QUICK HIT: An in-depth look at everything you need to set up a functional home recording studio for basic or advanced use.
Most home recording studio setups are simple and easy to put together. Yet, there exists confusion and ambiguity around the idea of setting up your own recording space for even the most basic music production tasks. But, the goals of a home studio are quite simple. In fact, there are only two:
In this article we'll look at putting together a basic home recording studio setup, then - for those wanting more functionality - cover additional pieces you can add to expand that setup. Here's a click-to-jump section of everything we'll cover:
1. Start with a Computer
Every home recording studio should be built around a computer and a desk. While I'm assuming you have a desk and a room set aside for this project, I'm not going to assume that you have a laptop or a computer designated for this task.
Laptops for DAW use should be powerful and capable of running resource-intensive applications like Ableton, Pro Tools or even just GarageBand. Here's what I would recommend making sure is included in your home studio computer:
Does it have to be a Mac?
If you want to use GarageBand buying a Mac is the only option, since that software is exclusive to Apple's OS. However, I've had lots of good luck (and better prices) setting up computers like this on a Windows machine, despite having to give up GarageBand. It's really just a matter of what you prefer and what you're able to spend.
2. An Audio Interface
The second piece of gear you'll add is an audio interface that takes the signal from an instrument cable or an XLR microphone cable and translates it into a USB (or Thunderbolt) signal that can be understood by your computer. USB interfaces generally run between $100 and $300, depending on how many inputs you need. The more inputs you have, the more instruments or vocal microphones you'll be able to record at one time.
- Price: $100 on the low end, $300 on the high end
- Inputs: XLR and instrument cables (generally two to four inputs is plenty)
- Speaker Outputs: Usually supports sending to two or four speakers (studio monitors)
Here are a couple USB audio interface options I would recommend (and have used myself):
3. Microphone Basics
The type of microphone you buy will have a lot to do with what you want to record. Vocals, guitar amps and drums all require different types of microphones to be properly recorded. But, since we're still in the "basics" section of this article, I'll assume you just need one or two vocal mics to get started. I'd recommend what we used for our portable PA system church setup, the Shure Beta 58A vocal microphones. A few accessories you'll want to purchase would include a mic stand, pop filter and XLR cables:
Are condenser mics better for studio use?
Condenser mics are designed to more sensitive and to pickup a wider range of sounds and the subtle variance within those sounds. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that they're better for recording vocals. Condenser mics don't necessarily have a quality advantage over dynamic microphones, and are instead sought out when range is a concern, for things like podcasting or live radio.
4. Studio Headphones
In the home recording studio setup signal chain, headphones are typically connected at the USB audio interface level. They can also be connected directly to the laptop, if preferred.
Studio headphones are part of how we accomplish the "monitoring" task since they allow you to most closely listen to what you're either playing or have already recorded. Headphone quality is mostly measured in terms of how they sound (bass, mid and high frequency response), how comfortable they are and what type of materials are used in their construction. We recommend spending between $60 and $200 on headphones to get the most value. Here are some resources that Guitar Chalk has published that cover a lot of different sets in detail:
5. Studio Monitors
For open air listening, studio monitors are the best and most affordable solution for a home studio. Even if you're just talking about playing an instrument - perhaps guitar or bass - through your computer, studio monitors are the best way to output that signal as though you were hearing it through a guitar amp.
For example, I play my electric guitar through Amplitube 4 and GarageBand on my computer, which then gets outputted through a USB audio interface and then projected through a pair of studio monitors. Here are few I'd recommend (keep in mind some are sold in pairs while others are sold as singles):
Summary Shopping List for a Basic Home Recording Studio Setup
What we've covered so far gets you everything you need to start a home recording studio. We haven't covered anything too advanced, but we've gone through everything needed to give you the ability to record vocals and instruments, in addition to mixing them on your computer. Here's a quick checklist:
- Computer (laptop or desktop)
- Recording software of some kind (many are available free or with free trials)
- A USB audio interface
- Vocal microphones (Shure Beta 58A)
- Microphone stand (one for each mic)
- Pop filter
- XLR cables (one for each mic)
- Headphones for direct monitoring
- Studio monitors for open air
Now that we've covered what you need to get started, let's expand on this setup and get into some of what a more advanced or professional studio would look like. This is not to say you can't be professional with what we've already covered, but it doesn't address a number of common recording studio components that you might want to include or add as you go.
6. A Full MIDI Keyboard
MIDI keyboards not only allow you to play and record music like you would on a traditional digital piano, but they also give you an effective and functional way of controlling your recording software and software-based instruments (onscreen keyboards). Via a USB or MIDI cable connection you can use the keyboard to play different instruments, fade sounds or mix audio that would otherwise have to be done with a mouse.
For those who really get into mixing and recording, the MIDI keyboard quickly becomes a necessary component.
You can get them with a varying number of keys, though I'd recommend at least the 49 key version just because it allows the unit to double in a more traditional piano role. Here are a few options I've consistently recommended:
7. Music Stands
While music stands don't necessarily feel like an "advanced" aspect of a home recording studio, I left them out of the basic setup because they aren't technically necessary for getting started. As you age into your setup, they're a helpful addition and an easy way to upgrade the usability and professionalism of your recording studio.
One thing to note about buying cheap music stands is that they tend to "recess" into their storage position as they age. In other words, you set them to a particular height and they gradually shrink back down as you play. I wouldn't recommend going too cheap here, just because bad music stands are a pain to use and fix.
8. Acoustic Treatment
This is an aspect of home recording studio setup that often goes unaddressed, which is a shame considering it can have a significant impact on the quality of your recordings. First, we should note that there might be existing acoustic treatments in place, depending on where you have your studio. For example, we have a thick carpet in our basement where our home recording studio resides, which gives a lot of sound dampening that you wouldn't get with hardwood floors or concrete.
Below I've added some really basic wall treatment panels, which you can buy easily online or at any music store. They don't have to cost much.
Soundproofing versus Acoustic Treatment
Soundproofing and acoustically treating a room are not the same thing. Acoustic treatment, in whatever form, is meant to reduce the natural echo, reverberation and white noise in a room, thus making it a more ideal recording environment.
Soundproofing is the task of preventing as much sound as possible from coming in or out of a given area. For most home recording studio setups, soundproofing is a secondary priority to acoustic treatment, if it's a priority at all.
Primacoustic Room Treatment Packs
One of the most trusted and widely used acoustic room treatment brands is Primacoustic. They even make their panels available in kits that are put together for certain room types and sizes, like the London 8, London 10, and London 12.
9. Drum Sets: Electric, Mic'd Acoustic or MIDI Drum Pads
Most home-based recording studios don't offer an "in-house" drum kit, though many professional studios do. Adding one to your setup would be the cherry on top if you've addressed all these other areas, and there are a few different ways to do it. Before we get into actually procuring a drum set, let's look at the forms you might want to consider, as you might be able to solve your rhythm needs for a lot less money.
Option #1: MIDI Drum Pads
The most common way to lay down drum tracks in a studio, at least in a home recording setup, is with a MIDI drum pad. These are similar to the MIDI keyboards we looked at earlier, but with pads that let you loop different types of drum sounds and kits. Akai's MIDI drum pads come in several different sizes with varying groupings of pads, knobs and faders.
The Novation Launchpad is another excellent choice, that's made to work with Ableton Live. Though it can also work with other software packages that support looping and drum tracks.
Drum Pad Pros
- Easy to use
- Works directly with software or DAW
- No need for mics
- Easy to loop
- Multiple drum sounds in one device
Drum Pad Cons
- Not even close to the experience of a real drum kit
- Doesn't really translate to or from actual drum skill
- Hard to make these sound natural or "life like"
Option #2: Electric Drum Kit
Electric drum kits have gotten a lot better at sounding and feeling natural, making them easy fits for studios that need to produce a lot of different drum sounds and kick tracks. They're easier to record since you don't have to worry about any kind of drum mic system or isolation.
The downside of electronic drums is that a lot of drummers and percussion players still don't like how they feel, despite the improvements that have been made in recent years.
If you go this route, Roland and Alesis both have some great lines of electronic drum sets that are worth a look:
Electronic Drum Kit Pros
- Gives you the flexibility of the pad with actual drummer skill
- Easy to record
- No microphones required
- Multiple sounds in one kit
ELECTRONIC DRUM KIT Cons
- Drummers tend to dislike the feel of electric kits
- Not ideal for those that can't already play drums
Option #3: A Mic'd Acoustic Drum Set
While acoustic drums will be more appreciated by actual drummers, they have a couple drawbacks. First, they need to be mic'd which can be a significant expense in and of itself. The second problem is that it limits you to one particular sound, namely whatever the kit provides out of the box.
Of the three drum options I've covered so far, this one is my least favorite. Though perhaps that's easy for me to say since I'm not a drummer.
If you are a drummer, or you're setting up a studio to be conducive to live drum tracks, this option is worth considering. Otherwise, I'd recommend sticking with the drum pads and MIDI controllers.
Acoustic DRUM KIT Pros
- Go-to for real, skilled drummers
- Much more natural feel and "organic" sound
Acoustic DRUM KIT Cons
- Can't select multiple sounds
- Difficult to record properly
- Requires drum mic system (multiple microphones)
A home studio can be built up in increments, which frees you from having to spend a ton of money at once. Add those core pieces first before you get into the more complex items. Particularly if you are the musician and the studio owner, just get enough setup to record what you're doing on your own. Assuming you already have your instrument, that could be as little as a laptop and the USB interface.
For additional help, here are a number of resources I'd recommend on this topic:
- Recording Studio Essentials Article by E-Home Recording Studio: Covering the essential items of a recording studio from start to finish.
- GarageBand Home Page: Apple's popular music creation and editing software has gotten a lot more powerful over the past few updates.
- GarageBand Guitar Setup Article: Covers all the setup and gritty details related to recording a guitar (or other instrument) in GaregeBand.
- Ableton Live: The home page for one of the most powerful recording software suites available (referenced multiple times in this article).
Do you have questions about setting up a home recording studio or about the gear I mentioned here? Perhaps you have something to add or a helpful idea that I failed to think up. Feel free to leave those in the comments section below, so future readers can benefit from your ideas.