Home Studio: Gear from Shure, Mackie, and PreSonus That Won’t Break the Bank

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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.

The front panel of the AudioBox 1818VSL.

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.

The PreSonus Studio One DAW program is intuitive and supported by a large online user community that shares tips and techniques.

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.

Dollar for dollar, the AT2020 provides great value.
The Shure SM57, a legendary studio mic.

Microphones
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.

Mackie's MR5mk2 is a new generation of their classic home studio monitor.

Monitors
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.

26 thoughts on “Home Studio: Gear from Shure, Mackie, and PreSonus That Won’t Break the Bank

  1. What is the best MIC to use to avoid feedback?  We are using a Shure SM 58 for lead vocals.  The problem starts as soon as we increase the volume.  We are playing thru a Mackie 406M FR PA and Mackie C300z speakers.

  2. I own Mountain Top Studio and have some of the equipment this article talks about. The one thing I feel they left out was a good set of drum mics. Shure makes them as well as several others. I use a combination of CAD and Shure mics for the drums and a Audio Technica condencer as well as a AKG condencer for vocals. I run portable recorders and also a computer.

  3. I’ve tried a few different interfaces (products by Maudio, presonus, focusrite, MOTU, edirol etc.).
    If anybody is looking for a sound that’s a little warmer… A more “analog” sound, check out the onyx line by mackie.  I’ve been using a 1640 for a few years, and I’m quite happy with it.  They also make smaller (less expensive) versions of this firewire mixer as well.

  4. Why would you buy an 8 channel audio interface for 2 microphones. And who buys a $500 interface and a $99 mic? The AT 2020 is a pretty nice mic actually for that price but I’d save $400 on the interface and just buy an M audio mobile pre if you’re on a budget.

  5. Say or write what you like but there id NOTHING like a nice preamp from Grace or a sweet sounding ribon mic made by Royer, then of course there is the compresser…

  6. The 8 channel Presonus, or any 8 channel interface, is needed if you really plan on recording 8 channels at a time i.e. a band. If not, there are great one or two channel interfaces that are much less expensive. My wife is an acoustic singer/songwriter so we don’t need more than two channels at once. We went M-audio 2496($100) then a Golden Age Pre ( $300) and finally a Rode nt1a mic($300). We get a really great vocal and acoustic guitar sound with this which is what we really need. Think about what your needs are then ask the right questions when shopping.

  7. I agree with jessemeansbusiness.  I do very complex children’s CDs.  When we mixed the first one, it sounded great in the studio, but not in the car.  We had to re-mix so we could hear the dialogue over the F/X and music, so now I always test on my computer, on an MP3 player, and in my car.  Most of my clients (kids) listen on their players, so that’s what I mix for.

  8. I used the PreSonus FirePods for a while and they were ok, but the StudioLive has been incredible put along side ProTools 9!  The “overhead” – the volume of input without distortion is so much better on the StudioLive and just like it says – it’s incredible on the road AND for recording.  We recorded a 2-DISC LIVE worship album for our church called The Presence Of The Lord (by Jordan Biel) and it came out GREAT!  Selling lots of copies – all from withing ONE firewire cable, the studiolive 24, protools 9… 
    PS  I learned the hard way that the one thing I did need to overdub were the electric guitars as they sound MUCH better with a condensor mic instead of the 57  (i used the cheap $69. MXL mic) and yet the guitars, once overdubed using the MXL, sound GREAT, crystal clear… 

    1.  I am so glad you commented, InnovateRecords!  I am just getting started trying to do CCM myself, so you are a real help to me.  I may have misspoke before, so just to clarify, the DAW I purchased is called “FireStudio Project.”  I believe the software it came with is called “StudioLive” but as I said I prefer to work with Garage Band only because I am familiar with it.  My first time out I recorded a simple acoustic guitar track and a vocal track, but on playback it had a “warble” to it, like the sound was going in and out.  I can’t figure out what I was doing wrong, but I haven’t had time to get back to it.  I initially was working on a Mac Mini, but have since picked up a Powerbook Pro, so I’m hoping that will be the difference.  Thanks for your input!  And praise God you’re selling a lot of CD’s!!!

  9. These are great options.  I just purchased the Presonus FireStudio with 8 channels for $349 (usually $399) because it connects via firewire instead of USB.  Firewire is much more stable and is the future.  Otherwise, the interface is exactly the same as the 1818, and it included the Studio One software, but I am planning to use Garage Band on my Apple PowerBook.  I also picked up a “combo” mic set from MXL (a division of Marshall) that includes a side-address cardioid and a pencil mic.  The combo was $99.  Then there is the mic stands, cables, etc.  I was able to purchase all of the above, plus 2 Shure SM58’s, a shock mount for the MXL’s, and a microphone screen and mic stands and cables for a total of $750 including shipping.  I have opted to go with headphones for now, since most of what I do I do alone.  I have seen excellent monitors for $200 a pair, so if I need them later I’ll spend the dough. I any event, the fact that you can have a very high quality home studio for under $1000 is amazing!

    1. Actually, Firewire has become very rare in the affordable PC/Laptop market.  One of the reasons the Firestudio only costs $349 now is because of that.   It’s also why you see higher end interfaces actually migrating away from Firewire, or at least doing a combo USB/Firewire option.  Reference MOTU interfaces for an example.  Firewire is not the future, it’s becoming the past.  It used to be that you could get a decent laptop in the $500-$1000 range with usable Firewire (Texas Instruments chipset is the ONLY one that’s stable for PreSonus products on the PC platform).  Now, you have to get into laptops for well over $1000.  I used to be a FireWire proponent, but when my ThinkPad with onboard TI chipset died and I tried to find a replacement, my PreSonus FireBox became as useful as a paperweight.  No more Firewire for me.  USB 2 is the dominant bus right now.  Eventually something else will take it’s place, but it’s nearly certain that it will not be Firewire.  Perhaps USB 3.0, but it’s really not even necessary so you don’t see interface makers jumping on board to the USB 3.0 spec yet.  As long as the company can write stable ASIO drivers for their products, USB 2.0 will dominate.

  10. Save your money and skip the studio monitors.

    The last professionally mixed product my band did – as in, recorded in a full time studio, with lots of really good equipment – we ended up mixing (with the engineer, mind you) on a cheap set of computer speakers. Even though he has multiple exceptional sets of monitors. He says he prefers this and every mix he’s done since he switched has been better than what he did previously.

    Why on earth would you do that? Because the average person is going to be listening on those, and if you can get the mix to sound both good and right on those, it’s going to sound great on better speakers. The opposite is not true. I’ve had to remix stuff that sounded great on studio monitors and was a mess once I listened to it at home.

    1.  I think its touch but you should go back and forth. I would mix with my studio monitors and then burn a disc and listen to it in my car. Studio monitors give you a good true base.

      1. I agree completely, Strummerats! And I think it’s foolish to do it any other way. I like to do my recording and detailed editing/mixing through good flat-response headphones, but that’s just so I can really focus. Otherwise, I work on the overall mixing/mastering using high-quality near-field studio monitors and, at different stages of completion, I burn a cd and listen in my car to what I’ve worked out up to that point, and that tells me what I need to do next. However, even if I think the end product is perfect, I always burn a cd and play it on different systems. I always check the final mix in my car; the stereo system is super, and the car serves as an isolation booth, so I can really hear how my recording translates into the “real” world of the listener. I’ve discovered that if it sounds good in my car, it will sound good on my various home systems and also when I download it. You really need to go through this whole process, because the studio phones sound different than the monitors, which sound different than my car and house; you pick up different details in different environments. It may seem long and drawn out, but in the end, it’s worth it; you’ll feel good about how your product represents all your hard work, and those that hear it will think you’re really amazing!

    2. this kind of makes sense- however i would add that you must reference on good studio headphones and in your car to make sure that you don’t have imbalanced mixes, and, generally mix quietly to get an accurate mix.

    3. Expert with access to Genelecs chooses to do this?  Thumbs up.  Beginner chooses to do this for their first studio?  Epic fail beyond measure.

    4. skip the monitors?  huh?  That’s the most important part, man.
      Make sure that you check the frequency response on them vs. your crap computer speakers…they’re made to sound the same across the frequency spectrum so that when you listen to your music on whatever systems you have, you will hopefully hear a consistent(ish) sound.  This way your music will have the same sound/effect on some crap radio as it will on some audio-geek’s monster system (within reason, of course).  That is why Yamaha’s NS-10s were so popular for so long, and still would be, if they could find the wood to make them.  They sound like shit, but if you get a good mix on them it will sound good just about anywhere else. When I mix, I use a minimun of 4 sets of monitors, and my computer speakers. I also use my car stereo, different volumes, mono etc… Mix on one system, it will sound good on one system. In other words, you mix something on your friggin’ computer, it will sound good on your friggin’ computer.  End of story.

      1. Yes the more monitors and iPods you can listen to your mix on the better! Just because you have great studio near field monitors does not mean the standing waves in your room are tricking your ears. ie: Your room needs to be professionally treated if you want your monitors to give you an accurate mix. 

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