by Steven K. Roberts
©2007 – Nomadic Research Labs
I wrote this when I modified a “Creation Station” desk to support my Roland RD-700SX and production tools. I have since moved aboard a boat and have a Kawai MP7 built into a piano drawer, but I’m keeping this piece alive for the collection of useful tips that have been widely adopted over the years. This includes some work-arounds for dealing with oddly shaped objects that need to be integrated into a system…
Camano Island home studio, 2007
It seemed simple enough when I first gave in to the deadly GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome): get a bunch of audio tools, plug them all together, and begin making beautiful music. No problem.
But once I started unpacking boxes and actually trying to make everything fit, it became clear that there’s a bit more to it than that… at least if you want it to be an efficient system that is pleasant to use and doesn’t look like the proverbial rat’s nest. I’m not just talking about cable hygeine; it’s all that other stuff that they don’t tell you about when you fill the online shopping carts with shiny gizmology.
How can you get the studio monitors into a decent position with the bass drivers at ear-level without teetering them on tall stands that invite disaster? Where the heck do you put the computer keyboard when the synthesizer has to be on a low enough surface to optimize the height of the keytops? How do you mount the mixer so that it’s at a comfortable position with all the controls visible? And if you need to read music, where does the music stand go when there’s a big computer screen directly in front of you?
Since none of this was addressed by off-the-shelf components, I had to do a bit of custom work… and the intent of this article is to help others avoid wheel-reinvention when it would be much more fun to get on with playing.
The Components Shown in this Article
Please note that these are from 2007, and I would mostly make different choices today and will thus skip the affiliate links…
- Creation Station desk from StudioRTA
- Roland RD-700SX digital stage piano
- Mackie 1402-VLZ3 14-channel mixer
- Echo AudioFire2 firewire audio interface
- M-Audio iControl for GarageBand
- Apple iMac dedicated to music applications.
- KRK Studio Monitors
- Shure SM57 on floor stand and MXL990 condenser mics at desk
- AKG K271 Studio closed-back headphones
- Furman PL-PLUS power conditioner
A few related items are cabled into the same mix: Icom 706mkIIG amateur radio transceiver, USB turntable for inhaling old vinyl, video tool, a docking port for the field recorders, and other random bits.
All this adds up to a mish-mash of oddly shaped hardware. I originally wanted to rackmount the mixer (ears are available at a ridiculous price), but in an integrated desk environment that isn’t as easy as it looks… many connectors come out the back, and the available rack space is too short anyway unless you buy a producer’s workstation that is designed for such things.
Let’s take the “desk hacks” one at a time and figure out how to put all this stuff together…
Raising the Studio Monitors
The Creation Station desk comes with a nice top shelf that is 37″ off the floor. When I’m seated at the keyboard, my ears are 53″ off the floor… and the KRK bass drivers on the little Rokit RP5 monitors are centered about 5″ up from the surface on which they rest. That all translates into the speakers being 11″ lower than they should be, not to mention taking up extremely valuable shelf real-estate. I considered picking up floor stands like some of the professional recording studios use, but they are major space hogs and famous for being dangerously top-heavy… the wrong tool for my living room.
Instead of doing a bunch of carpentry, I used some 7/8″ stainless tubing and matching 60° railing mounts made by SeaDog for the marine market, and installed on the desktop with #10 flat-head machine screws. These are very robust, and easily handle the weight of even larger monitors:
I used the formula for right-angle calculations to determine the optimum tubing length: knowing that I wanted the bottom of the speaker platform to be 15.5 inches off the main table surface (not the shelf), I plugged that and the 60 degrees into
sinθ = opposite/hypotenuse
and came up with 17.9 inches. I lopped off a couple of chunks with a tubing cutter, and then, with a bit of measuring and playing with a carpenter’s level, found the mounting locations and marked them with a Sharpie. Once I drew “first blood” with these holes in my brand new desk, the other modifications were much easier!
Here’s a look at the other end. I found a left-over mystery piece that came with a Costco particle-board office desk, chopped it in half, painted the raw edges black, and centered the new speaker platforms over the other pair of 60° railing mounts (I happened to have some round ones in the shop, but used rectangular ones for the lower end that is subject to much greater cantilevering stress):
The net effect of this is quite nice. It provided an obvious place for a headphone hook, moved the monitors away from the clutter of the desk and up to the optimum height… and they even look classy with that shiny stainless support. The cables are twist-tied to the tubing to minimize visual clutter.
Adding a Keyboard Shelf
It was now time to deal with the messiest problem… where on earth to put the computer keyboard and mouse. The problem is obvious: the underside of the desktop is only about 25″ off the floor (it has to be, since the keytops are about 4″ above the table surface), and my knees just barely fit. Trying to add a pull-out keyboard drawer would be ludicrous, and a bit of experimentation quickly proved that putting it off to one side would be intolerable. I really wanted it floating just above the Roland, nicely in line with the Macintosh. Even though this is not my writing/emailing/browsing machine, it’s inevitable that I’ll be spending considerable time at the helm, and it has to be at least somewhat comfortable.
Once I realized that the two rack spaces in the desk are actually fairly useless when a tall digital piano is sitting in front of them, it became clear that what I really need is a continuation of the synth’s upper surface… strong enough to hold whatever I might want to put on it. A quick inventory revealed that this is not just the Mac keyboard and mouse pad, but also the iControl for GarageBand and some yet-undefined role in supporting the mixer.
The top of the piano has an approximate 9° slope, so why not continue this line with a full-width black shelf, shaped to blend nicely into the workstation? I cut a board to 7.5″ width and 53″ length, angled the ends to match the shape of the desktop, and beveled the front edge to meet the Roland’s rear edge gracefully. After considering and quickly discarding mounts based on the rack rails (fiddly) or shaped blocks (closing off useful access), I picked up four pipe flanges and 5″ pipe nipples, then assembled them and wrapped the posts with self-vulcanizing rubber. The trick now was to mount the board at a 9° angle, properly located to give the impression of being a part of the piano.
To get the angle, I cut a couple of wedges on the table saw, tacked them to the board with finishing nails, and used a router to mill out a pad approximately 3″ in diameter:
This wasn’t too painful; I just drew a circle in the desired location, stuck on a couple pieces of white tape at the edges as a visual cue, set the wedges to match, and freehanded the cut. While spewing sawdust, I also carved out a little clearance notch to allow finger-access to the RD-700SX power switch:
This became much less ugly once painted (latex flat black). I countersunk the holes for 1/4″ flat head bolts, and did a test-fitting behind the piano:
In use, this is proving to be an excellent solution to the problem. I wouldn’t want to write a book on this Mac keyboard since there’s really no way to rest my arms, but the overall workflow in a music context is pretty much ideal. I later discovered that the added music stand (technically, “music desk” in the parlance) crowds my fingers a bit, but there’s not much I can do about that without raising the Mac even higher. It’s a good compromise for the application, and as a bonus the iControl and mixer benefit from the solid platform. To wrap up this part of the project, I applied a strip of adhesive-backed felt on the underside of the beveled edge to rest softly on the back of the Roland and eliminate any rattling or surface abrasion that might occur during vigorous jamming.
(Oh, and that guy on the mouse pad is me in a previous life, pedaling a computer-laden recumbent bicycle 17,000 miles around the US.)
Mounting the Mixer
This one was a head-scratcher for a while… I sat there with the new Mackie 1402-VLZ3 mixer and tried to figure out how to mount it in such a way that it would handle plugging and unplugging without sliding, present a convenient operating angle, and not render any of the connectors inaccessible. The top shelf of the desk has an appealing curve, but that doesn’t make things any easier when it comes to bolting on square things.
The solution was pretty easy, and involved raiding the stash of boat parts once again… this time for “offset hinges.”
This of course involved a bit of disassembly of the Mackie and careful cleaning to be sure no bits of steel were left to float around amongst the circuit boards. The case is strong enough that the mounting with two hinges is all that’s needed; the bottom edge is fully supported on a 1″ strip of neoprene that runs width of the mixer cabinet (see photo in next section).
The Music Stand
After a few feeble attempts to play with a sheet of music poked between two rows of keys and flopping back over the shelf, it was more than a little obvious that I’d have to deal with this music stand issue. I started to make a simple one with a 12×19 piece of polycarbonate and some 1×2 aluminum extrusion, but this is one of those little aesthetic points that needs to be, well, pretty. A bit of research turned up Manhasset 4802 replacement desks for orchestra-grade music stands, so I ordered one (and I have a later hack for elevating one of these if you have a Casio Privia PX-5s or other piano without built-in support).
These are designed to plug onto a round vertical post, but adapting to the existing hardware would have been more troublesome than just making a simple pivot block that screws to the top shelf. Here it is:
This turns out to be at about the right height, and also allows the stand to pivot back to the horizontal when required for access to the rack space below. I really should have painted it, but was too anxious to try it. One of these days. Mounting to the shelf is with four deck screws, and the block was pre-drilled to prevent splitting. Given the constraints of keyboard access and Mac screen height, I have found it most comfortable to keep the music stand tilted to the same approximate angle as the mixer.
(Here’s another approach… a few months after this page went live back in 2007, I heard from Dave Dixon. He started with the full Manhasset music stand, and came up with this simple and elegant mounting by chopping off a 3″ section of the support tubing and mounting it to his desk with a couple of 1/2″ electrical conduit clamps. Looks like it works well!)
The result is that the music stand is at the same angle as the mixer; I can just see the bottom of the Mac screen over the top (a shorter person could simply place the Mac on a board to raise it a bit). The stand can’t tilt too much toward the vertical without making it a bit awkward to type:
Since writing the above, I’ve made a few additions: I augmented the KRK RP-5 monitors with the larger RP-8. The sound is richer and deeper at lower volume settings, which reduces the tendency to bring out scratchiness in the piano sounds. I got rid of the mouse and pad in favor of the Logitech TrackMan Wheel, which now sits on top of the Roland (see photo below).
Overall, this system integration project was pretty simple as such things go… all this stuff is electronically interoperable, so it only required packaging and mounting hacks. The complete system is nicely contained in the desk, which can conveniently be moved on robust casters without breaking anything. There’s plenty of room behind all the good stuff for little “out of sight, out of mind” accessories like the FireWire interface and USB hub. The condenser microphone is on a Bob Heil desk-mount boom that tucks nicely out of the way, and there’s room for a little collection of music books between some antique granite book ends… just for a retro touch to an otherwise highly geeky environment.
Other Keyboard Packaging Projects
I hope some of these techniques are useful to you, though of course different keyboards will present a variety of integration challenges. I have two later articles, as mentioned above (click photos for more):