Your First Home Recording studio
As you set out to put together your own home recording studio setup, it’s important to ask yourself what your recording goals are and what your budget is. It’s temptingly easy to get in over your head and break the bank on high-grade studio gear. But how much of its intricate functionality will you really be tapping into, especially as you are at your first ropes building your music production skills.
It would be simply wiser to start off small and later on sell your entry level studio equipment to offset the cost of more expensive replacements. This is also because, while having top-notch gear is an added plus, it’s really the skill as a music producer that matters more than anything else. It’s true that high-quality mics can give you better audio results than cheaper ones, but this only applies if you really know what you’re doing.
Now, in order to start building those foundational skills – and to carry out the entire process from playing music to recording and mixing – there are tools in your home recording studio that are cornerstones you can’t really do without.
Laying the Foundation with the Right Home Recording Studio Equipment
If you’re limited to a shoestring budget during your initial setup, some starter bundles pack together audio interfaces, headphones and a mic with a modest price tag. As for DAWs, you can find free ones or even lite versions of professional ones to get you up off the ground.
However, while we don’t advocate for starting bigger than your budget allows, studio equipment of a certain level can really put you in a competitive spot. And while it’s worth reiterating that skill in the studio trumps just about anything else, having adequate tools makes your life easier. And with diligence and persistence, you can boost your knowledge, which will get you ready for bigger studio environments eventually.
Here’s our list of must-have (and some optional) equipment:
Nowadays, a computer is the cornerstone of any recording studio – home or otherwise. There’s no getting around it. This main tool is what allows you to compose, edit and store all of your music.
When choosing your computer, you have three options for operating systems – Windows, Mac, and more exclusive such as AMD Ryzen (such as is the case for some top-notch gaming laptops). Windows OS is the most widespread, but there’s a tendency for creatives of all sorts to favour Mac. They are known to perform very well with most music production software and have negligible latency. The caveat here is that they may not be compatible with certain types of DAW. And (just like power gaming laptops), their price tags can be out of reach for some. That said, you might find attractive deals on Mac laptops as some that are virtually new are frequently sold second-hand.
Operating systems come in two configurations – 32 and 64-bit. The latter is definitely recommended, especially in order to support at least 4GB of RAM.
The minimum processing power you’ll want to look at nowadays is 2.2 Ghz i7 quad-core. This provides enough power to run high-performance software such as DAW. In this case, 2.2 stands for frequency, while i7 represents the machine’s caching ability.
RAM (Random Access Memory) is your computer’s equivalent to short-term memory. If you have the budget for it, it’s wise to go for 8GB.
Internal storage, on the other hand, is seen as long-term memory. If you have plenty of large files, saving everything on in external storage is advisable. However, you’ll want a computer with at least 256GB of storage to ensure software – especially when loaded with plugins – run smoothly.
The minimum monitor size recommended is 15 inches. Anything less is strenuous to work with. And if feasible, having an external monitor makes working with DAW that much easier.
This piece of equipment translates an audio signal into its digital equivalent so that the DAW in your computer can understand it. If you’re using external instruments such as guitars and keyboards, this will serve as the link between them and your DAW.
While you could plug certain instruments such as a keyboard directly into your computer, this isn’t usually optimal as it may cause latency or other unwanted effects. An audio interface not only resolves such issues; it also tends to offer several interconnectivity options, while also taking several instruments simultaneously through its channels. It also allows for output through several headphones and studio monitors. And an interesting, little perk this device comes with is called “phantom power” – the ability to boost the signal power for microphones.
When choosing your audio interface, you first need to decide what’s the input/output configuration that fits your needs (I/O). If you play one instrument such as the guitar, 2 channels will most likely suffice. But if you’re recording your whole band or you’re a drummer who needs to mic up separate parts of the drum kit, you’ll probably want to consider going for something more robust like 16 or 18 channels. If you don’t need that many channels, you can easily get away with an audio interface with competitive specifications anyway.
One more consideration in choosing your audio interface is how it connects to your computer. Most of the latest ones use either USB or Thunderbolt. This will depend entirely on what kind of inputs your computer has. Generally, Thunderbolt is considered the fastest nowadays.
Some of the foundational knowledge that’s good to have when choose the specs of your audio interface include bit depth. This relates to audio conversion into digital and refers specifically to dynamic range. The more dynamic range your audio interface is capable of, the more you can record loud signals in high quality. The most highly recommended bit depth is 24-bit.
The next spec you’ll want to consider is sample rate. If we had to think of an audio signal as a constantly flowing wave, what the audio interface does is it takes snapshots at various moments of that signal. This is then used to reproduce the digital version. So naturally, sample rate refers to the amount of snapshots that are taken per second. The recommended sample rate is 48K.
One distinguishing factor between low and high-range pricing when choosing an audio interface is the conversion quality. The more stable the internal converter which is integral in translating an audio signal to digital, the more it (as well as other components) is likely to come with a high price tag.
One of the impediments when making music you will want to tackle as a priority is noise. This implies both external noise and internal noise – such as electronic device feedback. Since your goal is to capture music and vocals – signal – in their purest forms, or, in a vacuum, even noise such as the echo of that signal is unwanted, unless intentional.
Higher quality components in your audio interface will also reduce what is called harmonic distortion, allowing for a quieter noise floor. This means the unwanted noise the device makes when in standby mode.
One more thing to look for is low latency. This means the time taken to transfer the signal. The lower the latency, the less lag or delay there is in the transferring process – something highly coveted in live playing as well as in recording.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is the main computer software used to record, edit, and produce audio. Any audio recording such as music, audio books, audio in videos, podcasts, TV audio, etc. is recorded using a digital audio workstation. While there are digital audio workstations that are actual physical pieces of equipment, the software variation is far more common, especially in the home studio.
Free Versus Paid DAW
Initially, you may decide to get your feet wet with a free DAW. Even the most popular ones have limited functionality when compared side-by-side with professional software. But this limitation is not necessarily a bad thing. With less functions to get lost in, you can focus on laying foundational groundwork before switching over to a more comprehensive and complex DAW. That said, it’s good to time your transition well and not linger too much on a free version.
Reason Plus as a Pro DAW
An example of a pro level and industry-standard tool is Reason Plus. Its DAW along with VSTs/Plugins not only offers thorough functionality and a wide array of sounds, but also allows for cross-platform functionality and file sharing with other major DAWs. And, due to its extensive usage across the market, there are volumes of literature and tutorials available to maximise help you get a solid grasp.
While you could get away with a reliable pair of headphones and no speakers, having quality studio monitors adds a notable touch to your studio – and we’re not just talking about looks (although there’s that too…)!
The Studio Monitor Difference
Many generic speakers (not studio-specific) tend to boost low-end signals. Playing your recordings on any other type of speaker after working on this may shock you when you find out that the sound is now too thin. This is why you need speakers that represent the most authentic version of your signal upon output.
When choosing your monitors, you’ll want to get active ones. In simple terms, this means that they’ll have their own independent (not paired) power sources as well as an amp installed.
The optimal frequency range to look for here is between 20Hz and 20kHz. This covers the entire spectrum of sound frequencies the human ear can perceive.
What Studio Monitors to Buy
The issue with this piece of equipment is, as you’d expect, cost. Studio monitors performance is proportionate to their price. The redeeming factor to consider here is that bigger is not necessarily better, especially when considering the size and acoustics of the room you’ll be operating in. Speakers that are too powerful, especially in the lower range can cause echo and distortion when used in a space smaller than that suggested.
Such models as Yamaha’s HS range vary in price and all give great performance. And the entry-level model – HS5 – does a great job, especially if the size of your room doesn’t require a particularly large subwoofer. What’s more the HS series comes with a room control function – a nifty little feature that tweaks the adaptability of the speakers to perform optimally even in the narrowest of bedroom spaces.
Just like with studio monitors, you’ll need studio headphones. These are always over-ear models as this cuts out external noise when you’re listening, while also avoiding having sound coming out of them leak and bleed into your mix.
Headphones Instead of Speakers
The upside of studio headphones is that they’re usually more economical than studio monitors. So, if you’re pressed for cash and need to choose only one of the two to start with, go with headphones.
Open Back Headphones Versus Closed Back Headphones
There are two main types of over-ear headphones: closed back versus open back headphones. Intuitively, closed back models block off external sound from filtering in. When recording this is a good thing. But when mixing, you want to allow some air flow. This makes it easier to distinguish specific instruments.
MIDI Controller (optional)
Whether you want to add a MIDI controller to your must-buy shopping list or put it off until later depends largely on the style of music you’ll be playing and recording.
Defining the MIDI Controller
A MIDI controller looks like a normal electric piano keyboard. This is a plug-and-play device that uses USB connection to sync with your DAW software. Once hooked up, you can bring up any music instrument (already in the DAW or as synth output) and play it by using the MIDI keyboard. More specifically, it gives you the added edge of controlling several virtual instruments including keyboards, synths, strings, and what have you.
MIDI keyboards come in sizes starting from the compact 25-key ones to the full-scale 88 keys. Choosing the keyboard size is a matter of deciding beforehand what’s the extent of its functionality you’re planning to use. This may vary from adding some simple riffs to entire orchestrations. Choose accordingly.
Basically, no cables, no connectivity. And most equipment doesn’t include all the cables you’ll need. Especially when your music production needs will vary from those of the next budding studio artist.
Different Types of Studio Cables
The two main cables you’ll need to familiarize yourself with are the ¼ inch cable (TS Mono and TRS stereo variants) and the XLR/Mic cable. The former is most familiar among guitar players but in actuality, its usage is a lot vaster. The TRS stereo variant has a noise reduction feature due to its balanced signal the mono variant doesn’t. Similarly, XLR cables are favoured during voice recording due to their strong noise reduction capabilities.
While microphones are not only limited in functionality to vocal recording, you know you’ll certainly need one (or more) at the least in this case.
Microphones for Different Purposes
In order to understand which microphone is the right one for your job, start by defining its exact purpose. On the note of studio microphones, who wants to take on projects for voiceover, narration, podcasts, and other types of voice-based recording that don’t involve music instruments can get great results with an economical mic setup. But if your planned endeavours involve singing or recording the human voice in more detail, you’ll want to look at condenser and dynamic microphones.
For instance, if you plan to have people talking as in video voiceovers, podcasts, etc., a condenser mic might be right up your street. These sensitive pieces of equipment do a great job at capturing complexes of low sounds in great detail. They tend to struggle with loud sounds (so, not your best bet for recording many styles of heavy metal singing). In any case, make sure to get it with XLR connectivity, so it will be the audio interface which converts the signal from analog to digital, and not the mic itself.
Dynamic mics sit on the other end of the spectrum from condenser mics. They’re well-suited for capturing sounds at loud instruments, even including recording drums and guitar amps. As one would expect, they struggle with minute detail of quieter signals. Perhaps, no brand is known better in the industry for its dynamic mics than Shure.
Noise-Free Environment for Recording Vocals
On the note of recording the human voice and microphones, there’s one more option worth investing in if you have the budget and the room – a vocal isolation booth. With the right materials and instructions, you can build this from the ground up. Another option is to install acoustic treatment products and materials in your studio.
FAQ – Home Recording studio
Can I build a recording studio at home?
Generally, house rooms are built differently from recording studio rooms. That said, rooms with plenty of carpeting, very few windows – possibly wooden ones can serve fairly well at amateur level, and sometimes beyond.
What equipment do I need to set up my home studio?
Equipment you’ll need includes an audio interface, personal computer with digital audio workstation (DAW) installed, headphones and/or studio monitors, as well as necessary cables. Some other equipment such as microphones and MIDI controllers can be added, depending on intended usage.
Should I record at a pro recording studio or at my home recording studio?
A professional level recording studio, with the right skill set at the helm, is designed purposely for pro audio recordings. However, this costs money – especially if you’re paying by the hour. Considering how audio technology has come forward by leaps and bounds, you can achieve competitive results also at your home recording studio, at a fraction of the price.
How much does it cost it cost to set up a home recording studio?
The price can vary from anywhere as little as $500 to $20,000 depending on how much equipment you add on top of the fundamental list as well as the quality of the studio equipment you’re after.