Where to begin?
“Setting up a home recording studio can be a daunting task…” You’ll likely have come across this ominous intro – or something like it – at least once before.
And yes, I can see how a room full of flashing lights, knobs and faders can be overwhelming (and exciting) to a beginner.
But here’s the thing: You don’t need much to start producing music these days. It’s really not that expensive or difficult to get started.
If you have a computer – even an older model – and some way of hearing it, you can make a start. Dig up some free software online, and away you go.
That’s all it takes to start learning the ropes in music production.
But if you’re reading this, you’re looking to take this a little more seriously than that. You’re ready to invest some time and money into achieving the results you’re after in setting up a home recording studio.
I‘ve got you covered. Let’s dig in!
1. A Computer
Without a doubt, the single most important piece of equipment you’ll need is a computer. It’s kind of ironic, but this machine is the heart of your studio.
Desktop or Laptop?
This boils down to mobility vs power. A desktop will always have better specs than what the same money would get in a laptop. Especially if you put it together yourself)
BUT…you can forget about recording/producing anywhere but your studio.
Choose a laptop
…if mobility is a priority. Situations like:
- When you want to perform live and use the same computer you used to produce the music. Think EDM, DJs or even bands with click tracks.
- If you want to record live shows.
- If you want to experiment with recording in different environments. E.g. instead of processing audio with a digital hall reverb, going out and recording in an actual hall.
Choose a desktop
…for setting up a home recording studio permanently.
Desktops generally feature better specs than laptops in the same price bracket. Better specs means less limitations in regards to:
- number of audio tracks
- number of effects
- number of virtual instruments
Another benefit of desktops is that upgrading components is easier, and more budget-conscious all round. More ‘bang for your buck‘.
Mac or PC?
As long as it can run the software you want to use, either is fine.
Both Mac and PC have loads of great music production software available. A lot of DAWs and most plugins are cross-platform anyway.
Go with what you’re familiar with here, no need to reinvent the wheel.
Although it’s possible to run everything off an HDD, you’ll run into problems at some point.
Ideally, you want an SSD to run the DAW and software. You can still use a regular HDD for project files, sample libraries and things like that.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need the latest, biggest or the best when setting up a home recording studio.
It’s surprising what you can squeeze out of an older PC, but if you can set yourself up with at least:
- An i5 processor or something in the same ball park
- 8gb RAM (though I’d suggest 16gb)
…then you’re good to go, regardless of laptop or desktop.
2. A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
If the computer is the heart of your studio, then the DAW is the brain. Your DAW is the software that allows you to:
- Record audio
- Edit audio
- Sequence MIDI
- Use virtual instruments and plugins
- Mix songs
What to look for in a DAW when setting up a home studio
There are a variety of DAWs out there to choose from, some designed with more specific purposes in mind.
Ableton Live, for instance, has a clear leaning towards electronic music and EDM, due to how it is setup. By no means is it exclusive though; you can use it – or any other DAW for that matter – to produce whatever music you like.
I’d say the main factors in choosing a DAW are regular updates and a supportive community.
The more users a DAW has, the more bugs that are going to turn up. It’s an inevitability of any software.
How soon the developers address these issues and add new features is a good indicator of quality.
The manufacturer is not always going to be able to answer every question you have.
An active and supportive community of users can help, and share tips and tricks. Have a dig around YouTube to see what I mean.
Find the right fit for you
Most DAWs offer free trial versions to experiment with. Try them out for yourself, get a feel for how they work, and see which is the best fit for you.
Here are some of the well-known DAWs out there right now.
If you want to find more, try a Google search with “alternative” after the name.
Any DAW that follows the criteria is fine. Do your research: Watch some YouTube videos and try out some demos. But don’t choose one just because everyone else says to do so!
Take my situation, for example. FL Studio has garnered a reputation as one of the DAWs of choice for electronic music. Despite of this, I have been using FL Studio since its inception, mostly for guitar-based music.
3. An Audio Interface
The audio interface acts as a hub. It connects microphones, speakers and headphones to your computer.
It’s how you get sound into – and out of – your DAW.
How does an audio interface work?
OK, So you know that computers are digital. Their ‘language’ is a series of 0s and 1s.
Sound, in itself, is acoustic, or analogue. The ‘language’ of sound consists of soundwaves, not numbers.
The job of the audio interface is to act as an interpreter between the two. It converts:
- analogue into digital audio when recording
- digital into analogue when played back through headphones or monitors
Most computers already come with an audio interface built into the motherboard. Yep, the good ol’ mic and headphone sockets.
So why not use these for music production and recording?
Well, you can…technically speaking.
Nothing is stopping you from using a cheap mic and a couple of pc speakers to get started. You can’t expect serious results to come of it when setting up a home recording studio.
The main reason for an audio interface is the AD/DA (a.k.a Analogue to Digital/Digital to Analogue) converters.
These define the quality and detail of your sound. Not only your recordings, but playback as well, including virtual instruments and effects.
A good example of this is when using a quality reverb plugin. I say reverb, because it’s an ‘obvious’ sound, making it easier to hear the difference.
Through a high quality AD/DA, it sounds way more realistic and immersive. There is an audible difference there, but you’ll need to use a decent pair of monitors or headphones.
This is because the purpose of a dedicated audio interface is to capture a large frequency range. Your inbuilt motherboard audio is really only designed to capture speech. Audio fidelity isn’t a top priority there.
Inputs and outputs
Audio interfaces have at least 2 simultaneous inputs and outputs. In most cases, this will suffice.
But what if you’re looking to record acoustic drums, or a live band? You’ll need many more microphones, and thus more inputs/outputs – at least 8, and likely more.
You’ll find 2 main types of inputs on an audio interface (though these aren’t exclusive):
Have you ever tried to record a guitar without a dedicated audio interface?
If so, you’ll often find it produces a weak, noisy signal.
Attempting to boost this signal (via editing software) ends up boosting the noise as well. As you can imagine, this makes for a pretty crappy result.
This is where microphone preamps step in. Thanks to XLR inputs, Microphone preamps:
- accept a wider range of inputs
- reduce noise
- offer a gain control to boost weaker signals
This gives more control when recording, and a much cleaner sound in general.
¼” TRS Line Inputs
These are for balanced connections, so things like:
- Hardware synths
- Outboard effects
- External Preamps
- Channel Strips
- Pretty much anything that doesn’t use a microphone.
Unless you absolutely must be able to record live drums right now (and fair enough, that may actually be the case), go with a decent quality 2 in/2 out audio interface.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a popular choice amongst home studios, and for good reason.
Plugins are software addons for your DAW that come in 3 main types:
- Virtual Instruments
- Signal Processors
- MIDI Effects
These are the sound generators that your DAW ‘plays’.
Also often referred to as VSTs (VST is one of the most common plugin formats for DAWs, though not the only one).
There’s a near-infinite variety of sonic possibilities with virtual instruments. From realistic emulations of live instruments to all sorts of otherworldly synth craziness.
Your DAW controls these using MIDI protocol, which provides the instrument information like:
- What notes to play
- How hard or soft to play them
- How long to hold the note
- …and a heck of a lot more
They can also be controlled directly using a MIDI controller or even an electronic drum kit.
These plugins affect sound rather than generate them. You typically run audio and virtual instruments through these.
We’re talking things like:
- Compressors and Limiters
- EQ a.ka. Equalization
- Modulation – Chorus, Flanger, Phaser
- Delay and Echo
- Amp Modelling
These affect MIDI data rather than audio. MIDI effects take the data sent by your DAW, process it in a certain way, then send it to your VST/VSTi
- Real-time Quantize
- Event Filters
Get to know the plugins that come with your DAW of choice, but also take to Google for a search on free vst and jump right in. Sure, there are many crappy free plugins – as you can expect – but there is some absolute GOLD out there too.
5. Studio Monitors
In a nutshell, speakers. But not.
There are some big differences between Studio Monitors and commercial HiFi speakers.
Studio Monitors deliver as flat of a frequency response as possible. The idea is to provide minimal sound colorization.
HiFi speakers are usually designed with a boosted EQ curve in some way. Things like booming bass, ultra-sibilance or some other type of modified EQ. The idea is to make the music you listen to *cough* “sound better” *cough*. More irony!
That’s the problem with mixing on HiFi speakers. You are not getting the true sound of your mixes, and as a result you may tend to overcompensate.
Take, for example, mixing on speakers with an EQ that emphasizes the bottom end. To compensate, you will likely cut more lower frequencies than needed. The result being a thin-sounding mix on other speakers.
The same goes for mixing on small pc speakers.
Not hearing enough bottom end can result in overcompensating the other way. You end up adding too much low end and end up with overbearing bass that doesn’t sit well in the mix.
Choosing your Studio Monitors
The size of the Studio Monitors are going to have an impact on bass response. But before rushing out to buy the biggest pair you can get your hands on, consider the size of your studio space.
The wrong choice can result in all sorts of issues with sound reflections. Do your research before buying!
The KRK Rokit G4 monitors are a very popular choice when setting up a home recording studio. By no means am I calling these my absolute #1, but they’re a great option.
6. A MIDI Controller
While it is possible, interacting with your DAW via mouse alone is not ideal. It is the most laborious, uninspired and – most of all – unproductive way to do it.
A MIDI controller offers a ‘hands-on’ approach to your DAW and plugins as well as performance.
They do not have actual sounds of their own. They do, however, offer extensive control over DAWs and virtual instruments.
MIDI controller types
There are MIDI controllers for a variety of purposes, beyond even what I have listed here. Here are some of the basics.
Being able to play melodies, rhythms and chords into your DAW has many benefits. It’s easier, faster and more inspiring. Not only that, but it’s the only way to capture a ‘human feel’ essential to many styles of music.
MIDI keyboards are available in a range of sizes. From the compact 25-keys, all the way up to 88-key versions for those diehard piano players.
On top of that, they often feature assignable knobs and faders so that you can tweak sounds on-the-fly. A classic example would be using a knob for a slow filter sweep while holding down a drawn out chord. Zeeeeooooowwwwww….
Inspired by Akai’s MPC range of samplers, MIDI pads feature an array of square pads rather than keys.
The most obvious use is for drums. You would assign a different drum to each pad, and then use it to ‘play’ beats into your DAW.
But there are other applications. You can use the pads to trigger samples (not only drums), loops and even entire riffs or melodies.
Control surfaces are more akin to mixing desks than instrument controllers.
They don’t have a keyboard or drum pads. They do have an array of faders, buttons, knobs and sliders that can be assigned to almost any function you like.
As such, control surfaces shine in the mixing department.
They record movements and controls via MIDI, which are then mimicked on playback. This means you will actually see the faders moving up and down as the song plays back, just as you recorded. It’s kinda eerie, but very cool!
The Arturia MiniLab Mk II offers portability and control and a bunch of other nifty features.
Before buying any controller, make sure you research compatibility with your DAW. Not every controller is going to work as seamlessly as the marketing may imply!
If you plan to record vocals or acoustic instruments, it’s not going to happen without a microphone.
Types of Microphones
The 3 types of microphones are:
Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.
Condensers are sensitive microphones, in more ways than one.
They have a detailed, wide frequency response, particularly in the higher end. Condensers are the studio “go-to” for recording vocals or acoustic guitars.
They are also quite fragile of the two, so take care when handling them.
Dynamic microphones are your “workhorse” mic.
More durable than Condensers, they are the microphone of choice for live applications.
Dynamic mics are less sensitive than Condensers.
This has benefits, in that they can handle much louder sources. This is why Dynamic microphones are perfect for recording drums or guitar amplifiers.
If you thought you had to be careful with a Condenser, then you’ve got another thing coming with Ribbon mics!
Ribbon microphones are THE most fragile (…and expensive!) mics of all. They are also the most sensitive, used on soft sources like smoother vocals or strings. Are you seeing a pattern here?
Being the least versatile of the three, a Ribbon mic is not recommended for a first microphone when setting up a home recording studio.
XLR or USB?
USB is a convenient format, carrying both power and digital data. But convenience often comes with a sacrifice in quality.
USB uses unbalanced connections, which can pick up noise. XLR is a balanced connection designed to lower noise levels.
If you’re a podcaster, go with USB. But if you’re serious about getting the best sound quality out of your mic, it’s XLR all the way.
For your first studio microphone, choose a large diaphragm condenser. To this end, the Audio-Technica AT2020 is a classic amongst home recording studios.
There’s any number of reasons why you may want headphones, not the least of which is recording with a microphone.
Say you’re recording vocals in the studio and you don’t have an isolation booth.
Recording in the same room as monitors means the microphone will record EVERYTHING. Not only vocals, but everything coming out of the speakers as well.
This can lead to all sorts of problems. Noise, feedback and phasing issues resulting in a crappy and often unusable recording.
Headphones allow the vocalist to hear the track without it spilling into the microphone.
Types of headphones
There are 2 types of headphones:
- Closed back headphones
- Open back headphones
Closed back headphones
These are the best for recording, as they offer better isolation – i.e. minimal ‘leakage’ of sound.
Open back headphones
Better for mixing, as they offer better sound quality, but aren’t as good for isolation.
Headphones vs monitors
The idea of mixing on headphones – as opposed to studio monitors – opens a whole can of worms. It’s a controversial subject.
Up to now, the general sentiment has been that mixing on headphones is not a good idea. This is because it doesn’t convey an accurate representation of what you hear on speakers. Makes sense.
But things have changed in headphone technology. More and more commercial mixes you hear are actually the result of mixing on headphones.
Start with closed back headphones – open back can wait. You can find some great deals such as the Sennheiser 280 Pro, which are fantastic quality for the price.
There are 3 main cables you will need, more if you expand further.
- 1 XLR cable for your microphone to your audio interface – you’ll want this to be a longer cable for flexibility.
- 2 shorter XLR cables for outputting your audio interface to your studio monitors. Before purchasing these, ensure that your audio interface actually has XLR outputs!
As a rule of thumb, use XLR over TRS whenever possible.
Avoid the temptation to cheap out here, especially for the microphone cable. By no means do you have to go for the most expensive, either.
Mogami Silver is a great mid-range choice. It offers the right balance between price and quality.
10. Microphone Stand
If you’ve got a microphone, you’ll definitely want at least one decent microphone stand in your studio.
If you’re recording vocals, in most cases, the last thing you want is the vocalist holding the mic while recording. Bumps, extra noise, fluctuations in volume. You don’t need that.
Same with if you intend on miking up amplifiers; propping the mic up on a chair or a crate may do the job for the moment, but can affect the recording (depending on the kind of mic you’re using).
Some examples include:
- Pop filter. This is the screen placed between the vocalist and the microphone to reduce ‘popping’ sounds or plosives.
- Isolation shield. When an isolation booth isn’t available, this can help block out noise and unwanted sounds when recording vocalists.
These are just a few examples; there are many other types of helpful accessories for your studio. However, in most cases, these can wait until your studio is established. There are way more important pieces of equipment to focus on first!
Experimentation is key
I know it’s easy to get caught up in rabbit holes when researching setting up a home recording studio, especially when you’re new to it. There’s just so much to learn.
You can read up on this topic as much as you want (and you should) but in the end you’re going to have to jump in and experiment in order to find the right gear for you.
Remember, these are the fundamentals to YOUR studio, and thus YOUR signature sound. Take the time to learn about your components and how they interact with each other.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a singer/songwriter, producer or engineer. Setting up a home recording studio is a rewarding experience and one heck of a fun ride. Enjoy yourself!