What gear do you need for a basic home studio?
Interested in putting together a home recording studio equipment list? If so, there are a few essentials you really can’t do without.
In today’s article, we’re going to assemble a list of the essential home recording studio components you really need to get up and running recording your own music based on the kind of music you want to record.
But, if you’re in a hurry, I’ve provided a quick summary below:
Home Recording Studio Equipment List:
At least 1Gb CPU and 1Gb of ram will do the job, but the more CPU and RAM the better
- Audio interface
Select one with enough inputs for the types of instruments you may want to record, and consider if recording in stereo or mono
- Microphone, XLR cable, mic stand, and pop filter
Preferably a cardioid condenser mic, with a mic stand to prevent mechanical vibrations and a pop filter if recording vocals to minimize plosives and sibilance
- Studio monitors
You can get by with headphones, to begin with, but reliable studio monitors offer a more accurate (taking into account room ambiance) reference of your mix
- Closed-back headphones
Headphones are essential for recording. Closed-back headphones are preferable as they are less likely to spill onto the recording
- DAW (digital audio workstation aka recording and editing software)
There are a bunch of free options (including Garageband, Audacity, and Pro Tools First) that offer more than enough functionality for the typical home studio environment.
While there are many additional components, both physical and virtual that you could add to the studio equipment list above, provided you have a computer, interface, microphone (if recording acoustic instruments or vocals), and something to hear your recordings on e.g. headphones or monitors you can get started recording your own music.
In the section below, I’ll go over each component in a little more detail and explain the ins and outs of each.
Getting the balance right
Start with the end in mind
Before we dive into the equipment list and individual components further, it’s wise to consider the end goal. If you don’t have a clear idea of the kind of recording you are aiming for, it’s difficult to assemble the right tools and navigate a path forward toward that goal.
This means taking into account the type of music you want to record and the intended purpose of the recording.
- For example, are you a solo musician, mostly recording multi-track using midi drum loops? Or do you want to record a full band, including an acoustic drum kit?
- Are you recording a demo with the intention of possibly re-recording at a later date or is this the final product you are going to be releasing to the public?
In some cases, it may be a combination of both, but either way, it’s smart to think about the type of music you want to record, the instruments you are recording, and the quality you are aiming for e.g. a basic home demo or something that could potentially be released, along with the level of investment you may need to make to achieve the kind of results you’re aiming for.
“Good equipment helps, but only as much as the person operating it”
While the goal of the home recording category here on the acoustic guitarist’ is to help anyone record their own music from home even on a tight budget. You can’t record great-sounding music if the tools you are using are super low quality and you don’t know how to get the best out of them.
Good equipment + knowledge = good recordings
A lot of people will tell you that you don’t need expensive equipment and instead focus on learning. It’s good advice, education is obviously important, but it’s also a little simplistic.
For example, the difference between a cheap microphone and a $400+ mic is often substantial. The more expensive mic will be built to a much higher standard using better internal componentry and offer a far more reliable recording experience.
But, it’s also true that if you give those two microphones to someone who doesn’t know anything about microphone placement or input levels you are unlikely to hear much of a difference.
Alternatively, give a $25 microphone to someone who does have experience and the result is likely to be a lot better but will still be lacking, as the equipment will be the weakest link in the chain and invariably lower the quality of the recording.
The best way I have found to improve the sound of my demos is to focus on the bare bones, the essential components needed for my recording process, and then to learn everything I can about how to get the best out of them.
This involves knowing in advance the kind of projects you are going to be working on and then over time gradually improving the core components that are going to have the most impact on the quality of your recordings.
You don’t want to blow a large percentage of your budget on tools you will rarely use such as virtual instruments, guitar effects, or midi controllers, and have to compromise on microphones if you mostly plan on recording acoustic guitar and vocals.
Alternatively, if you record mostly electric instruments using direct input and need to mix solely on headphones due to noise constraints it doesn’t make sense to dedicate any available budget to acoustic treatment.
But along with having the right tools for the job, find reliable information about the recording and mixing techniques that will best help you achieve your goals e.g. learn as much as you can about microphone placement, gain staging and mixing, especially eq and compression as this can also make a world of difference to your recordings.
In simple terms great equipment won’t guarantee a great recording, but, combined with a little experience and knowledge of the tools being used it will definitely help.
Isn’t recording equipment expensive?
The good news when it comes to home recording studio equipment is the low barrier to entry with regard to price. Many of the components you are going to need have never been more affordable. Prior to digital recording, I owned an analog 4 track recording console. I loved it at the time but it offered little in comparison to a digital workstation. It was slow to work with and far less practical e.g. it used physical tape which meant rewinding, fast-forwarding, and only being able to use one side. While it was portable, considering I paid nearly a thousand dollars and can now use free or relatively inexpensive software (e.g. around the $100 mark) it’s much easier to get started setting up a basic home studio than at any other time. You just need to know the equipment required to get started, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on for the remainder of the article below, starting with one of the key components of a home studio, the home studio computer.
The ‘home studio’ computer
Aim for efficiency
Regardless of the type of music, you will be recording you need a computer. And, while I definitely embrace the ‘DIY’ ethos for most things home studio-related, having access to a decent computer will save you a lot of time and potential heartache.
Low spec computers are slow, unable to handle projects with a high track count or utilize plugins to their full potential, and are more prone to crashing, meaning work may be lost and time wasted.
Computer – minimum recommended specs
Minimum specifications are tricky when it comes to modern computers. If you are only looking at CPU speed (how fast your computer can complete a processing cycle), you might be comparing apples to oranges (pun intended 🙂
The following specs are based on an average of the top-selling DAW’S (digital audio workstation e.g. your recording and mixing software), but keep in mind they are the minimum recommended requirements, and I would recommend aiming higher if possible.
|Processor Speed||1GHz (Preferably faster e.g. 2Ghz with multi-core processor)|
|Ram||1GB (Preferably 4GB or higher e.g. 8GB)|
|Graphics Card Resolution||1024 x 768 or higher|
|Available Hard Drive Space||1GB (Depending on your choice of software, you may need more e.g. ProTools First recommends 15GB – or consider a portable hard drive)|
In most cases, you are also going to need access to the internet.
Keep in mind. The specs listed above are targeted at the typical home studio solo musician. The more you require from the computer the more processing power you are ultimately going to need.
Working with what you have?
If you have a computer at home that meets the specs I’ve listed above, it will be fine to get started with. But, if given the option, a dedicated computer for your home studio is ideal as it can be optimized for recording without needing to run additional programs or use additional hard drive space.
You can pick something up that exceeds these specifications for under $300 brand-new ($150 – $200 secondhand), but if you can spend a little more you will arm yourself with a far more efficient system and something a little quieter as well.
Fan noise can be a nuisance when recording and the kind of software you are going to be using in the home studio will use a lot of your computer’s internal resources. If running on minimum specs the computer will be running hotter, requiring more cooling, resulting in more fan noise under most circumstances. Processing will also take longer, meaning, you may need a little patience to go with that lack of memory.
If you want to record and mix music on your computer, you’re going to need an audio interface.
While technically it’s possible to record audio by going directly through your computer’s sound card, the sound card won’t have instrument or XLR (balanced microphone cable) inputs. This means you will need to use a combination of adapters.
On top of this, you are asking the computer to convert the analog signal being recorded to digital e.g. sampling and recording the analog signal to zeroes and ones.
This will use up more of the computer’s available resources which are probably already working hard enough running your DAW. All this additional processing will increase the chance of latency.
Instead, if you use a piece of dedicated hardware e.g. an audio interface, the interface itself will process the incoming audio (taking the pressure of your computer) and the preamps in the interface will boost the signal to line level.
What is a preamp?
Microphones record at lower levels than most instruments and require the signal to be increased to a minimum standard for your recording software. Microphone channels generally have preamps to boost this otherwise weak signal. Prior to digital recording, I owned an analog 4 track recording console. I absolutely loved it at the time, in fact, it’s how I spent literally every spare minute I had at the time, but it offered little in comparison to a digital workstation. It was slow to work with and far less practical e.g. it used physical tape which meant rewinding, fast-forwarding, and only being able to use one side of the cassette. While it was portable, considering I paid nearly a thousand dollars and can now use free or relatively inexpensive software (e.g. around the $100 mark) it’s much easier to get started setting up a basic home studio than at any other time
What is line level? Line level refers to a standardized strength of the signal (e.g. the volume), sent from audio equipment, often to an amplifier.
What’s Latency? In simple terms, latency means delay. If recording audio the analog signal must be processed e.g. the signal is converted to digital. This all occurs very quickly, but if there is more than 10 – 15ms of latency you will hear it and you might start to have trouble playing in sync with a drum loop for example.
Audio interface – minimum recommended specs
I’ve already written a fairly in-depth guide to what to look for in an audio interface, but in simple terms, your choice of audio interface really depends on the number and types of inputs you require, which dictates how many simultaneous tracks you can record at once.
If you are a solo musician, then you really only need an interface with one or two XLR/TRS combination inputs. In fact, you only need the second input if recording more than one source simultaneously e.g. vocals and guitar at the same time.
If on the other hand, you plan on recording acoustic drums, or a live band you are going to need additional inputs.
For solo artists, there are several reliable and affordable options available. I personally use the Steinberg UR11 but there are several quality options at the same price point including the Focusrite Scarlett Solo or 2i2.
Both options include direct monitoring, are bus-powered (powered by USB connection, not requiring additional power source), and come with bundled DAW and assorted software.
What is direct monitoring?
Most modern audio interfaces allow the recorded signal to be monitored using headphones directly from the audio interface. This bypasses the analog to digital process and allows the analog signal to be heard through headphones, which prevents latency which can otherwise present a problem if recording overdubs on a low spec machine or if recording with multiple track and effects and syncing with the previously recorded tracks.
If on the other hand, you require something with more inputs, there are several affordable options that are extremely well reviewed available including the Roland Octa-Capture which, as the name implies comes with 8 XLR/TRS combination inputs.
Adding a mixing desk with additional inputs may also be an option, especially if you only require additional inputs occasionally.
If you plan on recording vocals, acoustic guitar, or micing up guitar amps, your microphones will be arguably your most prized possession in the home studio.
It’s the most important component when it comes to capturing sound produced acoustically, aside from the performance itself and the acoustics of the room.
Types of microphones
Ribbon mics are also used for recording, but considering the cost, you are far less likely to come across one in a home studio.
While both condenser and dynamic microphones definitely have their uses, a condenser mic is the best option for most people when starting out as they are more sensitive than dynamic mics, requiring less energy to move the coil inside the microphone that produces the initial signal.
Because of this they are great for recording vocals and acoustic instruments and are often also used for micing guitar amps. The greater sensitivity of the condenser microphone makes them a better all-around option for most home studios if limited to one microphone, to begin with.
Dynamic mics on the other hand are capable of handling higher, more explosive input, but require more energy to produce a signal making them ideal for recording acoustic drums and live performance.
Large or small diaphragm?
Within condenser mics, there are a number of additional options including the directionality of the mic e.g. how the microphone is designed with regard to where it receives the most signal and the size of the diaphragm.
Small diaphragm condenser microphones generally capture a more focused sound and are less likely to be influenced by the ambiance of the room making them a good option for recording instruments.
Large-diaphragm microphones are better suited for vocals as they tend to handle the proximity effect (the closer the source the more low-end frequencies recorded) and the head movement of the vocalist.
If your budget allows for one microphone, and you will be recording vocals along with additional instruments, a large-diaphragm cardioid (detects sound from the front and sides, but not the back) condenser microphone is your best bet. However, if your budget extends to two microphones, one of each is ideal.
Brands to consider include Rode and AGK. If on a budget consider Samson, Audio Technica, and sE Electronics, in particular the X1s which are particularly well-reviewed.
Cables, mic stands, and pop filters
Along with your microphone, a decent microphone stand, pop filter, and cable are essential.
A reliable mic stand will prevent your microphone from detecting mechanical vibrations during recording, especially if the microphone is placed on a hard surface.
Additionally, a pop filter will prevent plosives (the loud T, K, and P sounds that occur when words including T, K, and P are spoken (or sung)) and sibilance (another type of alliteration that occurs due to the shhh noise associated with words and lyrics beginning with the letter S) from your recordings.
The quality of your cables is less likely to be noticed when first starting out, at least audibly, but as a rule the less expensive the cable the more prone it is to pick up electrical interference due to less effective shielding. The cable is also more likely to fall victim to wear and tear and have less reliable connections.
Studio monitors and/or headphones
My mindset when I first started recording music in my home studio was that I didn’t need great speakers or headphones as most people wouldn’t be listening to my music on great speakers anyway.
And, it was more important to focus on quality recording equipment e.g. microphones, software, and the quality of audio I was recording than what it sounded like played back to me in the home studio.
There is some truth to both statements but once again this is far too simplistic.
It’s true that your music, if played outside of your home studio, might be played on all manner of devices from small, tinny-sounding smartphone speakers, to inner ear headphones to high-end home theater speakers, and everything in between. But that’s not really the point.
What you hear on playback, as I have since learned is crucial to the decisions you make with regard to the recording process e.g. mic placement and picking the best location in the room, along with the choices you make when mixing your completed takes with regard to panning, track volume, and eq.
And these all make a much bigger difference to the end product than the perceived benefit of hearing your music on average speakers offers, with regard to having multiple reference points.
Speakers or headphones?
Ideally, you will have both at your disposal.
Headphones are essential, especially for the recording process, to prevent spill being detected by your microphone which would occur if unable to use headphones and had to rely on monitors. You can’t record acoustic elements or vocals without them as you have no other way to hear the tracks you are performing over.
However, while useful for mixing, headphones can accentuate the more subtle aspects of your music-making mixing a little trickier.
This is because they take out the ambiance of the room, the sound is very direct. You have probably noticed this yourself when listening to music on headphones, you may have heard a part in a song you hadn’t noticed before on speakers, for example.
As a result, headphones are great for making detailed refinements but monitors will give you a better overall impression of your mix.
If you are unable to use monitors or have to keep the sound down headphones are fine, to begin with, but you may need to compensate by listening to your semi-completed mixes on other devices now and then to keep a check on levels.
What to look for in studio monitors
The typical home studio doesn’t really need large studio monitors.
My recording space is fairly small and the Presonus 4.5” speakers I use are more than adequate. Aim for clarity over volume.
Most studio monitors in this speaker size (between 3” & 5”) are priced between $100 to $250+ dollars with brands such as Mackie and Presonus recommended.
If you have a little extra consider Yamaha or the ever-popular KRK Rokit studio monitors with distinctive yellow speaker grille.
What to look for in Headphones
Headphones come in either closed-back design, open back design, or inner ear. For the purpose of your home studio, closed-back headphones will be the most useful as the design encloses the sound more effectively.
This serves two purposes. One, there is less interference for the performer and secondly, there is less chance for sound to spill from the headphones into the microphone if recording vocals for example.
Open-back headphones are typically lighter and as a result, feel more comfortable if spending hours mixing your music. Secondly, they don’t offer as much isolation which is often preferable when mixing.
While both open and closed-back headphones have their purposes, if you are choosing one set of headphones for the home studio a closed-back design will be the best option for most purposes and is therefore recommended.
Brands such as Sennheiser and Sony dominate the studio headphone market and have for a long time, but if on a budget Samson and Presonus, both relative newcomers, offer affordable, well-reviewed options, including the Presonus HD7’s which I use and recommend.
DAW (digital audio workstation)
The DAW (pronounced ‘door’) you choose to use is, in my opinion, the component most people spend the most time on, and much of this time investment is unnecessary.
While we all have our preferences with regard to brands, interface design, and intuitiveness, most of the recording, editing, and mixing software available for home studio owners won’t make any real difference to the quality of the music you record.
Almost all modern DAW’s offer similar sample rates and bit-depth, meaning the level of detail being captured is much the same. There can be small differences in how individual DAW’s export, or bounce down audio files but with the exception of those with well-developed ears, there will be no discernible difference in sound quality.
The main areas of concern are functionality, with regard to interface design, performance e.g. does the software play nicely with your computer and associated hardware, and the number of and usefulness of the included plugins.
What should you choose?
The last piece of the home studio puzzle, the DAW is less dependent on your intended usage than other components e.g. your audio interface. This means, almost any of the current offerings from companies such as Avid, Presonus, Magix, and Steinberg are equally effective when recording a solo artist as they are when recording a full band.
This is also the case with regard to quality. Even entry-level programs such as Garageband have been used to produce successful commercial music.
Most audio interfaces come with bundled software and this can be a good place to start as there are no additional costs involved.
Depending on your choice of interface, you are likely to find a limited edition or feature-limited version of an established software offering such as Cubase LE or Presonus Studio One. Each is highly capable in its own right, however, you may find some limitations with regard to the number of tracks available or projects you can export.
I have used and recommend Magix Acid Pro but since moving to Mac two years ago now use Logic Pro, which is an excellent DAW also. There are many great free options also available including Audacity and Pro Tools First, along with freemium options including Reaper which has garnered quite the following and is used extensively and comes highly recommended.
I hope the information above helps you make a more informed decision when assembling your home recording studio equipment list. Keep in mind, many people who start putting together a home studio quickly become obsessed with equipment. And, while you are going to need good equipment to produce quality audio, the performance itself, the acoustic properties of the room you are recording in, and of course how well you can put your equipment to use are every bit as important.