the matter and give you a broad picture of what it takes to have a great home studio. In thinking through this, I’ve come up with the following list:
12 Home Studio Necessities: 1. Computer 2. DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)/Recording Software 3. Audio Interface 4. Microphone(s) 5. Studio Monitors 6. Headphones 7. External/Dedicated Hard Drive 8. Acoustic Treatment 9. MIDI Controller 10. Good Cables 11. Power Conditioner 12. Accessories Over the course of this eBook, I’ll delve into each of these. Not everyone will need everything on the list, but these are the things I’ve come to see as necessities in my home studio. You probably noticed that I’ve not included any standalone multi-track recorders or workstations. I certainly have nothing against them, but they seem to be slowly dying off with the advent of affordable computer-based recording equipment. Nearly all of the topics I plan to cover will be applicable to standalone DAW user, so read on. If you’re starting to freak out a little bit, tugging at your collar like George Banks in “Father of the Bride,” relax. You certainly don’t need everything on this list to get started. In fact, you could have only two or three out of twelve and be well on your way to making great recordings. In fact, I started out in high school with a basic #1, a free version of #2, and a #4 that I can’t believe I even used…more on that to come.
Before you can even think about releasing your first quadruple-platinum album, you’ll need some way to record it. For years, big ‘ol tape machines ruled the recording world. I’ve got a buddy who laughs at how much much useless information from “the analog days” is taking up valuable space in his brain - things like like how to align a 2-inch tape machine. While it used to take up to several hours just to set up the studio for recording (aligning tape machines, zeroing out the console, setting up the patchbay), now I can walk into my studio, flip on a power switch, double click on an icon, and I don’t even have time to make coffee before my studio is ready to start recording the next “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Thank God for computers. Sure, they bring in an entirely different level of complexity, but they allow the average Joe to spend a few hundred bucks and have (in many ways) the same capabilities as the big analog studios that cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. Having a “home recording studio” simply wasn’t feasible for most people thirty years ago. Now I’m amazed at the music we are able to produce from a bedroom in an apartment. The other side of that coin, however, is that it becomes just as easy for horrible musicians to record themselves. This is a topic of another discussion for another day.
I’m operating under the assumption that you are planning to use your home studio to make good music. Please, make good music. So what computer should you get? The majority of the time, your home computer will have plenty of power to run most recording programs out there. I’m not going to give an exhaustive list of specs and requirements, because that changes every few months. For the purpose of this article, suffice it to say that you should consult the manufacturers’ websites. They all have a “minimum requirements” page that should be helpful, especially if you’re going to buy a new computer. Please, please, PLEASE do yourself a favor and research software requirements before buying your computer. You’ll be glad you did. That being said, one huge thing you can do to beef up your current (or brand new) computer is add more RAM. RAM is where the magic happens. That’s where all your audio will be processed, so the more the merrier.
Mac or PC? Ah, the age-old question. All the Mac guys are touting the superiority of their machines. All the PC guys are trying to prove that theirs are just as cool. I’m a Mac guy myself, but I’m not so naive as to think that owning a Mac is the only way you can possibly produce anything creative.
I’ll get into the various recording platforms in the next section, so keep in mind that when thinking about a home recording studio, you need to think in terms of a system. Too much focus on one component could lead you down the wrong path if it doesn’t fit in with your vision for the entire system.
GarageBand, you can simply buy Logic, open up the songs inside Logic, and continue working on them. Logic includes a lot of virtual instruments (such as orchestra sounds, keyboard sounds, etc.). It’s great for songwriting and composing. The other benefit is that Logic works with pretty much any audio interface. What that means is you can choose your interface, whereas with Pro Tools you have to use Digidesign’s interfaces, which limits your selection. The truth is that all of these programs will do the same thing. The difference lies simply in how they do it. If I told ten guitarists to play an E minor chord, I bet they wouldn’t all play it the same way, but none of them would be wrong. Do yourself a favor, do a little research, but don’t make it a 6-month process. For every month you wait around for the “perfect” solution, that’s one less month that you could’ve been making music. And that’s what it’s all about after all, right?
For Logic Studio on a Mac • Apogee - Best-sounding interfaces out there (in my opinion) For Digital Performer and Cubase on a Mac • Pretty much all of the interfaces mentioned above. *I’ve had good experiences with Edirol and M-Audio (especially on a PC) and Focusrite as well. “I Need More Inputs” You may have noticed that most interfaces max out and 8 microphone inputs. What if you want to put 12 mics on a drum kit? Herein lies the beauty of expandability. You’ll notice a lot of interfaces have what’s called an ADAT optical input. This can be used to bring in eight more channels of audio. So if you have something like a PreSonus Firestudio, which has two ADAT inputs on the back, you can pump in an additional 16-channels into your existing system! This is done by using standalone 8-channel preamps with ADAT outputs on them. One of the most popular is the PreSonus DigimaxFS. As I mentioned earlier, this is what Jars of Clay did on tour. They had one PreSonus Firestudio (8 mic inputs) and two DigimaxFS preamps (16 mic inputs) for a total of 24 microphone inputs running into Cubase! Off to the Races… You may be wanting someone to just say “get Product X,” but I don’t want to do that. For one thing, “Product X” may not be around in six months. My goal is to give you some tips for what to look for when buying an audio interface. The market will change every six months, but the basic principles still apply: • Choose an interface that is compatible with your DAW software. • Choose an interface with enough inputs and outputs to handle your present and future needs. • Find out which interfaces have a history of “playing nicely” with your DAW software and your computer platform (Mac or PC). I’ve listed some suggestions above for that. • Buy it and make some music!!
I recorded my first album in high school. At least I called it an “album.” My gear list included: • A basic home PC • A “free” version of Cakewalk Guitar Tracks I got from a friend. • That skinny little dictation microphone that used to come with home computers. (Remember those? It was a skinny little microphone about eight inches long, mounted to a cheap little plastic stand, plugged into the sound card at the back of the computer. See pic at the end of this section.) This was my first foray into recording. If you’re wondering, I shan’t be re-releasing that album. Whew, it was awful. However, I learned a lot of things back then. I had no idea I was using sub-par equipment, and I worked really hard to make the recordings sound good. Most of all, I had fun.
happy. I’m a big fan of Rode microphones for anyone who wants good quality but doesn’t want to spend a ton of money. Now if you’ve got a big chunk of cash laid aside for your dream studio, then you can seriously consider some of the higher-end microphones out there. Brands like Neumann, Blue, and AKG come to mind. Why do big studios have mic lockers full of microphones? Because no one microphone works well in every situation. It’s like painting. If you give a painter one or two colors to work with, they’ll only be able to create a handful of paintings. In the same way, microphones can add a lot of color and character to your recordings. One mic that sounds great on my vocals may sound awful on another guy’s voice. If you’re aiming for a professional studio, you’ll need to look into investing in several microphones. That way you can cover whatever situations you come across during a recording session. What Do I Use? I’ve used a ton of microphones over the years, but right now I have two go-to mics in my home studio. One is an $800 tube condenser mic from M-Audio called the Sputnik. The other is a $250 condenser mic, also from M-Audio, called the Luna.
The Sputnik, on the other hand, is a tube microphone. It has a darker, more colored sound. It has a very warm response. It’s not as bright and crisp as the Luna, but it adds its own natural compression and a teensy bit of distortion. I love it for vocals. On any given day, I’ll either record guitar and vocals one at a time, or I’ll use both mics (Sputnik on vocals, Luna on guitar) to record everything at once. What you choose is certainly up to you. Be creative, and take a chance on a little bit more expensive microphone if you can. It’ll be something you’ll use for years to come.
#5 - Studio Monitors If you were to browse any of the popular recording forums, it wouldn’t take you long to find someone complaining about how their mixes don’t translate. What he’s complaining about is that he records a song, spends hours in his studio mixing it, and then it sounds completely different when he burns a copy to go listen to in his car or stereo. This is something that has always plagued engineers and will continue to do so for years to come. The issue? Everybody listens to music on a different set of speakers. And no two sets of speakers sound the same. So a perfectly crafted mix on one pair of speakers could sound really bass-heavy and muddy on another pair. The Cure While there is no quick fix for this, one of the biggest reason mixes don’t translate is inaccurate studio monitors. (When I say studio monitors, I’m referring to speakers specifically designed for “reference monitoring” in a recording environment.) When you’re mixing a song, you want to hear exactly what’s going on in the music. If you’ve got a cheap set of speakers that do something to the sound to make it sound “better,” you’ll end up with a mix that sounds good…but only on that specific pair of speakers…not anywhere else.
hard to manipulate the audio to my liking, but a good set of monitors always makes it easier to hear what’s going on in the mix.
#6 - Headphones I couldn’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve spent with headphones on my head. Whether you’re editing tracks in your apartment at three in the morning or recording vocal overdubs, headphones are an invaluable component of your home studio. First Things First We took a look at studio monitors in the last section. If you’re new to this whole home studio thing, you may be wondering, “If studio monitors are so important for getting good mixes out of my home studio, why do I need headphones, too?” That’s a fair question. The biggest single reason you need headphones is for recording. Since you only want your instrument or vocal to be recorded, you’ll obviously need to mute the studio monitors while recording. You need to be able to hear what’s being recorded as you record it, and that’s where headphones come in. This could be an arguable point. Let’s say you’re recording yourself singing and playing guitar. Perhaps you want to play and sing at the same time to capture the feel and energy of the song. (Oftentimes the song loses a little bit of energy when you record the parts separately, i.e. guitar first, then vocals.)
What About Mixing? As I mentioned in the last section, headphones really aren’t ideal for mixing. However, they can be quite useful. I always check my mixes on headphones to make sure they sound good to all the “headphone wearers” out there. I also use headphones quite a bit when I’m editing, as you can hear little details a bit better. As far as mixing goes, I know plenty of folks who do their mixes entirely on headphones, but typically a good pair of studio monitors is going to give you a better chance at good, consistent mixes. However, the biggest challenge you face when mixing is simply learning how to mix on whatever equipment you have. You need to learn how your equipment (either headphones or studio monitors) sounds. Then you must learn how to make that sound translate to the rest of the world.
This is a concept that has been a little fuzzy for a lot of home studio owners. Whenever you’re getting into multi-track recording, it’s important to have a dedicated hard drive for streaming all your audio. What do you mean dedicated? Recording music to a computer can be a pretty intense process, especially when you start recording and playing back ten or twenty individual tracks of audio or more. Each of those audio files has to be streamed in real time from your hard drive. The system hard drive on your computer (the one that came with your computer) will technically work as your audio drive, but it’s not the best idea. For one thing, your operating system and all the software you own is installed on the system drive. Before you even fire up Pro Tools or Garage Band, the system drive is already working pretty hard. It has a full-time job of simply running the operating system. Now to ask that drive to handle all of your audio streaming is just too much. What that means in the real world is you will start to get freezes and error messages in your recording software. For this reason I (along with every DAW software manufacturer out there) recommend using a dedicated hard drive for recording. This means you want to use a second hard drive that does nothing but stream your audio to and from the computer.
Internal or External? There are basically two ways to add a second drive to your system. • If you’re using a desktop computer, install a second hard drive inside the computer. • If you’re using a laptop, or if you simply don’t want to bother installing a hard drive on your desktop, you need an external drive. Internal drives technically give you more speed, since they communicate directly with your motherboard. However, I’ve exclusively used external drives, and they’ve worked wonderfully. The reason I have used external is that I’ve always run a laptop setup, which doesn’t allow for you to install a second internal drive. Also, external drives are convenient for when I want to take my sessions to another studio and work on them there. I just unplug the drive and head out the door. As of today, there are basically two types of external drives - USB and firewire. USB 2.0 drives are just fine and are plenty fast, but I prefer firewire because it can be daisychained. If you’re new to computers, that basically means that you can plug several firewire devices into each other (since they all usually have two firewire ports on them) and then run one firewire cable from the last device into the firewire port on your computer. Firewire drives are also hot-swappable, meaning you can plug and unplug them from your computer without having to restart the computer every time. (However, you need to make sure you “eject” the drive from your system before yanking the cord out.) What I Use My studio is based around an Apple Macbook, which only has one firewire port on it. From that one port I connect to my Digidesign 003 and three firewire hard drives. My main recording drive is a Glyph drive, which I highly recommend. I’ve been through my share of cheap drives, and while most of them worked just fine (in fact, I still use them for backup and archiving), they can be ridiculously loud! In a home studio environment, you’re already battling noise from the air conditioning, your neighbors, your computer, your cat. The last thing you need is a noisy hard drive to add a lovely hmmmm to all your recordings. It’s pretty obnoxious. What’s special about Glyph drives is that they were made specifically for audio recording. A few features:
• They’re ridiculously quiet. They use actual acoustic treatment on the inside of the drive itself to insulate the drive noise from the rest of your studio. • They can be rack-mountable. This is just cool. And Sweetwater throws in rack ears for free. • They have the appropriate chipset for all the major recording platforms. Basically, not all hard drive enclosure chipsets are the same. Many do not work or do not work well with Pro Tools or any other platform. • They have a great warranty, which is awesome since hard drives do crash from time to time A Little Geek Speak Glyph drives are a bit more expensive, so if they don’t fit your budget, make sure you get a hard drive that is 7200 rpm and has an appropriate chipset (like the Oxford 911 chipset) for the recording program you’re planning to use. All the manufacturers spec this out on their websites, so check those out. One final thing. You may be wondering how exactly you use the external drive with Pro Tools, for example. Basically, all you do is save your session to the external drive. When you first create a session for a song, it will give you an option to choose a hard drive where you want that session and all its corresponding audio to reside. You don’t need to install Pro Tools or your Windows or Mac operating system on your external drives. They simply hold your audio. Hopefully this shed some light on the whole “recording hard drive” mystery.
Acoustic treatment is arguably one of the most important components of your home studio. Sadly, it’s usually the most neglected area. Most folks would much rather buy a new mic or new studio monitors than bother with acoustic treatment. Or they’ll buy plug-in bundle after plug-in bundle, praying that one of them would be able to “fix” their mixes. Oftentimes the problem isn’t the gear, it’s the room. Think about it. Everything you do in your studio revolves around sound waves. These sound waves are bouncing all around the room. Unless your room was built from the ground up to appropriately handle all these reflections, you’ll need acoustic treatment. A Big Shoebox Most home studio owners are using a spare bedroom or office. Most likely the space is rectangular, like a big box. This just isn’t all that conducive to recording (and especially mixing) music. (Just stand in the middle of the room and clap your hands. You’ll hear a little “flutter echo”…not very pretty.) The parallel walls cause all sorts of standing waves and room nodes. This causes certain frequencies to “build up” in certain areas of the room. It can also cause certain frequencies to be dramatically cut. You know how your studio monitors are supposed to have a flat frequency response, so you can accurately hear what you’ve recorded? Well a room that isn’t acoustically
also need bass traps (to handle low frequency issues) and diffusers (to help spread out the sound more). However, if you’re just starting out, make small changes here and there. Buy some foam. See how that works. Then buy a set of bass traps to put in the corners. That will help with too much bass building up in your room. Just take it one step at a time. There’s no rule that says you have to buy acoustic treatment. You can get creative with blankets or mattresses. Anything that absorbs some of those first reflections can be extremely helpful. If nothing else, remember that your room plays a huge part in how your recordings will turn out. A minimal investment in a little bit of acoustic treatment can make your equipment and mixes sound exponentially better.
#9 - MIDI Controller
Photo by bennylin0724
Not every home studio owner is a keyboard player, but almost every home studio owner will want to put keyboard parts into their recordings at some point. Hence the need for a MIDI controller, or MIDI keyboard. The reason I call it a MIDI controller as opposed to just a keyboard is that not everyone needs a big expensive keyboard with lots of sounds. Most recording software you can get today comes with all sorts of free virtual instruments, like keyboards, strings, organs, drums, etc.
Obviously you’ll need some sort of keyboard to actually play these sounds that are living inside your software. That’s where a MIDI controller comes in. What is MIDI? MIDI is a communication language. It’s the way different devices (particularly keyboards and sound modules) talk to each other. (See Intro to MIDI video.) MIDI is used in all sorts of ways. It can allow one keyboard to play the sounds off of several keyboards. It can control lighting. It can change settings on an effects unit. It can do your laundry and make your bed, too. For our purposes, we’ll look at how MIDI relates to recording. What I love about using MIDI in my home studio is that I have complete control over every aspect of the performance. I can record the MIDI information to a track, just like audio. But the beauty of MIDI is that I can change the performance after it’s recorded. If I hit a wrong note, I can simply click on that note and delete it. If I want to add or take away notes here and there, no problem. Another aspect of MIDI that I love is that you can change what instrument your MIDI notes are playing. I could record a MIDI track with a really nice piano sound. Later on, I can change that sound to an orchestra, and I don’t have to re-record the part! I simply reassign those notes to a different instrument. Getting Connected There are three ways to connect a MIDI controller keyboard to your computer: 1. Connect a MIDI cable from the keyboard to a USB MIDI interface, which then runs the MIDI into your computer via USB. 2. Connect a MIDI cable from the keyboard to a MIDI input on your existing audio interface, which then carries the MIDI signal (along with all your audio signals) into your computer. 3. Connect the MIDI controller directly to the computer via USB. That last option is becoming more and more common. These MIDI controllers usually have no internal sounds. They can be pretty inexpensive, and they’re made mainly for studio use.
But Joe, do I need it? There are some home studio owners who will never need a MIDI controller. If you’re doing 100% recording and never need to sequence any keyboard parts or pads or synths or drum parts, then you’re off the hook. However, I would bet that the majority of us need keyboards in our songs from time to time. I would also be willing to bet we don’t have a bunch of fancy keyboards and a Steinway grand piano lying around in the corner of our studio. Since that’s the reality for most home studio owners, a MIDI interface and some virtual instrument plugins become a worthwhile investment. What I Use For a long while I used an old Yamaha PSR keyboard as my MIDI controller. It was so bulky, had built-in speakers and sounds that I rarely used. So I dumped it and bought a cute little baby blue CME U-Key controller. It’s simple enough and gets the job done, and it takes up very little space on my desk! There’s a lot more to MIDI than I was wanting to cover in this eBook. Hopefully this gives you a good starting point.
What I Use In my home studio I have mainly Pro Co cables with some Monster cables and some Blue cables. Be sure to give some serious consideration to what cables you’re adding to your shopping cart. Good cables, while not all that expensive, can make a huge difference in the sound of your studio.
and get a power strip with plenty of outlets on it. However, do you want to entrust all of your gear and your computer to a $20 power strip? It’s a question worth asking yourself. A good power conditioner will give you two things: • Surge Protection • Noise Filtering Surge Protection You’ve heard the stories. Your neighbor down the street lost his home stereo to a lightning strike. Or a power surge took out your buddy’s TV. I’m not saying anything new when I say that surges happen. But you may wonder why you should buy a $180 Furman versus a $20 surge protector. Those cheap ones do indeed offer surge protection, but if the surge is too large, these units can fail. If that happens, the surge can get passed on to your equipment. Also, these cheaper units can catch fire! Last I heard, that’s a bad thing. If you want to see some cool videos on this. Head over to Furman’s website. I love their stuff. A good power conditioner has the capacity to “clamp down” on surges, preventing them from passing on to the gear. Some of the less expensive models (~$60) are sacrificial systems. The surge protector is destroyed (internally), but your gear is protected. If this happens, you’ll simply need to buy another one or have it repaired. Nicer ones, like the Furman PL8 that I own, actually have transformers and capacitors in place that can handle virtually any surge without sacrificing itself. (I’m no electrical engineer, so I can’t give you specifics on how exactly it does it, but the point stands: it works.) Noise Filtering Have you ever been watching TV, then someone in the next room turns on a vacuum cleaner? What happens? A lot of times you’ll end up with static on the TV. The same thing happens with your audio equipment, although it’s not as obvious. What causes the TV static is noise transmitted through the electricity in your house.
This same noise can get into your audio equipment. While it may not be a noticeable hiss or buzz, it can effectively raise the noise floor of your entire system. (The noise floor is how much low-level noise your system generates by simply being powered on.) The higher the noise floor of your system is, the more likely you are to hear that noise in your recordings. Each piece of equipment you add to your home studio contributes its own bit of noise to the system via its power cable. The solution? Noise filtering. While surge protection is cool, noise filtration is really cool. Basically, higher-end power conditioners (like the ones from Furman and Monster) have intricate filters in place that filter the power before passing it along to the equipment. In addition, they offer filtration between components plugged into the same power conditioner. That way your computer (which generates a certain type of noise) won’t affect your studio monitors (which generate a different type of noise). In fact, most of these power conditioners have separate outlets with separate filters for both digital and analog equipment. The Verdict? I don’t have any audio samples to show you a recording done with a $20 power strip versus a nice Furman power conditioner. And I know it can be a hard pill to swallow, especially since a power conditioner doesn’t really help you make music. However, like I said at the beginning of this section, a good power conditioner is like an insurance policy plus regularly scheduled maintenance for your gear. Running off of dirty power can wear your gear out over time. Protect and prolong it with a good power conditioner. One More Thing I think it’s important to note that everything I’ve covered in this section relates to power conditioners, not voltage regulators. There are some cool voltage regulators out there that do everything I’ve already mentioned, and they regulate the voltage, sending a steady 120V (in the US) to the equipment. This is a best-case scenario, but they’re pretty expensive. I wouldn’t worry about getting one unless you have a huge amount of money invested in your studio already.
What I Use As I mentioned before, I use a Furman PL8. It sells for around $180. I have also owned a Monster Power Pro5100 in the past. Both were great.
#12 - Accessories I know, I know. “Accessories” is a pretty anti-climactic topic to end this eBook on. However, we’re talking about 12 Home Studio Necessities here, and accessories can play a huge part in the functionality and workflow of your studio. In light of that, I’ve compiled a list of accessories that I find indispensable in my home studio. This is certainly not an exhaustive list. It’s more of a starting point to get you thinking about what various items you may be missing. Here goes. Equipment Rack - There’s nothing quite like having a rack for your equipment. However, filling up a rack can be quite addicting. (Be careful of Gear Acquisition Syndrome) That being said, even if you just have a few pieces of gear — audio interface, power conditioner, rack-mountable hard drive — you can still benefit from a rack. There are all kinds out there. At the time I’m writing this eBook, I’ve got a very basic $20 rack sitting next to me. It’s just a metal frame with rack rails on it. Works just fine.
annoying to have to look through jewel cases or those little paper sleeves to find the disc you want. Like I said, this is certainly not an exhaustive list. These are simply things I see around my studio as I type this.
Congratulations! You’ve made it through the 12 Home Studio Necessities. This should give you enough ammunition to move forward with your home studio and start recording some beautiful music. Also, if you haven’t signed up for my email newsletter, please do so here. Thanks again for reading this eBook! I hope it was very helpful.
To better recordings, Joe Gilder HomeStudioCorner.com
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