Setting up a home studio is an exciting and fun activity but when you are planning what equipment to get and allocating a budget it can sometimes be difficult choosing what to spend money on. Many of these questions will relate to whether you have a main instrument that you play. i.e. guitar or keyboards for example as without doubt your main focus will be around composing, playing, recording and mixing this very instrument.
What are your main goals?
It may be that you goal is to create all electronic based productions or include recorded acoustic instruments or electric guitars. One of the beauties of setting up a home studio is you can program/sequence drums and synthesizers which are normally within the realms of a computer with a variety of software synths, samplers and drum machines. The type of productions you envisage creating will have a bearing on your selection of equipment.
As far as budget goes you will probably be requiring a decent PC/MAC and digital audio workstation software. This will be a strong focus as the reliability and performance of the system will be relative to money spent. If you are purchasing a PC for music production I recommend buying from a specialist ‘music pc’ manufacturer. PC’s use many different components from different manufacturers and there is a lot to get wrong during set up for music purposes. So unless you know what Fire Wire chipset to use for a sound card, what the memory requirements you are going to need, what power supply wattage you need and whether the components will all be compatible together then it is best left to an expert. This is money well spent as there will be less time spent adjusting memory timings etc. sorting out hardware conflicts etc. and more time making music. I also do not generally recommend buying computers second hand when setting up a home studio.
What gear to get best sonic returns for your investment?
A good quality sound card is essential however I recommend spending a larger proportion of money on the monitoring loudspeakers and some basic acoustic treatment. Analog to digital conversion and vice versa is pretty darn good in most budget sound cards these days so spending more money than you need to start off does not bring proportional returns in sound quality. The bulk of the money is best spent on monitors which ideally you only want to buy once over the next 5-10 years. The quality of your monitors will influence every equalization adjustment, compression and level change you make so it is wise to ensure they are the best you can afford. Some basic acoustic treatment will also affect the sounds you record and the decisions you make in mixing, this is not a very interesting purchase but certainly makes a big difference.
When it comes to sound cards you will mainly need to consider how many inputs you need and whether these are mic or line inputs. If you have a small format mixing console with ‘direct outs’ you can use the mixers mic preamps if not you will require the audio interface to have mic preamps built in. (also consider if you need 48 volt phantom power for condenser microphones) The overall number of inputs will relate to the number of instruments and/or voices you will want to record simultaneously. i.e. if you are a singer and you have an acoustic guitar player who wants to play along with you, you may only need 2 mic inputs. However if you want to record a guitar, bass, drums then obviously a higher input count is going to be required. Of course you can overdub sounds later on but if you want to keep a true performance feel number of inputs will count.
MIDI and software synths.
An input device will be required to send MIDI messages to trigger your software synthesizers and samplers but these can be picked up quite cheaply second hand if you need to save some money. Today you can get sophisticated control surfaces that have many assignable knobs and sliders that make using software more hands on. Consider if this way of working will be important to you.
Selecting 1 good microphone will pay dividends, I recommend to start off with a good quality and versatile condenser microphone. These mics tend to be clear and crisp and make good vocal recording microphones. They also work better than dynamic mics on the vast majority of acoustic instruments. If you play electric guitar you cannot go wrong with the legendary and low cost Shure SM57.
Even though the costs of setting up a home studio has dropped significantly it certainly makes a lot of sense to consider your budget and how you will proportion it to the different equipment you will need to achieve your production goals.
Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound online cd mastering, a low cost high quality mastering studio.
A mastering studio proficient in mastering dance music.