It used to be that you had to know someone who knows someone to get professional-sounding recordings of your music.
Maybe you were like Queen and lucked into testing out a new studio's equipment. Or perhaps your cousin recorded church choirs a la That Thing You Do.
Thankfully, computers have democratized the recording process. Now, you can record GRAMMY-worthy tracks from the comfort of your own bedroom (we're looking at you, Billie Eilish and Finneas). And it takes a much smaller budget than you might expect.
Here are the tools you need to put together your first home recording studio without spending a fortune on expensive gear.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that having a functional computer is an essential element of your home recording studio. It doesn't matter if you want to run Windows, iOS, or Linux, but you will want to have more than a basic notebook, and you’ll want your computer to be relatively new.
Audio recording software doesn’t require as many computer resources as video editing or gaming, but you’ll be pulling your hair out during the editing process if your computer is missing a few advanced features.
Thunderbolt and USB ports
You’ll want your computer to have several Thunderbolt or USB ports. Some USB ports will be used for tools directly related to audio recording like your audio interface (more on that later) and even USB microphones (don’t knock ‘em ‘til you’ve tried ‘em).
If you’re recording on a laptop, you might also find that you prefer using a USB mouse and even tactile editing tools to speed up the time it takes you to record and edit your music. After all, trackpads might be okay for browsing the internet and typing up emails, but they’re not great for editing in those perfect crossfades.
If your computer doesn’t have a lot of USB ports, it’s not the end of the world. You can find powered USB 3.0 expanders. I highly recommend powered expanders, as they’re a lot faster and more reliable, though they cost a little more.
16GB of RAM
While the exact amount of RAM (computer memory) you’ll need is dependent upon your digital audio workstation—which we’ll get into in a little bit—we recommend finding a computer with 16GB of RAM.
You can usually skate by with 8GB at a bare minimum, but you’ll notice active tasks happen more instantaneously with more RAM. If you don’t have enough RAM, you might be waiting forever for the smallest changes to process.
Plenty of storage
Between your digital audio workstation (DAW), plugins, and projects, you’ll want to make sure your computer has plenty of available storage. For example, the DAW Studio One Artist requires at least 20GB of available storage for the program files alone.
We also recommend keeping program files backed up on an external harddrive or in the cloud. The last thing you want is to lose your hard work to a corrupt harddrive.
Enough monitor space (or an extra monitor)
There's a reason most professionals use laptops with extra monitors or desktops—it's easier to edit with a mouse and a bigger screen. When you’re editing your music, your monitor space will fill up a lot faster than you expect it to. From unlimited audio tracks to digital console mixers, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to as much monitor space as possible. This is one piece of gear that won’t affect your audio quality at all, but will affect your quality of life a lot.
A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Your digital audio workstation—DAW for short—is the software you use to record, edit, mix, and produce music, podcasts, and any kind of audio project you can imagine. The DAWs you use in your home studio are the same as you’d be able to use in a professional studio. Here are a few of the most popular options:
- Ableton Live
- Studio One
- Logic Pro X
- Pro Tools
- Adobe Audition
- BandLab (formerly Cakewalk)
If you’re completely new to the world of DAWs, start with free trials from tools like Ableton Live and Studio One. Ableton Live is popular, plugin-friendly and has hundreds of tutorials freely available on YouTube. Sometimes you can even get a free download of Ableton Live Lite when you buy related hardware, such as audio interfaces or MIDI controllers (more on that later).
Studio One has a solid free tier, but is restrictive on its use of outside plugins. However, it has its own plugin library and is user-friendly, intuitive, and has a strong support site.
Adobe Audition, Pro Tools, Cubase, and Logic Pro X are popular but pricey. Some of those don’t even offer free trials, so we don’t recommend using those unless you already have hands-on experience with those tools or unless you have someone willing to show you the ropes.
Some of the free tools like GarageBand and BandLabs are easy to use for beginners, but aren’t feature-rich enough to produce more than demo-quality work. However, they might get the job done if you’re on an especially tight budget and are willing to put in the work in pre, because these tools lack some of the post-production features of other DAWs.
Ultimately, finding the perfect DAW is about researching the options that are in your budget and choosing one based on its features, functionality, and the availability of educational resources.
An audio interface
Your audio interface is how you get your microphone, MIDI, and direct line inputs into your DAW. Most commonly, you’ll connect your audio interface to your computer via a USB, Thunderbolt, Firewire, or PCIe port with USB being the most common.
Most audio interfaces have at least two inputs and can be found for less than $100. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo is a popular entry-level audio interface that offers a single microphone and line input, which would allow you to simultaneously record vocals and an instrument, and can be found on Reverb.com for $80 used or $110 new.
As your needs change, you can find options with more inputs and even more outputs. For example, the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 has more inputs and outputs, MIDI inputs and outputs, and a host of more advanced features for $409.
But some more advanced gear also comes with some bonuses. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo doesn’t come with any bonus features, but the 18i8 comes with Ableton Live Lite, a host plugins, and more.
Plugins are enhancers that you can use with recording software, such as adding effects like reverb, creating synthesizer sounds, or emulating guitar amplifiers. Some basic plugin effects will come with your DAW, but you can add on more advanced and feature-rich plugins for additional fees.
Though plugins aren’t strictly essential, you'll wonder how you lived without them. You’ll find yourself using them for everything from correcting vocals via Auto Tune to shaping kick drums via multi-band EQ plugins to adding reverb impulse responses that emulate the sound of performing at the Ryman Auditorium.
Unless you’re only planning on recording beats or ambient soundscapes via direct or digital instruments like MIDI controllers or keyboards, you need a mix of dynamic and condenser microphones for your home studio.
Dynamic microphones (for example, the Shure Beta 58A, Sennheiser e906, or Shure SM57) are ideal for capturing loud audio sources like drums and amplifiers. They do work well for vocals and acoustic instruments as well, especially if you’re not in a room with great sound treatment. However, they might need a volume boost from a preamp if you’re a softer singer.
Condenser microphones like the Blue Spark SL, Audio-Technica AT2035, and Slate Digital VMS ML-2 offer even better fidelity and sound quality, capturing precision in the studio. This makes them ideal for capturing softer vocals and studio moments. However, condenser microphones do require phantom power (most interfaces can provide this) and are more fragile than dynamic microphones, so handle them with care.
Headphones and studio monitors
When it comes to your home studio, you’ll want to invest in a pair of headphones and studio monitors that are a little nicer than your traditional earbuds and laptop speakers. This is where you want to splurge if you can.
For headphones, look for over-ear headphones with a flat frequency response. Some trendy headphones boost the bass to make up for the fact that they use relatively poor components (it’s a lot like adding sugar or salt to hide the fact that food doesn’t taste good). The result means that what you hear while you’re recording or mixing isn’t what your music actually sounds like.
Find something as neutral as possible. Typically, anything with the word “reference” in them will aim for that neutral, flat response. I personally like open back headphones for recording as it gives a more natural listening experience, but Sony MDR-7506 are very affordable closed-back professional headphones that are a great starter set.
A solid pair of headphones is probably all you need, but some people prefer to mix on monitors, also known as speakers. Again, find something with a flat response like the JBL 104-BT monitors.
Cables (XLR, Instrument, MIDI)
Cables are one thing in a home studio that you’ll never have enough of. Here are a few types of cables you’ll want to stock up on, including different lengths and extensions:
- XLR (microphone)
- Instrument (TS and TRS), including patch
- Aux (3.5mm)
- MIDI (5-pin)
- USB / FireWire / Thunderbolt / Optical (ADAT or S/PDIF)
- Eurorack patch
- BNC (sometimes used for MIDI clocks)
- Power cables (IEC)
You can safely assume that some of those cables will be used more than others. Power, XLR, instrument, and aux cables will probably be used with every session, while others will probably be used more rarely. Still, you’ll be happy to have them when you need them—the last thing you want is to have to pause a recording session in the middle of a great idea to find a MIDI 5-pin cable.
A MIDI Controller
Speaking of MIDI cables, a MIDI controller is becoming an essential studio tool rather than a nice-to-have toy for electronic genres.
A MIDI controller can take a lot of forms, but it’s most commonly a keyboard that connects to your computer or audio interface. It unlocks a world of sonic possibilities and lets you use virtual instruments that emulate everything from classic synthesizers to drums and strings and more.
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One example of a popular and feature-rich MIDI controller is the Akai MPK Mini MKII, which is a MIDI keyboard that can be found used for $70 or new for $110. It features a 25-key keyboard, multiple octaves up and down for full keyboard range, an arpeggiator, eight assignable controls, eight pads for drums, and more. This tiny investment looks like a toy but is actually the secret sauce for a lot of musicians.
Now that we’ve covered the necessities of a home recording studio, let’s look at some of our favorite home recording accessories. While you can make do without the accessories below, these things can make your recording sessions run more smoothly, can make your editing a breeze, and can reduce the amount of time you spend in post-production.
If you’re using your home studio for recording vocals in any capacity, a pop filter is a must. Otherwise you might find yourself singing with a pair of pantyhose over your head a la Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. You laugh, but I’ve done it! After a few frustrating takes, trust me, you’ll do whatever you can to keep the pops out of your vocals.
While you can sometimes remove annoying pops from vocal takes, it’s a tedious and time-consuming process that involves sharp highpass filters and manual fades. Pop filters are affordable (they start at about $8 online), can save you hours in post-production, and take away nothing from the quality of a vocal performance.
DI box and reamp box
If you perform live, you’re probably familiar with DI boxes. There are tons of uses for DI boxes in the studio, including and importantly converting unbalanced signals to balanced signals, but we’ll cover one popular one to get your imagination flowing.
If you’re not familiar with DI boxes in studios, you might be familiar with them in live settings. On stage, guitarists and bassists use DI boxes to capture and duplicate a direct sound from their instruments. One signal gets sent to their amplifier and the other gets sent to a mixing engineer. This gives the live sound engineer more options for mixing the live sound of the instruments.
The same can be true for studio recording. Let’s say you want to record a guitar solo, but aren’t positive which amplifier you want to use. When you use a DI box, you can record two copies of that solo—one with your initial amplifier choice, and an uncolored, pure signal.
If you don’t end up liking the sound of the original amp in the context of the rest of the song, no problem. You can route that direct version through your reamp box into your amplifier and effects of choice and re-record it. You’ll have the exact same take but through the new amp and effects.
One of the trickiest parts of getting a recording studio just right is acoustic treatment. Some recording spaces like RCA Studio B in Nashville, TN are beloved for the acoustic sound of their studios. But unless your home studio is also in a cavernous space with wonderful natural reverb, your home studio probably is probably going to need some help.
When we create recordings, we use a tool called reverb to create a sense of space. We apply that either via plugins (mentioned above) or effects built into amplifiers or pedals. And unless you’re recording all of your music directly into your computer (i.e., aren’t using any microphones at all), you need to remove all natural reverb before you add in artificial reverb.
You remove your home studio’s natural reverb through acoustic treatment. You can do this pretty simply by hanging blankets on blank walls to dull any reflections, ensuring there are curtains covering windows, or investing in more advanced foam, diffusers, and more.
If you’re using microphones at all in your home studio, you absolutely need multiple types of microphone stands. The standard microphone stand with a round or tripod base is a good start that works for singers, but doesn’t work for applications like mic’ing amplifiers or many acoustic instruments. Here are a few types of microphone stands to consider:
- Standard mic stand with round or tripod base
- Desk-clamp mic stand with boom arm for recording at your desk or workstation
- Boom stand attachment for standard mic stand
- Overhead stand (ideal for recording pianos)
- Low-profile stand (ideal for recording amplifiers and kick drums)
While some recording snobs will turn up their noses at the thought of using USB microphones for recording music, high-end USB mics like the Blue Yeti X can turn out quality vocal and acoustic instrument tracks. They’re especially convenient if you’re working with limited microphone outputs on your audio interface or want to quickly record a demo.
Tactile editing controllers
We mentioned tactile editing controllers when discussing USB ports, but we didn’t really talk about what they are. In short, tactile controllers allow you to map hotkey commands (like copy/paste or scrolling commands) to different buttons on an external controller.
Some people find that these tactile controllers help them edit their work more quickly and efficiently. For example, you can map commands to arm or disarm tracks, scroll through recordings, adjust levels, and more with the flick of the wrist rather than clicking and clacking with your mouse and keyboard.
If you’ve been in a professional recording studio, or even seen pictures of one, you’ve seen those huge mixing boards with dozens of channels. I’m here to tell you that, though those seem like an essential part of a recording studio, you don’t need them for your home recording studio.
Your DAW will have a virtual mixing board with everything an analog mixer would have and more. However, if you’re used to a physical mixing board you might choose to pick up an analog mixer that you can integrate with your DAW. Some companies like PreSonus sell analog mixers that are made to work seamlessly with their DAWs—in this case, Studio One—but most analog mixers should work with most DAWs.
Mood lighting and decorations
There’s a reason you almost never see undecorated venues that leave the house lights up the entire show—it totally kills the vibe. Musicians thrive in environments where the mood matches the music, and home studios should be no different.
You don’t have to spend a ton of money to decorate your home studio. Consider draping some translucent scarves over lampshades, investing in color-changing LEDs, or even adding some greenery. Just avoid anything that could present a fire hazard, like candles.
Record at home and reach more fans
Once you’ve created studio-quality recordings at home, what do you do next? You share them! A great way to build your email list is to create a landing page where you offer an immediate download of one of your songs in exchange for their email address. Try our easy-to-use landing page builder today.