A Crash Course in Equipping Your Home Recording Studio on a Budget
Building a home recording studio is extremely desirable for the audio enthusiast. Creating music in your spare room was a dream for most back in the old days.
It’s easy enough to set up a home recording studio in your bedroom today, but even though it’s easy, many people don’t know where to start.
In the following series, I’ll go over the basic aspects of setting up a home recording studio.
From microphones to acoustic treatment, this guide will show you everything you need to build a home recording studio for under $1,000.
Here is the six part series on building your home recording studio, along with some additional thoughts you need to keep in mind when constructing your home studio.
Your Bare Essential List of Home Recording Equipment
If you want to jump-start your home recording studio but don’t really have the budget for a ton of home recording equipment there are a few things more important than others.
Given that we don’t want to go overboard with the budget and only need the bare minimums for your home recording studio, these are the things that you absolutely need. Just get started with the bare essentials and later down the line you can pick up all the extra music recording equipment you desire.
And what are the bare essentials anyway?
A recording computer
There is no need for any home recording equipment if you can’t record and save your songs somewhere. In the short-run, you can get away with most computers, whether desktop or laptop. Get some free recording software off the internet, and you can check this item off your list.
You don’t need ultra expensive monitors to start a little home studio. There are a bunch of really nice sounding monitors at budget prices that can get you started and will get the job done perfectly.
An alternative option would be to get really good headphones, but it is always better to listen to mixes in a room instead of on headphones. But if you have to put off buying monitors for a later date, headphones can totally work in the short-run.
A trusty microphone
An excellent sounding condenser is a great bet for the home recording enthusiast. Get a workhorse microphone that works equally well on vocals and acoustic instruments. You would be amazed at the sound coming out of some budget condensers.
Now you need to plug it all in and start recording. The last little thing you will need is an interface to patch it all together. In order for you to connect the headphones, microphone and monitors to your computer you need some sort of audio interface. Prices vary depending on how many inputs and features you want, but there are certainly plenty of audio interfaces out there for people on a budget.
And one more thing, be sure to get all the necessary cables to connect everything together. Now with your bare bones home recording equipment there is no reason to delay the production of your next smash hit.
Building a Home Recording Studio Part 1 – Questions and Computers
I’ve been asked many times about the particulars of building a home recording studio. Most recently, a friend of mine was moving into a new place and he asked for my advice.
What sort of home recording equipment should I get for my home studio setup?
I thought this question was very applicable to many of my readers. Everybody that wants to set up a home recording studio seems to ask this same question.
However, the most important issue is this:
What is your budget?
Once you’ve answered that question, we can move into the specifics of your equipment.
Let’s say, for hypothetical reasons, that you have a budget of $1,000.
A thousand dollars might seem like a lot of money, especially if you’re just starting out. You can get by with a little less by budgeting even harder, but if you give yourself some headroom you’ll actually spend less money in the long run.
If you buy the cheapest things right off the bat you’re never going to be satisfied until you get something a little nicer, or better sounding. But if you spend that little extra on something you actually want, then you won’t run to the store as soon as you get more money. Be content with the gear you buy. Don’t just buy it because it’s cheap. Buy it because you know you’ll use it.
Once you have a budget lined up you can start shopping around. You can create an excellent home recording studio with a budget of $1,000.
But I’d like to exclude one thing from the budget.
If you already have a good enough computer for recording, then a $1,000 will be good enough to set up a decent home studio. But if you don’t have a decent recording computer I would try to increase your budget to reflect that.
You can get great deals on computers on sites like Slickdeals.net. Woot also has occasional laptop and desktop computer deals that are a real steal. Scan around those websites for a decent computer for your home recording studio.
Things to look out for in a computer:
Please note: Computer processing and technology moves quickly. Most new computers today can handle a lot of audio fairly well so I wouldn’t worry too much about getting the very best computer on the market. Chances are the refurbished, cheaper models will be just fine, especially if you’re just starting out.
Processor – If you’re going for a desktop I would try to find a Quad Core processor. If you have processor heavy plug-ins on every channel when mixing, it helps to have a processor that can handle that. If you are buying a lap-top then something in the 2.3 GHZ range is the minimum. The more the better.
RAM – 4 GB RAM minimum. 8 GB RAM or more is ideal.
Hard drive space – SSD Drives(Solid state drives) are lightning fast but expensive. 7200 RPM hard drives are fast enough for any sort of audio production, and slower drives aren’t necessarily impossible to work with. You can also buy an external, fast hard drive to record to.
Now, you can get decent computer that have all these characteristics on deal sites like Slickdeals.net and Woot.com for around $500 to $800 tops. Therefore, if you had a budget of only $1,000 it wouldn’t leave you with a lot to work with.
So for enjoyment purposes, let’s say that you already have a good computer. That leaves us with about $1,000 to buy audio equipment with. Now we need something to connect to the computer, something to record with and something to listen to.
Building a Home Recording Studio Part 2 – Interface Edition
Now that the computer is out of the way, let’s concentrate on audio interfaces.
Remember that we’ve only got a budget of $1,000. I cheated and didn’t include the computer in our budget, assuming that you either had a good enough computer to start with, or that you could increase your budget to cover your computer costs.
Question 2: What kind of music will you be recording?
Depending on the music you will be producing, the type of audio interface may vary.
If you only do electronic music inside the computer then you only need an interface that has decent analog to digital converters that you can hook your monitors up to.
Examples: Apogee ONE USB Interface
Beware that this interface is great if you’re not intending to record anything with it, but just use it for electronic based music. The Apogee ONE has excellent A/D converters but has very limited in features.
If you need to record vocals and the occasional acoustic instrument then getting something with two microphone inputs is ideal.
Examples: Focusrite Scarlett
The Scarlett is an interface from Focusrite. It has two high quality mic inputs, perfect for those that only need to record a couple of instruments.
If you want to record more complex instruments, such as drums or an ensemble of instruments then you might want an interface with more microphone inputs.
Examples: TASCAM US-1800
This Tascam interface has eight microphone inputs, which is the perfect amount for recording demo drums or a live rehearsal.
Additionally, you can also buy a simple interface that you can connect other interfaces to in the future.
Equipment Purchase Tip!
The way I like to shop for stuff without getting overloaded with options is relatively simple.
I recommend seeing what everybody else is buying. Don’t just take one person’s word for it. Go see what’s popular and gets good reviews.
Other people’s reviews and opinions are valuable for making a decision. They tell you exactly what they think about what you’re looking for and it’s hard for bad gear to rank high in popularity and rankings.
The first place I start is usually Amazon. It’s the easiest place to see what’s popular and gets good reviews. They also often have discounts on a bunch of audio gear which is nice for the wallet.
For instance, I went to this list of Best Selling Audio Equipment and saw a few things that looked good. But it didn’t include the types of interfaces I wanted so I needed to dig down a little further.
By going into the ‘Musical Instrument’ section, and narrowing my selection all the way to USb Interfaces with four stars or above I get to this page.
It shows me the best selling, popular and most favorably reviewed interfaces on Amazon. Now I see some familiar interfaces that I like, such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4. There’s even a complete Focusrite recording package available that’s great if you’re just starting out.
However, if you’re recording a full band, a drum set or just need more channels, then you need to modify your search query.
More channels usually means more money so you can increase your budget in the search in order to filter all the entry level and dual channel interfaces out. Then you get interfaces that have eight mic inputs, such as the Tascam US2000, the Presonus Audiobox 1818 or even the ultra high-end RME FireFace UFX.
All those choices are great for when you need extra inputs. And once you’ve found a few potential options it’s time to read the reviews and see which one interests you the most. There’s a ton of value to be had in reading those reviews, and they can often set you on the right path towards the best interface for you.
For more interface ideas, check out The Essential Audio Interfaces Under $500.
Many interfaces have extra inputs that allow you to slave other interfaces with them, making that small and affordable interface even more powerful. Let’s look at the various connections you will find in a digital audio interface.
Microphone input – This is the typical input that you connect the microphone to. You use an XLR cable to connect your microphone of choice to this particular input.
Line input – If you want to connect an instrument, such as a keyboard or a guitar, then you will use a jack cable to connect it to the line input. Sometimes the mic and line connectors are built in the same connection, enabling you to either connect the mic with the three-pronged connection or by plugging a jack plug into the middle.
Insert – Some, not nearly all, interfaces have an insert by each input. These inserts are used to connect outboard processors, such as compressors or EQs to your incoming signal.
Not sure where to start with EQ’ing your mixes? Check out my free course.
For example: If you were to add a compressor via an insert when you are recording vocals then your vocal will go from the microphone into the interface, but before it gets recorded it is sent to the compressor. There it is compressed before it gets recorded onto your audio software.
ADAT – Like I was saying before, if you have a small interface with only a few inputs but it happens to have an ADAT connection then you can expand your inputs. By using the optical ADAT connection you can connect another interface in order to use its inputs. Now you’ve got the inputs of both devices at your disposal.
SPDIF – This connection is similar to ADAT but is limited to only two extra channels. It’s very handy if you only need a few extra inputs. It’s also extremely convenient to use if you’ve bought a second interface, or a really nice pre-amp. If your high-end pre-amp has SPDIF out you can connect it to your old interface, adding an extra layer to your palette of sounds.
Like we discussed last time, everything is ultimately going to connect to your computer. Therefore, when you are buying an interface you need to make sure that your interface can play ball with your computer.
If you have plenty of USB connectors to spare then try to find a nice USB audio interface. If you’re like me and are working on a laptop then you need those USB ports for something else.
Make sure you brainstorm the potential applications for your interface. Do you only need one microphone input for a vocal track, or do you need to record a loud band all at once? Depending on your needs, your interface purchases will vary.
Action step: Make a list of all the types of music you will be recording. What kinds of instruments will you be plugging into the interface? Do you want a tube sound? Do you want to spend more money on this part, or do you want to leave extra money for the microphones?
Building a Home Recording Studio Part 3 – Monitors
Now that we spent some time on getting a good interface for our needs (our needs are essential), we’ll go into what sort of monitors you need and how to set them up.
Building your first home studio often comes down to compromises in money and space.
We have to pick a good pair of near field monitors that are small enough to fit on our desks but powerful enough to correctly reproduce our mixes. And since we only have a budget of $1,000 we have to get a good enough pair that leaves us room to buy the rest of the stuff we need.
Let’s assume that we decided on the Focusrite Scarlett as our interface. That means we only have $700 dollars to spend on the rest of our equipment. By limiting our budget we also limit our options. In some cases that can be a good thing because you can spend hours upon hours shopping for monitors. If we limit our budget just a bit we can cut down on the shopping time.
I don’t want to spend much more than $300 on a pair of monitors, for now, leaving around $400 for the microphones and such.
I realize that more expensive monitors will reproduce your mixes better. They will inherently sound better because high-quality monitors simply are that, higher quality. However, we’re trying to stick to the budget so we can get started.
I most of my shopping online using the method I talked about before but if I can get a chance to listen to the monitors before at Guitar Center or something it’s always better to have your ears make the final decision.
If we’re buying through Amazon and only looking at the highest rated monitors in the $200-$300 range, we get to this page.
That’s really how easy it is to find monitors in your budget. Find a brand you trust, or go by the reviews on the site itself. Some of the reviewers are very thorough in their reviews, often clarifying any doubts you had with that particular item.
I always check the reviews when I’m buying a product I’m unfamiliar with. It’s served me well so far, and I don’t see why you shouldn’t take advantage of them.
For more ideas on monitors, check out Cheap Monitors for the Budget Conscious Engineer.
There are three things you need to keep in mind when setting up your monitors in your home studio.
1. The Correct Height – You don’t want your monitors below or above your ears. You want those sound waves hitting your ears at exactly the right height. Place the monitors at the same height as your head, aiming the tweeters at the top of your ears. This enables you to hear the full frequency response of the monitors. If they are too high or too low you won’t hear what’s coming out of them correctly.
2. The Correct Distance – Make sure that your head is the third point in an equilateral triangle. The monitors need to be at the same distance from each other as they are from your head. Poor stereo imaging and panning problems will result if your monitors aren’t at the same distance from you as they are from each other.
3. The Correct Sound – I highly recommend using Auralex MoPads to decouple the sound of the monitors from your desk. If you just leave the monitors sitting on your desk it will act as an amplifier for what’s coming out of the monitors. This usually results in a lot of boominess and boxiness since your desk might be amplifying those frequencies. The easiest way to get rid of all that is to simply disconnect your monitors from your desk using the aforementioned MoPads.
Have you budgeted for your monitors yet? Don’t overspend, make sure you have enough money to buy the most fun thing of all, microphones.
Building a Home Recording Studio Part 4 – Microphones
Ok. Let’s move on to microphones.
We started with a $1,000 in the bank and a good computer to record with. We have the Focusrite Scarlett as our interface and for monitors I’ve decided to grab the JBLSLR 305 you should be able to find on this page for $284. This leaves us with $417 still in the bank to complete our studio.
Which Microphone Should you Choose?
Even though we have $417 dollars left we don’t want to spend it all on microphones. I wish we could, but we also need to think about acoustic treatment. Luckily, we don’t need all that money to get a decent microphone for your home recording studio.
When you’re starting out there’s no reason to splurge a lot of money on microphones. We’d all like to own some of the industry standards, but a cheap but decent condenser microphone is a good start.
Here are some options:
AT 2020 – I’ve said it time and again: For the price, this microphone beats everything, hands down. It’s cheap and is great on both acoustic guitar and voice.
Blue Spark – This one is a little pricier, at $199, but it has a bunch of features that make it stand out. The focus mode intrigues me. I’ve never tried the Spark before but I’m interested in hearing how different the two modes are.
CAD GXL2200 – This is microphone package that comes with two microphones and a pop filter. Not a bad deal for $123. I looked around for reviews, and the large condenser got great reviews around the board.
MXL 993 – For something a little different. This is a stereo pair of small-diaphragm condensers for only $99. This pair is ideal if you don’t record vocals as much as drums or other acoustic instruments.
For more options, check out 4 Cheap-Ass Microphones for the Frugal Engineer.
My pick? I would go with the Audio Technica 2020. Even though it’s not perfect in every way, it’s still a great beginner’s microphone and gives higher priced mics a run for their money.
NOTE: Of course this changes over time as new microphones get introduced. This isn’t supposed to be an exhaustive list of microphones but more of an idea of how you should structure your search on a budget. Using my Amazon search method you should get very close to what you want in your price range.
When dealing with a limited budget we can only allow ourselves limited things. I want to show you how to make $1,000 last to buy everything you need. If you had more money then surely you could splurge on more expensive microphones or buy a few different ones. But if you don’t have much then you can’t spend much.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t buy everything you need to set up your home recording studio.
What about you guys? What would you recommend a beginning engineer that wants a cost conscious but decent sounding condenser microphone?
Building a Home Recording Studio Part 5 – Acoustic Treatment
Now that we’ve gotten the gear out of the way, let’s look at some acoustic treatment. We had a budget of $1,000 in the beginning to spend on the various home recording equipment.
With a budget of only $1,000 we’ve had to cram as much stuff into the budget as possible. We’ve got ourselves a microphone, a USB interface as well as a pair of monitors for listening back. Assuming that we bought the AT2020 from last week’s post, we now have $318 remaining in our budget.
It’s time to spend the rest of the money on acoustic treatment and a few accessories.
Why do you need Acoustic Treatment?
Simply put, a room designed as a bedroom is not designed for audio production. It has low ceilings, parallel walls and reflective surfaces. Not the most ideal room for accurate monitoring and music mixing.
With acoustic treatment on your walls, you manage to reduce the reflections bouncing off the walls, creating a more accurate listening experience.
Sound waves bounce off the walls and into your ears, so acoustic treatment helps you minimize the reflections and enabling you to hear what’s coming out of your monitors.
You don’t need a lot of acoustic treatment to make your room sound better. A little can go a long way. If you just reduce the primary reflections around your listening position you will hear a noticeable difference from your monitors. They will suddenly sound cleaner, and the stereo spectrum suddenly becomes clearer.
So what can we get for $318?
Ideally we want both broadband absorption, bass traps and some sort of diffusion. Luckily, we can get all that for less than $318
Broadband Absorption – Auralex’s Roominator kits are a great option for the home studio. Their cheapest kit includes 36 acoustic panels that you can spread over your studio. Price tag: $169
Bass Traps – You can get four of these corner traps to add a little low-end absorption to your room. If you’re constantly dealing with muddiness in your mixes then bass traps will definitely help. They absorb the lower frequencies, allowing you to hear how much bass is actually in your mix. Price tag: $39.99
Monitors – I love the Auralex MoPads. They decouple your monitors from your stands or desk. Normally, your desk will act as an undesirable amplifier. By using the MoPads you separate the monitors from the desk, giving you a more accurate monitoring experience. Price tag: $37.50
Diffusion – Diffusion doesn’t absorb sound waves. Rather, it reduces their energy by scattering them in all directions. With diffusion, the sound waves that would normally reflect directly off the wall in their regular geometrical direction will scatter all over the place. I couldn’t find any diffusion for under $70 but you might be able to do something similar to what I did when I built my diffuser/bass-trap a few years ago.
Barring that pesky diffusion situation, we’re still within budget and have some acoustic treatment to tame some of the frequencies bouncing around your room.
We’re still within our budget and we even have some money to spare. What you should do with the rest of the money is buy all the cables and microphone stands you need. These crucial ingredients are often overlooked when purchasing home recording equipment so it’s a good thing we have some money left over.
Where to place your acoustic treatment
Now that you’ve got all this acoustic treatment, where do you put it?
Bass Traps – Corner traps, not surprisingly, go in the corners of the room. Put the bass traps where all three corners of your room meet, either at the top or bottom corners. This is where bass builds up the most so this where they are most effective.
Broadband absorption – Use the mirror trick to place your absorption correctly around your monitors. Make someone run a mirror along the walls beside your monitors while you sit in the mixing position. Wherever you can see your monitors in the mirror, you should place some foam panels.
This kills the primary reflections coming from the monitors and bouncing off the walls. The primary reflections are the most problematic, so by reducing them, you will have instantly made your studio sound better.
Also, place the absorption panels behind your monitors as well as on the ceiling above the listening position. Placing panels behind your monitors creates a tighter stereo image and reduces reflections coming from the front wall.
Even though the sound is coming towards you when you’re listening, sound also travels behind the monitors. People tend to forget that, so it’s important to treat all the walls around them. Scatter the rest of your panels, if you have any, evenly around the room.
Diffusion – Place your diffuser on the back wall directly behind the listening position. This will scatter the sound waves that reflect off the rear wall. Now the sound waves will spread and diffuse around the room instead of directly bouncing back towards the mixing position.
Acoustic treatment is one of the MOST important aspects of your home studio. You won’t get great recordings without it. All the gear in the world won’t make your room suck less.
Get Free Acoustic Advice and Save Over $300
If you’re unsure about where to place your treatment then there’s a great free resource that can help you.
A lot of people don’t know this but you can get a free room analysis over at Auralex. If you give them the dimensions to your room and what you want to do with it then they’ll send you back a free cheat sheet for effectively placing your treatment.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the series on building a home recording studio. For anyone starting out, the series hoped to capture everything you need to get started with making music at your house.
Buy the basics and familiarize yourself with what you’ve got; you can always upgrade your gear later down the road.
The Often Overlooked Home Recording Equipment You Need
These essentials, although critical, need even more important parts to function.
When thinking about putting together a home recording studio, there are many things you might overlook.
When you put a budget together, you usually put down the microphones, the interfaces and the monitors that you want, just like we’ve done above.
But we tend to forget about the things that make our home recording equipment work: the cables, the mic stands and all the other miscellaneous stuff that slips our mind.
So when you’ve put together a budget for your home recording studio, and if you’ve put together your own bare essential list of home recording equipment please don’t forget this EVEN MORE Essential List of Home Recording Equipment.
I don’t care how expensive your interface and microphone is, if you can’t plug the two together they aren’t worth much. Make sure you get enough cables, and not only mic cables but regular instrument cables as well. And then get a few extra for backup.
If you are only recording vocals, then one mic stand might be all you need.
But what if you have a singer/songwriter that can’t sing without playing his guitar. Then you need to record that performance with at least two mics, and therefore two mic stands. Don’t skimp on the microphone stands. You might not need the most expensive ones, but make sure the ones you get are sturdy and durable.
Maybe your expensive monitors are just sitting on your desk since that’s the only place you can put them.
What if your desk is too low and you aren’t hearing them correctly. Or maybe they’re too close to each other so you have a very narrow stereo field. Both of these things are pretty bad so the best way to correct your monitoring is to get monitor stands.
Not only will they place your monitors at a better level but they’ll also clear your desk, making things less cluttered. And if you can’t justify the purchase just make your own!
Guitar Stands or Hooks
If you have guitar, basses or any sort of instrument that lends itself well to be hung on the wall then you should definitely hang it on the wall. Not only will your room look better with a guitar on the wall but it beats having your guitar be thrown on the couch all the time.
Comfortable Recording Chair
Make sure you have a comfortable recording space. My desk chair has really comfortable elbow rests that work well when I’m working on the computer. But it’s a horrible chair to record acoustic guitar. The elbow rests get in the way and I can’t get comfortable. Make sure you have a chair that’s comfortable to record in.
You need a nice pair of closed-back headphones to record with. Additionally, you can use them to double-check your mixes.
1/4 to 1/8 inch adapters, XLR to Jack, Jack to RCA, you name it. There will be a time where you need an adapter, and you don’t have it. Plan for that moment. Oh, and before you forget, make sure you get those cables.
Feng Shui and your Home Recording Studio
To close off this guide, I want to get a little spiritual.
Using Feng Shui for your home recording studio might seem a bit weird.
Especially when you do some research and read that you should have flowing water to symbolize positive energy in your room. I don’t know about you, but flowing water in the background of my audio tracks sounds like a pretty bad idea.
However, a comfortable and efficient work-area is all a part of an effective recording space. With that in mind, let’s go through some of the things you should consider in your Feng Shui home studio.
Home recording Feng Shui dictates that you need to place your reference monitor in an equilateral triangle with yourself acting as the third point. By placing your monitors the same distance from each other as yourself, you can more accurately monitor your mixes without compromising the stereo spectrum.
You need the sound waves in your home recording studio to be balanced and in harmony with your listening experience. By correctly placing acoustic treatment so that you accurately treat your room as efficiently as possible is crucial for a real production experience.
- Place Bass Traps in the corners
- Try to eliminate 90° angles
- Try to put absorption panels so that they don’t mirror each other on opposite walls.
- Place absorbers above your listening position to eliminate reflections off the ceiling.
Everything in its Right Place
There is nothing worse than a cluttered office, and a home recording studio is no better. Having a place for everything is a must for a cozy and comfortable recording space. Make sure you have all the home studio equipment necessary for an easy work space.
Everything Within Easy Reach
If you can model your recording studio so that everything is within easy reach, you’ve accomplished a very efficient work space. Having a midi-keyboard by your desk to formulate your ideas or a guitar within easy reach is a good strategy to keep the ideas flowing without unnecessary pauses.
Make Spaces Work Together
If you need to stand up to play or sing, make the recording space work with the mixing space. It’s annoying to have to run back and forth when you are in the moment.
Make it easy for you to reach your work-station from your recording area. You can buy a dedicated transport controller that can manipulate your work-station at your recording area, or you can just record with enough time to get ready.
Whichever you choose, just make sure you are comfortable recording and aren’t stressed out by constantly switching places.
How much faith you want to put in Feng Shui is up to you, but by making your home recording studio, a comfortable, cozy and accessible work space is imperative to getting creative and making some music happen.
You might not need to adhere to any real Feng Shui rules. The quality of your audio is not dictated by the color of the room or the directions the doors are facing. But having an effective working space is a good priority for efficient productivity.