[Author: Jason Moss *]
Setting up a home recording studio can be overwhelming.
How do you know what equipment to buy? Which software is best? How can you make sure everything will work together?
Take a breath. This guide will walk you through the process, step by step. It contains everything you need to know, including equipment recommendations. Make your way to the bottom of this page, and you’ll have your home recording studio up and running in no time. This way, you can get on to the good stuff—making great recordings!
Table Of Contents:
- How To Find The Ultimate Home Studio Computer
- How To Choose The Ideal Audio Interface
- How To Find A Mic That Makes You Sound Radio-Ready
- How To Choose Studio Monitors That Supercharge Your Tracks
- How To Pick The Perfect Pair Of Headphones
- How To Find A DAW That Makes Recording Easy
- The Extra Stuff Most People Forget
- Chapter 8: How To Set Up Your Room For Studio-Quality Sound
How To Find The Ultimate Home Studio Computer
Your computer is the command center of your home recording studio. It’s the brains and brawn behind the entire operation.
This is one area where you don’t want to skimp.
Recording will place high demands on your computer, and you’ll need a machine that can keep up. If you plan on tackling projects with lots of tracks or producing electronic music, this is even more important. The last thing you want is your computer to slow you down. There’s no faster way to kill a moment of musical inspiration.
Laptop Or Desktop?
If you absolutely need to record on the go, a laptop may be your only choice. But be prepared to pay more and walk away with a less capable machine.
Go for a desktop whenever possible. Dollar for dollar, they’re faster, more powerful, and offer more storage. They also last longer and fail less, because their internal components don’t overheat as easily. And since a desktop doesn’t sit in front of your face, the noise from its fans will be less of an issue. (Microphones are super sensitive, so a noisy room will lead to noisy recordings. I worked on a laptop for years, and fan noise was a constant problem.)
PC Or Mac?
While my first computers were PCs, I’m now a Mac guy through and through. Macs crash less. They’re also the computer of choice for music-makers (you’ll find them in most home recording studios). Because of this, updates and bug fixes for recording software will often be released for Mac users first.
With that being said, most recording software and hardware is compatible with both platforms. Macs are also more expensive, so this may influence your decision. If you’re more comfortable using a PC, you can make it work. Just make sure your audio interface and software is compatible with whatever you choose.
4 Computer Specs That Really Matter
When you’re trying to find the right computer for your home recording studio, it’s easy to get lost in techno-speak. The following 4 specs are what count. Hit the guidelines below, and your computer will handle nearly any recording session with ease.
CPU (Clock Speed & Number Of Cores)
If a computer was a car, the CPU would be its engine. Clock speed is like the number of cylinders an engine has. The higher the number, the faster the CPU. A fast CPU will handle large recording sessions gracefully.
If the CPU has multiple cores, this is even better. Multiple cores will allow it to multitask more effectively.
- Good: 2.6 GHz dual-core
- Better: 2.8 GHz dual-core
- Best: 3+ GHz quad-core
RAM is your computer’s short-term memory. More RAM will make your computer run faster, particularly when working with large, complex projects.
- Good: 8 GB
- Better: 12 GB
- Best: 16+ GB
Hard Drive (Space & Type)
A computer’s hard drive is its long-term memory. This is where your recordings will be stored. Recorded audio takes up lots of space, so you’ll want plenty to spare. If you end up filling your hard drive, you can always buy an external one. However, it’s always better to start with more space.
But when it comes to hard drives, space isn’t all that matters. In fact, speed is even more important.
The best hard drives are solid-state. While they typically offer less storage space, they’re worth every penny. Solid-state drives use flash memory (the same technology you’ll find in a USB thumb drive) and have no moving parts. They’re much faster than their mechanical predecessors. If your computer has a solid-state drive, it will be much snappier when playing back and recording projects with large track counts.
If you can’t avoid a mechanical drive, opt for one that spins at 7,200 RPM. It will deliver data about 33% faster than a 5,400 RPM drive. This really matters if you plan on tackling projects with 30+ tracks.
- Good: 500 GB 7,200 RPM mechanical drive
- Better: 1 TB 7,200 RPM mechanical drive
- Best: 500+ GB solid-state drive
Your audio interface (see below) will connect to your computer using USB, Thunderbolt, or FireWire. Make sure there’s a port available on your computer for it. If you plan on using a MIDI keyboard or other accessories, make sure you’ve got enough free ports to accommodate them too.
Best Bang For Your Buck: Mac Mini
The Mac Mini is seriously underrated. This is what I use in my home recording studio, and it’s more than enough. Opt for a solid-state drive and maxed-out memory for even more power. And don’t forget—you’ll need a keyboard, mouse, and monitor too.
For Mobile Music-Makers: MacBook Pro
If you need to be mobile, the MacBook Pro is a great choice. Just be prepared for fan noise.
For Those Who Want The Best: Mac Pro
It isn’t cheap, but you’ll find the Mac Pro in most professional recording studios. Even the baseline unit is more than enough.
Your audio interface is the heart of your home recording studio. While it may look intimidating, it’s nothing more than a fancy routing box. This is where you’ll plug in microphones, speakers, and headphones. It’s also where the signal from your microphones gets converted into ones and zeros, so your computer can make use of it.
Interfaces vary widely in features. Some have knobs to adjust the volume of your speakers and microphones. Others accomplish this through a software control panel. However, all great interfaces are transparent—they don’t add any noise or distortion to the sound. This is where high-end interfaces often differ from cheaper ones.
Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing an interface:
Number Of Mic Preamps
The more preamps, the more microphones you can record at once. If you’re only recording vocals, one may be all you need. To record instruments with multiple mics (such as acoustic guitar in stereo), you’ll need at least 2. To record drums or people playing together, go for 4 or more.
Quality Of Mic Preamps
When it comes to mic preamps, people get distracted by quantity. They think more is better, so they buy cheap interfaces with 8 preamps.
This is a rookie mistake.
Cheap preamps will add noise and distortion to your recordings. This will become a permanent part of your tracks, and it can add a harsh, brittle quality to your music.
Quality is more important than quantity. Avoid cheap interfaces with 8 preamps. Instead, go for an interface with 4 or 2. You’ll walk away with a higher-quality interface, often at the same price.
With a 1/4″ input, you can record electric guitar or bass without an amp. You can then use software to shape the tone. This isn’t an essential feature, but it’s handy (especially if you’re a guitarist or bassist).
Pro Tip: If your interface doesn’t have a 1/4″ input, a direct box will do the same thing.
Make sure your interface has the same type of outputs your speakers use (either XLR, 1/4″, or RCA). If there’s a mismatch, you’ll have to use an adapter or special cable to connect them. While this isn’t a huge deal, it’s best avoided.
With a headphone jack, you’ll be able to plug in a pair of headphones and listen back while recording. This is an essential feature, and almost all interfaces have one.
Pro Tip: Most interfaces have a 1/4″ headphone jack. This is larger than the 1/8″ plug on most consumer headphones. To use consumer headphones with your interface, you’ll need an 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter.
Most interfaces will connect to your computer using USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt. Make sure your computer has a free port of that type available.
You’ll also want to make sure your interface is compatible with your recording software. You can find this information on the interface manufacturer’s website.
1 Mic Preamp
2 Mic Preamps
4 Mic Preamps
8 Mic Preamps
How To Find A Mic That Makes You Sound Radio-Ready
Microphones are the ears of your home recording studio. They convert sound into electricity (which gets sent to your interface).
If you’re a guitarist, you know that every guitar sounds different. You might reach for a Tele over a Strat, depending on the part you’re playing. Microphones work the same way. One might sound better than another in a specific situation. But if you’re starting out, you don’t need a dozen mics to cover your bases…
This Type Of Mic Will Always Get The Job Done
There’s one type of microphone that sounds great on just about anything (including vocals).
It’s called a large-diaphragm, cardioid condenser.
If you’re only going to get one for your home recording studio, this should be it. Here’s why:
- Large diaphragm: The diaphragm is the part of the mic that picks up sound. A large diaphragm makes the mic better at picking up low frequencies (like the body and warmth of your voice). This means it will faithfully capture the full tonal range of sounds.
- Cardioid: This is the microphone’s polar pattern. It dictates what the mic will pick up, and more importantly, what it won’t. A cardioid mic will pick up what’s in front of it, but almost nothing to the sides or behind it. You can use this feature to reduce the level of unwanted noise in your recordings (like air conditioning rumble, noisy neighbors, or chirping birds). Just position the back of the mic towards the source of the noise!
- Condenser: Refers to the technology the mic uses to capture sound. Condenser mics do a better job at picking up high frequencies (like the sizzle of cymbals or the crispness of a voice) than any other type of mic.
What About USB Mics?
Avoid them. While you won’t need an interface to use one, they are of lower quality than most traditional mics. They also aren’t future-proof; if USB ports become obsolete, you’ll need to buy a new mic.
Recommendations For Large-Diaphragm Cardioid Condenser Mics
An Electric Guitarist’s Dream Mic For Under $100
If you plan on recording lots of guitar amps, you may want to invest in an additional microphone.
Because condenser mics don’t sound that great on amps.
But don’t worry—there’s a go-to mic that’s used to record guitar amps in multi-million dollar studios every day. And it costs less than $100.
Which one is it?
The Shure SM-57.
If you’re just getting started, this isn’t a necessity. But if you’ll be recording lots of guitar amps, you may want to consider it.
(You can use the SM-57 to record other things too, but it shines on guitar amps!)
How To Choose Studio Monitors That Supercharge Your Tracks
Studio monitors are speakers designed for use in home recording studios. You’ll need these to play back and mix your recordings.
These are different than the speakers you might buy for your living room. Whereas consumer speakers often flatter and enhance the sound, studio monitors are neutral and uncolored. They won’t sound as pretty as typical speakers—in fact, they may even sound dull.
Listen on speakers like these, and you’ll hear what’s really going on in your music. Great studio monitors will force you to work harder to craft a mix that sounds good. This will lead to tracks that sound great on a variety of different speakers, not just ones that sweeten or hype up the sound.
Can’t I Just Use Headphones?
Headphones are notoriously difficult to mix on, and tracks mixed on headphones often don’t hold up on speakers. (There are, however, other uses for headphones. You’ll learn more about this below.) If you’re doing basic voiceover work, you may be able to forgo studio monitors. But if you’re recording music, it’s crucial to invest in them.
4 Studio Monitor Specs That Really Matter
When choosing studio monitors for your home recording studio, it’s easy to get distracted by frequency plots and technical jargon. Here’s what really counts:
Active Vs. Passive
Speakers need an amplifier to produce sound. If a speaker is active, it means the amplifier is built-in. This makes active speakers completely self-contained—you just need to plug them into the wall and your interface. On the other hand, passive speakers need a separate power amp to function. I would avoid them, as they add another piece of equipment to your home recording studio.
Near-Field Vs. Mid/Far-Field
Near-field monitors are built to be used in close quarters, like a home studio. Mid-field and far-field monitors are built to be placed farther away from your ears, and are more suitable for larger spaces. Go for a pair of near-fields (unless you live in a castle).
Most studio monitors have a fairly flat frequency response. This means they sound neutral—the bass isn’t louder than the treble, and everything is well-balanced. However, even the flattest studio monitors will sound different in your home recording studio (room acoustics affect speakers dramatically). For this reason, I wouldn’t obsess over the frequency response of your speakers. You can always use software like Sonarworks Reference 3 to flatten things out later on.
Pay attention to how far the speakers extend down the frequency spectrum. This will often be quoted as the bottom number in a range (from 40 Hz to 20 kHz, for example). Smaller speakers won’t extend down as far. This will make it harder to hear what’s going on in your recordings. Try to find speakers that extend to 40 Hz or below.
Your studio monitors will have XLR, 1/4″, or RCA inputs. Make sure these are the same type of connectors your interface uses. If the two don’t match up, you’ll need a special adapter or cable to connect them. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s best avoided.
Studio Monitor Recommendations
Under $300 (Pair)
Under $600 (Pair)
How To Pick The Perfect Pair Of Headphones
Headphones are an invaluable studio ally. You can use them while overdubbing, mixing, or to avoid disturbing your neighbors.
Like studio monitors, studio headphones are designed to be tonally neutral. While I don’t recommend mixing on them exclusively, headphones like these will offer you an accurate, unbiased perspective on your recordings.
When trying to find the right pair, here are some things to keep in mind:
Open-Back Vs. Closed-Back
Open-back headphones have perforations on the outside of each cup which allow sound to pass through easily. They typically sound better than closed-back headphones, and are the preferred choice for mixing. However, since sound leaks out of them so easily, they’re not ideal for recording (mics pick them up).
On the other hand, closed-back headphones have a hard enclosure that prevents sound from escaping. This makes them a better choice for recording, when maximum isolation is needed.
If you’re only going to buy a single pair for your home recording studio, go for closed-back. They’re more versatile.
Most pro studio headphones use a 1/4″ plug. This is thicker than the 1/8″ plug you’ll find on most consumer headphones. If you want to plug your studio headphones into an iPhone or laptop, you’ll need a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter.
Comfort And Fit
You’ll be wearing these for hours on end, so you want them to be comfortable. Cushy foam padding makes a big difference. Also, look for headphones that rest over, not on your ears. And if possible, try them on before you purchase!
Recommendations For Headphones
- Sennheiser HD 650 (open-back)
How To Find A DAW That Makes Recording Easy
Ever seen one of these?
While they may look cool, consoles like these are now collecting dust in top-tier studios across the globe.
You don’t need them anymore. In many cases, they’ve been replaced by digital audio workstations.
A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is the software that will power your home recording studio. It’s what you’ll use to record, play back, and manipulate audio inside your computer. Arm yourself with a great DAW, and you’ll be able to do everything you can do on that hunk of junk above (and more).
What’s The Best-Sounding DAW?
Visit any online audio forum and you’ll find people that claim one DAW (usually the one they use) sounds better than the rest.
This isn’t true. In fact, all DAWs sound exactly the same. The differences between them have more to do with workflow than anything else.
My 3 Favorite DAWs
When choosing a DAW, there are tons of great options. Here are my favorites:
As a mixer, Pro Tools is my DAW of choice. I’ve been using it for nearly a decade.
You’ll find Pro Tools in most recording studios. This is helpful if you ever end up recording in a commercial studio, because you’ll be able to open the projects you save on your own rig. This means you’ll be able to record drums in a professional studio, for example, and then edit them later in your home recording studio.
Pro Tools excels as a recording platform. Its audio-editing features are second-to-none. However, beatmakers or EDM producers may be better off with one of the DAWs below.
Logic is the preferred choice for many producers. It features a fantastic library of sounds and plugins—one of the most comprehensive packages available. When I’m not mixing, it’s my favorite DAW.
Unfortunately, Logic is Mac-only.
Ableton Live is great for loop and sample-based producers. In fact, many EDM producers swear by it. Its audio manipulation tools are flexible and innovative, and it can be easily integrated into a live performance. If I was an electronic music producer, Ableton Live would be my choice.
Other DAWs Worth Exploring
Your search shouldn’t stop here. Here are some other DAWs worth exploring:
- Studio One
- Digital Performer
- Adobe Audition
How To Choose The Perfect DAW For You
Choosing a DAW is like dating. Download a few trial versions and take them for a spin. Explore your options and make sure things fit before committing. While all major DAWs have similar features, some do certain things better than others.
If you’ll be collaborating, check out what DAW your collaborators use. It’s much easier to work together if you’re both using the same software. But in the end, the choice is yours.
Don’t get too hung up here. Remember, The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on a 4-track tape machine. Even the most basic DAW has infinitely more power. Go with your gut and move on.
Save Hundreds By Avoiding Unnecessary Plugins
As you start to explore the world of home recording, you’re going to run across plugins.
These are pieces of third-party software that extend the functionality of your DAW. They allow you to manipulate sound in different ways.
Most people invest in plugins too early. If you’re just getting started, your DAW’s stock tools are more than enough to make great recordings. Master what you have first — more plugins won’t necessarily lead to better-sounding tracks.
The Extra Stuff Most People Forget
We’ve covered the basics, but there are a couple of extras you’ll probably need too…
You’ll need an XLR cable to connect your mic to your audio interface.
You’ll also need a pair of cables to connect your speakers to your interface. These will be either 1/4″, XLR, or RCA—depending on which connectors your speakers and interface use.
Go for quality here. Cheap, flimsy stands will be the bane of your existence. I prefer ones with three legs over those with a circular, weighted base. They tend to be more stable and don’t fall over as much.
What I Recommend: On-Stage Stands MS7701B
A mesh screen that sits between your microphone and vocalist. It helps diffuse the blasts of air that accompany certain consonants (like “p” and “b” sounds). Left alone, these blasts will overload your microphone’s diaphragm, leading to boomy, muddy recordings. This essential accessory will significantly improve the quality of your tracks.
Pro Tip: For a pop filter to work well, there needs to be a few inches between the filter and the mic, as well as the filter and the singer. If you push the filter right up against the mic or put your mouth on it, it won’t be able to do its job.
What I Recommend: On-Stage Stands ASFSS6GB
As you’ll learn below, it’s best to get your speakers off a desk and onto stands. This is an easy move that will lead to a significant improvement in sound quality.
What I Recommend: On-Stage Stands SMS6000
With a MIDI keyboard, you’ll be able to “play” any instrument imaginable. You can use it to fill out and orchestrate your recordings. If you’ll only be recording real instruments or vocalists, you won’t need one. But if you’re a beatmaker or electronic music producer, it’s almost essential.
You may have a desk that works already. If not, I’m a big fan of the On-Stage Stands WS7500. This is what I use in my home recording studio now. It’s a great way to get started!
If you’re going to be logging some serious hours in your home recording studio, it makes sense to be comfortable, right?
Invest in a comfy chair with good support. You and your back will thank me later.
What I Recommend: Alera Elusion Mesh Mid-Back Office Chair
How To Set Up Your Room For Studio-Quality Sound
Every decision you make while recording will be based on what you hear. If what you’re hearing isn’t accurate, you won’t make the right decisions. This will lead to recordings that sound good in your studio, but fall apart on other speakers.
You can avoid this by setting up your home recording studio properly. Don’t overlook this crucial step! If you follow the guidelines in the video below, you’ll be well ahead of most home studio owners. Your recordings will sound better too!
Taking Your Room To The Next Level With Acoustic Treatment
After your home recording studio is up and running, you’ll want to invest in acoustic treatment panels. These will improve the sound of your room by evening out acoustic problems. While acoustic treatment is beyond the scope of this article, I’ve put together a PDF with resources that will help you get started.
It’s Time To Build The Home Recording Studio Of Your Dreams
There will be nothing more satisfying than hearing your own recordings play over the speakers in your new home studio. You now have everything you need to make this happen.
The next step is for you to take action. Order the equipment you need, set up your room using the guidelines above, and start recording! Remember, once you get all this out of the way, you can get on to the good stuff—making great music!
But before you go, leave a comment below and tell me—what will you use your home recording studio for?
I wish you the best of luck on your home recording journey!
*[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written by Jason Moss. Jason is an LA-based mixer, producer and engineer. His clients include Sabrina Carpenter, Madilyn Bailey, GIVERS and Dylan Owen. Check out his mixing tips at Behind The Speakers.]