While all serious crafts require some investment in gear and space, any musician knows that the first steps of home recording can seem particularly daunting. But setting up your studio doesn’t have to feel like building Rome in a day (or break the bank). Here we’ll take you through the first steps, from purchasing your first batch of recording equipment to setting up the space where the magic will happen.
Maybe you already have some recording equipment that simply needs augmentation, or maybe all you’ve got is a computer and a dream. No matter your situation, your three main considerations when purchasing any of the following recording essentials should be your budget, your familiarity with the products available, and your style of music.
Computer and Storage
When it comes to PC or Mac, go with whatever you’re most comfortable using – or whatever you already own. The other major consideration is RAM, the limiting factor of your recording software. A minimum of 8 GB is the sweet spot, but 4 GB should run most software smoothly without lagging or overworking your computer.
You’ll also need hard drive space. An external drive is your best bet, not only because it’s independently secure, but it also frees up your computer’s memory for your actual editing and mixing. Some producers opt for solid state drives, or SSD’s, which store information on microchips rather than the moving parts of a hard drive, making them incredibly fast – but also that much pricier. If you’re on a budget, a decent external hard drive will do the trick.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
All that RAM on your computer will go to running your DAW, or recording software – your digital music playground. Again, go with the grain of familiarity on this one. That said, it can’t hurt to consult friends or the hive mind of the internet to see what the pros are saying about their favorite softwares.
Keep in mind that your computer (Mac or PC) will limit your choice of software somewhat, but there are countless stellar options – Avid Pro Tools or the Native Instruments DAW/interface bundle, for example – on both sides of the aisle.
If your DAW is the metaphorical sandbox where you’ll play with sound, your audio interface is the literal box where raw sound goes in and produced music comes out. Bundles that include DAW software and an interface, like the abovementioned Native Instruments package, can be great starter options at decent prices.
Again, consider your budget and your computer (which needs to be compatible with your interface for things like USB connection), but especially your style of music. What you use to make sound – vocals, instruments, outboard gear – will dictate how many channels, or preamps, you’ll want on your interface. For most, particularly electronic producers, 2 preamps will suffice, but if you’re going to be recording a number of instruments (like drums) you may need 7 or 8. Just make sure your interface has phantom power, which you’ll need for any condenser mic. Which brings us to…
Eventually you’ll probably want to invest in a pair of studio monitors – not hi-fi speakers, which aren’t designed for the sound range you’ll be working with and risk blowing out. But to start, a good pair of closed-back headphones (to prevent sound from escaping from the phones and into your mixes) will go far. Sennheiser and Audio-Technica sell quality options.
At minimum you’ll need a couple of XLRs to connect mics to your interface and your interface to your monitors. You may also need jack cables to connect instruments to your interface.
A great studio space boils down to size, noise, architecture, and acoustics. While there are certain things you shouldn’t compromise on – a room with loud laundry machines isn’t a great choice, for example – you may need to be flexible, and style of music will give you some leeway (e.g. you may want a rough, “bedroom studio” sound, in which case gear like pop filters may be excessive).
If you’re lucky enough to have a whole room to dedicate to recording, make sure it’s big enough to fit the equipment and number of musicians you tend to work with. Try to find the quietest room in your house – far from loud pets, highway noise, etc. – and, if possible, make it one with concrete, tile, or hardwood flooring. (You don’t want to destroy your carpet, and rooms with creaky floors or lots of vibration will kill your sound and your flow every time someone moves.) Shoot for decent acoustics: high ceilings and asymmetrical or irregular surfaces. To some degree you’ll have to work with what you’ve got, but you can make your life easier by completely clearing the room – removing any décor, especially things that vibrate – and getting creative with (or purchasing) acoustic treatments like diffusors or more budget-friendly soundproofing blankets.
Finally, invest some time into organizing your space. Clutter doesn’t just waste your time, but can also damage your gear if you’re constantly rifling through piles of cables or hardware.