THE 7-PIECE HOME STUDIO – A GUIDE TO GETTING STARTED IN HOME RECORDING
Over the last few decades, the music recording industry has changed so much, it’s hardly recognizable. Like old ladies when they accidentally paint their eyebrows an inch or so above where they should be. Hey, I guess it hides the receding hairline.
Anyway, what used to take gobs of dosh now has a price tag of less than $2000.
Who done it? (Wait for it…)
Ever since computers happened, studio set-ups have been getting smaller and more cost-efficient. Sure, you can still blow the family fortune at a big “professional” studio (where you’ll be guaranteed a top-notch product), but it really isn’t necessary anymore.
In the digital age of recording, quality depends largely on the user.
If you’re interested in recording music (for yourself or for others), it’s a fantastic time to be alive. More than at any other time in history, making a professional-grade recording is well within the reach of the unwashed masses [i.e. you and me].
To help you with your plan of attack, I made a handy infographic that covers seven things you’ll need in order to get started with home recording.
If you’re still interested, read on.
I’ll unpack each item a little further.
- Laptops are good for portable work, while desktops are best for stationary studios.
- RAM – 2GB is almost not ok. 4GB is workable. 8GB+ is best.
- In general, try to get as much CPU, RAM, and disk space as you can reasonably afford. This will help your projects to run smoothly and quickly.
- Macs are industry standard and generally very consistent. PCs usually pack more RAM and disk space per dollar, but are occasionally more finicky. It’s mostly preference…either Mac or PC works just fine.
I’m currently running a gaming desktop from Newegg.com. This is probably overkill for an entry-level home studio, but just in case you were curious. 🙂
2. AUDIO INTERFACE
- An audio interface connects your mic or instrument to your computer.
- Interfaces connect using USB, FireWire, a PCI slot, or Apple’s Thunderbolt. Just make sure your computer has the right port!
- Interfaces come with instrument and/or mic inputs, and can have anywhere from one to 18+ channels. Personally, I do most of my recording one track at a time – I just layer over myself. Some folks prefer to record the whole band at one time…how many channels will you need at once?
- Make sure that the audio interface you choose is compatible with the software (DAW) you go with. They’re not all friends.
The Focusrite Scarlett is a popular option for an entry-level interface.
- Microphones come in three basic flavors: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon. Condenser and ribbon mics are standard for studio work, though dynamics can be used as well (especially for loud amps and drums). Typically, dynamic mics don’t have the same clarity and sensitivity. Between condensers and ribbons, condensers are most popular.
- Microphones are a classic case of diminishing returns, which basically means that the more you increase your spending, the less noticeable improvement you’ll see. Let me put it this way: the difference between a $50 mic and a $100 is WAY bigger than the difference between a $2000 mic and a $2500 mic – even though the dollar difference between the second pair is much larger.
My first condenser was an MXL that cost me $100. That model is a little outdated, but the MXL 990 is a comparable option at the $100 price point.
At the $200-$300 range, I’ve been using the Rode NT-1 Condenser for several months now, and I’m a happy camper. This kit comes with a shock mount, pop filter (filters out P’s, B’s, C’s, etc.), and dust cover (a cloth cover for the mic).
- You’ll need one cable for every simultaneous track you’d like to record.
- Mic cables (also called XLR cables) look like this:
- Instrument cables are for running a guitar, keyboard, etc. directly into the interface. They look like this:
- You’ll also need cables to hook your studio monitors (speakers) up to your interface. There are a few different options here, so be sure to check the requirements for whatever speakers you go with. They could take 1/4″, 1/8″, XLR, XLR-1/4″…
- Some consumer-grade speaker systems are deliberately monkeyed with so that the highs and lows are boosted. That’s great for every-day jamming, but not so great for mixing. See, if you hear the highs and lows boosted, you’re going to compensate by turning the highs and lows down. Played through ordinary speakers then, the mix will be a little shy on highs and lows.
- That’s why studio monitors are the best route. (Not 100% necessary, but recommended. I mixed through ordinary stereo speakers for a long time before switching).
- When it comes to studio monitors, size and volume are FAR less important than sound quality. A 5″ driver (the cardboard circle in a speaker) is fine.
I use these JBL powered studio monitors. They have a 5″ driver, and they are more than loud enough.
- Just like speakers, consumer-grade headphones often have some weird inaccuracies. Beats, Skull-Candy, and other consumer cans often boost the highs and lows to make everything sound mad lit. Not good for recording/mixing though. Instead, shop for headphones described as “studio” headphones.
- Look for headphones that are described as “closed-back.” This means they won’t leak sound out into the room. When you’re recording through a mic, you want the room to be completely silent, and if you’re headphone has leakage, the mic could pick that up.
- Some good brands to look for are Shure, AKG, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, and Tascam. You don’t need to spend all your cash on this, but the nicer models are more comfortable and sound more accurate.
I’ve used an older version by Audio-Technica for years (here’s a comparable model). They’re comfortable (the ear cups are made of a really fine, soft material) and they do a decent job of blocking out room sound. As with any pair of headphones, they still slightly effect our perception of frequency loudness…if possible, you should always try to do EQ work in studio monitors.
I’ve also used these by Tascam. Another solid choice (and a little cheaper than the Audio-technicas).
- There are several options in recording programs (Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs). Here are some examples (there are more): Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Sonar, FL Studio, Ableton Live, Reason, Studio One, PreSonus, and GarageBand (a default Apple product that comes on every Mac). Increasingly, all these programs have many of the same capabilities…read some reviews, pick your favorite, and pull the trigger. (Just in case you’re curious, I’ve used Sonar, ProTools, Reason, Ableton Live, and Logic.)
- Make sure your software is compatible with your computer. Some DAWs are Mac-specific or PC-specific.
- Note: setting up your software and connecting it to your interface CAN be a bit of a headache…as much as possible, try to consult forums, tutorials, and customer support. If you’re encountering a problem with a well-known program, I can almost guarantee you someone else has experienced the same issue. And remember, you only have to do this once.
Now if you’re feeling like this is still out of reach for you, no worries! No one ever said you had to buy it all in an afternoon. Chances are, you wouldn’t know what to do with all that wonderful gear anyway.
Let me tell you what I started with:
one cheap interface
a cheap [sort of broken] dynamic mic. The inside of the mic was literally falling out of the mic.
a mic cable
my brother’s laptop
From there, I slowly built up my studio at a rate that was proportional to my increase in skill level.
So if you have to slowly build this up, that’s completely legal. At the beginning of the post, I promised you could put together quality recordings for around $2000…I still stand behind that. (In fact, you could probably do it for less. For one thing, most people already have a computer handy. It might not be an iMac, but an ordinary PC should work fine for getting started.)
Like I said, if you’re interested in recording music from home, it’s a fabulous time to be alive.
No need to put tons of money into studio time, or even an elaborate home set-up.
Just keep it simple, lean on software, and focus on developing your skills as a musician and producer.
Thanks for reading! I’m a total music production nerd, so I absolutely love to share this stuff with you.
Real quick…before you go, there are two things I’d like you to do:
1. Leave a comment below telling me what instrument you play. It can be literally one word. Harp. Banjitar. Jug.
2. Share this post with one person you think might be interested in home recording.
Never stop teaching me.