If you’re an artist who’s ready to make your first record, if you’re someone who wants to help other artists make records, or heck, even if you’re a mom who wants to get your child some gear as a gift, trying to figure out what equipment you need to get (them) started recording can seem like a daunting task.
From everything from preamps to plugins, there are a lot of options when it comes to gear for your home studio.
Today I want to cover the 3 basic things you’re going to need if you want to create a basic recording setup for as little as $300. Yes, you can absolutely get professional sounding results for just $300.
So before I start blabbing off the gear you’re going to need to go out and buy, I want to make sure I am clear on this:
You do not, by any means, have to spend a ton of money to get a basic recording setup. In today’s day in age, you can get great results with even low-end consumer gear. It is never the gear that determines the results, but the person behind the gear that matters. Remember, a poor carpenter blames his/her tools.
We will not be covering software in this video. Recording software, or a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is something that is widely available in many cases for free. If you own a Mac, Garageband comes for free standard with OSX. I will leave it to you to figure out how to get the right software for you.
Okay so now that’s out of the way, and you understand that you can get great results with just a few essential tools — so long as you take the time to learn how to use those tools properly — let’s get into our checklist.
Gear Essential #1: The Audio Interface
This is hands down a non-negotiable piece of equipment. You are going to want to buy this pretty early on. Your audio interface will stay with you for years as you (slowly) build up other gear.
So for those who don’t know, what is an audio interface?
An audio interface is essentially a box that will convert an audio signal (albeit from a guitar, a microphone, or what have you) into a digital one and send it to your computer via either USB, Thunderbolt, or Firewire.
I won’t go into the crazy details about the inner-workings of an audio interface, but the main difference between USB, Thunderbolt, and Firewire are the speed at which that audio signal is carried to your computer.
Back in the old days, this was much more of a thing, because USB 1.0 was much slower than firewire, and you would run into issues such as latency.
Today that is a thing of the past, and I am just going to say that as the lovely beginner that you are, don’t worry about it. Just get a USB audio interface.
What I use and absolutely love is the Audient iD14.
If that price point isn’t your cup of tea, then I’ve heard amazing things about the Focusrite Scarlett Solo for just $99:
Alright so I think that basically covers it for audio interfaces. If you would like me to go more in-depth with this awesome technology, let me know in the comments section.
Gear Essentail #2: Headphones
Number two on our list of home studio essentials is none other than a good ‘ol fashioned set of headphones.
I might get some scrutiny for this one. I can feel the purists’ blood boiling already, wondering why I’m not telling you to buy studio monitors instead. There’s a method to my madness, and I will tell you why…
First, studio monitors are much more expensive than a good set of headphones. If you get your sights set on monitors but can’t come up with the cash, then you’ll be either delayed from starting your home studio or will just give up all together. We don’t want that.
Second, and this is especially true for beginners, your room sounds like crap.
Huh? My room sounds like crap.. What does that mean?
Well just keep your shirt on and I’ll tell ya.
By saying your room sounds bad I simply mean that the room you’re either recording or mixing in has poor acoustic treatment. In other words, the room is nothing but drywall.
Sound waves are free to bounce around like a pinball thousands of times as they find their way to your ears. This can introduce “artifacts” that you hear in your mix that simply aren’t there.
So since you’re a beginner and your room sounds like crap, I am recommending that you mix on a quality set of headphones. This will help isolate you from all the reflection surfaces in your room and give you a clear representation of your mix.
Now, the only drawback to mixing on headphones is ear fatigue. Your ears literally get tired of having music pumped in them for hours on end, so please, make sure you take frequent breaks from listening. The quality of your mixes will benefit tremendously.
So, which headphones do I recommend to you?
If you’re willing to spend a little bit extra, I personally use and recommend the Audio Technica ATH-M50x.
They run for about 150 bucks and they sounds absolutely amazing, plus they’re very comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. If you’re a hip-hop producer, these are practically the standard, so go check them out.
If you’re a little more cost-constrained, the Sennheiser HD 280’s are a great option for around $100.
I haven’t personally used these but have heard great things.
So if you’ve been following me along, and have gotten my most cost-effective recommendations, you are two-thirds of the way done with your home studio for just $200.
Gear Essential #3: The Microphone
Ok so that brings us to our third and final piece of gear for starting our home studio, and of course I saved the most important for last: your choice in microphone.
A common misconception about recording for beginners, and I was especially guilty of this when I got started, was that all this magical stuff happens in the post-production or mixing phase. In other words, my tracks would sound like garbage as they were being recorded, and I would defer it to my future self to fix it up later in the mixing stage.
This yields mediocre results at best, and is not how I want you to look at the recording process.
What makes a great mix is a great recording, and what makes a great recording is getting it to sound good at the source, before you ever push that record button.
And that is why the microphone is so important.
I don’t mean it’s so important that you have to spend $1000 on your mic. What I mean is which microphone you buy is irrelevant. How well you get to know your mic, how it sounds, how it behaves is where the magic happens.
That’s why I recommend, we all have as few mics as humanly possible; so we are forced to work with what we have, get great results with what we have, and avoid letting “more gear” notion be the solution to our problems — when practice and experience is the true solution .
So now that we’re are thinking like Jedi’s when it comes to microphones, recording, and mixing philosophically, let’s discuss microphones more in-depth, and get into what I recommend to you.
Before we move on, you need to know that two types of microphones are most common: dynamic and condenser microphones.
The difference between the two? Without getting too crazy, dynamic microphones are good at picking up what’s directly in front of it. Condenser microphones are much more sensitive and can pick up sounds from the front, sides, and sometimes even the back of the microphone.
Which is better? Well, neither per se. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. But, there may be one that is better for you and your situation.
The Case for Dynamics…
Like I said a second ago, dynamic mics are in their wheelhouse when they’re picking something up like a guitar amp, a highly directional sound source. Dynamic mics are common for live performance as well, because they have a more durable construction. Dynamics are also generally less expensive than it’s more sophisticated yet less robust brethren.
Because dynamic microphones shield off everything except what’s directly in front of it, they are great for use in areas or rooms with poor acoustic treatment.
So, if you’re looking for something that’s durable, good for tracking electric guitar or bass, or a mic that will help you manage an unpredictable acoustic space, a dynamic microphone can be a great first mic choice for you.
As far as which dynamic mic I’m going to recommend, well it will come to no surprise to any enthusiast that I am recommending the Shure SM-57, the holy-grail of versatility.
Trust me, it doesn’t sound bad on really anything. You name it, and this microphone has shined above others, even vocals, in many studios across the world.
It has won so many A/B shootouts by the online community for things like snare drums and electric guitar, it’s reputation has become god-like.
The Shure SM-57 is literally in every professional studio and retails for just $100 bucks. How can you go wrong? So if you’ve decided that a dynamic microphone is the route you want to go, you won’t be disappointed going with the SM-57.
The Case for Condensers…
The second option we have with our microphone choice is the condenser, another great, versatile option.
Condenser microphones do absolute wonders for capturing the sound of natural acoustic instruments. Acoustic guitar? Amazing. Want to capture a drum kit with just one microphone? A condenser is for you.
Also a condenser microphone is usually the type most will reach for when tracking vocals. It has a way of capturing the detail and intricacies of the human voice well.
For electric guitar, this microphone can work well micing up a guitar amp, just make sure that the mic has a 20 dB rolloff switch before placing in front of a loud source.
While an excellent choice, the biggest caveat with condenser microphones, is that they pick up their source with such detail and clarity, they also pick up everything else in the room, including the thousands of reflections if your room has little-to-no acoustic treatment.
This, of course, can be nullified with a little bit of creativity. You can place a mattress, curtains, a bunch of clothes or pillows around the microphone to absorb some stray frequencies, as long as you don’t mind the cleanup and the admittedly unsightly look this may bring to your setup.
So which condenser should you buy?
Great question. In the realm of condensers, you will find that the ubiquity of something like an SM-57 does not reign so true.
In other words, you have a lot of options — a seemingly overwhelming number of them.
The good news is you can get excellent, and I do mean fantastic results by spending only around $1-200.
A great condenser that I use and highly recommend is the Blue Spark for $199.
Another studio staple in the same price range is the Rode NT-1A. I don’t own one, but man, people go bonkers over this thing.
If you’re a more little cost-constrained, do not fret. There are plenty of options that, although I do not own personally, I would happily buy in a heartbeat if there were a pressing need.
Mics by the likes of the MXL V67, the Behringer B1, or the Samson C01 all weigh in at under $100, and have been demoed like crazy on YouTube, yielding great results. Go check them out.
So, is a dynamic microphone better than a condenser? No. Can you use this information to help decide for yourself which is right for you? I sure hope so.
Do you play a lot of electric guitar? Sing a little? Record in a basement with a cement floor and walls? No drum tracking? I’d recommend the SM-57.
Have access to a closet? Want to capture acoustic instruments like acoustic guitar and vocals? What about a drum set? I’d go with a condenser.
So that pretty much does it for our gear essentials checklist. If you followed along and decided the most cost effective options are for you, you will have rounded out your studio for just a shade under $300. If you wanted the more expensive options, you would spend somewhere around $500.
We covered the three most important things for the newbie. We started off with an audio interface, an essential tool for your arsenal, talked about how a solid set of headphones will help us to hear our recordings accurately and consistently, and finished off our list with picking one microphone, whether it be a condenser or dynamic, for capturing our instruments.
As you head out today, take a couple seconds to let me know what you think in the comments section. I’d like to hear your suggestions and feedback.
See you next time.