So, you’re about to get started in the world of recording? It’s true, there are a lot of things to consider to get your home studio up and running. Budget is of course a big factor as well as space and your needs.
When planning out a studio build, no matter how big or small, it’s key that you figure out why you want to build it and what you hope to achieve. If you are looking to commercially produce and make records for other bands, you aren’t going to have much luck working out of your bedroom, but if you are just looking to record a few demos for yourself or produce tracks on your own then you can easily work with a bedroom studio.
Recording high quality songs can be a very intensive process so many standard store bought laptops would not be able to cope with high level audio processing. If you are looking to go big with your productions, this would be an area worth investing in.
Most laptops in their default configuration would be more than capable of recording demos and handling some basic mixing duties but when you start getting into large projects and working with lots of audio processing, you’ll certainly need to consider something that packs a bit more punch.
If your budget allows for it, speak to a local computer company and explain your needs and have them quote you on what a custom built computer to your specs would cost. While getting an audio PC built is not the cheapest option, it is more often than not cheaper than you’d imagine and serves as a long term investment in your audio producing career.
There are a lot of DAW’s available ranging from industry standard workstations like Pro Tools and Cubase, down to affordable systems like Reaper through to free DAWs like Audacity. There is no set rule over which one is the right one to pick, nor is there a “better” DAW for anyone.
Choosing a DAW is very much a contextual thing. Do you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a pro level DAW for recording in your bedroom? Probably not. The advantages to some of the bigger name DAW’s are the level of support and options for plug ins and other add ons that some of the free DAW’s may not support.
Pro Tools for instances comes bundled with some industry standard plugins, while Audacity has the same options available, they might not be as professional sounding.
A lot of choosing a DAW comes from your workflow and how you like to manage projects. If a DAW has a trial version, I’d recommend trying out as many as you can to get an idea of what works for you. While they all serve the same purpose, they all have a slightly different feel and visual look.
Most major DAWs contain a mixer interface so you can manipulate the volume of each audio channel via your mouse. This gives the functionality of a full mixing desk without any real estate being taken out of your studio.
Choosing an Audio Interface
The audio interface is an essential piece of gear for the tiny home studio or the large scale commercial studio. Your audio interface is what transforms your analogue signal from cables and microphones into a digital signal for your DAW to recognise.
Most audio interfaces connect to your recording computer with a USB cable. There are a few that connect with Firewire, Thunderbolt or PCI connections, but USB is the most common.
Check out this handy guide on The Best Audio Interfaces for a rundown of 10 affordable interfaces that will be great for anyone starting out in the world of recording.
When choosing an interface it’s important to think about what you’re looking to achieve with it. If you want to record just one or two sources at home, you can get away with a smaller unit but if you are looking into recording a full band or drums, or perhaps something to take to a location for band recording, an interface with 6-8 inputs would be beneficial to allow you record multiple sources at once.
You can get a large range of interfaces with 8 or more inputs that fit into a single rack space meaning they are very portable and easy to transport.
Studio Monitors for Listening Back
Studio monitors are a very important investment in any studio, especially if you are looking to record music for commercial release. A good set of studio monitors will show off all the nuances of your mix and allow you to sculpt the frequency range of a track to make it perfect for every listening system from phones to headphones to hi-fi systems.
While buying high end studio monitors can be dangerous for the finances, there are many affordable monitors available that will allow you to get your home mixes sounding polished and ready to rock. If you are looking for some fantastic monitors on a budget then there is plenty to choose from.
Studio monitors come with a range of main driver sizes from 3” right up to 8” and beyond. Choosing the right driver size is vital to make the speakers sound their best in your environment. Large 8” drivers will overpower a small room, but 3” drivers won’t stand a chance in a large control room at a studio. Match your speakers to your room and you’ll hear your mixes in the best possible light.
Acoustic treatment is a very interesting subject, the treatment of a room is what makes the room sound good, it reduces reflections and prevents unwanted annoyances from getting into the room while you’re recording. It can be viewed in two categories:
Many professional studios will have isolated rooms meaning there will be no room to room volume spill. Often this is not fully possibly in a home studio as many professional soundproofing installations are built for purpose, but your house is already built.
You can treat your rooms with acoustic matting which is a rubber underlay that goes under your existing carpet or wooden floor which reduces vibrations and sound transfer from the floor of your studio. You can also tighten up any volume spill by ensuring your door is a tight fit by using some reading available rubber trim designed to make doors airtight to prevent draught.
While none of these solutions will go any way towards stopping your neighbours hearing you record drums at home, they will certainly take the edge off the volume spill.
All professional studios are filled with room treatment, this often comes in the form of acoustic tiles which are made from a dense foam material designed to stop unpleasant sound reflections and frequency build up to get your room sounding neutral.
A common misconception when treating a room is to cover the ceiling and every wall with the acoustic foam tiles, this will actually cause more problems in the long run as you will totally deaden the room. When tracking parts and mixing, you actually want your room to have a little bit of life, but you want to target any problem areas to prevent reflections.
Common areas to treat in a home studio include corners where low frequencies can build up and mirror points where reflections from the speakers can bounce around the room and cause phase issues and frequency drops. If you’ve ever tried to mix a sound and got it sounding great in your studio but it sounds awful everywhere else, this is one of the causes.
What Else Do I Need?
Once you’ve got the core components of your studio in place you can start to consider other additional items that you can incorporate into your studio collection:
Hardware Signal Processors
Your DAW will most likely come bundled with a range of digital plugins that serve many purposes like compression, EQ, reverb and more. You can also get hardware versions of these which are the rack mounted units you see in professional studios across the globe.
Rack mounted signal processors are often not cheap, but they do have a real analoge charm that you don’t always get from plugins. Many top level mixers will prefer the sound of a good analogue compressor over a digital version for it’s warmth and attack.
The disadvantage is that these processors take up more space, if you are working in a small environment, or you are someone with a mobile rig that will be moving gear around a lot, rack mounted processors are often a burden. If you are set up in one location with plenty of space and won’t be moving things, rack mounted processors would be a good investment.
Hardware processors are expensive, but if you are growing a studio to a commercial level and you want to capture a sound that your potential clients would love, when you are in a position to do so it’s worth looking at what options you have.
Mixing Desk/DAW Controller
Every picture you see of any studio in the world will contain a mixing desk. The mixing desk is what we all think of when we think of the studio. That huge monster full of faders and knobs that is a mystery to most of us but yet it makes us sound fantastic.
Most DAW programs have a visualization of a digital mixer that you can use when mixing “in the box” by controlling volumes with a fader, but some of us prefer a more hands on approach. If you are working in a bigger studio, it’s not uncommon to actually route the signal back out into a real mixing desk for mixing in the analogue world before sending it back into the DAW as a digital signal.
You can obtain a range of USB DAW controllers these days which look like mixing desks, but don’t actually process the signal in their own right. A real mixing desk has it’s own preamps and EQ sections which add colour to a track, a DAW controller is a mixing desk style interface that you use to control the digital mixer within your DAW.
I personally have been mixing on DAW controllers for years and I enjoy the tactile feel of working with real knobs and faders but while still maintaining all the digital flexibility of mixing “in the box”.
Third Party Plugins
Much like the plugins that come bundled with your DAW, there are also a huge range of professional level plugins. A lot of high level plugins are meticulous digital recreations of classic pieces of analogue gear from EQ units to reverbs to channel strips of classic mixing desks.
The technology available to the companies that produce these plugins is so advanced that many top producers say they struggle to tell the difference between the digital version or the real thing. Many producers have even migrated their workflow over to the digital recreations of gear they previously would have used because it’s so close and it speeds up how they work.
Most high end manufacturer of plugins will offer a trial version of some sort, either as a limited licence for a number of days or a version with limited functionality. This is great because it means you can try them out on your own projects to see if they deliver the results you want before you commit to purchasing the full licence.
Many providers also offer software based instruments which are fantastic additions to any studio. There are a range of digital emulations using real audio samples covering everything from classic synthesizers to drum kits.
You can buy a range of third party plugins to help process your sound and you can even get digital recreations of classic instruments like drums and synths.
Having a set (or a few sets) of good headphones is essential for any studio. These headphones allow anyone recording to hear themselves back with a mix of the track, this is especially important when recording vocals so that the singers voice is totally isolated without any spill from the studio monitors.
If the singer is recording vocals in a room that isn’t your control room, like a drummer would record in a live room, then a headphone feed will need to be sent to that room so they can hear what they are doing.
I’d recommend a set of closed back headphones for tracking. Closed back headphones prevent any frequencies from spilling out the back of the headphones ensuring a tighter sound seal against headphone noise going into the microphone.
What good is a studio without any microphones? Depending on the range of things that you’ll be recording your microphone needs will differ. Many top studios will stock a huge range of microphones for all purposes from condenser microphones to dynamic microphones.
If you are going to be recording drums, check out what sort of mics you might need for kick drums and what work well for overheads. Certain musicians have mic preferences too, many guitar players like the Shure SM57 as a guitar speaker mic for instance.
The more microphones you have, the more you can offer. Building a good collection of great microphones takes time and money so start off buying the best ones you can afford to suit your budget and then upgrade later.
When buying microphones, it’s also important to consider a pop shield to ensure that singers takes are kept “pop” free by letters such as “b” and “p”, known as plosives.
Having some good quality headphones and microphones is essential for any studio. Headphones will allow your artists to hear themselves as they record and prevent spill into the microphones. Having great microphones help you offer more variety to clients.
Before You Start Buying
So, now that we’ve covered all the possible areas that you might need to consider to get your studio going, it’s time to plan it all out.
Making a plan is vital to ensuring you buy the right gear for your project. When making your plan, make a list of the important factors:
- Room Size
- Room Location
- What will the studio be used for?
Set yourself a budget and try to work within it, but being mindful that sometimes you may need to stretch that budget slightly. While it is possible to put together a fantastic home studio for very little, if you are expecting commercial sounding products, you will have to invest that money.
Once you have the essentials to record (A good computer, studio monitors, a DAW and an interface), you can build up the rest over time. Think of your studio as a long term investment in your own career and it will grow as your needs grow.
Room size is important, you don’t want to buy a 72 channel mixing desk and a pair of dual 8” driver wall mounted monitors for a spare bedroom studio. Measure your space first and consider what is reasonable to have in that space.
Likewise, with the use of the studio, consider what you will be using it for. You aren’t going to get a full band in a 2m square room for release quality recording. If you are looking to get into commercial projects then perhaps the spare bedroom studio might be unfit for purpose.
Once you’ve got your plan set out, you can start building and start your journey into the world of music recording.