Developments in audio mixing and editing software make it easier than ever for a talented, technically capable musician to add professional polish to amateur audio. No degree in sound engineering? No problem!
Of course, building a home studio takes more than just user-friendly software—you'll need microphones, a headset, instruments, cables, a way to record drums, and accessories to hold it together. To help guide you to the right gear, several pro musicians who use a home studio setup provided some tips on the best gear to buy on an under-$2,000 budget.
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One quick note about the room you use. Be sure to think about ancillary noise—are you too close to the laundry room or the screaming kid in the next apartment over? Is there a humongous heating fan that will kick in every five minutes? Pick a room with natural sound-proofing. Maybe it has thick, insulated walls and only one door for entry, or maybe it's near the back of the house where the FedEx driver is less likely to spoil a guitar solo. You can add sound panels, studio furniture, and mood lighting, but start with the basics: one main desk and a few chairs that do not squeak.
Most artists start with microphones. That warm, rich sound you hear on something by Deerhunter or The Shins is a direct result of using a fantastic (but expensive) microphone. There are hundreds of options, from low-end models you can buy at Wal-Mart, all the way up to brands like AKG and Neumann—they sell dedicated microphones for every purpose—one for drums, another for guitar, another on piano.
Ben Kweller, who sounds a bit like Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes (with better guitar solos), recommends a large diaphragm microphone like the Shure KSM44 ($900) for vocals. (A diaphragm is a membrane that vibrates to capture sound waves – for vocals, bigger is better). Another good option is the Neumann TLM 102 ($700) for recording vocals. Both of those are a bit expensive for our budget, so for vocals, I recommend the $299 Sennheiser MK4 Large Diaphragm Condenser Mic. This model is inexpensive, but still found in major recording studios as a go-to vocal mic.
For other instruments, the $399 Shure KSM141 is a good option. The membrane on this microphone is a bit small, but you can direct the sound easily. Kweller recommends using this one on the twelfth fret of a guitar for the most realistic recording.
Budget so far: $698
Recording drums is a fine art—it requires a good understanding of audio engineering principles to make sure the sounds don't bump into one another. A cymbal crash will kill a guitar solo if the two are in the same frequency. Adjusting equalizer settings can fix those problems, but folks lacking a degree in sound engineering could consider avoiding acoustic drums altogether.
One percussion option is the $700 Yamaha DTX-M12 drum machine, which has large rubber drum pads that can sense the force of the stick's impact and amplify it into 1,277 different drum sounds.
That's a bit rich for this budget. But there is a pure software alternative for drums: The $449 Propellerhead Reason 6. This is a virtual audio recording rack that includes drum machines, synthesizers, samplers audio effects, virtual instruments, a mixer, EQ settings, and filters in one.
Budget so far: $1147
Until recently, an open-source recording tool like Reaper 4 was a great choice for recording analog instruments and MIDI. But there's a new desktop app that is a better fit for musicians who have aspirations of bringing their recordings into a pro studio.
Avid, the company that makes Pro Tools, the leading recording software for professional studios, just released a new entry-level version called Pro Tools Express. It's included with their new $299 Mbox Mini audio interface. The software lets you record music directly to a PC or Mac or drop the source files onto a thumb drive (say, just the main guitars and vocal parts) for use in a pro studio. "Think seriously about using Pro Tools." said Shiraz Dada, the bass player in the band Maps & Atlases.
The Express version of Pro Tools does not include all of the extensive effects of the full studio version or nearly as many virtual instruments. The Mbox Mini has only one input, which can be a constraint. Still, according to Avid, the circuitry used in the Mbox Mini, which records in 32-bit at 48kHz, matches the ports on the turnkey Pro Tools systems used in studios. Avid also improved the Mbox hardware with the Mini release, with upgrades to the mic preamp and guitar input.
For a home studio, here's the bottom line: Even this junior version of Pro Tools, combined with Reason's sound generation capabilities, lets a laptop handle most of the hard work of production.
Budget so far: $1446
Kweller swears by the Yamaha NS10 Speakers, which produce a flat, realistic, accurate sound because of how the speakers are sealed. Some engineers think they sound terrible, and choose more expensive options from companies like JBL. But the Yamahas are studio standards. "Most modern mixes we have known and loved were mixed through these bad boys," Kweller said. Today, Yamaha markets the $349 HS80M speakers as the NS10M's modern replacement, with the tagline, "If your mixes sound good on these, they sound good on anything."
Alex Schaaf, the front-man for the eclectic alt-rock band Yellow Ostrich, told me to avoid expensive headphones and consider a set like the Sony MDR-XD200. Unfortunately, they're discontinued, but there are still some left for about $55 on Amazon. Schaff's larger point was that anyone can make a recording sound impressive on a pair of $1000 headphones. Most people won't listen to the song that way.
In that same spirit, another good option is the $159 pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Professional Studio Monitor Headphones, a large and comfortable set with good bass thanks to the 45 mm large-aperture drivers.
Budget so far: $1964
Dada said any studio needs to round-out the major components with microphone stands and adapters. He recommended Musician's Friend as a great resource for this. There's a solid $36 left in the budget. Musician's Friend has a decent microphone stand for $19, and their Rapco Horizon microphone cable starts at just $10! The Mbox Mini has only one XLR input for microphones anyway.
Total budget: $1993
There are tons of extra components you can add: a real drum set, a mixer, more instruments, guitar cables, amps, and a lot of other gear more related to the instruments than the studio. In the end, experimentation is key – the best artists often mix and match gear for a more inventive sound. But this setup at least gets you started with a reliable multi-track app, two good microphones, effects software, reference speakers, headphones, and a few accessories. The total comes to seven bucks shy $2000, leaving some spare change to get started on future upgrades. What does this studio need next?