son got older, the day I would have to yield the bedroom to him was fast approaching. Additionally, my wife has long had ambitions to raise some sheep. We had some chickens back in California, but we could never afford enough land for larger livestock while living in the San Francisco Bay Area. So when we moved back east, we purchased a home with some extra land and set aside some money for us to achieve these ambitious goals.

our-new-home

The site for the studio, and also eventually a workshop, will be perpendicular to the house. The structure of these buildings will be very similar in dimensions to the house and its garage. I like the symmetry of this layout, but it also makes good sense with the existing driveway and property lines.

plot

The studio will be constructed inside a prefabricated steel building. The dimensions will be 30ft wide, 40ft deep and 14ft tall at the eaves with a 6:12 roof pitch to match the house (4:12 is pictured below).

studio-exterior-concept-render

The steel structure will leave a clear area inside with vaulted ceilings, which suits my needs at a relatively low cost. R19 insulation in the walls and roof will provide the first defense against outside temperatures and sound. Inside, three stand-alone rooms will be erected, each isolated from one another and the building except through the slab.

Once the slab is in place, I intend to do the majority of the work erecting the building and constructing the interior myself. I expect the project to take about a year, and that it will be more complicated than originally anticipated at every turn. In preparation for this project, I’ve now read Home Recording StudioThe Studio Builder’s HandbookGraphic Guide to Frame Construction and The Visual Handbook of Building and Remodeling. I will no doubt need to read additional books before the project is over.

Budgeting has been a difficult task. Not only do prices vary greatly because they depend on many factors, but vendors tend to be quite hesitant to discuss pricing up front. My usual approach is to simply not do business with people who don’t offer up-front pricing, or at least an explanation of how they come up with a price. This project has pushed me outside my comfort zone in that regard, but in the end I found vendors who would provide transparent pricing information. I found also that these vendors tended to be the most affordable, which actually reinforced my policy about transparent pricing. After a great deal of investigation, including hours on the phone and a whole lot of spreadsheeting, I was finally able to set a scale and timeline for the project that would fit my budget.

Now to go get a permit.

Design

It’s been a couple of months now and we are about to start construction. Lining everything up has been a bit of a waiting game, so in the meantime I’ve been working on the design of the interior.

After many revisions, I’ve come to what I believe is a design that balances form, function and cost. Optimal room ratios will help the rooms sound good, sight-lines between rooms will make it easy to communicate and double wall construction will improve isolation.

studio-v2

I expect to make more revisions before beginning construction on the interior of the building, but the design likely won’t change dramatically between now and then. I have optimized the design for four considerations: isolation, sound, cost and simplicity.

Isolation is critical to a studio. With the exterior, keeping sound from getting into the building as the wind rips through the trees making an ambient roar is just as important as keeping the pounding of a drum set from disturbing my neighbors as they sleep. Also, isolation between rooms makes it possible to record multiple musicians simultaneously without unwanted sound bleeding in through microphones.

Sound quality is especially important, both to ensure accurate monitoring and recording. A great sounding room will make working in a space inspiring and fun. There are basic steps I’m taking now to ensure I’m off to a good start, but a lot of work will have to be done later on to manage low frequencies, control reverb times and diffuse sounds across the spectrum.

Cost is also a major factor, as this is not a commercial studio, and will thus never pay for itself. The construction techniques I’m choosing are a balance between performance and cost. From what I’ve learned so far by reading up on the subject, there’s power-law at play here. If you know what you are doing, 80% of performance can be gained with 20% of investment. The final 20% of performance requires the other 80% of investment. The trick, of course, is knowing which things to invest in to achieve that.

Finally, simplicity is important because I’ve never built something like this before. The simpler I can design it, the more likely I will succeed. I’ve skipped splaying walls in the control room, because the chance of that technique improving the sound is likely lower than the chance of me doing it wrong and making the sound worse. By reducing the number of risks, I’m able to increase the chance of success.

studio-v2-walls-render

As with any functional design, there are some compromises that must be made.

Some benefits:

  • HVAC equipment and ducting can go above the small rooms.
  • Double airlock entry helps reduce heat loss when coming and going.
  • Electrical closet doesn’t compromise isolation from the exterior.
  • Airlocks increase isolation between rooms.

Some drawbacks:

  • You must look behind you to see the tracking room from the mixing desk.
  • No sight-lines from the control room to the broadcast room.
  • Airlocks cut into floor space in the tracking room.

Clearing Trees

Today the site work company began clearing a 60ft x 100ft area for the studio. The crew of three turned 0.13 acres of dense woods into a pile of chips in just a few hours. My son wanted to watch, but it was so incredibly loud that we had to sit in the car together and watch out the window.

clearing-trees

Breaking Ground

This week they’ve made enough progress that we can pour the slab next week. Because the forrest floor had a foot or two of loamy soil, they first had to dig down to firm soil.

breaking-ground

Next, they began bringing in fill. They compacted the soil in layers with a giant rolling machine that gave us all flashbacks of living California as it shook the entire house from over 50ft away, simulating a series of earthquakes.

filling-to-grade

The footing was then excavated away from the newly compacted soil. Dirt was set piled up around the perimeter to use as backfill once the slab is complete.

cutting-footing

My son wants to spend every waking moment at the site. A friend got him a digger for his birthday, which works especially well in the loose piles of soil around the footing, and he loves to play with his toy construction vehicles at a real construction site.

laying-out-forms

Pouring Concrete

This week the slab was poured and finished. The crew setup the forms and poured in a single day. They ended up needing 16 cubic yards of concrete to fill the large footings and maintain at least 4in of thickness in the center.

pouring-concrete

They used a machine to level and smooth the concrete, but because it was a relatively cold day, the concrete took longer to cure than they had expected. They had even added calcium to the mixture to accelerate curing, but fall is here and, as they say, winter is coming.

finishing-concrete

The final finish had to be done by hand, after sundown, by the headlights of their work trucks and a small LED work-light I rigged up on a ladder.

finishing-slab-at-night

The next day insulation was added to the perimeter of the slab. Frost goes down about 4ft in the dead of winter around here, so every little bit helps.

insulating-permiter

Finally, a coat of water-based sealant was applied. Since the slab will sit out all winter before it’s covered by a building, this is a very important protection against freeze damage.

sealing-concrete

First Snow

This week the slab was backfilled, completing the first state of the project. It will sit until Spring, when the building will be delivered and stage-two will begin.

completed-slab

Confirming my estimations that our window was closing, this morning we got our first dusting of snow. There wasn’t much on the ground, but pouring concrete in such conditions is much more difficult, so it was nice to have completed the slab by now.

first-snow

Now I have all winter to work out the finer points of my plan for what to do next.