Music and technology may have spent the last decade in warfare, but they’ve long benefitted one another.
Music is the lightest form of entertainment besides writing, and so has been a natural pioneer in technologies limited by storage size. And in turn, technology has inexorably flattened the costs involved in recording and producing music — all the while, adding new innovations to the art.
Twenty years ago, building yourself a home recording studio was an involved and awfully expensive endeavor. But with just a laptop, a digital audio workstation like Ableton or Logic, and a good set of speakers, some artists can produce music on at a professional level. And from my vantage point, music is experiencing a real renaissance as tens of thousands of artists create a screaming variety of music across dozens of genres.
My own recording studio is now made up of a couple microphones, an audio interface, my laptop, DAW, speakers, and a couple of MIDI controllers. Not long ago, this would have been nowhere near enough to create music that sounds any good. But technology transforms music production with startling speed.
As prices have become low enough that kids can afford to set up their own studios — and be wildly successful bedroom producers — the amount of people buying audio gear has skyrocketed. Manufacturers have jumped on the trend. Miraculously, the number of audio products has continued to grow exponentially even as the number of people available to purchase them has multiplied.
If you’re new to music production or home recording, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be overwhelmed by the abundance of choice.
I still get overwhelmed, and I’ve been sifting through this stuff for a decade.
Luckily, building your home studio is simple. Some pieces of equipment are necessary across nearly all studios. And though there’s a lot of hardware and software to choose from, there are some simple rules you can follow to make sure you’re building a great studio without wasting your money on the frivolous extras.
This is important because your budget is going to restrain what you can do with your studio. And as much as we’d love for money to be unnecessary, for art to transcend cash, it’s true that better-sounding gear brings better-sounding productions.
Building a studio can come down to two basic principles. In this article, I’ll run through those two principles, and then build out a basic studio that can help anyone get started in music production.
This is the most important rule. No matter how good the rest of your studio, your sound and production will ultimately rest on the weakest part of your setup. That might be a piece of gear, like a bad microphone; it might be the room acoustics; it might be that your singer is awful; or it might even be you. The key is in understanding where the weakest link is and working to fix that first.
This rule is best explained using audio — though it applies equally to producers who work purely in their recording software.
All audio in a recording studio is captured in a sequence of steps called the signal chain. When you record a singer, for example, the sound begins in the singer’s vocal cords, travels through the air and through the microphone, where it’s transformed to voltage, passed through your preamps and audio interface, at which point it’s digitized and lands in your digital audio workstation. From this point, you might apply more processors, like compressors or equalizers, that still count as parts of the signal chain.
At each step in the process — starting at the very beginning, with the singer’s performance — there’s a chance for your production to break down. All the best equipment in the world can’t save a bad performance.
This principle is why it’s best to have consistent quality all the way through the chain. Investing $2,000 into a microphone, only to record in an untreated room, will simply reproduce all the imperfections of that room in exacting detail. If you haven’t put together a signal chain with quality all the way through, then the next step in building your home studio should be to fix the weakest link.
But remember — it’s not always your gear that’s breaking down. Sometimes, you simply need to work on your production skills; other times, you may need to work with better artists. The signal chain starts at the source.
When you look at recording equipment to purchase, look through your signal chain for the weakest link.
This is the companion rule to #1. If you limit yourself to the pure necessities — wherever you find weak links in your signal chain — then your budget stretches much further. And it’s often well worth investing in premium pieces of individual gear, so long as each is going to be seeing a lot of use in your studio.
I’m not advocating wasteful spending, but if you have $800 to spend, it’s better to spend the full $800 on an amazing microphone than it is to spend it on a couple of analog emulation plugins. The microphone is much further to the front of the signal chain. If your source material already sucks by the time it gets to your DAW, then no matter the brilliance of those plugins, your material is still going to suck.
Rule #2 applies to more than the amount of gear you have. When you buy an audio interface, for example, you’ll need to decide how many channels to buy. A solo artist studio doesn’t need a console, a simple dual-channel interface will work just fine. The price of your audio interface is essentially divided across the number of channels.
So when you buy an $800 dual-channel interface, you’re getting $400 of quality from each channel. Get yourself an $800 16-channel interface, and you’ve dropped to just $50 per channel.
Think through your needs, minimize as much as possible, and then spend as much as you can on that minimized end result.
Let’s get started. One of the earliest questions you’re going to face is “What equipment do I need to buy?” This can range from a DAW (digital audio workstation) to software synthesizers to MIDI controllers and keyboards to plugins and samples and microphones and outboard gear. But if you’re just getting started, you really don’t need much.
Congratulations! You almost certainly already have one of these. And you almost certainly don’t need a new one to run your studio.
The short and sweet test: unless you’ve got less than 4GB of RAM and a few free gigabytes of space, you don’t need a new one just yet. The long, frustrating test: install a DAW on free trial and try recording.
Digital audio workstations are where the real work of music production occurs. Inside this software, you can record, process, and edit audio. This audio might be recorded in your studio, or you might download it as samples, or you may create audio with software synthesizers.
If you search Google for “best daw”, you’ll find dozens of lists of options to choose from. Don’t get torn up over the array of options — despite endless (occasionally violent) debates online, just about any professional DAW will do.
A brief breakdown of preferences: in my experience, non-electronic producers often use Logic Pro X; electronic producers use Ableton; and the mixing and mastering pros use Pro Tools. Some common runner-ups include Frooty Loops, Studio One, Cubase, and Reason. My personal favorite is a little-known DAW called Bitwig Studio.
You can’t go wrong with any of those selections. Worst case, if you need to go free, Garageband is a fairly powerful piece of software (but you’ll want to upgrade fairly soon).
Ah, monitoring: the most severely neglected part of studios around the world. Perhaps the most important part of production and mixing is accurately hearing what your music actually sounds like. Yet people always seem to skimp on investing in professional headphones or studio monitors. But truly, a great monitoring setup can cause an incredible improvement in the quality of a home studio.
That’s because every element of your production is going to travel through your monitors for your judgement as you work. If your monitors misrepresent the sound — perhaps by boosting the low end and cutting the midrange — you’ll compensate by giving your production a weak bass and overpowering midrange. As soon as you bring your track over to a friend’s house, the production falls apart. A proper set of studio monitors is the solution.
I’m on the very cheapest end I could recommend to another person in good faith, using a pair of Behringer B3031a’s that have served me exceptionally well. As a gauge: it’s rare to find a truly excellent pair of monitors under $500.
Don’t get torn up over all the options — you can simply head over to a nearby music store and listen to a few monitors to see what you like, or you can go somewhere like MusiciansFriend.com and filter to grab the best-selling pair in your price range.
Congratulations! If you don’t need to record audio, you’ve already built yourself a passable home recording studio. Some electronic artists get by with just these three elements in the studio — plus a healthy dose of software plugins and synthesizers. But what if you do need to record audio?
1. Audio interface
The most important functions of an audio interface are to amplify weak voltages transmitted by a microphone and to transform sound from voltage to digital bits for your DAW.
You can save money when you get an audio interface by simply limiting yourself to the number of channels you’ll be recording. Interfaces are generally priced per-channel — so an 8-channel, $400 interface is most likely worse than a 2-channel, $400 interface.
Most of your control is going to be in the DAW, so don’t worry about any fancy bells and whistles: make sure the interface can pass audio and you’re good to go. My personal preference is the Apogee line. I’ve had an Apogee One for the last 5 years.
Note: I don’t really recommend this because it limits your flexibility so drastically, but you can skip the audio interface and get a USB microphone if you want to go really minimal. This is only really possible if you’re recording vocals only.
Microphones are another item in the studio it’s really easy to drop hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on in the pursuit of exceptional quality. The problem with high-quality microphones is that they pick up the soundscape so well. Outside of a professional studio, this means your microphone is going to pick up your home studio ambience, which you most likely don’t want. So while microphones can be the biggest investment in a pro studio outside of the console, it’s not always the best thing to invest in a home studio.
When you’re just starting out, it’s tough to beat the Shure SM-57. This microphone is guaranteed to be in any professional studio you go to; it’s used by performers around the world, and it’s used on everything from vocals to guitar cabs in the recording booth.
3. XLR and 1/8″ cables
These are the standard cable types for microphones and instruments. You can get the cheapest set of cables available to you — there’s no need to invest in gold-plated anything. At this point, your cables are far from the weakest link in your audio chain.
4. Bonus tip: a premium couch
Seriously, you want people to enjoy coming by your spot. A good couch, a couple of chairs, and some decent lighting and decor goes miles towards getting people comfortable to perform or settle into a writing and production session.
For nearly anyone recording, mixing, or mastering audio, my next step would absolutely be to figure out your home studio acoustics.
This basic setup is everything you need to get started with a home studio that’s capable of both music production and recording audio!