With all the plug-ins, you’d think that computer-based audio would have caused project-studio racks to shrink. But that isn’t what has happened. Instead, many of us now have a mix of analog and digital rack goodies to go with our DAW workstations.
That presents a dilemma, because all this great stuff needs to be arranged into a comfortable working environment. There are commercial products available, but here’s another solution: how about an all-in-one workstation that accommodates your hybrid gear—but that you can easily build yourself?
Time to tuck a pencil behind your ear and get out a ruler.
What you need
Before we get started let me ’fess up. No, this unit isn’t supposed to take the place of that (semi) comfortable computer desk that the family spends gobs of time in front of for homework or general web browsing. This is really a no-nonsense workstation for your…workstation.
Construction of this desk involves estimating how much rack space you’ll need, determining the amount of space needed for your DAW, and then sizing everything accordingly.
As pictured, the project has spaces for your DAW, keyboard, and mouse, and 34 1U spaces for rack gear, a rackmount mixer or an open-reel machine or any MDMs or you may still have. This enclosure is 70 1/4" long, 31" high, and it provides plenty of tabletop space.
The length is customizable to your needs. If you don’t need so much rackspace, decrease the size by the width of one of the rack bays. If you need more, increase by the same. More on this later.
This project can be made from two sheets of 4x8 plywood that’s 3/4" thick. The pieces are fastened together by drywall screws, no glue. Tools needed for this job include a circular saw, carpenter’s framing square, jig saw, power drill/screwdriver, a level, a 1-lb box of 15/8" drywall screws, and a small box of 1" drywall screws.
This project should take you half a weekend to put together, and you’re probably going to need an extra set of hands to move it from the workshop into your studio space.
Planning and measuring
Building for rackmount gear is easy—everything’s going to be based off a 19" measurement. This means a single rack bay is 20 1/2": 19" for the equipment plus 1 1/2" for the combined thickness of two 3/4" thick uprights. And we will use either rack rails or cleats on the inside faces for you to attach the gear.
Note: Every additional bay, be it rackmount or for your DAW only, adds one extra upright. So from here on an additional bay’s measurement is the gear plus 3/4" for the next upright.
Next up is measuring the width of your DAW’s tower case. Mine was 7 1/2" wide. I sized my DAW bay at 9 1/2" wide—this allowed for adequate ventilation and gave me an inch on each side of it when I need to reach in and take it out of the desk. No problem on the height, there was plenty of room. Check the width of your DAW case now, and add 2" to give you some grabbing room.
To get a final size for the DAW bay, take the 9 1/2" (or whatever measurement you ended up with) and add 3/4" for the single extra upright. This gave me a DAW bay that’s 10 1/4" wide. Unless you own a mongo, server-sized DAW (or an original beige G3 Mac tower, which is nearly 10" wide!) an opening width somewhere near this 10 1/4" figure should be just about right for most applications.
Each of the uprights (item A on the cutting list in Figure 1) is 24" wide at the floor and 18" at the top. They’re 31" high, cut straight in the back and sloped in the front. The slope is for easier access to the front panels of your rack gear. The upright pieces are all a standardized shape and size. It’ll be the connecting rails and the tabletop that will change sizes depending on your application.
If you’re building two or more rackmount bays you’ll need to open up some holes in the uprights so you can easily run cables between the bays. Pilot a hole with your drill, and then use a jigsaw to cut out the 12" x 12" hole in each internal upright.
Unless you plan to run cables directly out the two ends, don’t put these 1' holes in the outside upright pieces. Snake those cables out the back between the desk and your wall or make a small notch in the back end of the outside uprights to serve your individual cabling needs. Check out the illustration for further details about the uprights.
There is a 4" x 4 3/4" notch at the bottom front edge of each upright so you have someplace to put your toes when sitting in front of the desk. Note that the notches are not cut square—when you attach a 3/4" thick rail across the entire bottom you’ll be left with an equal 4" of clearance top and side. Mark and cut out your uprights now.
The rails on the unit pictured are each 70 1/4" long x 4" wide. If you’re concerned about getting them straight and even, you can ask your lumberyard to rip them when you buy your plywood. They are item B on the cutting list.
Lateral sway support for this rack enclosure comes partially from the three rails. There’s the one that serves as the toe-kick, another 4" wide rail running along the floor on the back edge of the uprights, and then a third rail on the uprights’ top back edge. Again, they’re just held in place with the 15/8" drywall screws.
Placement of your uprights on the rails is crucial here. If you misalign the uprights on the rails your rack gear won’t fit. Be very careful when you check your measurements.
Check out the exploded diagram that shows how to figure placement of the uprights depending on the number of rack bays you need. It’ll help you size the rails and measure for upright placement. These measurements will hold for all three rails.
Screws always seem to have a tendency to drift a little bit in the edges of plywood. To combat this and get a more precice placement of the rails on the uprights, predrill some pilot holes through the rails and into the edges of the uprights before attaching the screws.
Attach the toe-kick rail in front. Flip the unit over on its face and attach the back rails at the bottom and at the top. Be sure to use two screws at each attachment point along the rails. You won’t believe how rigid this thing will be when you stand it up again.
Your application may not require rack space on the top of the desk (where the recorder is placed in the photos). If not, use the steps that follow in section A; if so, skip to section B.
A. No rack space on the tabletop
The table surface can be placed along the entire top of the desk now. The tabletop will be sized four inches longer than the width of the desk to allow for a two-inch overhang at each side, and it will be 19" deep. This is item C on the cutting list.
Using your carpenter’s square, make sure your uprights are at 90 degrees from the tabletop and attach it to the uprights by drilling pilot holes and driving screws down through the top and into the uprights. Use four or five screws per each upright, spaced evenly. Be sure to attach the top to the upper back rail too.
Here are some custom dimensions for the tabletops, depending on the number of rackspace bays you make and if you don’t need the rack space on the tabletop:
Covering 1 rackmount bay plus a DAW bay = a top that’s 19" x 35"
Covering 2 rackmount bays plus a DAW bay = a top that’s 19" x 55"
Covering 3 rackmount bays plus a DAW bay = a top that’s 19" x 75".
B. Rack space on the tabletop
We’re going to need to attach rails or cleats to the top edges of one bay in order to accommodate top-facing rack space. The cleats, as photographed, are angled pieces that allow my recorder to tilt forward slightly; you may want to do the same if you’re going to mount something like a mixer. They extend four inches down from the tabletop surface in order to give plenty of room to securely fasten them to the uprights.
Both of these cleats are 19" long, with an offset angle that’s made by the cleats being 5" tall in front and 9" tall in back. The cleats have an exposed face that extends 1" above the tabletop in front and 5" in back.
My cleats, as photographed, were double thick to help support over 80 pounds of recorder. I sandwiched a second piece of plywood along the outer face of the first so part of it would sit right on the top edge of the two uprights and provide more support; I was taking no chances! That’s why they look so thick.
The two were glued and screwed together to act as one piece. They’re plenty strong for my use, and you may want to do the same. Cutting list item J is the main large cleat, item I is the smaller outside cleat that gets sandwiched to the outside of item J. Your offset angle can be adjusted to suit your needs.
Next you’ll want to cut a wooden blank to cover up where the top-mount equipment hangs down into the bay. Again, pretty simple—it’s item G on the cutting list. Measure the distance between the front edge of the angled cleat down to where the equipment plus plug ends will hang. From your plywood cut out a board that’s 19" wide and sized vertically to your measurement. Attach the blank to the uprights.
If you chose to make a double-thick top cleat like I did, you’re going to need a way to support the edge of the tabletop against it. You’ll have covered up the top edge of one upright and there’s now no lip to rest the edge of the table upon. Yup, the answer is another cleat, and it’ll be attached to the outer face of the upright to give the tabletop something to tie to. This may sound confusing, but check out the drawing for clarification.
The tabletop will be a piece of plywood that is 19" wide. Size the length to be two inches longer than your desk to allow for an overhang. That’s 52" long as photographed. Again, make sure that your uprights are perpendicular to the floor, and drill pilot holes and attach four or five screws down into the tabletop and into the upright. Fasten it to the top rear rail too.
Here are some custom dimensions for the tabletops, depending on how many rack bays you need whether you chose to make rack space on the tabletop.
Covering 1 rackmount bay plus a DAW bay = a top that’s 19" x 32"
Covering 2 rackmount bays plus a DAW bay = a top that’s 19" x 52"
Covering 3 rackmount bays plus a DAW bay = a top that’s 19" x 72"
Something for everybody
There’s no “floor” in the unit, except for where the DAW will reside. For that, cut a board that’s sized for the inside of your DAW bay (91/2" for mine) and 23" long. This is item F on the cutting list.
Drill pilot holes through the board and down into the front and rear bottom rails. Fasten this board to the rails with more of the 1-5/8" drywall screws. It’s that simple.
Okay, it’s now time to consider how you’ll attach your rack gear to the uprights.
Commercial rack rails are kind of expensive, although they will give you a very neat, commercial look. But it’s easier and a heck of a lot cheaper to cut out some wooden cleats to use as rack rails.
Two cleats are needed per bay, cut at 11/2" wide by 26" long. They’re simply attached to the inside front faces of each upright with more 15/8" drywall screws. The rack gear can be fastened to these rack rail cleats with the 1" drywall screws. These cleats are item H on the cutting list.
Cut out your cleats and test fit them into your rack bays. To attach them to your uprights, drill a pilot hole every five inches or so along the length of the cleat and fasten them to the opposite front faces of each rack bay. That’ll make them plenty secure for the amount of rack gear you’ll be attaching.
You’ll notice that the bottom-most rack unit can be sitting on the top edge of the toe-kick rail and also be attached to both rack rail cleats. That 3-point support is plenty strong to allow you temporarily to just pile the rest of your rack gear on top of that bottom unit and not be all attached to the rails. This is a big boon for a while as you alternately climb in and behind everything to get it wired up—it makes troubleshooting a lot easier. And when it’s all working to your liking you can then individually attach the gear to the rack rail cleats with the 1" drywall screws.
Keyboard and mouse
Take a peek at your DAW’s keyboard. Is it narrower than 19"? Mine was. Mmmm, that’s convenient! Put it on a tray with some drawer slides, and it’ll fit into a rack bay!
Commercial drawer slides start at about $12.00 for a pair. Determine what kind of left/right space yours will require. To make your keyboard shelf, cut a board that’s about 12" deep and wide enough to fit in the bay with the slides attached. It’s item E on the cutting list.
Attach the slides per the manufacturer’s mounting instructions to the tray and to the uprights, and voilą, you have a pull-out keyboard shelf. Check with your level to make sure that you’re attaching this evenly —it’s a real bummer when the keyboard won’t slide smoothly due to one side being higher than the other.
For a keyboard wrist rest, I traced the curved front edge of my keyboard onto a 16" long by 2" wide piece of wood that was 3/4" thick. I cut it out and attached it to the keyboard tray from the underside with screws using no glue—I simply rounded over the corners with some sandpaper. It works great.
The mouse shelf lives in the DAW bay, and it is another plywood board with drawer slides attached. Make the mouse shelf about 12" deep and wide enough to fit the DAW bay. It’s item D on the cutting list. Place the mouse shelf up towards the top of the DAW bay; about three or four inches from the top should do it.
I covered my tabletop and the exposed front edges of the plywood with kitchen counter laminate, and the rest of the desk was painted with gloss black paint. The laminate was stuff left over from another project. If you don’t mind contact cement fumes, then I recommend laminate, at least for the tabletop. It’s pretty simple if you follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the can of contact cement. Or you could as easily paint the entire thing.
You’ll notice that there’s a little more than an inch of extra space in the rack bays than the gear requires. Was that a mistake? Nope. I wanted a bit more ventilation and air circulation to the rack gear. And if you’re a fanatic about this stuff you can use that extra space to separate each piece of gear a tiny bit for isolation.
This is another project that’s do-able on the cheap—the entire thing cost less than $100. It works great. I’ve been using mine for about two years, and I’m even writing this article from in front of the desk you see pictured.
Best of luck with yours!
Matt Seiler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a studio owner, engineer, and woodworking nut in the Chicago area. He builds archtop guitars, too, but not when the weather’s cold.