What I learned from building my studio desk
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
Should you build your music studio desk as well? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can provide some insight.
As video game music composers, we tumble into gear obsession like the rest of our music-making colleagues. The analogy that gets used sometimes is that of a child and their toys, and while, yes, gear is endlessly fun to use, that analogy is a bit derogatory in my mind. Instead, we should view the relationship between ourselves and our gear as that of a craftsperson and their tools. Nobody derides a plumber for getting a new wrench. Likewise, a welder isn’t told they’re being selfish because they purchased a new helmet. A skilled worker requires the necessary tools to get the job done. Perhaps our synthesizers, instruments, and sound systems provide us with more joy than a wrench would a plumber but that is nothing to be ashamed of.
Our workspaces are sacred and perhaps the most fundamental component of our workspace is our desk. It defines the space within which we will create our work and that is significant. Beyond ergonomic implications (which are also significant), there is something poetic and profound about the spaces we occupy as creators. I love spending time in the studios of other creators because it feels like I’m in a very intimate corner of their life. No other space is so dramatically dictated by the thoughts and feelings of an individual than their workspace and the beating heart of those spaces is often the desk.
I’ve never had a workspace made just for me before...
I’m a big dude. I stand at 6’3” and, while I am certainly not the tallest individual around, I am by-and-large, well, larger than your average person. Furniture is not made for people of my size. And when I was starting out in my career, you better believe that the IKEA desk I used (like we all do at some point, or still do! No shame, ever.) was far too small for me. I’ve gone through many variations on my workspace since then, but it’s always been adapting something not meant to be a desk into a desk.
I’ve wanted a standing desk for the longest time, however. All of my desks in the past have been just sitting desks and, let me tell you, I’ve come to understand what all the fuss is about ergonomics. Sitting all the damn time made me feel much older than my 27 years on Earth should make me feel.
So why not just buy a standing desk? Well, let’s jump back to the fact that I am over six feet tall. A standing desk at the correct height should be just at or below the height of your elbows. For me, that means 45 inches off of the ground. That’s, uh, nearly four feet. Couple that with the fact that music production desks have particular requirements (a drawer big enough for a MIDI keyboard, an additional tier for speakers and monitors, rack space, etc) and it became apparent really quickly that what I wanted and needed was going to be really niche and probably really expensive.
...so I decided to build one.
In grad school, I worked at an art gallery and I picked up some building skills from all the crazy and wonderful projects we worked on. So I figured I could rely on that and some latent genetic potential (my grandfather is a carpenter and my dad is an excellent woodworker) and just build my own desk. I knew off the bat some things I wanted:
Elevated shelf with room underneath for rack equipment
Pull out drawer for my MIDI keyboard
Industrial look with a raw wood top and a frame made from pipes
I also decide to keep the desk always at standing height instead of trying to install some sort of mechanism that would let me lower it to a seating level. I was pretty gung-ho about designing and building this thing but installing some sort of mechanism like that seemed a little beyond what I wanted or felt capable of doing. I would just get a drafting stool or something at the appropriate height for when I wanted to sit.
So I started out by drawing up an idea of what I wanted. It wasn’t anything fancy: four legs, a cross-brace on the sides and the back, and a second shelf with eight legs holding it up and clearance below for equipment. Some sort of plywood top and galvanized pipe for the legs. I eventually adjusted the layout to move the back cross-beam into the middle of the desk as it would be less pipe cutting and doing the math would be easier.
The whole process actually only took a few days. Two days of brainstorming and designing and then a day of shopping and building. I was pretty driven to get the job done; you definitely don’t have to go at that pace. So, here are a few lessons I’ve learned from building my own studio desk:
It is much cheaper to build your own desk than to buy it…
We’ve all seen the gorgeous Output desks in our targeted ads. We’ve also seen their price tag. Many of us can’t afford them but we still want a big beautiful desk that meets our needs. When you build your own desk, you’re paying for materials and that’s it. In every desk (or product for that matter) you purchase, you’re also paying for the marketing, R&D, shipping, associated labor, etc. Depending on the tools you have available to you and the design you’re aiming for, you can probably build your own desk for half or two-thirds the price of buying something equivalent.
...but it could still set you back a pretty penny.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that your desk will cost you nothing, however. This is not true. I spent ~$300 on the materials for my desk and I easily could’ve spent more. However, what I wanted for my desk was very specific and I knew that I was going to spend a lot on the frame since I chose galvanized steel as the material. And don’t be surprised if some components are more expensive than others. I ended up spending over $100 on floor flanges, of all things.
Your local hardware store can do almost all the cutting for you.
Most hardware stores can cut wood and pipe for you. Many also have tool rentals available and truck rentals if you don’t have the vehicle to transport all of these materials. Take advantage of this. I left Home Depot with all of the wood cut to the right size and all of the pipe cut to the right size as well.
Plan as much as you can but be ready to improvise
I was able to do that because I planned ahead. As you’ve already seen from the drawings above, I went to the store knowing exactly what I needed, at what length, and how much of it. This helps. Don’t get me wrong, you can just buy materials, get home and feel it out but you’ll likely either have too much or you’ll need to head back to the store to get more. But, be ready to think on your feet! I overestimated the frame size and needed two smaller pipes for the cross-braces. Luckily, I also overestimated how many legs I would need for the shelf so I had two pieces of the right size available to use.
Change your mind when you want to
After I built the frame, desktop, and shelf I realized that I did not want a giant drawer underneath breaking up the clean lines. My desktop is 5’ by 3’ so I luckily have plenty of space for my MIDI keyboard to just sit on top of the desk with lots of room left over. Sure, I purchased everything for it but I don’t have to live with my design, I have to live with the actual desk, and this is much better for me.
Be mindful of size (for the room, the desk, and yourself)
This one is obvious but it’s really important. I was really, really doubtful at first that I should make my standing desk as tall as it needed to be. But, if it were any shorter, it wouldn’t have been functional as a standing desk. And, honestly, it’s gigantic. My speakers are six feet off of the ground and when my wife stands near it, she’s dwarfed by it. Thankfully, it also fits in our spare room like it’s supposed to. Remember to measure your space before you build your desk, friends.
There is so much power in making something just for you.
It’s hard to explain the feeling of how empowering it is to have a tool that meets your needs, is the correct size for your body, and that you made it with your own two hands. My new desk isn’t perfect by any means. It might not be perfectly level (but it’s damn close) and it so obviously isn’t the work of a master craftsman. However, it is mine and I love it.
Should you make your own desk? Perhaps, if you want to save money, have it fit you perfectly, and feel comfortable with tools then consider it. This desk will be able to serve me well into the future and, because I know exactly how it was built, I can easily remove and upgrade components to ensure its long term viability.
Remember, as a video game music composer, your workspace is everything. Whether it’s your kitchen table or a desk you’ve built yourself. Take care of it, respect it, and build good habits around it. Have you made any of the equipment you use in your workspace? If so, I’d love to see it! Hit me up on Twitter @zwbuckley with your battle station pics.
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