If you’re someone looking to get into recording music for the first time but don’t have a clue where to start, I’ve got some news for you: building a home recording studio doesn’t have to be expensive. There are a few key things you’ll need to get started and a lot of shortcuts you can take along the way to help you save money.
There’s a good chance you got here from a simple question…
What do I need to get started?
The answer is even simpler…
A whole lot less than you think.
Here are some of the biggest areas new engineers and producers can save money as they’re building up their home studios. We’ll focus on the essentials – the things you can’t live without – before diving into a few inexpensive (and sometimes even free) ways to make your setup even better.
Home Studio Interfaces
If there’s one piece of gear that acts as your hardware hub in the studio, it’s the audio interface. These boxes are packed tight with microphone preamps, instrument inputs, A/D & D/A converters and so much more. Without going too in depth into what each part of an interface does, just know that you’re often getting a lot of value for your money, even as you creep into the higher price points.
I say that because interfaces can get extremely expensive. A few thousand dollars isn’t unheard of, and when you get into the super professional range, they start breaking out all of those great features into standalone units for “improved” performance. The verdict is still out on whether that’s always true or if it’s a marketing ploy to get bigger studios to spend more on high-end gear.
For your purposes, you don’t need to go anywhere near the expensive stuff. When you’re just starting out, you don’t need all of the ins and outs of a big interface. You need a place to plug in a microphone or two, an easy DI solution for recording instruments directly into your computer, and maybe a MIDI in/out if you’re working with a lot of synths. Even that last piece isn’t necessary if you’re using a USB-connected keyboard controller.
At most, you should only be spending a couple hundred dollars on your first studio interface. Buy something with enough of the features that you want, but don’t splurge on the things you don’t need yet. There’s no point in wasting money on ten, twenty, or even thirty inputs when you’ve only got one microphone to record with. I’d skip the bottom of the barrel (most stuff under $100) and focus your search on the $100 - $200 range. There are plenty of options from brands like Focusrite & PreSonus for everyone to find something at that price point.
Your First Microphone(s)
Your first microphone should hover right around the same price range as your interface. A great first mic is something transparent and flexible enough to work on multiple audio sources, especially if you’re going to be tracking everything from guitars to vocals with it.
Usually this type of clarity is best achieved with a large diaphragm condenser microphone, which usually start around $100 and go up from there. Again, this is a situation where you shouldn’t go spending more than you can afford thinking you need something bigger and better than the basics. I’ve heard amazing recordings come out of bedroom studios using cheap microphones – it’s all about how easily they can be mixed along with the rest of the production.
If you are looking to add a little variety to your mic collection from the start, your second microphone should be a dynamic. Dynamic mics are great at recording loud instruments without coloration and tend to be a little less harsh than condenser mics can be.
An industry-standard is the Shure SM57 – a $100 microphone that’s used in every major studio around the world. I’ve walked into some studios where they’ve got dozens of these things available.
They sound great on guitar cabs and blend well with other microphones if you’re looking to do any kind of two-mic tracking down the line.
If your interface is your hardware hub, the digital audio workstation (DAW) is the brain behind it. Your DAW is what captures your audio in a multi-track format where everything can be edited and mixed later on. Most DAWs come with a suite of plugins and processors from EQ and compression to delays and reverbs, and they support third-party plugins like ours to expand your capabilities even further.
DAWs range heavily in price from unlimited free trial software like Reaper to industry-leading software like Cubase & Pro Tools. Usually the more expensive a DAW is, the better the feature set, such as higher maximum track counts and more included plugins.
For beginners, I’d recommend getting as many free trials as you can to experience what each DAW has to offer. Once you find one that’s the most intuitive to you, spend the money to get their basic version. Many developers offer cheaper upgrade pricing so your DAW’s power can grow as your productions do.
More Free Software
One of the biggest benefits of working with digital audio is that you can enhance any DAW with third-party plugins. This development has sparked an entire industry of creative new tools that change the way people work. Some add new functionality while others emulate hardware or make improvements of the stock processors you’ve already got access to.
To get started with third-party plugins, seek out the tools you wish you had stock first. Find plugins with trial or “light” versions of a more powerful plugin. For example, we offer Finality Lite as a free version of our Finality Advanced plugin as a way for anyone to get the power of our limiter. For users looking to have more control over the plugin, Finality Advanced introduces additional parameters.
Try-before-you-buy software is one of the best hacks to saving money when every penny counts that’s going into your studio. For tools that don’t offer that kind of trial, seek out YouTube videos and other guides before purchase to make sure the plugin is adding something to your workflow.
Invest in Yourself
Once you’ve got all of these great tools, the best place to spend a little extra is learning how to use them. There are a lot of free resources available to help guide you on your path to learning audio production, but many of that information is just floating out there – you need to seek it out and know exactly what you’re searching for.
We built JST VIP as a way to curate a lot of that information into guides, courses & tutorials geared toward individuals that want to work smarter, not harder, in their DAW. Our focus has always been on making the technical part of the job easier so that musicians, engineers & producers can focus on what their best at: creating great music.