Rethinking My Studio Layout, Part 2: A Quick Desk Update

Continuing my previous post about this topic, I have designed a new music production desk, and I’ve started to build it. While I don’t have any drawings or graphics to show you (because my brain is weird and I tend to design things purely mentally), I’ll describe what I’ve decided to do and why. Hopefully, this will give you some ideas for improving your own music workspace.

First, I decided that no matter what, my new desk must meet the following criteria:

  • Have three banks of rack space that hold 4U each, with the front panel controls easily accessible from the listening position
  • Be relatively shallow for a music desk, so that the work surface doesn’t create undesired reflections of sound from the speakers
  • Have a retractable sliding shelf underneath for an 88-key MIDI keyboard
  • Be strong enough to reliably hold a heavy-ish pair of speakers and a computer display in addition to 12U of racked gear without much bowing or sagging
  • Hold every device at the proper heights, both ergonomically and acoustically
  • Be as easy as possible to build (because I’m not a fan of woodworking and I need to keep it as quick and simple as possible)
  • Be as affordable as possible

To that end, here’s what I’ve done so far: I bought a few panels of Baltic Birch Plywood from two online wood shops (because with my car, I had no way to carry large plywood sheets home from the hardware store). There will be a main surface 3/4″ thick, five feet wide, and two feet deep. It will go directly against the wall. The rear-most 15″ of it will be for holding gear in the three rackmount bays. The remaining front 9″ will be for the computer keyboard and mouse. Nine inches may not sound like much, but I don’t actually need much space to begin with, and it was important to minimize this to keep speaker reflections under control. On top of the rack bays will be an upper surface 15″ deep, which will hold the speakers, the display, and a piece of absorptive acoustic material behind the display. Underneath the main surface, there will be a sliding 12″ deep shelf for the MIDI keyboard. By making it retractable, it significantly cuts down on speaker reflections when the keyboard is retracted. That way, I’ll be able to pull it out to access all the keyboard controls for composing, and retract it for better acoustic performance when mixing and mastering.

The legs will probably be made of 2×4 lumber from the hardware store. Since 2×4 boards are relatively cheap, it gives me room to experiment with different leg lengths and desk heights to find the optimal position. I will build rectangular frames out of 2×4’s and use those frames as the legs, since frames will be much stronger than just bare boards themselves. This is important because I will be pushing against this desk somewhat when I play the keyboard, and I want to minimize shaking, bending, or flexing.

In fact, I designed the desk so that every single part of it is rectangular. This makes it much easier to build given the tools I have available to me. It also makes it easier to conceptualize in my head. I think I will end up liking this simple rectangular aesthetic.

In the past I’ve used oil-based polyurethane as a wood finish, but this time, I’m going to try Varathane water-based polyurethane satin finish. I won’t use a wood stain because I want to keep the natural bright birch color. Supposedly, the water-based finish will retain more of the natural wood color over time, unlike the oil-based stuff which turns yellow over time. So, we’ll see how this stuff turns out.

If you’ve ever wanted to build your own rack to hold 19″ rack-mountable gear, you can get your own rack rails and screw them into the sides of an appropriately-sized (19″ wide) wooden cabinet. This is significantly cheaper than buying ready-made rack cabinets from music stores. In my case, I bought three pairs of 4U rack rails which will go into the three rack bays in my desk.

When placing speakers on a desk, it is very important to physically isolate them from the desk as much as possible. For that, I am placing them on top of sorbothane pads. Sorbothane is an incredibly useful material, possibly the best material ever invented for absorbing vibrations. And it costs significantly less than other speaker isolation solutions! I have been using it underneath my speakers for years, and so far it has been both the best AND the most affordable way I’ve discovered to physically isolate speakers from the surface they are sitting on. I highly recommend using it, especially if your speakers currently don’t have anything to isolate them from their stands/desk surface.

To raise my speakers up to ear level, I will place them on top of some scrap bricks I have available, placing the sorbothane on top of the bricks and the speakers on the sorbothane (but no sorbothane between the desk and the bricks because that doesn’t really accomplish anything). If you decide to use sorbothane pads, be sure to get them with the right weight rating for your speakers. They work best when the load on top of them falls within their stated weight rating. Check the weight of your speaker; then, divide it by the number of sorbothane pads you will use. That will be the ideal weight rating for each pad. For example, if your speaker weighs 20 pounds and you want to put four pads under it, then each pad should be rated for a five-pound load. If you go over or under the right weight rating, then they will not absorb vibrations as effectively and your acoustics will be unnecessarily compromised. I always aim to use three pads if possible, because this minimizes the number of coupling points where vibrations could potentially transmit from the speaker into the desk, but four to six pads should also be okay to use.

Stay tuned for the next article, in which I will show the finished desk and have photos to demonstrate what I’ve been talking about. Thanks for reading and keep making music!