Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and The Foo Fighters have something in common with Brooklyn-based musician Neil Shah — they all made great music in a basic home studio. McCartney and Springsteen had a four-track cassette deck, and Dave Grohl used a garage. But Shah's setup is even more limited — his whole studio measures all of 66 square feet. Here's how he made it work.
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"When I told my landlord I had a piano, the first reaction was: ‘Well, we can't have you move in,'" said Shah, a piano player since age three. Amazingly, the homeowner relented, under the condition that Shah soundproof what is now known as The Shed, a symmetrical, 1.8m by 3m, intensely orange home studio.
"I built a room within a room," he said. He created a second set of walls made of two layers of drywall, bonded together with a polymeric gel called Green Glue, which blocks up to 90 per cent of sound transmission. On top of the existing floor, Shah added foam, a sheet of rolled lead, carpet padding and a carpet on top. Neil added a second door, which seals magnetically. The renovation cut precious inches into the limited space, but it worked. Even with a baritone saxophone wailing, Shah gets no complaints from downstairs.
The DIY ethic applies to his equipment as well. He built his own analogue summing box — using resistors, a few inches of copper wire, and an internet schematic — to combine individual instrument tracks into a final stereo mix. It saved him thousands of dollars, yet achieved the analogue sound that engineers produce with mixing boards. "The most satisfying part of my simple summing box," Neil said, "is that it seamlessly incorporated itself with my existing equipment." Here's a closer look at that equipment on Shah's gear rack:
• Avalon 2022 dual mono preamplifier • Neve 1084 mono preamplifier • Neve 2257 gate • DBX 266XL for compression • Custom analogue summing box • Alesis Microverb III • Neutrik Patchbay • Presonus Firepod 8-channel preamplifier • Furman power conditioner
The instruments packed into the space include a bodhran from Ireland, a baglamas from Greece, and flutes from India. The mics above the piano are spaced apart at a precise distance. "The mics create a sound you can't find at every studio," Shah said.
The Shed is always ready to record. Shah responds to last-minute requests from companies like American Express, NBC and Applebee's when one needs little ditties for television commercials. "For a simple piano piece, I can hit record, overdub a string patch in midi, mix and send it back to the client in under and hour," he says.
Shah also recorded and mixed an EP for his band Wildlife Control in his jam-packed studio, and he did the final editing for the group's stop-motion video there as well. The group performs in a slightly larger space, though — you can catch Wildlife Control tonight in Manhattan at Arlene's Grocery.
Name: Neil Shah Location: Brooklyn, New York Money Invested: $US500 for renovations. The investments in instruments and equipment run from $US20,000 to $US25,000. Prized Possession: The upright Yamaha piano, a gift from Shah's parents. "I've known that piano for about 20 years. We're old friends," he said. Geekiest Gear: The Neve 1084 module, along with a vintage Neve 2257 gate bought for $US400, which Neil said are important to Wildlife Control's sound. "It adds a bit of vintage vibe to the rack without breaking the bank," Shah said. Theft Deterrent: Three deadbolts, each one from a different decade, on the brownstone's front door. On the Wish List: Another Neve 1084 module to improve the sound's depth and dynamic range.
Photo of gear rack: Gitty Feldman