DIY Home Recording Studio: The Ultimate Beginners Guide

What if you’re just putting the finishing touches on a composition you know can be the next big top 10 hit – and now your wondering where to record it.

These days, there’s no need to go to a major (= expensive!) recording studio. That’s rapidly becoming a thing of the past. With home PCs everywhere, it’s now not only possible but also affordable, to create a system where you can record, edit, mix and master music right through to the end product.

Current Trends

Until recently magnetic technology was used for music recording. This required high-quality analog tape – very expensive. This process put home recording out of financial reach for most ordinary people and editing in the studio was painstakingly slow.

On the other hand, the analog tape had its own distinctive sound, and this has proven difficult to emulate using more recent digital tape or digital audio engines.

Next digital tape arrived in two main formats:

  • ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape – introduced in 1991)
    • eight-track recording device
    • uses standard VHS formatted tapes
    • the alternative to using standard analog tape
    • limitation: to record more than eight tracks, you need more ADAT machines
  • DAT (Digital Audio Tape – introduced by Sony in the mid-1980’s)
    • Similar technology to the ADAT, but superior because
    • uses smaller cassettes
    • longer playing times
    • improved durability
    • lower risk of deterioration

Current practice is to record and store music on Digital Tape or direct to a computer hard drive, then burned onto a CD. There are still some purists who use analog tape to record before transferring to a PC or Mac for editing and mixing etc.

So How Can a Home Recording Studio Help

Probably the single greatest advantage is cost. Or rather, lack of it, compared to earlier times.

  • Recording in a studio
    • can be expensive; time is money which means you haven’t the flexibility to work on ideas at your own pace.
    • means you have to have the tracks completed and performance-ready, to avoid needing too many takes.
  • Home recording
    • opens up the creative door for possibilities, since recording onto a hard drive is not expensive. Provided you’ve plenty of disk capacity, recording cost is zero!
    • You can re-edit and/or re-mix a track as many times as you like to get it exactly as you want.
    • The only real expense is your time and effort.

More importantly, perhaps, you can design and set up your studio to be exactly as you want it. Based on what you plan to record, and how much you can afford, you can build your own tailor-made environment.

With some wise equipment and recording software choices, home recording studios can grow and develop through on-going additions and upgrades to allow the studio to keep pace with your maturing talents and changing interests.

So, What Are the Main Types of Home Recording Systems?

Digital Studio-in-a-box:

  • all in one system that has everything to get you started.
  • you need to add:
    • sound source
    • input device (microphone, instrument or sound module)
    • monitors
  • Examples: Have a look at the
    • Akai DPS24 – professional 24-track
    • Korg D1200mkII – easy to use 12-track
    • Tascam DP-01FX – 8-track, with good sized controls

Computer Based Systems

  • similar to the studio-in-a-box, except it runs on the processing speed of your computer for recording, mixing and editing.
  • again, you need to add:
    • sound source
    • input device (microphone, instrument or sound module)
    • monitors
  • Examples: If you are a Mac user, click the links for more information:
  • For PC users, click the links for more information:

Stand-alone Systems:

  • all your gear is separate
  • perfect if you already have some gear and want to upgrade it to provide a more comprehensive recording environment

Of course, all of these systems can be combined.

For example, if you invest in a studio-in-a-box you can add the processing speed of a music computer to it, or if you are already using a computer-based system you can add on stand-alone gear like a sound module.

So what’s the main difference between these three systems?

Price to buy and maintain:

  • Stand Alone systems are easier to upgrade
  • Studio-in-a-box setup
    • becomes obsolete faster
    • limits your choice of individual gear to add later

Essential Home Music Studio Requirements

Although there’s huge range of choices when designing your home studio, there are some essentials to provide the basic functionality you’ll need.

This is just a brief introduction. In later articles we’ll cover each component of recording studio equipment in more detail.

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Computer: Can be a PC or a MAC, but it must meet the pre-requisites of the recording software that you plan to buy. After that, the main priorities to consider are

  • processing speed
  • RAM
  • a decent sound card

Click these links for some examples of music computers:

Input devices: You will need:

To get started, you may not need all three, but you’ll have more options to work with if you do. If you only have a microphone you will have to mix everything, and with a sound module, you don’t have the ability to record voice or instruments.

Click the links below to see examples of studio mics:

  • Shure SM58 – all purpose dynamic mic (everyone should have one!)
  • RoDE NTK – high quality condenser mic (vocals & live instruments)
Sound Mixer: A mixer:
  • routes your input sources to your recording device
  • enables you to set proper signal levels so you can get a good mix down for your final recording.

Recording software will have a built in mixer which means you can mix on screen with your mouse. So you don’t have to have an external physical mixing desk . It’s a matter of personal preference and budget priorities.

To give you an idea, here are some mixers, both digital and analog

Signal Processors: This can be:
  • part of your recording software, or
  • an external device (again a matter of personal preference)

Signal processors are used to tweak the sound(s) in your recordings; there are three types:

  • Equalizers
  • Dynamic Processors (compressors/limiters)
  • Effects Processors (reverb/delay/chorus)

Click here to see some examples of signal processors

Studio Monitors : There are two main types of studio monitors:
  • Passive (require an external amplifier to power them)
  • Active (has a built in amplifier in each speaker)

The main difference is price, since active monitors include an internal amplifier. You will see either type of monitor in a home recording environment. Again, it comes down to personal choice of what sounds best to your own ears.

Here are a couple of examples. Click the links for more information.

The wish list â€“ If you don’t know what everything is, by the time you want it, you will.

  • MIDI Keyboard
  • Headphones
  • Software for recording audio: ProTools, Cubase, etc
  • Microphones (Dynamic and Condenser)
  • Sound Modules: External Hardware and software based
  • More than one computer
  • Mixing board
  • Additional instruments: Guitar Bass Drums etc
  • Dedicated Vocal Booth / separate room for recording and likewise for mixing

Additional Outboard Gear or software:

  • EQ’s
  • Compressors
  • Reverb Units / Delays
  • Limiters etc
  • Extensive Sample Libraries

Buying Gear without breaking the bank

When buying your equipment it is important to shop around. It is very much a buyers market, with several vendors and types of supplier.

Do your research; there are a lot of options today, so learn as much as you can so you make educated decisions that suit your needs.

You will want to try out each piece of gear before you buy it so if you’re in a store that does not allow this, don’t shop there.

Lastly, you don’t have to buy everything at once. Building a home recording studio is a creative processes that should develop as you develop your talents and your needs grow.

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