An efficient home studio set-up is essential for producers, engineers, and musicians of any level. And luckily, the time has never been better to get into the game. Rapid advances in digital technology over the past decade have made home recording not only convenient, but affordable as well.
Creatives are making high-quality records in their bedrooms all the time, and more often than not, a simple home studio arrangement is all that it took. The following guide is a basic roadmap for beginners navigating the world of home recording. You’ll probably find that less is definitely more, and a simple set-up can yield amazing results!
Home Studio Essentials
The computer is without a doubt the most important part of any home studio. It’s the “brain” of the entire operation; without it, few of the other components are of much use! Whether you prefer a laptop or desktop, Mac or PC, is less important than the specs of the machine itself.
A fast processor with ample RAM is paramount. While quad-core processors like the Intel i7 can multitask better than dual-cores, a quick dual-core like a 2.9 GHz i5 can handle even very dense projects. It’s advisable to run at least 16 GB of RAM alongside it to ensure your computer’s viability as a music-making machine.
While hard drives are increasingly becoming solid state, if yours isn’t, you’ll want it to run at 7200 RPM. The faster it can think, the smoother your sessions will perform!
The computer will likely be the biggest investment in your home recording set-up and a place you wouldn’t want to skimp out on. Once you’ve settled on a machine, you can move on to software.
The digital audio workstation (DAW) is the software you’ll use to record, edit, mix, and master audio, create MIDI arrangements, and perform anything else you can imagine. Everything happens in the DAW, so pick one and learn it well!
Whether you choose Pro Tools, Logic Pro X (Mac-only), Digital Performer, Ableton, Cubase, Reaper, Garageband, or any other DAW, is up to you. Each is a viable option that performs the same set of basic tasks in a slightly different way.
For reference, Pro Tools is the industry standard and excels at recording and editing audio. Logic Pro is a close runner-up, with especially great MIDI capabilities and a wide variety of incredible virtual instruments. It is Mac-only, however, which may exclude it from some users, though it’s also quite affordable relative to others.
For now, don’t worry about expensive plugins. Every DAW has its own set of stock plugins that will get you up and running!
3. Audio Interface
The interface is a hardware component that connects microphones or other instruments to your computer. In the simplest sense, it provides I/O for your studio and sends audio signals to your DAW for recording, commonly via USB.
For many home recording set-ups, two inputs are enough. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a popular option, featuring two preamps and hybrid XLR/TS inputs for microphones or line-level instruments. Focusrite even offers a beginner’s bundle, complete with headphones and a microphone, seen in action below:
There are numerous great, affordable interface options. What you choose is largely dependent on your I/O needs and personal preference.
Beginners should consider investing in one or two “all-around” mics that suit their budget. A large-diaphragm condenser can do just about anything, as can the awesome (and inexpensive!) Shure SM57: a popular workhorse dynamic microphone.
Typically, condensers provide a more articulate frequency response, while dynamic microphones are robust and more tolerant of high-volume sound sources. If you’re a guitarist, you especially can’t go wrong with the aforementioned SM57 on a speaker cabinet. Vocalists, on the other hand, may prefer a condenser, like the Røde NT1–an excellent entry-level option.
Consider what you’ll be recording the most and make a decision from there!
5. Headphones and/or Monitors
Headphones, headphones, headphones. They’re of sometimes understated importance, but, for many of us, the only means of hearing anything we’re doing. Home recording studios seldom have the luxury of really cranking a pair of speaker monitors, particularly when creativity strikes in the wee hours of the night!
Of course, when it comes to mixing, using monitors in a treated room is preferable. Get yourself a pair when the time is right! At the very least, though, headphones are a mustfor tracking and are passable for mixing. In the early stages of building your home rig, cans are the more affordable and less offensive (noise-wise!) option.
6. MIDI Controller
If you plan to use virtual instruments in your productions, a MIDI keyboard/controller is indispensable. Manually drawing MIDI data in a DAW is tedious business. Being able to load up the desired instrument and physically play it in real time is a much more familiar/musical experience. Plus, many of them have drum pads too, allowing you to “play” all of the MIDI information you might be using.
7. Third-Party Plugins
When you’re ready to graduate from stock plugins, companies like Waves, Universal Audio, Native Instruments, and Slate Digital, amongst others, provide anything you could possibly imagine for your home studio. Make no mistake–stock plugins are incredibly powerful and can take you very far as you get on your feet, so to speak. However, as you start to experiment with different sonic landscapes and signal chains, you may find your DAW lacking in plugins with unique character. With third-party plugins you’ll also find digital emulations of classic outboard gear which are fantastic to have in your arsenal!
8. A Comfortable Chair
Yes, you read that right! It’s a detail that’s easy to overlook–especially because it’s not audio-related–but a comfy, ergonomic chair is a home studio essential. Spending hours in front of a computer recording or mixing music isn’t necessarily the best for your health, particularly if your chair is garbage. To avoid future back problems or exacerbating existing ones, take some time to find quality seating. Your body will thank you later, and you’ll be less fatigued overall!
9. External Hard Drive(s)
As you accumulate more and more recorded music, plugins, and software, hard drive space disappears rather quickly. Depending on how often you’re working, keeping an external hard drive or several around is one of the most important things you can do. You’ll also want to regularly backup your work to an external drive. A general rule-of-thumb is this: if you don’t have it in three places, you don’t have it all. “It,” of course, being whatever is on your existing drive! Disk space is inexpensive these days, especially when you consider how devastating a hard drive failure would be without backups. Keep an external disk handy at all times!
10. Acoustic Treatment
The importance of acoustic treatment cannot be understated if you plan to do any serious mixing in your home studio. The only way to make a “standard” room suitable for mixing–that is, one not designed and built for professional audio work–is to get acoustic treatment.
For the average home studio, just treating the first reflections will do wonders for your environment. DIY panels are inexpensive and easy to make. From personal experience, I highly recommend working with denim insulation instead of rigid fiberglass. It’s much safer and easier to use, and is highly absorptive.