How To Create The Best Home Recording Studio
There is something wonderful about owning your own home recording studio; you can wake up in the middle of the night with a flash of inspiration for your next hit song and record it. Your inspirations can be recorded as and when they come to you. For some, another favorable part of owning your home studio is that it allows you to create music in your pjs!
Make The Perfect Home Studio For YOU
The subject of Home Studio Recording is extensive. This overview introduces the many topics that a creative music maker needs to think about when building their home studio. My goal here is to lead you gently through the mire and allow you to figure out what the requirements are for building a home studio that works for your living space, musical needs and budget.
Every home studio will be different because they are built to different musical needs and by different people. If you’re a songwriter producing finished compositions with the aim of securing sync licenses, then your studio will vary massively to a band hoping to submit music to record companies. Everyone’s will be different and personal to the artist, which makes them all the more special to us.
This blog is for those of you who have already ventured into the world of home audio recording and for those who are absolute novices looking to build a basic home recording studio.
How Much Will A Home Recording Studio Cost?
Regardless of how you develop your home studio, some amount of budget will be needed. It will be mostly used to purchase equipment: computers, music software and recording equipment. This budget is dictated by what your musical requirements are. If you are mixing and mastering, or simply want to record a fragment of an idea, there are home recording setups that are readily available.
A suggestion for those who have tight budgets, there are music equipment stores out there that have their own credit cards and can offer 0% for up to 4 years to pay off equipment. Paying the equipment off over time allows you to keep your studio relatively up-to-date. I have been paying off equipment for years. The music business and trying to be creative is frustrating enough, why should you be frustrated by not being able to record the music that comes to you?
Use A Smartphone…?
In its most simple form, you can simply use your smartphone and record your music. Yes, you probably already own your own home studio. You will be surprised how much you learn from your smartphone recordings. I use a recording app that allows me to play my grand piano or keyboards and record in real time at any time. There are many recording apps to choose from that are available as free downloads from the app store. I use recording apps all the time for recording ideas, workshop presentations, rehearsals and sharing ideas with collaborators. Remember, ‘a recording is worth a thousand words!’
When it’s time to expand your studio past the smartphone home recording studio version, that’s when a myriad of questions arise. I suggest that you think of these questions as a starting place toward further explorations:
How much space will I need to have a home recording studio?
The answer to this question evokes another question:
Where is your recording studio going to live in your home?
The size of the physical space will determine what you can do to get started. You can build it anywhere; your bedroom, basement, attic, garage, shed behind the house, closet, kitchen or sitting in a chair with a laptop on your lap. Alternatively, your home recording studio can be a portable one and travel with you if you want, but we’re going to focus on static ones for now.
Let’s assume for now that your space is small. It is your bedroom and you figured out that if you relocate a few pieces of furniture, you can open up a small part of a wall.
Next, get a small table near a plug socket able to hold either a laptop, computer and computer monitor, and some small speakers. Voila, the space is prepared! If you use a digital piano or synthesizer keyboard as your midi input device, then you will need additional space. Preferably, you want your digital keyboard directly in front of you facing the monitor while you are playing. I’ve tried many variations on keyboard setups in my own studio and have always gone back to this standard setup.
I have also seen many home recording kits built on bookshelves to support them without a formal studio recording desktop. Imagination in home recording studio setup building is essential. If your budget will allow it, or as I mentioned earlier you’re willing to pay it off a little at a time, you can look for studio surfaces, workstations, and studio desks to fit your design.
Which computer should I use?
Mac, PC or custom made? How much memory? What chip? Hard drive? External ports? Cable types allowed? Adaptors needed? Cloud storage? What are the minimum requirements for a home recording studio? Because technology is changing in between my keystrokes, it is difficult to recommend a specific computer used for a home recording studio. It’s also a question of personal preference. This question is best answered by asking yourself again; what are my home recordings going to be used for? However, if you’d like some advice, we have an in-depth guide on how to build the perfect computer for production!
Please note, that if you intend to expand your home studio setup, you will be asking your computer to do more than simple word processing. Music programs tend to ask a lot of a computer’s resources, so the bigger, faster, larger, hunkier and more powerful your computer is, the better. If you decide to go with a desktop setup, go for the largest video monitor, or better two monitors. The more visual space you have the better you will enjoy your recording process. The computer options are endless, including off-the-shelf purchases or custom-made computers with extreme amounts of extra processing power.
Which home recording software should I use?
When I first started recording, which was slightly after the Mesozoic era, the format used to record was reel-to-reel tape recorders, a recording device that recorded to magnetic tape. Now, there is vast array of home recording software on the market, or DAWs (digital audio workstations). A DAW has enough software power to finish complete mastered recordings.
Current available and affordable DAWs include state of the art software packages that are practically complete recording studios. There are DAWs out there with learning curves that vary from the technically challenged all the way up to super-tech-geek status. The DAW you use in your home recording studio again depends on personal musical choices.
The basic DAW starter packages currently on the market are capable of some pretty sophisticated and polished recordings. Your choice of which DAW you decide on is based more on the type of music and recordings that you are needing.
Another feature of the world of DAWs is plugins. These handy little side programs add specific control to aspects of a recording. There are numerous plugins being manufactured. This is a separate subject and research area for home recording studio users.
If budget is a concern, there are some DAW lite packages that are included within the basic software of new computers. This way, you can combine the computer and DAW into one purchase. The world of DAW is at your fingertips!
How do I listen to my music?
Speakers or headphones. Which? The correct answer is with my ears.
Here’s the good news. You could begin by using the speakers that are built right into your computer. If you are on a tight budget, you don’t have to buy external speakers and could graduate to them at a later time. That said, I do suggest that you eventually purchase playback speakers that you use specifically for listening to your recordings.
You will want to get used to how these speakers react to all of your recordings, including music being played on the internet. Comparing your recordings’ sound to an already released recording is a wonderful A/B comparison to try. Having a dedicated set of speakers will help you determine whether your recordings frequency range is accurate. They will help you create a listening baseline for yourself.
Trust your speakers
I have a dear friend who listens to every mix in the front seat of his SUV. Why? He trusts his speakers. They tell ‘him’ the truth about the music he is listening to. It makes sense, the guy drives and listens to music. His reference point for listening are the speakers in his SUV.
I use a pair of audiophile speakers that I luckily bought dirt cheap from an audiophile who didn’t like the way they responded to extreme low-frequency sounds. I’ve had these speakers for years and I love them. I know their sound intimately and trust the decisions that I make when listening to them.
I also own a pair of speakers with a subwoofer ($70.00) that is connected to my laptop through the headphone jack. The sub-woofer lives under my desk and I have carefully balanced the speakers to match the output level of my audiophile speakers. These two listening sources, plus my headphones (read on), give me plenty of comparison range in my listening.
Another cool thing about having a laptop as your studio is that you can take it to an audio/music store and plug into various sets of speakers to see how your music sounds. Try it!
The same principle for listening to music through speakers goes for headphones, headsets, IEM (in ear monitors) and earbuds. I listen through a set of hi-end audiophile headphones, cheap Bluetooth headset used only at the gym, earbuds that came with my cell phone, and the pièce de résistance, $1.29 earbuds that I kept from a flight to somewhere. Each headset sounds different from the other in terms of audio response.
The audiophile headphones are my favorite because they allow me to hear it all. This means extreme clarity and definition in everything I listen to. They are extremely comfortable, and I can wear them for hours. I love the way they sound. This is an important point about all listening. You must love the sound the headphones produce.
Except the $1.29 earbuds. They are horrible! They hurt my ears, are extremely uncomfortable to wear and the sound they produce is painful for me to listen to. But they are the lowest common denominator in terms of listening. For the most part, if the music sounds good on my $1.29 buds, the music will usually sound good on most systems.
Which digital keyboard do I use?
In basic home recording/DAW, the most common way of inputting your music is through a keyboard or keyboard controller. The keyboard is connected via a cable. In older recording systems, the cable used was a midi cable specifically used to transmit a midi signal to a computer, another keyboard or a synthesizer. Most new digital keyboards use a USB cable to connect to the computer.
So, which keyboard should I get for my home recording studio set?
The answer to this question is two more questions. 1. What is your playing ability? and 2: Which are you a: ‘keyboard player’, or an ‘I fool around on the keyboard player’? The answer to the first question is answered by the second.
If you are a ‘keyboard player’ you have the ability to play a keyboard because you have learned enough piano technique to use a keyboard to immediately translate your music ideas. If you are this musician, then the choices of keyboards are infinite and depend on what your keyboard needs are. For example, do you want weighted action and sounds included with a keyboard? Or just to have a keyboard controller that sends midi signal to the computer and uses the sampled and synthesized sounds included in your DAW?
I fool around on the keyboard
If your keyboard skills fall under the ‘I fool around on the keyboard player’, you’re probably using your ear to guide your fingers until they find the right notes. Your playing skills are very limited. My suggestion is to start with an inexpensive keyboard that has a decent digital piano sound and can trigger the sampled and synthesized sounds that come with most DAWs.
In this case, the music that you record will be based on a random approach to recording which allows you to simply record what happens to sound good. There is nothing wrong with this trial and error type composing. You’re finding your way and recording your ideas.
Can I record vocals and live instruments into a DAW?
Yes, in fact you can record multiple vocals and live instrument tracks into your DAW. Most DAWs come with a fairly unlimited number of tracks. Once you have recorded the live sounds, you will then have amazing control over how they sound. To do this, you will need to own a microphone.
Which microphone should I use?
Microphones come in every size, shape, colour, price point. Microphones can have a specific recording purpose (bass drum, piano, vocal, lute, etc.) Each has a special characteristic that affects the way your live sound sounds. There are microphones that are so sensitive that they can pick up the sound of a ‘fly buzzing in your ear’.
There are other microphones that don’t have this ability to finely translate a high-frequency sound (the fly buzz) to your recording device. One way to approach getting the right microphone for your recording needs is by reading reviews in electronic music and recording publications by recording professionals who use different microphones on a daily basis.
Another way to choose a microphone is to try them out. Most music stores have a return policy of some sort. I have been purchasing equipment from one music store for years. If I purchase a microphone and am not pleased by the result of the microphone, the store will allow a return. In fact, most of the better music stores have well-informed sales personnel who will be able to guide you along the endless microphone journey.
My first microphone was round, made out of metal and had a clip on the back that would attach itself to my shirt. It even plugged into my reel to reel, Mesozoic recording 101!
What else do I need in my home recording studio to allow me to record my music?
Mic stand. Think about it, you are playing your guitar and holding the mic at the same time? My advice…It doesn’t hurt to own a mic stand. You’re spoilt for choice with microphone stand choices; floor standing, table top, boom stands, clip-on, over-the-head. Using a mic stand makes your recording life easier.
Do I need a mixing board?
If you are recording instrumental music without vocals you probably don’t need a mixing board. DAWs come with an onscreen mixing area that represents a physical mixing board.
If you are recording live instruments with a microphone or microphones, a mixing console or an analogue to digital converter with individual input controls is recommended. The discussion of analogue to digital conversion is a more advanced recording studio subject.
If you are recording with a system that uses outboard equipment not contained in a DAW, then a mixing board is also recommended.
I use an analogue to digital converter system in my home studio for microphone inputs and use my DAW’s mixing board to control it all.
Should I buy new recording equipment or is used recording equipment ok to purchase?
The answer leads to yet more questions. Think about buying a car; you could buy a used car or a new one. We all know your purchase depends on the mileage, condition and use of the vehicle. The same is true for home recording equipment.
If the device is what you need for your studio, and is in good condition, and has the ability to talk to your other equipment (What cables does it use?), then buying used equipment is well worth it if it will help you record your music. There is a lot used recording devices out there. Just be careful with your purchases.
Do I need to attach acoustic treatment to the walls of my studio?
Sound floats! bounces! and can vibrate loose objects to fall from a shelf! Some sound can be invisible! So how do we control sound? By adding sound reinforcement materials to your recording space to either soak up sound or reflect sound. This is also a study unto itself.
Some sound reinforcement suggestions: For spaces that have harsh frequencies and rumbles, try the old blanket method – hang it on a wall and listen to the difference to your space. Egg cartons and cardboard packing materials – hang it on a wall and again listen to the difference.
For spaces that have a lack of clarity and dullness – hang hard objects – tiles, a mirror, plastic.
Again, listen to your space and adjust. If budget is not a concern, there are professional sound reinforcement products designed specifically to eliminate or enhance specific frequencies.
How do I eliminate external noise from my recordings?
First, I would suggest trying not to have your home studio located near a window with a lot of traffic noise coming through. It will drive you crazy trying to record in between passing car sounds.
If you do have to cancel out external noise, the best way is to try to enclose your recording area with some sort of baffle. There are the homemade types of sound reinforcement, (such as those discussed in the previous section on soundproofing), and there are professional sound baffles for all live applications available from your music equipment dealer.
Can I record drums?
Yes, but I would suggest that you send your neighbors on a vacation to the Caribbean.
Be aware…drum kits are loud! If the drums are not baffled, they will leak onto other live recorded tracks. Drums usually require more than one microphone and need to be baffled.
The variations in design of home music studios are many. Each is individual to the creative person who built it. How you build your home studio is a personal decision based on your commitment to music, budget and what your goals are for a particular piece of music.
A most important point to keep in mind when organizing your home studio is what do you need now? What size? What equipment? How sophisticated? How much of a learning curve?
Always keeping in mind the type of recording you need.
I have had many variations of home recording studios over my musical career. I always was, and still am, trying to record my music in the middle of the night when the inspiration comes to me.
Dig in, research, continually reevaluate, and your home studio will turn out to be a place you never want to leave.
This article was written by Randy Klein, read more about him here.