Intro: Building a Home Studio on a Mega Budget
With the digital age continuing to show us how technology has lessened the need for professional services, it is becoming easier to obtain good results on art forms such as audio recording. It is my goal to demonstrate the most cost-effective way of building a home studio, as well as tips to get any home recording enthusiast started on the path of audio engineering. In order to achieve the best results, it is recommended that you save up at least $300 for the build. I think that anyone who is ambitious and eager to learn this trade will have a fun time and will absolutely enjoy the end result.
Step 1: The Room
One of the most important parts of a home studio is the room in which you will make recordings. It can be virtually any room in your house. Spare bedroom, living room, basement, office; heck, I’ve seen people converting their garages into studios. As long as the room you choose doesn’t interfere with the sounds you’ll create, it’s your choice. I chose to use the room in my house that shares a wall with my bedroom. I record in that room, and I have my drums set up in my bedroom. Treatment of the room’s acoustics will be discussed in a later step. If you can help it, the best size of room is one that is longer than it is wide. Try to avoid square rooms, especially if the height matches the length and width. This is due to the laws of sound travel. Certain sounds will create an undesirable frequency in rooms like that.
Step 2: Computer
Arguably, the most essential part of any home studio is the computer. Most of what is being manufactured in the computer industry will suffice for your recording needs. There are a few technical specifications that you’ll want to look for to save a few headaches. An underperforming processor will likely slow your creation process. A qualifying computer is critical depending on what digital audio workstation (DAW) you choose to use. The minimum specs I would recommend are: An Intel i5 processor or higher, 8GB or more of RAM, a large hard drive (I would not go with a spinning drive but rather a solid-state drive also known as an SSD), and if you can a large amount of USB ports for all the equipment you’ll use. Laptops work perfectly, but needless to say, desktops will perform the best.
Step 3: Software (DAW)
So, after you establish a computer and a room to put it in, the next thing you’ll want to purchase is the software to record with. We will refer to them as DAW’s. DAW choice is one of the most controversial subjects in the audio world. You’ll hear hundreds of people arguing over which software is the best. In all honesty, it’s solely a personal preference. I use the industry standard program Pro Tools, used by professional studios all over the world. And luckily, if you want to dive into the world of Pro Tools, there is a free version for anyone to download on the internet. But, you’ll want to choose something that you know will work best with your workflow. Other famous titles include: Logic Pro, Garageband, Studio One, Reason, Ableton, Cubase just to name a few. Free software is also available online, but there will be quite a few limitations. For this project, we’ll use Pro Tools First (Free) so we can focus our purchases on hardware.
Step 4: Interface
An essential part of digital recording is the converters for the audio you’ll record. This is called an interface. Basically, an interface converts the analog signal of a microphone (or guitar input) into a digital format that the computer can read. The computer will then display the audio information it gathered as a wave form in your DAW. Interfaces range from $50 to $5000. A large part of what makes the cost go up is how many inputs you’ll need. If you plan to record a drum set, you may need four or more inputs. If you plan to record only a guitar and vocal, you may only need two inputs. Some even go as low as one input. It all depends on your budget and how many inputs you think you’ll need. I like to tell people to look into the future; will you need eight inputs someday if you later plan to record drums? Will you record no more than two tracks at a time if say you’re a rapper? Good brands to look for include: Focusrite, Presonus, Avid, RME, Universal Audio, Tascam, M-Audio, etc. Another aspect is the connectivity of the unit. Most interfaces run off of USB, but some connect via FireWire or Thunderbolt. If your computer has the latter two, you may consider getting an interface that runs off Thunderbolt or FireWire.
Step 5: Studio Monitors
Once you’ve established which interface to use, the computer you’ll run it with, and the software to which you’ll record, the next critical component to buy is studio monitors. Now when I say monitors, I don’t mean the screen that sits on your desk, but rather the speakers that you’ll use to mix. Mixing is an essential part of the recording process. During this phase, you set the levels of all the instruments and add effects to each track so that they all resonate in harmony together. But, when you use typical stereo speakers, certain frequencies are either boosted or cut. You’ll notice that stereo speakers have more bass and treble than studio monitors. The goal of studio monitors is to have the flattest sound, which means the bass, middle, and treble frequencies are all at the same level. If you’re mixing on speakers that have more bass, you’ll find that you’re cutting too much bass out of the song because you’re hearing the extra amount of it. Same thing with the treble and middle frequencies. There are a lot of studio monitor manufacturers including: Yamaha, JBL, KRK, M-Audio, Presonus, etc. The best bang for the buck monitors are probably the Yamaha HS-5’s. I own those monitors and I couldn’t be happier with the results that they’ve offered.
Step 6: Microphones
A really important component of a home studio is the microphones. This is probably the one thing that novice recording enthusiasts know most about. There are so many sizes and shapes of microphones and the price spectrum is very wide. You can get a good mic for $50, but you could also get a good mic for $10,000. Obviously when starting out, you won’t buy the ten-thousand-dollar mic, but within budget, you can get good results with basic mics. What type of mic and how many you need depends on what you’ll record. If you plan to solely record guitars and vocals, a good condenser mic would be the best option. If you plan to record drums and other loud instruments, a dynamic mic might be appropriate. Condenser microphones have a sensitive pickup, so it can record every detail and minute nuance that an acoustic guitar or vocal would offer. Whereas dynamic mics aren’t as sensitive, so they do a better job recording louder instruments. Dynamic mics also pick up the sounds that are right in front of them; this makes it better for drums since you’ll want each microphone to represent only one drum at a time. An MXL 770 is a very affordable condenser microphone that I used for every instrument in every song before I upgraded a year ago.
Step 7: Acoustic Treatment
Last but certainly not least, acoustic treatment. This process is way more critical than the microphones you choose because if you don’t treat your room, your recordings will sound bad regardless of the quality of your mics. Acoustic treatment is a tough pill to swallow due to its time-consuming calculations and the amount of money you must spend for good results. Studio foam is probably the most common form of treatment, but panels are also very common. You need treatment, especially in small rooms, because the instruments or singing voices will throw sound waves all over the room. They will then bounce off the drywall (or brick wall) and produce very high pitched, unwanted frequencies. Imagine that you’re in a room with no items on the walls and no furniture. Clap your hands and listen to the echo. You’ll hear very undesirable sounds. So, do yourself a favor and buy some cheap foam panels. You can get a pack of them for less than $50. You’ll notice the difference in quality of your recordings.
Step 8: Conclusion
Taking everything mentioned above into consideration, you should undoubtedly have an ideal setup for recording your band, or a friend’s band for that matter. Let’s add up all the items that I talked about in this article and see if building a home studio is attainable. A computer is something that almost everyone owns, so I’ll factor that out of the overall cost. You can get very good recording software for free (such as Pro Tools First and Studio One Prime) so I’ll also factor that out. A good interface with two inputs can cost around $100. Studio monitors can cost as low as $100 for a three-inch pair. Let’s use the Mackie CR-3’s for example. I mentioned the MXL 770 for a good microphone option; that will cost about $70. And lastly, enough acoustic foam to achieve good results will cost about $20 for a 12 pack of panels. This totals up to be $290. That’s less than $300! I hope I’ve proven that anyone can start a home studio and at a very affordable price. There are definitely other options for equipment and manufacturers do a great job offering different products for different skill levels. If you take the time to research, and have enough money to start, I would highly recommend building a studio. It’s a lot of fun!