The dividing line between what used to be referred to as “home studio” vs. “professional” recording gear is barely discernable – and the performance and specs of nearly all of the contenders in the home recording marketplace are now near parity. As a result, the differences that distinguish one model from another are often the user interface, the quality of tech support, and whether or not there’s an established user base that can offer ideas and tips for how best to use any particular system.
So let’s put together a beginning home recording system that is capable of allowing you to produce high-quality recordings for a song. Although there are a number of less expensive options, I’ve chosen to recommend reliable gear from well-known brands. In the long run, it’s been my experience that investing in such gear has proven to offer the best value.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
The heart of your home recording studio today is probably going to be a computer running some type of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. While we won’t look at computer hardware or operating systems, be sure to start with the fastest CPU and the most RAM you can afford. These become the “engine room” for your DAW and saving money on those will likely cause your DAW program to run poorly.
I am very impressed by the PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL recording interface and software. It’s a nifty 24-bit, 96kHz, one-rack audio interface that features high-quality specs, easy-to-use recording software, and enough bells and whistles to keep the rookie recording engineer learning for months.
Let’s start with the software. Virtual Studio Live 16.0.2 includes the Studio Onesoftware package. It has unlimited virtual tracks and loads of third-party applications readily available. The DAW program includes “Fat Channel” functions that perform as well as many other more expensive plug-ins costing hundreds of dollars. You’ve got a very warm sounding compressor, limiter, and expander at your fingertips, along with a high-pass filter, which is especially handy for cutting rumble out of your bedroom recordings, and a quasi-parametric EQ for each input and DAW return channel.
Additionally, there are a wide range of rich sounding reverbs and delays designed to give you a host of effects to choose from. Once you have a Fat Channel sound or effect you like, just drag and drop it on any other channel, saving time and giving more consistency to your mixes. The DAW’s graphical user interface is easy to navigate, emulating a mixing board’s channel strips. Fader, mute, solo, pan, effects sends, input, and output assigns are all clearly marked and adjustable with a mouse.
Getting in and out of the AudioBox 1818VSL is a breeze. The computer interface is via USB 2.0, and the audio inputs include two balanced mic/instrument combo jacks, so you can plug a keyboard, bass, or guitar directly into your rig without the need for a direct box. Six additional balanced mic-line combo jacks complete the front channel inputs. Each input has its own input control, clip light, and switchable phantom power. A headphone jack and volume control along with main stereo output meters and mains volume control complete the front panel.
For most home studios, the back panel’s varied connections won’t be needed, just the USB and power cords. But if you want to take the 1818 to a gig and use it with a laptop to run sound for your show, it’s more than able, with eight assignable balanced outputs so you can customize your live sound mix to a tee. One of the other great features of the VSL software is its extremely low latency when overdubbing and recording. With a number of other DAW systems, the delay in what you are hearing versus what you are performing can be a distraction. The 1818-Studio One DAW system has nearly zero latency (3 ms), which cuts down on distractions and allows for greater accuracy. All in all, the AudioBox 1818VSL interface plus DAW package offers a tremendous value with the street price of $499.
The next most important element of this starter home recording system is the microphones. While the debate rages and probably will eternally about particular brands and models, for the first time home studio, it’s nice to start out with more than one microphone. Let’s start with the Swiss Army knife of mics, the ever-present Shure SM57. It’s a durable, good sounding dynamic mic, capable of capturing any amplified sound source – plus it’s great for drums, percussion, and even brass.
A nice complement to the SM57 is the Audio Technica AT2020, a fine sounding, side-address condenser mic that is well suited for recording vocals, acoustic guitar, and other similar instruments. It’s got full 20-20kHz frequency range and low self-noise. Both mic picks typically retail for $99.
The last major component in our home studio will be our home studio monitors. While you could opt for a good pair of studio headphones, I prefer to work with a pair of speakers for the simple reason that I can work with another musician and we can both hear the same mix while communicating with one another. There are almost as many studio monitor companies as there are mic brands, but I’m going to go with a tried-and-true company whose reliable products I’ve used for more than three decades.
The Mackie MR5mk2 studio monitors offer professional level performance at a modest price. Their 5.25” woofer and 1” tweeter, smooth crossover, shielded cabinets, and adjustable high and low frequency outputs allow you to tailor the output to fit each monitoring situation. Once again, they are well built and proven to last. The cost for a pair is $300. Add in two 25’ Shure Hi-Flex mic cables ($32) and two adjustable boom stands (OnStage 7701 Boom/Tripod run $60), and your home studio is ready to rock.
What’s the total budget?
One more piece of advice: If you’re new to home recording, you might also want to visit a local music store with a dedicated home recording department. Talk with the staff that sell and support the home recording DAW systems and gear and see what they like and why. The system recommended here is just one possible, and very basic, set up. There are hundreds of combinations of quality, reliable home recording equipment that will allow you the creative freedom and flexibility to make your own music and share it with the world. Happy home recording!
Also check out:
Home Studio Posts: advice on how to record, music gear, guides, and pro insights
The $999 Home Studio
Choosing Your DAW (Echoes post from August 2010)
Creating a Home Recording Studio
Excerpt from our “Home Studio Series” guide, Creating a Home Project Studio, How to get optimal results from your space and budget.
Homemade Speaker Stands For Any Home Studio
Excerpt from our Home Studio Series guide, “Home Studio Series” guide, Building A Professional Home Studio A no-skimping guide to turning your living room into an A-Room.