Let’s be honest for a second – When someone decides to set up a home recording studio the primary reason is to save money. Sure there are other reasons like convenience but budget is by far the biggest reason.
If you’re trying to stick to a limited budget when you go shopping for home recording equipment there can be a huge allure to go cheap. Don’t fall for it. It will cost you more in the long run.
Using sub-standard equipment can dramatically affect the quality of your final recordings and scream “Amateur” to any potential Management or Record Label execs. You definitely don’t want to thwart your chances because you were being cheap.
Of course when the budget is tight (something that tends to be true of all of us in the beginning) you have to get a little creative with your spending. You need to strike a delicate balance between quality and budget that still allows you to get that professional sound on a tight budget.
Below I’ve listed some specific pieces you need to pay particular attention to. There are great options in both the high and low-priced ranges but for these quality is key.
The overall objective here is to remove any bottlenecks in your signal flow and ensure there’s no drop in audio quality as sound travels from instruments to recording equipment to speakers.
Let’s dive in
Most novices will hear the term “studio monitor” and think of an external screen attached to your computer. This is NOT the type of monitor we’re talking about here.
In the audio recording context “studio monitors” are a pair of speakers specially designed to play the audio being sent to it WITHOUT enhancing it in any way. They produce what is known as “True Sound” i.e. no additional equalisation is provided by the speaker itself.
This is why home stereo speakers are NOT suitable for professional music creation.
Home stereo speakers are designed to make everything sound great. This would, of course, make it almost impossible for you to detect imperfections in your newly recorded song.
If you’ve already started recording some songs you may have already noticed that they sound different depending on the system they’re played on. In some cases they may sound great on one system and completely horrible on another.
While you may have concluded that the problem was the “bad home entertainment system” the much more likely issue is the original recording.
Good quality professional studio monitors should make it easy for the average listener to hear when an instrument is too loud or quiet or if there’s too much bass on the track etc.
Being able to hear these issues from the recording stage will make correcting them much easier. It will also make the recording sound more consistent on different sound systems.
Professional Studio Microphones
I’ve used microphones that vary in price from a mere $50 all the way up to multiple thousands of dollars and I can confirm that the difference in quality is often astounding.
Because microphone manufacturers understand that their customers will fall into multiple income brackets, most have a broad range of options to suit multiple budgets. You have to be careful here though because once you drop below a certain threshold it can be very difficult to get a professional sounding vocal.
When choosing a microphone you have to first decide the purpose it will be used for. There are multiple options which include:
- Lead vocals
- Background vocals with multiple singers
- Live instruments
- Sampling sounds in nature
- Live performances
Each situation will have different requirements so you have to choose wisely.
If you plan to record lead vocals with one person and background vocals with multiple singers then a multi-pattern condenser mic is what you need to look at. This mic will cost more money but because it has different settings for these different use cases it will save you from having to buy two separate mics.
Again, depending on the option you go with there may be additional accessories required to make it work. Most condenser mics (that I’ve used anyway) require what’s called phantom power. Some higher end condenser mics will come with a phantom power source but cost significantly more than those that don’t.
Lower cost mics will typically need to be connected to an audio interface that comes with built-in phantom power.
You can achieve excellent results from either scenario but again research and careful consideration are a highly recommended first step before you buy.
If you do a search on Amazon for “XLR cables” or “mic cables” you’ll see a ton of options to choose from. The price range will be quite wide too and it will probably seem strange because after all “they’re just cables right?”
The quality of the audio travelling from your microphone or instrument to the recording device (Digital Audio Workstation or hard disk recorder) will only be as good as the cables carrying the signal.
If you start out with poor quality instruments to begin with well you’re just asking for trouble and you’ve failed before you’ve even started. Even if the instruments are great however, that great quality sound will never reach the recoding device if they’re connected with low quality cables.
Think of the cables as a pipes carrying water from a tank (the instrument) to the faucet (recording device). If the pipes are poorly made, leaking and filled with sediments the water that comes out of the faucet will be nasty and probably unusable.
Buying a bigger tank and installing a more high end faucet won’t improve the situation either because the problem will remain – poor quality pipes.
The same is true for the cables you use to connect your equipment. It won’t matter how expensive and high end your microphone, instruments and recording equipment are if the cables connecting them are of low quality.
It’s always a good idea to buy good quality cables. As you would expect, gold plated cables are pricier but they are without a doubt the best option and definitely something to consider investing in if you want to ensure you don’t lose signal quality when recording.
NOTE: Cables do go bad after prolonged use or incorrect installation (kinks and strains etc) so you will eventually have to change them out but if you stick with (and correctly install) high quality cables you should get many years of use out of them before you have to replace them.
Digital Audio Interface
Here’s another piece of equipment that seems to have an almost endless supply of options in a very wide budget range.
For clarity an audio interface is a piece of recording equipment that allows you to connect your high quality instruments and microphones to a computer. The computer uses software (known as a Digital Audio Workstation) to record this audio digitally.
When choosing an audio interface you have a number of things to consider to help you decide the particular feature set you’ll need. Here are a few examples:
- Number of instruments and microphones you plan to record SIMULTANEOUSLY
- Whether or not your vocal mics need a separate phantom power supply
- The connection type your computer can facilitate (USB-A, USB-C etc)
- Rack-mounted or desk-mounted
- AC powered or bus powered
- If it will be used for travel then size and power supply are important
You can of course go for the most expensive audio interface you can afford with 20 inputs and 12 outputs but this can end up being overkill if you only ever record one or two audio sources at a time.
When reading product descriptions and reviews you’ll likely come across terms like bit rate and latency. I’m no expert in this particular area but what I can tell you is that high bit rates are a good thing and zero latency is the ultimate goal.
Depending on the number of simultaneous inputs and outputs you need for your particular situation you can still get a decent audio interface in around the $200-300 range. The one I use now is on Amazon for about $150 and I love it.
If you decide to go with a lower priced option though, make sure you do a LOT of research so you don’t end up paying less for an inferior or inadequate audio interface. Be especially careful when buying bundles. The cheaper price can often mean lower quality components.
Studio Grade Headphones
If you make your music in a home it can often be impossible to make your musical masterpieces using speakers. This is where a decent set of headphones comes in.
These days, if you’re like most music lovers, when you think of high quality headphones you probably think of brands like Bose and Beats by Dré. While both of these companies make excellent sounding headphones, they are designed for use by music consumers NOT creators.
Just like above when I discussed studio monitors and home entertainment systems, you’ll need a pair of headphones that produce True Sound if you plan to use them to create music.
Do a search for “studio monitor headphones” when shopping online and you should find some decent options within your budget.
This is the anomaly in this list in that “more expensive” doesn’t necessarily equate to the best option for recording. You’re after professional headphones here because you’re a professional now 🕺🏻
Sound Recording Engineer
Yea I know. A sound engineer is a person not a piece of equipment but I felt like I should include her in this list to emphasise their importance in this process.
All the best recording equipment in the world will be totally useless to you if you don’t know how to get the best out of it. One key factor to getting the best recordings is the correct use of recording equipment.
Speaker placement, microphone gain, EQ and a whole host of other things are essential ingredients that you must get right or risk ruining the quality of your songs.
Before you start recording, you’ll save yourself a ton of wasted time and grief if you either get the help of a trained studio engineer or decide to take the time become trained as one yourself. You may not know this but many of the best music producers also have at least some training in the audio engineering field.
There are online courses you can take that can do wonders to this end but if you have access it’s always best to be trained in person by a sound engineer.
Because it’s always better, cheaper and easier to prevent problems with your recordings than it is to correct them. This will become very real for you when you realise that you’ll need to hire a sound engineer to fix the problems anyway.
So Now What?
When shopping around for equipment to set up a home recording studio make sure you read the reviews to figure out what your best options are. Ideally you’re looking for reviews written by recording professionals.
If they confirm that the piece of equipment in question is good enough to produce professional results then you’re probably on the right track. If however, they complain about e.g.
- no true sound
- distortion or
- anything else that would affect the quality of the final recording…
…then stay away.
You’re better off spending a little extra cash to avoid problems than to save a buck and end up having to scrap the entire recording.
Now over to you. What do you think of this list? Is there anything you think I should have added? Let me know in the comments below.