If you are new to home recording and don’t know where to start with studio equipment, you’ve come to the right place. So much can be done from a home recording studio these days, and it doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars to do it.
We are going to look at the essentials, the things that you need most to get started. So, no more waiting; let’s get your new home recording studio up and running.
Make the most of your budget
Before you think of buying equipment, you should think about your budget and how to get the best out of your money.
So, the aim is to get the best studio equipment that you can afford, right?
That’s true, but as a beginner, the best equipment on the market isn’t always the best equipment for you.
Let’s imagine you are starting from zero experience; which of these two options do you think would help you develop most?
- A $100,000 Neve console, thousands of dollars of vintage synths, microphones, instruments, outboard gear, and a maxed-out Apple Mac Pro.
- A laptop, a DAW, and a 25-key MIDI keyboard controller.
As impressive as option number one sounds, it’s the wrong choice. You’d spend far more time staring at it, feeling overwhelmed, than you would spend making music.
You can, of course, learn to use high-end equipment, but assuming you’d be learning alone at home, it’s not the fastest way to improve.
Learning to do the basics very well is always the most important thing, and that’s why the cheaper, more beginner-friendly option is best.
You’ll be learning the basics, and more importantly, you’ll be making music from day one; that’s what it’s all about. Upgrade the level of studio equipment you use when you are ready to get the best out of it.
Clearly, we have given two choices that are at entirely different ends of the scale, and there’s a lot in between. The point is that your development comes first, and whatever you buy should enhance that whether it’s cheap or expensive.
Lastly, you need to allocate your budget wisely. If you have $1000 to spend, don’t rush out and spend $800 on monitors and be left with $200 to spread around everything else.
That might sound like obvious advice, but believe me, it’s easy to get carried away when starting out.
1. A studio computer
Our list is based on the assumption that we are thinking about the most common type of home recording studio setup; that starts with a computer and a DAW.
The first choice you have to make when it comes to a computer is whether you want a laptop or a PC. There are advantages to both that we will take a look at now. Just to be clear, when we say PC, we are talking about a tower or desktop-style unit.
Let’s start with the advantages of buying a laptop.
The clearest and most obvious advantage is that it’s portable. If you have a laptop and a small USB MIDI controller, you have a portable studio that can go anywhere with you. You can program, edit, and mix music anywhere.
A laptop can be part of your live performance setup as well when you get to that stage. Laptops are also great for home studio use if you have very limited space.
Now, if you are thinking about a PC, you are obviously going to sacrifice mobility for a stationary unit.
The upside is that PCs are generally more powerful than laptops. That doesn’t mean every PC is more powerful than every laptop, but pound for pound, a PC will outperform a laptop.
A faster and more powerful machine is what every music producer wants, but it’s especially important if working on projects with a huge number of tracks. Audio tracks don’t put the same strain on the CPU as MIDI tracks with virtual instruments, plugins, and effects.
Most home recording studio producers tend to rely quite heavily on virtual instruments and MIDI. So, more RAM and faster SSD drives might be the way to go for you.
Another advantage is that you can source components and have someone built you a custom PC that gets the most bang for your buck.
The main debate about operating systems comes down to Apple’s macOS versus Microsoft Windows.
Many people will tell you that macOS and Core Audio system is generally better than Windows, and I tend to agree, but it doesn’t come cheap! The good news is that awesome music can be created on either.
2. Digital audio workstation
Choosing the right DAW is one of the most important decisions you will make. Most people tend to stick with the same DAW throughout their careers.
A DAW is software that you will use to record, edit, mix, and produce your music.
Most DAWs come with entry-level versions and full versions that have more advanced features. For example, Apple has Garage Band and Logic Pro; then there’s Ableton Live with its Intro, Standard, and Suite versions.
The main thing that you need to know about your DAW is that it’s capable of handling any projects that you have. For example, Garage Band can handle up to 32 tracks, which is no good if you plan to work on 100+ track scores, etc.
It’s not a massive issue as a beginner, but it’s something to pay attention to, so you aren’t surprised down the line when you run out of tracks.
The next thing you need to know is that it has a nice workflow and easy to navigate. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated or advanced a DAW is; if it takes an hour to do 10 minutes of work because of needless menu-diving and a complex layout, it’s not worth it.
Most popular DAWs have come a long way in terms of being more user-friendly. Next, you need to think about which operating system the DAW runs on; does it run on both macOS and Windows? That’s a question that will be important if you start to collaborate with other producers.
Here are some of the most popular DAWs:
- Logic Pro – Massive value for money, professional, and one of the most popular DAWs amongst producers (macOS only).
- Pro Tools – Still the industry standard for recording, mixing, and mastering.
- Pro Tools First – Limited track number, but it’s FREE!
- Ableton Live – A favorite of EDM producers.
- Reason – Highly customizable, but not as widely used as the others.
- FL Studio – Still going strong with a cult following of producers, mainly in hip-hop and EDM.
3. Audio interface
The audio interface is the thing that connects your external equipment to your computer, allowing you to record audio tracks.
If you have any synths, electric guitars, bass guitars, or microphones, they go into your audio interface first. The audio interface converts the analog signal to a digital form that the computer understands.
Why do you need an audio interface if you only plan to use virtual instruments? Well, the interface does more than just convert analog to digital. It’s an external sound card that will provide lower latency and far better audio quality through your headphones or speakers.
In the beginning, you won’t need too many inputs or outputs; most entry-level interfaces will provide enough. Connectivity is a more important consideration, and at this level, USB is the most common and the easiest.
Here are some audio interfaces that we love for beginners.
- M-Audio AIR 192|4 – it’s cheap, very well built, and delivers audio quality far beyond its price. See our AIR 192|4 review
- Focusrite Scarlett Solo – A very popular choice amongst home studio producers. See our Scarlett Solo review
- Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 – Native Instruments is continually raising the bar with its budget range.
4. MIDI controller
There are lots of excellent MIDI controllers available in a few different forms. Some producers prefer pad controllers; some prefer keys or a mix of both.
From a musical point of view, we suggest focusing on a MIDI keyboard, and if you can get one that has some sample pads, that’s even better.
A MIDI keyboard is what lets you control your virtual instruments and record notes as a musical performance, rather than programming with a mouse or trackpad.
If you can already play, it’s a much easier way to get your ideas down quickly. If you can’t play, it’s a great way to learn about melody and harmony on the job.
You can go for the full 88-keys or something as small as 25-keys, depending on your budget. Here are two of our absolute favorite MIDI keyboard controllers that you have to check out:
- AKAI MPK Mini Mk3 – The MPK Mini has been a staple of the production world since its original release. A 25-key controller with MPC-style pads, and an awesome software bundle; perfect.
- Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 – The Keylab Essential range is a stripped-down version of the full KeyLab models, but they are simply amazing value for money. The combination of a great keyboard and DAW/plugin control is hard to beat.
5. Studio monitors
Studio monitors are one of the most valuable pieces of equipment you will ever buy, and as time goes on, you will realize why. If you are new to production, you’ll be used to listening to music on speakers designed to make everything sound as nice as possible.
Studio monitors are designed for critical listening, which means they should let you hear your music without artificially coloring it. In other words, they don’t try to mask the bad bits.
If you start making music and think it sounds awful through your studio monitors, don’t worry about it too much. It’s better that it sounds terrible at the start and you learn to fix it; rather than sounding great, you rushing to release it, only to find out it sounds horrible when people start to listen on different devices.
There are lots of studio monitor brands that offer great choices, from budget monitors right up to high-end. Early on, it’s important that you get used to critical listening, and you train your ears to know how things should and shouldn’t sound.
It’s not a great idea to spend thousands of dollars on high-end studio monitors if you are a newbie. So, here are a couple of suggestions that are tried and trusted:
- KRK Rokit 5 G3 – These studio monitors are ridiculous value for money. They look and sound fantastic while providing a reasonably neutral frequency response.
- Yamaha HS5 – Yamaha’s HS range of studio monitors have been industry standard for some time. They deliver a truly remarkable sound for the money, with unbelievable clarity.
Headphones give you another point of reference when you are producing, mixing, and mastering your sound. Similarly, you should listen to your music on different devices like smartphones, tablets, and so on to see how the sound translates.
But, listening through headphones for extended periods is a dangerous habit. No matter how good headphones are, they don’t deliver sound as you would naturally hear it in the room. For that reason, mixing exclusively on headphones is never recommended!
The main and most important reason you need a set of headphones is simple: monitoring while recording.
What would happen if you are set to record some vocals, hit record, and the track starts roaring from your studio monitors? Instead of a clean vocal, your microphone records a messy mix of voice and backing track.
You need headphones so that you can hear what you need to hear without sound bleeding into your microphone.
There are many aspects that determine the quality of headphones for recording, but the main choice you will make is between open-back and closed-back.
Headphones become pretty uncomfortable after an extended period of recording, and with open-back headphones being lighter, they are usually more comfortable over time. The downside is that open-back headphones let in and let out more sound.
Closed-back, as you can imagine, are the opposite. Closed-back headphones provide outstanding noise-cancellation, but they are less comfortable to wear over time.
Here are a couple of great quality beginner headphones.
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50x – Great value for money, comfortable, and surprisingly high-quality sound.
- Sennheiser HD 280 PRO – A slightly cheaper alternative if money is tight. An absolute bargain and one of the best performers in the budget range.
7. A microphone
If you plan to record any vocals or live instruments like acoustic guitar, then you’ll need a microphone. The first choice you’ll have to make is whether to go for a condenser microphone or a dynamic microphone.
We will leave ribbon microphones out for now, as they don’t really fit with a beginner budget. For more information, check out our article on different types of microphones and their best uses.
Without going into too much detail, one of the main differences between condenser and dynamic microphones is that dynamic microphones are more robust. What we mean by that is that they generally have a higher max input level and can therefore handle louder and more aggressive sounds better.
For example, if you want to mic up a guitar amp, especially for genres like heavy rock and metal, a dynamic microphone might be best. The same can be said for live drums or even screaming vocals.
For many vocal styles and most acoustic guitar playing, a condenser microphone will most likely offer more versatility.
Here are a few solid options to consider:
- Shure SM57 – It’s the MVP of microphones; it’s been around so long for a reason.
- sE Electronics sE7 – A small-diaphragm condenser microphone with unrivaled precision at the price.
- AKG P120 – a solid, reliable microphone from a brand that does budget microphones better than most.
A few more things to consider
OK, so we have got the main things out of the way, the essentials, but there are a few more (often less exciting) things to consider.
As obvious as it might sound, you need cables to plug in your instruments, microphones, and speakers.
Sometimes the equipment you buy will come with a cable, but it’s often not the case. You wouldn’t be the first excited person to unbox their brand new studio monitors only to realize that you can’t connect them to your interface.
Once you know exactly what you are buying, go through your chosen equipment and make a list of the number and type of cables that you need. It will save any disappointment and the embarrassment of telling anyone that you can’t plug something in because you forget a cable.
Whether it’s speaker cables, microphone cables, or instrument cables, they can be very cheap or very expensive. As a newbie, you can completely ignore the extremely high-end cables for now. But, if possible, try to aim one or two steps above the very cheapest to get you started.
We might as well list the most boring but commonly forgot item; the microphone stand. Your microphone will not come with a stand unless it’s part of a bundle, so make sure you get one!
As an extension to that, you might want to look for a cheap but effective pop filter, too.
Even at the beginner stage, it doesn’t hurt to get some cheap acoustic panels from Amazon; it will make it feel more like a real studio, too.
While you’re at it, grab some isolation pads for your studio monitors; they are cheap and make a real difference.
Plugins and virtual instruments
Now, this is far more exciting than cables and stands. Initially, your budget might not stretch to additional plugins and virtual instruments, and that’s fine. Between your DAW and free software bundles, you should have more than enough to start making music.
But, there are some incredible free synth plugins you should download immediately.
- U-He Zebralette – A slimline version of U-He’s Zebra synth; it’s incredible.
- VCV Rack – An amazing way to get into modular synths and sound design.
- Surge – Still one of the best free plugins ever.
- Dexed – A tribute to the classic Yamaha DX7 sound.
There are many more, so please do look for them.
There are lots of names that are industry standard when it comes to plugin/virtual instrument developers, like Waves, Spectrasonics, Universal Audio, etc.
However, there are some that the pros use that fly under the radar, either because beginners don’t know about them or assume they are too expensive.
For effects, we’d like to highlight Valhalla, who never charge over $50 for genuinely outstanding plugins.
For virtual instruments or sample banks, we have a wildcard in Spitfire Audio. Spitfire Audio makes orchestral libraries that are used on some of the biggest television shows and movies by top media composers.
Generally, everything is very expensive, but their Spitfire Audio ORIG!NALS range, offering beautiful drums, strings, pianos, and more for under $50 each.
Setting up your home recording studio should be a really fun process. From choosing the equipment, to unboxing it, to plugging it in for the first time, it’s exciting.
The most important thing is that you remember it’s about YOU making music.
Never buy something because you think telling someone you have it will sound cool. Buy things that help you get the most out of your budget and creativity; let your music do the talking.