Home Studio Design: How to Build a Basic Studio
Whether you’re a Songwriter, instrumentalist, Composer, beat maker or you’ve just been fiddling around with music on your phone, having a dedicated space in which to make music at home is a very attractive idea. Isn’t that every musician’s dream? However, a “home studio” can be difficult to define. You could drop $40,000 at your local music store and squeeze all that gear into your spare room and call it a “home studio.” But normally speaking it’s a modest affair, a place for crafting demos, working on ideas and producing music without the pressure of an hourly rate. So that’s how we’re going to approach it. We’re going to lay out what you might need and things to think about when putting together a home studio.
Hardware Versus Software
Once upon a time it was all about expensive hardware. Then, with the computer revolution, it became all about software with thousands of dollars’ worth of studio equipment inside one cheap DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). These days it is very much a mix of both, although the hardware has become much more affordable. While many people still do everything inside the computer it’s increasingly common to find hardware boxes in the shape of synthesizers, effects, groove boxes and drum machines cluttering up people’s desktops. But that’s also a reflection of the kind of music you’re making.
Electronic Music Producers tend to favor software, whereas electronic music performers would much prefer hardware. Singer-songwriters would probably want something simple, whereas Composers might require entire virtual orchestras. So, what you are trying to achieve is always going to affect your choices when it comes to setting up a home studio.
Basic Home Studio
Let’s start with the most generic, catch-all, can’t-go-far-wrong, home studio for dummies. The assumption is you want to record your voice and maybe a guitar and mix it with software drums and other virtual instruments. This is where a computer, some software and a couple of bits of hardware really do the job.
Start with the computer. It can be a Mac or PC, desktop or laptop, or even an iPad at a stretch. If you already have one, then it will probably do for a start. Music production is potentially one of the most intensive tasks your computer will ever do so it might be worth getting one dedicated to the job. (Check out our article on the best computers for music production).
Next, you’ll need some recording and music production software. There’s plenty to suit all needs and all budgets. For our basic home studio we want something that’s a good all-rounder, can record, and comes with instruments and sounds. For this you are probably looking at Steinberg’s Cubase, Apple’s GarageBand or PreSonus Studio One. Cubase and Studio One both have entry-level and professional versions, depending on your budget and level of experience. One recent development on Windows is Cakewalk (the makers of professional DAW software Sonar that went bust) has been picked up by a company called BandLab who has released the full version of Sonar for free.
Along with the software, you’ll need some hardware for recording and listening. This is provided in the shape of an audio interface. It can be as simple as your computer’s built-in soundcard but that’s not going to give you great recording quality or ease of use. It’s vital to invest in a decent audio interface which will give you proper connections for your microphone, guitar and speakers. These are commonly USB connected boxes but can also be Thunderbolt. They have gain knobs and headphone sockets, maybe some metering and will work very well with your software.
Microphones do not have to be expensive. In fact, for a home studio which is unlikely to have a completely silent recording environment, you may find simple, cheap dynamic microphones work better than professional condenser ones you always see in photos of singers doing takes. Even so, your audio interface should be able to provide the right connections and powering for your choice of microphone.
Leaving room for speakers or (studio monitors) is also important although not initially vital. You can get by with a decent pair of headphones. But once you get to the mixing stage you may find a good pair of monitors will bring your music to life and cut down on the ear fatigue.
Lastly, if you are wanting to use virtual instruments then a MIDI/USB controller keyboard will let you play those computer-based sounds. This highlights another reason for the audio interface as they will provide the fastest “real-time” response when generating sound from virtual instruments.
What you won’t need is a mixer because unless you have lots of external sound sources to mix together then that’ll be done inside the computer.
With a computer, some software, an audio interface, keyboard, microphone and a pair of headphones I believe you can call that a pretty neat little home studio. There are some useful bundles around which give you the software, interface and microphone in one box. This can be a great place to start.
Microphones do not have to be expensive. In fact, for a home studio which is unlikely to have a completely silent recording environment, you may find simple, cheap dynamic microphones work better than professional condenser ones you always see in photos of singers doing takes.
Home Studio for Electronic Music
If your personal vibe is all about electronic beats, noises and soundscapes then physically recording acoustic instruments is going to be less important than generating sounds. Those sounds may come purely from the computer, in the virtual space, or they could come from the physical world of hardware synthesizers.
The computer would still be front and center although the choice of music production software may change. Electronic musicians tend to favor Ableton Live, Bitwig Studio or Image Line’s FL Studio. They are more performance orientated and focus on the sort of tools EDM producers like to use rather than audio mixing and acoustic signal processing.
The audio interface remains important because they can offer high quality outputs, monitoring and multiple headphone sockets. But the piano keyboard may get replaced (or augmented) with a launch-pad style controller for banging out beats and triggering loops.
For software sounds, there is a vast library of synthesizers and sample-based instruments available. Everything you can think of is available in one form or another as a plug-in virtual instrument. This does depend on what your computer can handle and the power and age of your system will have an impact on how many instruments you can run.
Increasingly hardware synthesizers and effects boxes are appearing in the electronic music home studio. Maybe one or two choice synths and a drum machine could give you some hands-on creativity while also taking some of the load off your computer. Bear in mind the more external boxes you have the greater will be your need for a hardware mixer or a larger, multi-input audio interface for when you need to record them into your project.
Home Studio for Composers
This would be computer-based in a similar way to what electronic musicians need. The focus here would be on large, sample-based orchestras and virtual versions of real instruments. The software choice could lean towards notation software like Avid Sibelius or Coda Finale, or a DAW with good score writing features like Steinberg Cubase.
On the hardware side the audio interface remains vital for high quality playback and no lag or latency when playing instruments live. Upgrade the MIDI controller to a weighted keyboard or something expressive like the ROLI Seaboard and you can compose your latest film score right from your home studio.
Your home studio doesn’t have to be a dream or something unobtainable. It only needs to contain enough tools to allow you to get your musical ideas down.
Home Studio for Bands
Yeah, not the greatest idea. Once you’re in a band then recording at home can become a bit of a nightmare. You are better off looking at rehearsal space and portable recording which is a whole other article. Although check out the Portastudios (pictured above, described below) for some awesome mobile recording options you can plug a band right into.
The DAW-less Home Studio
Computers are not for everyone and although they can give us an enormous amount of power they can also distract, cease to function, and provide endless possibilities that prevent us from getting anything done. So, for some the computer-less or DAW-less Home Studio becomes very attractive.
Without going all the way to the large format mixing console and reel-to-reel tape recorders (and the vast costs involved) there are a few multi-channel recorders able to serve as a home studio in a box. Tascam, the inventers of the original “Portastudio” home studio cassette-based recorders, still do digital versions in 8, 24 or 32 tracks. They have the inputs for microphones, guitars, multi-channel recording, on-board effects and a hardware control surface over mixing levels, panning and other processes. Zoom do some similar portable recorders. You can turn it on and know you can get on recording without messing around in Windows or checking your email. These recorders are best for people recording live instruments, either as a band or by layering up an instrument at a time.
The other DAW-less route is via electronic groove boxes and hardware sequencing. There are some boxes like the Digitakt from Elektron that give you 8 channels of sampling, beat making and sequencing in the one box. The Novation Circuit can offer two channels of drums and two channels of synthesis in a very easy-to-use box. Using a MIDI cable you can easily wire up to other synthesizers and electronic sound sources and with a couple of boxes you could be making complete tracks without ever having to touch a mouse or launch an app. Combine it with a Portastudio and you’ve got multi-channel recording and mixing of all your hardware sound sources and you can add some vocals alongside.
Inevitably the computer will still come into play at some point. It may be the final destination for your mix before you upload it to BandCamp, Spotify or SoundCloud. Many people drop multichannel recordings onto their computer for final mixing, editing and polish. Or maybe just create a stereo mix for finalizing through some mastering software. It’s all very possible in your home studio.
Your home studio doesn’t have to be a dream or something unobtainable. It only needs to contain enough tools to allow you to get your musical ideas down. How much gear this takes, how much software and hardware is really down to you. People have released records made on very little equipment. We all need a place to start and home is the perfect place.
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