Home Recording Studio - Expert Guide
In this article we discuss every aspect to recording music. Where and how to build a home recording studio, the equipment you’ll need, soundproofing and more.
The benefits of your own home studio, but in case you’re still on the fence here’s our take on why you should build one:
- Learning. Your own studio makes you a guru of making and engineering music, as opposed to just playing it. If you aspire to make your own music, learning how to product music is a game changer.
- Convenient. Traveling to and from a professional recording studio can be extremely time consuming and hassle-some lugging gear with you. With your very own home recording studio, you’ll be able to work when you want, at any time of the day or night. It’s also cheaper than paying exorbitant studio rates.
- Fun. As musicians will tell you, having your own studio will provide you with hours of fun. We’ve all heard the ‘recorded by 2 kids in a bedroom anecdotes’ – well it’s true. Some of the best modern music comes from homegrown studios.
Equipment You’ll Need
Convinced yet? Good. Now it’s time to start assembling the equipment you will need to make this all happen. Here we describe the most crucial pieces of equipment you’ll need.
The computer is typically the most expensive item in any home recording studio. You don’t just want any old computer.
Music production puts a lot of stress on a computer, so unless you’re happy with your computer blue screening, over-heating or performing really slowly, you’re going to want something good enough.
Here are the main things to consider when buying a computer for recording music:
CPU (Computer Processing Units)
Music production is resource intensive on your computer so you’ll want to choose a computer with a high processor speed – or ‘CPU’ (computer processing units).
The CPU is the brains of your computer so you’ll want a dual core processor at the very least.
The higher the CPU clock speed the better. Cheaper computers tend to have lower clock speeds – avoid these at all cost. Can I just upgrade the CPU on my existing machine?
The CPU sits on your computers motherboard and isn’t something like an extra battery pack that you can just bolt on. Unless you’re tech savvy, you’d need to take your machine into a professional to get the CPU upgraded. Watch out though, it may be cheaper just to buy a new machine.
RAM, or ‘Random Access Memory’, is the computer’s virtual memory and is another thing that gets hammered with music production.
You know the feeling when you’ve got too many applications open, or tabs open in your browser and your machine becomes really sluggish? You hear the fan kick in too? That’s your computer’s RAM overloading.
As a rule of thumb, your computer should have at least 8 GB of RAM.
Your hard drive is where your PC stores files, including your sound output files (once you’ve created them).
Sound output files are pretty huge in size, so you need a decent size hard drive to house them. You don’t want to run of disc space.
As a rule of thumb you’re going to need at least 500 GB of hard drive space, preferably a Terrabyte (1000 GBs) so you never have to think about it again.
How about an external hard drive Yes, great option. The price of hard drives have shot down in recent years, allowing you to get a decent size hard drive without breaking the bank. You plug them in via USB (or Lightning if you’re on a Mac) and voila. More space.
If you can, go for a SSD (solid state drive). They are much faster than traditional disc drives and use less power
Laptop or Desktop?
Laptops are incredibly versatile, you can literally take them anywhere. But you get far more bang for buck (in terms of sheer power) with desktops.
Because of their size, laptops have to pack a lot in to a confined space. Inevitably, the performance is going to suffer slightly compared to a desktop.
If you’re serious about building a home studio, I’d go with a desktop all the way. You’ll need a laptop if you want to use a backing track at a gig, so a laptop is good in that scenario.
If you’re never going to need to use your laptop for live reproduction, then a desktop is your better option.
Mac or PC?
When it comes to music and most other creative endeavours, the Mac is the undisputed king of them all. Some DAW’s will only run on Macs, so choice of software is another consideration.
The major downside of the Mac is the cost. Mac’s are ridiculously expensive compared to your average PC. They do tend to hold their value better than PCs, so you could always sell it on.
Whether you’re going to use real instruments or a microphone for recording vocals / sounds etc, you’re going to need an audio interface.
Audio interfaces usually look like this:
What audio interfaces do?
How are you going to get the sounds of your guitar into your computer?
Sure, you could try using the inbuilt microphone on your computer, but trust me it will suck. You need an audio interface.
An audio interface is a bit of kit that lets you plug your instrument into your computer and maintains (and sometimes enhances) the quality of your instrument. Audio interfaces have multiple input jacks for simultaneous recording too. So let’s say you want to record you and your mate both playing guitar, but on separate tracks.
An audio interface lets you plug both guitars in and each guitar track will appear on a separate track in your DAW. There are dozens of audio interface models out there you should check out. For beginners, go with something simple, you don’t need sixteen inputs for your bedroom studio.
I’m not planning on recording vocals, do I need a microphone?The short answer is yes.
That built-in microphone on your laptop really isn’t going to cut it here. Depending on what you need to record, you’ll want to pick up a couple of microphones at least. If you have a singer, that’s one. Recording drums? Another for each piece of the kit, unless you don’t mind doing multiple recordings. If you have any other acoustic instruments you’ll also need microphones for them, or cycle through what gets recorded. Let’s say you have a lovely Gibson E-330 playing through a King Royale K-35 head (trying to emulate the Elliott Smith sound) and you want to quite rightly record that sound. Well, the only way you’re going to capture that sound is by micing up your amp. Hence the need for the mic.
Condensor vs dynamic mic? What’s the difference?
Broadly speaking, there are two types of mic to consider. The condensor mic and the dynamic mic. The condensor mic: ideal for recording for high frequency instruments such as acoustic guitars, cymbals and pianos. These tend to be more versatile and a good addition to any home recording studio. The dynamic mic: ideal for recording low to mid frequency instruments such as drums and typically used for vocals.
Sophisticated recording studios may have dozens of microphones used for creating different sounds, but for now, merely one or two microphones will be sufficient.
Two more microphone accessories you’re going to need:
A microphone stand: Hands-free recording, which is essential for great audio quality, is only possible with a microphone stand.
A microphone pop-filter: If you have ever seen footage of musicians recording in the studio, you have no doubt seen a pop filter. Pop filters are the mesh devices that cover the microphone in the studio, producing a much cleaner and clearer sound quality.
You’ll also need a good pair of headphones or studio monitors. In the raw recorded form, even if you’ve been extremely careful and had the perfect take, you’ll still need to clean the sound up a little bit. Nobody is expecting you to do a perfect mix and master for a demo, so don’t try to beat the pros with the studios. All you’ll want to do is remove any noise, adjust the EQ a bit and set the volume levels so that everything can be heard properly. If you’ve never done this, we’ll get into that soon so don’t worry. If you try to do this with ordinary headphones or speakers, the sound will be coloured by them, rather than giving you an accurate representation of the recording. But having a pair of headphones is handy for one simple reason: when it’s late and you don’t want to bother anyone else, you whack on your headphones and you can blast the music to your heart’s content (though not too loud, ear damage is a real thing).
You will need two pairs of headphones: Closed-back headphones, used for tracking music; and Open-back headphones, used for mixing music.
You’re going to need to hear what you record, and to do that your computer speakers won’t be fit for purpose.
So what are your options? Well, the most common solution is to buy a pair of studio monitors (monitors is a fancy word for speakers). Studio monitors are called ‘active speakers’ (as opposed to the passive speakers that you get with your average hi-fi set up).
A “studio monitor” is music-speak for a speaker used for mixing music. Initially, you will need at least one or two studio monitors.
Why are studio monitors called active speakers?
Studio speakers are called active speakers for one simple reason: they have an amplifier built into the speaker cabinets themselves. Which means they don’t need an external amplifier to power them. Think for a moment about your typical hi-fi set up. You have an amplifier powering those passive speakers don’t you. With active speakers, no need. The amplifier is built in, which means you can plug a computer directly into them and they’ll amplify themselves.
Is there any difference in sound between studio monitors and normal speakers?
Monitors are specifically designed for music production, so they tend to sound better. They tend to manage the lower bass sounds better too. Hearing your music through monitors will help when it comes to translating your mix to other sound systems.
What do I mean by translate? Once you get your music to sound nice and punchy on your studio monitors, you can pretty much guarantee your music will sound great on lesser sounding devices such as car stereos, earplugs, etc.
Another additional bit of kit that any music producer who’s worth their salt will own, but which you don’t need when you’re starting out, is a MIDI controller. A MIDI controller lets you control any of the virtual instruments in your DAW. That could be a drum beat, a bass line, a bit of swirling synth, anything basically. Without a MIDI controller, you need to use your DAWs virtual controller which is ok, but not ideal.
You can also get 88 key MIDI controllers which give you more piano keys to play with.
You could in theory never touch a real instrument and use only virtual instruments that come with your DAW.
You could do that, but it’s not advisable. Samples of live instruments from guitars, keyboards, etc sound much better than a virtual equivalent.
Using real instruments can also reduce the workload on the processing your computer has to do too, which will make it run smoother and quicker. Another plus.The only snag is that real instruments can cost an arm and a leg, so you’ll probably want to prioritize the real instruments that are going to be most useful to you.
MIDI controllers are great for tapping out a beat or bassline, but aren’t great for playing a guitar solo. For that, you need a guitar. Same with a piano. You could try playing a piano through a MIDI controller, but you’re going to be limited by the number of keys the controller have.That’s why having instruments to hand when making music is a good idea. They also add an extra dimension to your production too. There’s something about a real instrument that digitally reproduced instruments can’t match. You obviously need to know how to play the instrument in the first place, so whether its guitar, drums and percussion, keyboard, ukulele it helps to know how to play.
Wherever you can, using MIDI-capable instruments will let you record directly to your audio interface without using a microphone. Not only is this much cheaper (assuming you have electronic instruments to start with) but it’s also easier as you don’t have to clean up the sound as much in post-production.
To get the best out of your home studio you need to reduce unwanted noises and add sufficient soundproofing.
A certain amount of unwanted noise in your audio may be inevitable, but there are several steps you can take to reduce this noise.
Because the room you have chosen was probably not built for great sound, you may have to fake it using a digital reverb software program, which can simulate the sound of almost any acoustical environment, making it sound as if the recording was actually made in a room other than your studio.
However, before you can simulate this good reverberation, you will first need to remove the natural, unwanted reverb of your studio.
To perform these acoustical treatments you will need three things: Bass Traps, Acoustic Panels and Diffusers.
Bass traps are portable and porous broadband absorbers that are ideal for eliminating/absorbing any low, mid and even high frequency noise. Designed to go into corners of the room, they are essential pieces of equipment available for reducing unwanted noise in your studio recordings.
Acoustic panels are foam panels designed to line the walls of your studio. These panels are very adept at absorbing mid to high frequency noise. However, because they are essentially useless for absorbing low bass sounds, they should always be used in conjunction with, and not in lieu of, Bass Traps.
Sound reflections can create problems in your studio because they get trapped in one spot, amplifying some frequencies, while canceling out others. This problem can be handled with diffusers. Shaped almost like backwards cubby holes, diffusers work by scattering reflections around the room, preventing them from getting trapped, and thus preserving the natural sound tone.
Soundproofing The Room
Once you’ve acoustically treated your new studio, it’s time to soundproof the room. Soundproofing is a technique designed to keep outside noises out of your studio, so as not to disturb your work; and to prevent inside noises from escaping your studio, so as not to disturb your household members or neighbours.
There are four steps for properly soundproofing a room: adding mass, damping, decoupling and filling air gaps.
Much like it sounds, the process of adding mass or density is one in which you must thicken the inside walls of your studio, as thicker walls = less noise. This can be accomplished using panels known as Mass-Loaded Vinyl, or Sheetblock. Where you have windows, it’s a good idea to introduce noise cancelling curtains to reduce echoes on your recordings and keep out any external noises.
Damping is a soundproofing technique that helps diminish the energy from sound waves by converting that kinetic energy into heat. Now this sounds really technical, but it’s actually quite easy. Using a compound known as “green glue” or any similar product on the market, you can create a makeshift sound barrier around the walls, floors and ceilings of your studio. Simply use the glue to attach two rigid panels—such as sheetrock or plywood—together, and place the barrier completely around the room.
Whenever two structures in your studio are in direct contact with each other, the sound vibrations from the first structure can transfer to the other, creating unwanted noise that can be picked up on your audio recordings. To remedy this problem, you will need to “decouple” or separate these structures by placing some sort of pliable rubber between these two contact points.
Filling Air Gaps
Every room has little cracks or holes, some more than others. Together, these deficiencies can allow outside noise to enter your studio, and vice versa. To ensure this doesn’t happen, you will need to fill these air gaps. Smaller holes in the walls and ceilings can be filled with a product known as “acoustical caulk,” while the space under the door can be eliminated with automatic door blockers. Finally, foam gaskets can be used to seal up holes around electrical outlets, windows and inside doors.
Digital Audio Workplace (or ‘DAW’)
You’re going to need is some software to help with the music production side of things. Enter the digital audio workplace, commonly referred to as a ‘DAW’.
Back in the day, music producers used multi-track recorders, a physical bit of kit that allowed you to record multiple audio tracks and layer them on top of each other. While multi-tracks are still a popular option, they are severely limited compared to what a DAW can do.
But in effect, they function in similar ways. The term track is still used in DAWs, which is a hang-over from the era of tape-based (or ‘reel-to-reel’) recordings. DAWs have standard layouts that include transport controls (play, rewind, record, etc) track controls and a mixer, plus some kind of waveform display.
Like a mixing console, each track has individual controls that allow you to manage the levels of each track including overall volume, equalization and stereo balance. The beauty of recording tracks in a DAW is, as you’re using a computer, you can undo any track changes with a couple of taps on your keyboard (unlike the old school tape-based recorders).
Here are some options:
Ableton Live is far more than just recording software. It’s used for everything from mixing and mastering to full on music production, and it’s this power that makes it so great for recording guitar. As a fully fledged digital audio workstation (DAW) you can use it for a whole host of jobs beyond simple recording.
The software is very beginner friendly too, making it an ideal option for somebody who just wants to focus on playing guitar and not get bogged down in technical difficulties. If this is you, then go with Ableton Live Intro, as the features are far more stripped down and this lets you focus on the job of recording. With this package you can easily figure out anything you need to know in the space of an afternoon. If you want more complexity and the ability to edit and change your recordings in all sorts of mysterious and arcane ways, the full version is definitely worth a spin.
The other strong advantage of Ableton Live is right there in the name. Sure, you can use it as guitar recording software, but you can also bring it with you to gigs. Being able to use your guitar as a synth controller, being able to bring in effects as and when you need and even trigger recorded loops or sounds on the fly is an incredibly liberating experience. In this sense, Ableton Live does more than just let you record music, it also gives you the tools you need in order to become a more well-rounded musician.
With the previous example we took a look at a DAW, one of the most powerful and essential pieces of software used in the music industry today. Audacity is… not like that. First of all, it’s completely free. As in, there are no trial versions. The whole package is just there to use.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at what you can achieve with Audacity. In order to record with Audacity you’ll need to use a microphone or have a virtual instrument which can be connected to a MIDI guitar. These are generally the easiest options, although there are a couple of other methods that you can find – but we’re straying off topic a little there.
Using Audacity is about as simple as you could hope for. There is a big record button. All you have to do is press that and start playing, and then stop when you’re done. As you play you’ll see a graphic representation of the sound file begin to appear. When you’re done, hit stop. You can then export the file in whatever format you want, but before you do that there are lots of other things you can do.
Like any guitar recording software, you’ll have all the basic editing tools at hand, letting you cut and move different parts of the file around. This is perfect for making sure that each iteration of a chorus or any other part of a song is exactly the same each time, and saves you a lot of time as you only need to record each part once.
Audacity also comes equipped with a huge range of more advanced editing tools that let you create some truly weird and wonderful effects. If you feel the included tools aren’t enough, you can always download more. There are literally thousands of videos and articles that will walk you through creating just about any effect you can imagine.
Because of the amazing level of versatility offered by Audacity, the ease of use and the fact that it’s completely free, it’s very hard to argue that Audacity isn’t the best guitar recording software if you’re on a tight budget. It’s not so useful for incorporating into a live performance, but it’ll certainly be enough for you to release music online or record a demo.
With the more polished and professional audio recording and music production software, guitarists can feel a little bit left out. These are usually the domain of electronic producers and most of the tools are geared towards that application.
Mixcraft is a little different in this regard. Rather than offering you a huge range of synths and patches and whatnot, you’re given a very user friendly experience. For guitar recording, the software really shines due to the inclusion of a large number of amp emulators, effects and more. It’s almost like having access to all of the hardware you can’t afford or have the space to keep.
It’s also great for collaborative projects and group sessions. Recording on multiple tracks at once is exceedingly simple, and the editing process is intuitive enough that you won’t be left scratching your head trying to figure out how to change the cursor from cut to draw.
The software comes in a few different versions. If you’re going to be doing the recording at home and don’t want to spend your life savings on one piece of software, start off with Mixcraft Home Studio. If you absolutely must have the complete package, you can always upgrade later.
Another thing that makes Mixcraft so appealing is the in-depth information available from the makers of the software and the wider community. It’d be a while before anything on Mixcraft actually confused you, but learning some of the more advanced tips and tricks is always helpful, and it’s good to know that you’ll more or less have your hand held the entire time if music technology isn’t your strong point.
Let’s say that you weren’t at home, and you’d just come up with a great lick, or you’d finally managed to come up with the perfect intro for a new song. Whatever it is, you don’t have access to your computer. You do however, happen to have your phone or tablet with you.
This is where GarageBand comes in. Although it’s only available on Apple devices, it’s quickly becoming the king of on-the-go recording software. Since these devices already have a microphone, there’s very little you need to actually do in order to record. Sure, it’s not the same as having access to a full studio set up, but you can always come back to it later when you have all of your resources. Being able to use this in a pinch means that you don’t have to worry about losing anything.
The other thing is that GarageBand is also a full DAW, so not only can you record at any time, but you also have access to a full range of editing and production tools. These can be further expanded with the addition of third party add ons and effects.
As with most software you find on Apple products, it’s very clean and shiny. This doesn’t make recording music any different, but the visually friendly approach can help you find your way around the software very quickly. Complex DAWs can seriously increase your learning period to the point where you completely lose interest due to frustration. GarageBand averts this and takes advantage of touch screen capabilities to make recording and editing as simple as a few taps here and there.
Presonus Studio One 3 Prime
The name can be a bit confusing, but don’t worry, the software itself is much easier to grasp. Apart from the rather badly thought out name, what else makes it stand out?
First of all, Presonus Studio One 3 Prime on par with commercial recording software. Think along the lines of Ableton Live, the full version. Then imagine that it’s completely free.
You get a very nice selection of built in audio effects, including all of the ones you’d look for when shopping for guitar pedals. You also have a powerful sampler that allows you to implement sounds from just about anything you can find online or record.
The recording tools are excellent too. You’re able to use as many tracks, effects and so on as you need. This makes it perfect for recording multiple guitar tracks and mixing them together, or even getting the band’s first demo made.
Actually beginning to record can be a little more drawn out than some other examples, as you’ll have to navigate through a couple of menus here and there. If that all sounds like a lot of effort, it only takes a few seconds longer once you know where everything is, and in a way it’s more useful as you can organise and name recording tracks in advance.
So there we have it, get all this gear and you’ll be way on your way to having your own recording studio.