The $999 Home Studio

by Keith Hatschek on November 16, 2009 · 47 comments

in Fast Forward,Recording & Mastering

The MXL V 67i offers outstanding sound quality at a very affordable price. Shure's SM-57LC is a must-have for every home studio.

The MXL V 67i offers outstanding sound quality at a very affordable price. Shure's SM-57LC is a must-have for every home studio.

As the cost of home recording technology has continued to fall, the list of products and their available features continues to grow. So it seems timely to ask the question, “Can you put together a viable home recording set up for less than $1000?” To help answer this question, we turned to pro audio veteran, Richie DeCarlo at Philadelphia’s music superstore, 8th Street Music. Let’s see what gear goes into a prototypical home studio rig and how much bang for the buck can you get with a grand.

8th Street Music has been serving musicians for nearly seventy years, and was one of the first music retailers to have a significant online presence, opening their web sales operation in 1996. When I called Richie to ask his advice about how to go about deciding on what equipment would make a solid home studio in the price range, he laughed and declared, “There are so many ways to go today – and the choices just keep improving.” In large part, that’s because manufacturers have been able to take advantage of overseas manufacturing to bring costs down while working to keep quality at a level that is more than adequate for a typical home studio.

Microphones
We started with the microphone selections. “The first thing you’ll need is a good quality condenser mic for vocals and acoustic instruments. We happen to have one of my favorite condenser mics on sale (for $169) at the moment, the MXL V67i. It’s a large capsule dual diaphragm mic that delivers excellent tonal response. One unique feature is that the two capsules, which you can flip between with a switch, that have completely different characteristics – the front side has a warm, rich sound; while the back side capsule has a brighter sounding capsule that many engineers describe as ‘airy.’

The M Box 2 interface along with Pro Tools LE is one way to go to build up a home studio system.

The M Box 2 interface along with Pro Tools LE is one way to go to build up a home studio system.

Next, I’d get the Shure SM-57LC, which is a workhorse and good for recording just about any instrument or sound. It’s also a very rugged mic, so it can take plenty of use, while doubling out on the gig for any number of applications. That will add a hundred dollars to your cost, but is worth every penny.”

Recording system
With regard to your recording system, “there’s a few ways to go,” Richie offered, “depending on your individual preferences. If you’re going to be primarily working at home, and not go to a club or concert to record, I’d get Pro Tools LE with an M Box 2 interface. ($449 at 8th Street.) It’s an industry standard program for digital recording and with the M Box interface, you can record two input channels at a time. Also, you’ll be able to save and open your files at any professional studio, making collaboration much easier.

TASCAM's DP 02 CD is a fully featured all-in-one recording system with plenty of on board signal processing and built-in CD burner for mixdown.

TASCAM's DP 02 CD is a fully featured all-in-one recording system with plenty of on board signal processing and built-in CD burner for mixdown.

The new DP-008 makes it easy to take your home recording studio anywhere you want to record and includes two built in mics for recording on the fly.

The new DP-008 makes it easy to take your home recording studio anywhere you want to record and includes two built in mics for recording on the fly.

“If you want to record live at gigs, rehearsals and concerts, I’d lean toward one of the all-in-one recording systems like those available from TASCAM,” Richie continues. “The DP-02 CD is a complete recording studio in a compact system that feels and performs like the legendary Porta-studios of yore. With faders, pan knobs, EQ and effects controls that don’t require multiple layers of menu navigation, it’s a bit more intuitive than many other similar products. Your songs will be stored on the unit’s internal 40 GB hard drive, and easy interface with a home computer is available through a USB connection. It also has built in reverb, effects, mastering software and an on-board CD burner so you can finish up with a final mix ready to share. Street price is $399.

Going even smaller, TASCAM recently announced the DP-008, a mini-me version of the all-in-one multitrack recording system that literally fits into the pocket of your gig bag. While it does not have as many tactile surfaces of the DP-02, it does offer enough bells and whistles to serve as a great introduction to basic home recording, and it’s small enough to go on the road, track a demo in the van, or even out in the wild, as it runs on four AA batteries. The DP 008 has the ability to accept standard XLR mic inputs, but also has two built-in mics to record on the fly at a moment’s notice. Rather than storing data to a hard drive, it records to an included 2 GB SD card and can accommodate up to a 32 GB SDHC media card. Street price is $299.

A pair of VLA-4 powered monitors makes it easy to mix your project.

A pair of VLA-4 powered monitors makes it easy to mix your project.

Another good choice are the M-Audio series of small powered monitors, the DX-4 system mentioned by Richie is being replaced by the new AV 40 system at the same price point.

Another good choice are the M-Audio series of small powered monitors, the DX-4 system mentioned by Richie is being replaced by the new AV 40 system at the same price point.

Monitors, stands, and more
What else do you need? “Powered monitor speakers make mixing easier than simply relying on headphones,” according to Richie. Sticking to our under-a-grand budget, he came up with two sets of competitively priced monitor systems. “TASCAM’s VLA-4 speakers sound very good at this price point. They have a 4” woofer and 1” tweeter and a bass port design. At roughly 8 lbs. each, they’re small enough and light enough to fit just about anywhere. The others we offer are the M-Audio DX-4 monitors. The specs are very similar to the VLA-4s, so either pair will work well for this level of home studio.”

“Don’t forget to add in a pair of boom mic stands and two good quality 25’ XLR mic cables. Depending on which recording system you go with, you’ll need a pair of speaker leads to connect your recording system to the monitor speakers. At that point, you are ready to set up and start recording,” Richie concluded.

What’s the cost breakdown for these three options?

Pro Tools LE-based system     TASCAM DP 02 CD system*  
Pro Tools LE w/ M Box 2 $449   TASCAM DP 02 CD $399
MXL V 67i condenser mic $169   MXL V 67i condenser mic $169
Shure SM-57LC $99   Shure SM-57LC $99
Pair of On Stage boom stands $60   Pair of On Stage boom stands $60
Pair of Rapco 25’ XLR mic cables $40   Pair of Rapco 25’ XLR mic cables $40
TASCAM VLA 4 powered monitors $149   TASCAM VLA 4 powered monitors $149
Pair Rapco 6’ speaker cables $30   Pair Rapco 6’ speaker cables $30
TOTAL $996   TOTAL
$946

*Deduct $100 from this system if you opt for the gig-bag sized DP 008

Conclusion
Based on these three systems, there are plenty of options to get you into a fully functioning home recording system that meets the $999 challenge. One thing to keep in mind is that all three digital recording systems will have a learning curve, and the advantage to a digital audio workstation (DAW) design such as Pro Tools is that you have a mouse, keyboard, and computer monitor interface to record and edit your music. The all-in-one systems have limited visual monitoring functions, relying primarily on small LCD displays that may require you to click through various levels of menus and sub menus to access a particular feature or function. Before putting down your credit card, it makes sense to visit your local music products store and get an in-depth demo of how these or other home recording systems work. Then, ask the sales rep if you can have some time alone to see what it’s like to navigate each system. After all, you’ll likely be spending hundreds of hours recording, so the ergonomics and system design are worth giving a hard look before you take the plunge.

We didn’t have time or space to delve into acoustics for home recording, but suffice it to say, the environment you will be using to record will have its own effect on everything you track, so keep in mind, you may eventually need to do a little sound treatment, especially if you record a full band. More on that in a future issue… till then, happy home recording!

Story Links
Home Studio Tips from a Big Studio Designer
TASCAM DP 02 CD
TASCAM DP 008
Pro Tools LE M Box 2
MXL V 67i
Shure SM-57LC
M- Audio DX 4 monitors (the company appears to be replacing these with the AV 40s at the same price point and almost identical response)

TASCAM VLA-4 monitors

In his thirty-plus years working in the music business, Keith Hatschek has been a musician, educator, recording engineer, producer and marketing exec. He currently teaches Music Management at the University of the Pacific, where he recently helped install a Pro Tools HD recording studio as part of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. He’s the author of The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How to Get a Job in the Music Industry.

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