I’ve spent the past few years slowly putting together a home studio to be able to record my own ideas at home, while learning more about what goes into a professional, polished recording. It’s slowly turned into something I use constantly, and have even started using it to record both demos of friends’ music and official releases like my band Terra Nova Bay’s new EP "You've Got Heart". I get a lot of questions about the gear I use and how I’ve managed to accomplish this without spending a small fortune too, so I decided to write up a how-to on putting together a small, cheap but extremely capable home studio setup.
This guide will cover the basic needs of a home studio as well as setups running on both PC and Mac-based systems.
1) Computer: The first thing you will need is a computer. Most people think that because it’s the center of their home recording setup that you need to go all out on the specs, truth is you don’t need to spend nearly as much as you think. As long as you have a decent processor and a good amount of RAM you will be just fine. You do not need to spend tons of money on a solid state hard drive, or a top of line graphics card, focus on what you need to get the job done.
The processor is one of the most important parts of your system – the faster the processor’s clock speed, the faster performance you will see. While top of the line computers will be running quad-core or six-core i7 processors,you do not need anything like this for a home studio. I would recommend a midrange processor model, something like a dual core i5 processor will serve your needs just fine. The processor handles all the code from everything you do on your computer, and I would recommend sacrificing faster processing in order to keep your price down, especially since we’re not looking at professional setups here and intense audio/video work.
I recommend having at least 8GB of RAM since in the mixing stages you will be loading up a lot of plugins and your computer needs room to run them, though you can get away with 4GB if you use a few tricks. RAM helps you manage all those plugins and/or run multiple programs at the same time without experiencing a loss of speed. As long as you’re not running other demanding programs on your computer while you run your DAW and you take advantage of the ability to lock tracks, you won’t have any issues with hitting your RAM limit.
For the Mac side, I highly recommend getting a Mac Mini. They are very close to the specs of an iMac for half the price. The catch (and also advantage) is that it comes without a keyboard,mouse or monitor. It may seem like a pain, but in the end – after buying all your peripherals – you can still come in well under the price of an iMac. Or if you choose, you can just use it as an opportunity to choose your own monitor if you wish to go with something different than what the iMac display offers. It should also be noted that while the Mac Mini doesn’t come with a lot of RAM,current models could be upgraded to a max of 16GB later on. I recently upgraded my older model to it’s maximum of 8GB’s for only $60. If you choose to go with a PC, building your own is the way to go. You can get the specs you want without any filler you don’t want, all for a much cheaper price.
PC vs. Mac: There’s a lot of debate over operating systems that is too obvious to not be addressed, so I’ll do a brief summary. The most important reason to choose one over the other is the software. You should be more focused on which software you like to work with, and which software suits your needs. This is will help you decide which operating system to choose based on that. I can also say the while the argument that Mac’s tend to hold their value more is true, most people don’t sell their old computers - especially their recording rigs – so this usually doesn’t factor into your decision. As far as reliability, amount of errors/crashes etc. if you’re using your computer purely for recording and nothing else, chances are you’ll have very similar experiences with both operating systems in that regard.
2) Studio Monitors:
It doesn’t take much money to get some decent studio monitors to record/mix on. Good qualities in monitors are high fidelity, and flat response. You don’t want these speakers to color the sound because it’s going to make you think that there’s something happening in your mix that is actually coming from the speakers, like increased bass or a muddy midrange. Do your research before you buy, but headphones can be an excellent (and cheap) way to get started with some monitors. It’s not ideal, but we’re not going for ideal here, we’re going for good quality on a budget. Keep in mind that Skrillex made one of his albums entirely on a MacBook and some headphones. No one else mixing or producing, just him and some headphones. It's very important to remember that if you have cheaper speakers that color the sound this doesn't mean you can't make great mixes, the most important thing is knowing how your monitors sound. If you know that your speakers add bass to what you're hearing, then you can compensate for that by adding in more bass in your mixes so that even if it seems way too low-end-heavy through your monitors, it will be just right when you play your mixes on other systems. If you know how your speakers color the sound, then you'll know how to work around that.
Your audio interface is very important. This is where you have the ability to spend a little and get a lot. For a home studio, chances are you won’t be recording a lot of signals at onetime, and are usually recording one track at a time, possibly two. That being said, rather than buying an interface with a lot of inputs and outputs, buy an interface with just a couple inputs and put the money you save on inputs in to an interface with higher quality preamps. While buying an interface with just one input will work, buying one with two will allow you to mic up acoustic guitar or a guitar amp with two microphones, record the signal from an amp and a DI signal at the same time, and record stereo instruments like keys. I also recommend an interface that has both XLR and ¼’’ inputs to allow for recording methods like those listed above.
4) MIDI Controller:
I’m sure if you’re using a home studio that you’re going to be working with MIDI as well. Even if you don’t produce anything like electronic music or hip-hop, you may be recording drums using MIDI samples instead of setting up a real kit. Bottom line here is that pretty much any old MIDI controller will work, it’s more about what suits your needs. You’ll probably want a keyboard if you plan to do more pitch-based MIDI. If your music is less pitch-based and more about samples, beats and triggers then you should get a MIDI controller that skips the keyboard and has more trigger pads and knobs. Think about what kind of music you want to produce and go from there - and don't forget that your MIDI controller is only half of the equation, and so much MIDI programming can be done within your DAW.
Now you're going to need something to get your sound to your audio interface. I highly recommend that you have a DI box as the first thing you buy, even before buying a microphone. The reason I recommend it is so you can record high quality, clean DI signals so that even if your amp or amp simulators are awful, if you’ve got a good quality DI signal of what you’ve played then you can always reamp those recordings later on when you have better gear, or you can take those DI’s to a studio and reamp them there. Not only that, but so many instruments work with a DI these days that you'll probably use that more than any single microphone in your studio. Some of the instruments that can take a DI box to carry the signal include acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, upright bass, keyboards, banjo, box drums, and so much more. This makes having a DI essential, no matter how professional your studio is. In a way it takes away the restriction of time, and allows you to save a ton of money by recording DI’s at home and taking them into the studio to be reamped later – you won’t have to pay for all the time it took you to get a perfect take. For microphones I suggest you do research on what is good for your instrument. I personally recommend the Rode NT1-A for vocals, a Shure SM57 for guitar amps (and a ton of other things) and the MXL 990/991 pair for a variety of uses. All of these microphones are very flexible, and the SM57 is the industry standard for guitar amps, snare drums and a lot more. I’ve had great experiences with all of these microphones in the past and they are all quite cheap. Again, it’s more about your skills and knowledge than it is about the microphone.
6) Digital Audio Workstation (DAW):
Lastly you need some software to be able to record and mix with. It’s important to remember that at the end of the day it’s not about the software, it’s how you use it. Knowledge and experience will always beat good software. Know the tools you’re working with, learn about EQ and compression and you won’t need to worry about what software you’re using again. If you buy a Mac you’ll already have software to use to record with. GarageBand is a very capable program to start recording with, complete with some plugins as well to use for mixing. If you buy a PC you can get Reaper, which has an unlimited free trial with a suggested purchase price of only $60. It’s available for PC and Mac, and it also comes with some of its own plugins as well. A lot of gear you buy - especially audio interface - will come with "lite" versions of recording software that you can use as well. Try out a few different DAW's or look up some videos on different software platforms and see what appeals to you. At the end of the day it's more important to find one that you like the layout and workflow of than if you're using the same software as your favorite producer.
- Keep an eye out for sales. While you’ll be able to find the occasional good sale in-store, there tend to be more sales and offers available online, and are much easier to find and compare to other stores. Don’t forget, holidays are the best time for sales. Waiting a couple months until Christmas could save you hundreds of dollars. - Bundles are key! I bought a Tascam US-1800 audio interface and it came bundled with a pair of cheap Audio-Technica headphones (not good for mixing, but good enough for monitoring) and the MXL 990/991 microphone bundle as well. There are often cables and mic stands available in bundles as well. Save a few bucks here and there, and eventually it adds up. - If you’re a student, take advantage of student pricing. Many companies offer student pricing for their software, so if you’re a student it’s smart to take advantage of those discounts while you can. Mostly you’ll find discounts on major DAW’s like ProTools and Cubase, but sometimes plugins or plugin bundles have discounts as well. If you don’t see anything on a company's website about academic/student pricing, email them – some companies don’t list it on their website. - Learn the sound of your room and your monitors. While we strive for a flat room and flat speaker response, if you know the downfalls of your setup then you’ll know how to compensate for them in your mix. If your room is really bass-heavy, then remember to add more bass in your mixes than you think you should have, or else when you play your mix on another system you’ll have very little bass. You can’t let your room and gear trick your ears! - Buy in the order of necessity so you can get started right away. If you can’t use it to improve your recordings right after you buy it, then it’s not really helping your recordings – it’s just pushing back the things that will. No use buying some fancy automated mixer if you’re still running cheap microphones and preamps. Prioritize your buying and you’ll be much happier. - I can’t emphasize enough how important skill, knowledge and experience are. Your software and rig don’t mean a thing if you don’t know how to work a compressor, or how to EQ instruments well. Learn the tools of the trade before you think about upgrading your gear.
So now you’ve got all the basics you need to get started, and can expand upon it later with different types of microphones, acoustic treatment, and any instrument-specific needs you might have. Depending on what you decide to do, this entire setup could be had for $1000 - $1500. An iMac alone is already over that budget. Hopefully this has helped you see what your options are available for a home recording setup and how to get going with it quickly. It’s really just as easy as doing your research and figuring out how to get only the things you need, and nothing you don’t. Good luck, and enjoy!
A quick look at how to put together a flexible, professional home studio without spending professional amounts of money.
tags home studiorecordingaudio interfacemicrophoneproducingproducermixingmasteringengineerbudget