Whether you’re looking to launch a career as an audio engineer, looking for a new hobby or an artist wanting to record their own music on the cheap, building a home studio has never been easier.
The notion that high quality music can only be recorded in a architecturally designed million dollar recording studio is rapidly fading. In the past decade we’ve seen an increasing number of chart-topping and critically acclaimed home studio albums such as Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and Tame Impala’ 2016 album Currents. Hell, even Bruce Springsteen did much of his Nebraska album at his home studio. Though home recording isn’t a new idea by any means, what makes it so much more attainable is how compact equipment has become and how affordable.
That being said, if you’re planning on setting up a studio on a shoestring budget, making concessions on certain pieces of equipment might bite you in the butt later on. There’s a fine line between spending thousands of dollars, and a few hundred — so here’s what you’ll need to build a great beginner home studio.
Unless you’re going to get real creative and record to tape like they did in the 60s, it’s best that you use a computer. A computer will be the brains behind the recording process. Even if you don’t have the best computer, that’s fine, anything with enough ram and processing power to run a DAW on is fine (we’ll get to that in a bit) — even laptops will do. However, if you have the money and needed an excuse to spring for a new machine, go bonkers!
Now before you go buying any new computers, what DAW or Digital Audio Workspace you intend to use actually matters. First off, a DAW is a program that takes in live recorded sounds, allows you to program electronic sounds and mix it all together.
Some DAWs like Logic Pro X require you to use a Mac computer, but for the most part these apps work on either. Some best in class programs like FL Studio and Ableton work on either Mac or PC so again, doesn’t really matter.
When we talk about recording live music, we mean picking up the signals from microphones and transmitting them to the computer for processing. Between the computer / DAW and the microphones we use an audio interface. These are boxes (in this case quite small) that pick up the analog sounds coming through mics, turns them into digital signals and sends them to the computer in real time. To begin, you won’t need more than two inputs at a time. The PreSonus Audiobox iTwo is a great place to start and won’t run your more than $200. To make it easy, there are a number of Audio Interfaces that you can purchase in a bundle that includes the DAW. PreSonus actually has a pretty good combo that comes with more stuff to get you started, and that one only runs about $300.
Increasingly home engineers are using headphones as their preferred method for mixing. For small spaces or if your studio is in a basement with paper thin walls, headphones are great because they are relatively inexpensive and let you hear your mix failry well.
But before you start fishing out your iPhone headphones, we’re talking proper, studio quality closed-back headphones. Studio quality means there’s little processing and noise alteration, giving you the clearest, unadulterated sound. This will give you the purest, cleanest audio as opposed to commercial-use headphones that boost bass and add overall compression.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x are excellent, or the Sennheiser HD280s. If you really feel like splurging, open-backed headphones are also an option but not required. Open-back headphones allow ambient noise in the background seep in which gives the listener a similar experience to listening through studio monitors.
If you can afford them, monitors are what make your studio complete. As opposed to computer speakers, Studio monitors have a flat frequency response, which, similar to studio headphones offer an unpolished, neutral tone.
A great place to start is with the KRK Rokit RP5-G3. These highly rated, extremely popular monitors will only run you $200 per.
The more you get into the craft of recording, you’ll start an obsession with different types of microphones and their uses. There’s a big world of mics out there, and while it’s a lot to choose from you can start simple.
As a beginner you’ll most likely start by recording single instruments at a time like guitar, bass or vocals. Good thing is you won’t need more than one or two mics for those.
A good vocal mic to start with would be the Audio-Technica AT2020. This condenser studio mic is fairly rugged and well rounded; great for picking up vocals and acoustic guitars.
If you can afford it, you’ll also want to spring for a dynamic mic. There are a lot of good options here, but you can’t really beat the Shure SM57 for it’s price, or the Audix i5. Dynamic mics like these are optimal for recording guitar amps, snares and can even work for vocals if need be. For more information about recording drums, check out our post on on the Glyn Johns Method.
If we’re talking mics then we can’t forget cables! At the very least, you’ll want to have one cable for each mic as well the appropriate cables for your monitors and instruments. Your standard microphone cables are XLR cables, so grab the best quality one you can afford, making sure it’s at least 20 feet. In total you should have four on hand to start, with longer ones for your mics and shorter ones for monitors. Double check that your monitors take XLR cables and not TRS cables before purchasing.
All that said, you’ll soon experience the grief of broken XLR cables so it’s always best to buy a couple backup cables just in case.
Having a good mic stand is seriously underappreciated. A bad one won’t be able to handle the weight of heavier mics and can wear out over time. This can make recording especially annoying, so spend a little extra dough and get the good ones. Ask the sales associate at your nearest music store for what they suggest for what’s in stock.