The title of this post is not strictly true…
There is actually only 1 thing that you need to set up a home recording studio.
If you’re reading this right now on your computer, then you already have everything that you need to get started.
It is possible to make music without anything other than your computer and some free software (I’ll be showing how to do this in a later post).
However, trust me when I say that the results that you’ll get will sound like they didn’t cost you any money.
If you want decent-sounding results then you’ll need to make some investment into your setup.
I know, spending money is not what you want to hear right off the bat.
But you can’t make a movie without a camera. And you can’t have a home recording studio without some basic equipment.
So, how much investment are we talking here?
As a guitarist, a good analogy I can make would be with guitars. Cheap guitars are ok for learning, but not good enough once you can really play. I’d love a forty-grand vintage Les Paul, who wouldn’t! But a mid-range Fender Stratocaster can sound as great if as the Les Paul and last a lifetime.
My point is you don’t need to spend thousands to get a great sound. But if you’re serious about producing music, you’ll need to have a modest budget.
If you shop smart, you can put together a basic home recording studio for less than $450/£300.
Maybe that sounds like a lot to you, maybe not. To put it in perspective though, it’s the same price as a PlayStation or Xbox. I enjoy playing video games as much as anyone else, but having a home recording studio is infinitely more rewarding.
There are free alternatives to most things, but these really don’t compare. Where there is a free alternative to anything – and if there is, I’ve probably used it – then I’ll let you know. It’s up to you if you want to give it a try. But if you’re serious about making some music, then a little investment into your home studio setup can go a long way.
Ok, with that aside, let’s get into what you need!
Things Needed for Music Production
There are 5 items you need to set up a basic home recording studio:
- A decent computer
- Some recording software
- An audio interface
- A decent microphone
- Monitors and/or good studio headphones
Put these together and you have a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). You’d be hard pressed to find a professional studio these days that isn’t based around a DAW.
Let’s look at the 5 essentials of a home recording studio:
1. A Decent Computer for Music Production
Unless you’re a time traveler or defrosted caveman, I shouldn’t need to explain what a computer is…
Chances are, you already have this part of your DAW. The question is, is it up to the job?
Working with lots of tracks of simultaneous audio and effects can eat up your computer’s processing power very quickly.
Most new computers are capable of doing the job and if yours was made in the last 5 years, you should be ok. Of course, the more powerful the computer, the better.
iPads can also fulfill this role to an extent, but netbook and notebook PCs don’t quite have the oomph that you need.
Mac or PC?
A divisive topic if there ever was one… The fact is, it doesn’t matter. Some people will swear that Macs are better for music production, but it’s not true – a fast PC will let you make music just as well.
Just remember that this is a core part of your home recording studio and the more power you have, the more flexibility you have to be creative with your music.
2. Recording Software
Some people call this ‘DAW software’ or ‘sequencer software’. Whatever you call it, it does the same thing.
This is at the heart of every DAW. It lets you record, mix and edit your tracks, add effects and ‘plug-ins’, and a whole lot more.
There are numerous programs out there: Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Sonar, Reaper, GarageBand, Digital Performer, Audition, Studio One, FL Studio, Live… The list goes on (but these are the main ones).
Choosing what recording software to use might seem like a tricky decision, but really it’s not. All of these programs are decent and all are capable of delivering professional-sounding results.
You just need to choose one that fits your budget and start learning how to use it!
Historically, DAW recording software was very expensive. Although the price has come down over the years, it can still cost several hundreds of pounds or dollars.
The good news is most software publishers have been releasing ‘lite’ versions, which are more affordable, entry-level versions. These typically have fewer features but are no less capable of producing great-sounding music. You can often find these lite versions bundled with certain audio interfaces.
There are free DAW software programs out there too. Avid has just released Pro Tools First, and Audacity is a popular free sequencer, while you may already have GarageBand if you own a Mac.
However, these have their limitations – limited save options, a limited number of tracks, fewer effects… You might want to consider if they’re worth investing your time, but you will certainly outgrow them as your creativity grows.
Take a look at this Beginner’s Guide to Music Production Software to learn more.
3. An Audio Interface
While you can use your computer’s internal soundcard to record, it’s not suitable for a home recording studio. What you need to get sound – vocals, guitars, keyboards – into your computer is an audio interface.
Like with the recording software, there are many different brands to choose from. Fortunately, most will be compatible with whatever recording software you choose.
There are lots of different features, bells and whistles that audio interfaces come with. Don’t be blinded by these or think that ‘more’ equals better.
Most home recording artists will only need a simple USB audio interface with two input and output channels. For podcasters and some producers, a single channel would be enough.
You should make sure that there are 1-2 microphone preamp inputs with phantom power, 1-2 line-in inputs for guitars and keyboards, MIDI input/output (if you plan on using MIDI instruments), stereo outputs and a headphone output.
You can easily pick up one of these for under £100/$150. It’s also worth looking at some of the bundles that come with free DAW recording software.
Click here to read about The 9 Best Audio Interfaces on a Budget.
4. A Decent Home Recording Microphone
Of course, a microphone is an integral part of the recording process and your choice of a microphone can have a profound effect on the results.
When you’re starting out, one microphone should be enough for you whatever instrument you play. If you want to record vocals and acoustic guitar together, you can do these both separately into the same microphone using your DAW software. In fact, you’d be mad not to!
Keeping it simple, there are 2 common types of microphone: dynamic and condenser. Dynamic microphones are most often used in live performances because they are very directional, i.e. they record what they are pointed at and not much else.
Condenser microphones use a different technology to pick up sound (involving electrical current, hence the need for phantom power) and they are renowned for giving a rich, detailed and clear sound.
If you are going to get one microphone, you should get a condenser.
Although the best condenser microphones tend to be a bit more expensive than the best dynamic microphones, because the technology is quite old, there are many options available for under £100/$150. You certainly shouldn’t be looking for the cheapest option, but you shouldn’t need to spend any more than that for your home recording studio.
A word of caution: many microphones do not come with a cable or a microphone stand. Check before you make any purchase to see if these are included or not. You can often find some good bundle deals online that include these essentials for using the microphone.
Have a read of this article about 7 Decent Home Recording Microphones to see what your money can get you.
5. Good Studio Monitors and/or Headphones
Studio monitors are the preferred option since they will give you the most accurate sound. You don’t need to get the most expensive ones out there – in fact, you probably haven’t got space for them! But there are many decent monitors that are perfect for a home recording studio.
However, if you don’t have space or understanding neighbors, then getting a pair of good quality studio headphones will work. There are arguments against mixing on headphones, but contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to record and mix using headphones. It’s not ideal, but it can be done.
Even if you have monitors, you will probably want some headphones too so that you can listen to the track while you record. After all, you can’t exactly have a track blasting out of monitors while your sensitive condenser microphone is recording in the same room!
If you’re on a budget, you should start with getting some good headphones and save up for monitors. You’ll always make good use of the headphones either way.
This article will tell you more about The Best Studio Headphones for Home Recording available at the moment.
Check out this article for more information about The Best Studio Monitors for a Home Recording Studio.
What about multi-track recorders?
An alternative to a DAW-based studio would be to get a multi-track recorder, such as the TASCAM DP-008EX Digital Portastudio.
I started out with a TASCAM 4-track cassette recorder back in the mid-’90s, so I’ve got a soft spot for these devices. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend one of those to my worst enemy…
These days these devices are capable of producing good quality digital recordings at a reasonable price. However, these really don’t compare to setting up a DAW. There are more limitations and next to no way to expand the features. Furthermore, you can’t really see what you’re doing with these.
I’d recommend a multi-track recorder for musicians looking for a portable studio that you can chuck in a rucksack. But you’ll still need microphones and headphones to use these. And for the same money, if you’ve got a laptop, you can have a much more powerful studio that is just as portable.
By all means, take a look at a few if you’re just starting out. These things wouldn’t exist unless they could do a job. But if you want to build a home recording studio that you won’t outgrow, you’ll be looking at a DAW-based studio.
There you have the 5 essentials for a fully-functional home recording studio. If you get these items, you will be able to record high-quality audio and have all of the tools you need to start producing professional-sound results.
It might take you some time to get familiar with your setup and get the results you want. Just be patient, take time to learn the skills and you will be able to make music.
At the end of the day, these are just the tools. The creativity comes from you. But with the right tools, you’ll have a home recording studio that will allow you to unleash that creativity.