Producer and audio engineer Graham Cochrane lays out the five essential pieces of recording equipment you should have when putting together your home studio setup.
So you want a killer home studio that can deliver great sounding tracks and not break the bank? I have good news for you my friend: you happen to be living in an incredible moment of history for anyone with a home studio setup.
Gear has never been more affordable and more powerful, but even so, many home studio owners have a “spend more” mentality when it comes to recording and mixing gear, and it’s easy to get confused and frustrated about what you actually need when making a home recording studio.
I’m here to try to clear things up and deliver you the simple truth about what you need to get killer recordings at home. Guess what? There are only five things I think you truly need, and the good news is you probably already have one of them.
5 essential pieces of recording equipment for your home studio setup
1. You need a decent computer
When it comes to home recording, 99% of the time you’re going to want to go with computer recording. More often than not you already own a computer that is capable of being the hub of your home recording studio. If that’s the case, you’ve already eliminated one decision.
If however you need a new computer, or you’d rather keep your personal computer separate, you have a lot of options awaiting you. Let me make it easy for you.
Go with what is familiar to you. Mac or PC, laptop or desktop. What matters most is that you like the product and you feel comfortable working with it on a regular basis, not what brand it is.
I work with producers all the time who record and mix great music on both Macs and PCs, so let’s not go there right now. Instead use either what you have or what you know. My only suggestion is get as much RAM as you can afford and don’t look back.
These days, working on a laptop doesn’t mean sacrificing power, so if you like to be mobile, or intend to take your gear to other places to record, then go portable. It’s a great option. Plus, when you’re back home you can hook that laptop up to a bigger screen if you need to.
Just pick something, don’t spend too much, and move on. Plan to keep it for at least three years and then reassess the situation.
2. Any DAW will do
Once you have your computer picked out, that makes your recording software decision much easier, as not all DAWs work on both Mac and PC.
Logic is Mac only. Sonar is PC only. Digital Performer, Audition, Pro Tools, Cubase, Live, Reason, and Studio One are all dual platform. They are all fabulous programs and will get the job done for you. Which one should you go with? That’s a question only you can answer.
Most producers have their favorites, and I’ll come out right away and tell you I’m a Pro Tools guy. I’ve used most of the programs out there, but at the end of the day I always come back to Pro Tools for writing, recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. Do I recommend Pro Tools? Yes! But will it be the deciding factor in how your songs turn out? No!
Investing in a piece of recording software is indeed a big deal. But don’t over think this decision. Pick a piece of software that fits your budget and go with it. At the end of the day, when people listen back to your finished songs they aren’t going to be able to tell what program you used to record or mix. Nor will they care! All they care about is whether or not the song sounds good.
I will say this, however. If you intend to get into this business professionally one day (i.e. work in a studio, mix for big name clients, engineer music for picture in Hollywood) then you probably want go the Pro Tools route since that is the most widely used program in the industry today, by far.
But other than that, it really doesn’t matter which program you go with. People waste too much time on Internet forums debating DAW software and being big fan-boys. Don’t be one of those people; limit your options, pick a piece of recording software, and get to making music! You’ll have a lot of time left over for something more important, like finding some sort of life outside your studio walls.
3. The audio interface is your friend
Since most of us don’t have a $200,000 mixing console in our spare bedrooms, you’ll need some way to get all of your sounds (guitars, vocals, keyboards) into your computer’s recording software. This is where an audio interface comes into play.
Most DAWs work with just about any brand of audio interface. This leads to an endless list of boxes to choose from. Let me give you a suggestion: limit yourself to just 2 channel interfaces.
What I mean is, don’t buy more than you need.
Most people buy into the hype that they need a fancy audio interface that can do everything and is made with premium components that give you “that sound.” While it’s true that many of the features available in today’s high-end interfaces are great, they aren’t necessary to make killer recordings and be prolific in the studio.
Unless you need more than two channels to record drums (and that’s debatable to some) all you’ll ever need is a simple two-channel USB audio interface. You’ll need it to come with at least one microphone preamp with phantom power (see the next section), line-in inputs for guitar cables and keyboards, stereo outs, and at least one headphone out. That’s it!
With that information, you can pick your budget and just find something that fits those parameters
What about external preamps, you ask? If you need more microphone preamps for the additional inputs in your audio interface, then by all means go for it. Buy an affordable preamp and get busy recording.
If, however, you’re pondering buying more preamps just to “change things up,” let me give you a piece of advice. Unless you do this for a living, day in and day out, you really have a lot of better things to spend your time and money on than building a small collection of preamps. You’re likely not going to notice an improvement in quality to warrant the purchase. Plus the preamps that come in your interface sound great already! Until you’ve explored them all, have a good understanding of what they do and don’t do, and feel a need to add something different, why look elsewhere?
4. A good studio microphone
Obviously, microphones are an essential part of the recording process and can have more to do with how your recorded material turns out than any other part of your studio. But man, do they cause so much distraction from the big picture!
Without going into too much detail, there are three main types of microphones: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon (with dynamic and condenser being the most widely used). Dynamic microphones are great for use on stage in live settings. They are very durable and can take a beating. The also tend to be very directional in that they will only pick up what’s directly in front of them (kind of crucial with a bunch of noise on stage).
Condenser microphones, namely large diaphragm mics, use a different technology to pick up audio and convert it into electricity; and they do it in a way that brings so much detail and realism to the recording that for years engineers have turned to them as the workhorses of the studio.
The $100 Rule
The popularity of large diaphragm condenser microphones has led to a surge of choices in the marketplace. And since this technology is neither new or hard to copy, prices of mics have come down tremendously (unless you’re buying classic name brands like Neumann). What does this mean for you and me? It means it’s time to pull out a little bonus principle I like to call the $100 rule.
The rule is simple: unless you’re looking to own a specific microphone for a specific reason, don’t spend any more than $100 on a microphone for your studio. That’s it. There are just too many great sounding microphones on the market for under $100. Now, if you WANT to spend more than $100 on a mic, don’t let me stop you. Some of the world’s best mics cost way more than that.
But the reality is, if you’re new to this, the $100 rule helps narrow your options so you can grab a great mic and get to it.
I still use my old Behringer B1 (retails for $100) to this day on many clients, and with fantastic results! And to think, that microphone costs less than the sales tax on many “vintage” mics. Sheesh! Save the money and take your mom out for a nice dinner. She’ll appreciate it.
5. A pair of studio headphones or monitors
Finally you need to listen to your recordings/mixes on something. That’s where a pair studio monitors or headphones comes into play. I won’t spend much time here on this because I think people way over think this part.
First, it’s OK to record and mix on headphones. Yes, it can be challenging at times, but it is totally doable. Start there if money is tight and save up for monitors.
Second, when you DO decide to get monitors, don’t buy bigger speakers than you need and don’t buy more expensive speakers than you need. If you want some more details on choosing a good pair of monitors then check this post out. It will help a great deal.
The big picture
If you simply pick up these five components, you’ll have a functional home recording studio. You’ll be able to get high quality audio in and out of your recording and mixing environment and you’ll have all the professional tools you need to sculpt a great sound.
And if you don’t get great results right away, remember that it’s never about the gear. It’s always about you. Just give yourself time, practice your craft, and you WILL get better.
Graham Cochrane is a Tampa, FL-based freelance mixing engineer and founder of one the web’s most loved audio recording and mixing blogs, The Recording Revolution, with over 200,000 readers each month. Follow him on Twitter @recordingrev. Get your free copy of Graham’s guide, The #1 Rule of Home Recording.
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