Home Studio on a Budget

Photo by Oleg Ivanov on Unsplash

You’re a musician and you’re creative. You want to get your ideas recorded but don’t know where to begin. I get it. All the choices of gear can be overwhelming. I can’t say that I’m any kind of expert but I have done quite a bit of research on the subject and have been writing and recording my own music for quite some time. Let me share some of my limited knowledge and experience.

First, you need a computer or a laptop. Well, duh! I know, pretty obvious, but don’t just buy any computer. I suppose you can do quite a bit with a tablet and maybe even something with your phone but you will be quite limited. For me, a computer is definitely the way to go. And a laptop gives you the added benefit of portability so you can create pretty much anywhere you want to. My choice is a laptop.

Make sure it has a decent amount of RAM because recording software can use up quite a lot of processing memory. In case you didn’t know, RAM is Random Access Memory and it is what your computer uses to perform immediate functions as you run any kind of program. A decent sized hard drive will also help too because recording programs will take quite a bit of room on your system and the hard drive tends to get used up a lot faster than you realize. My recommendation is at a minimum, 8 GB of RAM (preferably 16 GB or higher), and at least a 512 GB hard drive. I’m a Windows guy and I try to use the most up-to-date processor available. Mine is Intel i7, 10th generation. Try to find a computer with a 2.5 GHz processor or higher. I really don’t know a lot about Apple but the principles are similar: make sure you get a decent sized hard drive, a good amount of RAM, and a processor that is as fast as you can afford.

You may not think you need that much processing power but a little more than what you actually think you might need never hurts. Take your time and shop around for the best deal, meaning the best value for the price. I also recommend a screen size of 15″. A 17″ screen is nice but I find it makes the computer a bit too big, bulky, and heavy. I consider a monitor any smaller than 15″ too small. I also have an external 21″ monitor on a swivel arm that helps me follow along if I have to stand up to play guitar or move around. It also helps prevent neck strain.

Another thing I recommend to you is buy yourself a decent external hard drive. I bought a 5 Terabyte hard drive for less than $200. It holds a phenomenal amount of data in a very compact form (smaller than a standard paperback novel). Save your music projects to the external hard drive to prevent your computer’s hard drive from filling up too fast. That’s something I learned from doing video editing, which is a much more data hungry application.

Of course, you will also need recording software, also known as Digital Audio Workstation or DAW for short. There are so many available that it’s hard to decide on which one to pick. Overall, they are quite similar but some have more extra features and the HMI (human machine interface) varies from one DAW to the other, so oftentimes it depends on what you are most comfortable with. Audacity is a free download and is really quite good for a free program, but it is limited compared to others you would pay for. Cubase by Steinberg has been around along time and is one of the premier brands. Pro Tools, Ableton, PreSonus Studio One, and Logic Pro and Garage Band for Apple users, are just some examples of what’s available on the market today. I use Mixcraft – it’s OK but I didn’t pay much for it so I try not to complain too much. Again, do your research.

Google searches will help and an article that lists and compares several different brands, such as this one https://www.recordingbase.com/best-daw/, will be helpful, but don’t just stick to that one source. Check YouTube for instructional videos on the subject, search out other articles, visit different software makers’ websites, and visit websites such as the websites for Sweetwater Music or Long & McQuade for assistance. Both have sections dedicated to music recording, loaded with all kinds of useful information.

Another key element is an interface between your musical instruments and your computer, simply called an Audio Interface. Again, there is huge amount of choice available so doing your research will be essential for finding what’s right for you and your needs. Focusrite, Universal Audio, and PreSonus are some of the better known brands in this realm. Another option – one that I opted for – is an audio mixer (mixing board) that has a USB out that allows me to connect the mixer to the computer. I chose this option because of its versatility in giving me an audio interface that I can use as a mixer in support of live performances, when required. Mine is a Mackie but Allen & Heath, among many others, also offer this option. Mackie also makes audio interfaces similar to the ones mentioned above. Sweetwater and Long & McQuade are great for support with these devices as well.

You have to be able to play back what you’ve recorded so reference monitors and a good pair of monitor headphones or studio headphones will be necessary. I bought my most recent pair of headphones at Best Buy (I was surprised to find them there to be honest). The other stores mentioned previously also have a huge selection. The brand I bought was Audio-Technica, which is a very popular brand for studio headphones. Most (if not all) studio headphones are wired, not wireless, and typically closed back for best sound isolation. Just like reference monitors, they give a precise playback without coloring the sound the way regular stereo headphones would.

For reference monitors, you will also have wide array of brands and styles to choose from. They will only be a few feet from your ears so you don’t need anything gigantic but as always, with speakers, head room helps to keep the sound crisp and helps to prevent sound distortion. Head room means using something that is just a little more than what you truly need. Mine are Yorkville YSM5 (Yorkville Studio Monitor with 5″ woofer). Yorkville is a Canadian company that makes outstanding speakers. Any time I rent speakers for live music or DJ applications (or a combination of both), I try to get Yorkville. They are one of my favorite brands of speakers. They have an affiliation with Long & McQuade so I am not entirely sure if they are available anywhere else. KRK is also a popular brand. Two of my musician friends swear by Yamaha studio monitors. I heard them in action and yes, they are very good. As with all this stuff, the selection is not lacking so you will have some researching and shopping to do to find what is right for you.

For musical instruments such as guitars and keyboards, most can be connected direct to your interface via 1/4″ patch chord or MIDI cable. If you intend to record vocals or instruments live off the floor, a good condenser microphone is essential. A dynamic vocal mic, such as the Shure SM58 is great for live applications but not very good for studio applications. For studio applications, opt for a condenser mic. A condenser mic will usually require phantom power – that is, it needs to be powered externally to operate. For a brief description of what phantom power means, please click the link below.

https://www.sweetwater.com/sweetcare/articles/what-phantom-power-need/#

Where are you going to put all this stuff? You will need a table or desk of some sort, and having a hutch is helpful to lift your speakers up to ear level and to store extra knick-knacks. I’ve seen actual studio desks for sale, that are very nice but in my opinion, very over-priced. I use an old table from Ikea that I’ve had for eons and bought for maybe $50 – it still works. The hutch I use, I made myself from project wood I bought at The Home Depot. I lacquered it black to match my table and added cool LED lights under my hutch that can change to 12 different colors via remote control – just for ambiance. I love my little studio space. It’s great for recording music, recording demos, practicing or just rocking out to tunes. On my walls are my motivation – my ode to some of my favorite musical artists. I just Scotch taped a bunch of old CD covers to the inside of picture frames that I bought for under $30 each. You can see them behind me in the video below.

It’s an iterative process to get all of this right. You’ll try some things. Some you’ll like. Some you won’t. It’s all part of the process. Again, research is key. Ask questions of other people who are also into this hobby. Go to your favorite music stores and ask questions – don’t be shy. As I mentioned above, study and research to help guide your decisions. Including my old refurbished laptop, my studio cost me at most, $1500. I talk a lot about these concepts in the video below.

Typically, I just record demos in my studio. When I finally land on a song that I like enough to record and release out into the world, I will hire studio time because nothing beats recording in a professional studio. The experience is awesome and the quality of the output is so much better than anything I could ever pull off by myself.

Above all, have fun as learn, practice, and do.

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