My name is Raphael Pulgar and I run a home-based studio called Saturnine Audio. In this guide, I will be showing you how to set up a home recording studio.
Over the years my home studio has evolved from just a laptop-interface-microphone setup to a digital recording setup with electronic drums, and currently to a dedicated digital mixing and mastering rig. I could scale it larger but I have found my comfort zone and preference in mixing and mastering in the box.
When I first started almost 20 years ago, the words "home studio" meant dedicating an entire room or two in your house and renovating it to become a pro-level studio. This also meant stocking it with thousands of dollars worth of analog gear, a large mixing console, and acoustic treatment.
These days, the bare minimum anyone needs to have to record is a laptop and a USB Microphone; but why stop there? From my experience, a studio can either be built all at once as a complete setup (which can be expensive) or slowly scaled over time where your gear and environment grow with you. This guide will be for those who want somewhere to start from but be able to scale and specialize when the time comes. Don't be discouraged if it turns out that what you need is different from what most "pro" studios have; the best way to improve while not going over budget is by growing your skillset and gear list at the same time. This guide is not for those who want to set up a commercial recording studio with an unlimited budget. Rather, this is for those of us that just want to "get the thing done" so to speak.
Getting an up-to-date recording computer is your top priority. While it is possible to still make music on machines older than 3 years, it severely limits your rig's growth by potentially having something go wrong or become obsolete down the line. Investing in a new computer with new hardware specified for your needs is better in the long run.
Computer Minimum Requirements:
- 2.2Ghz Multi-core Processor
- 4GB Ram
- 256GB Internal Storage for System Files
- 1TB Internal or External Storage for Project files/Sample Libraries
- Screen Size at least 15" for Laptops and 21" for Desktops
There is a long-standing debate on using a Mac-based machine vs a Windows PC. I have used both for long periods in my career and have an almost equal list of Pros and Cons for both. I eventually settled on using a high-spec gaming pc for my needs although many of my contemporaries still swear by their Macs. I prefer building a PC since you get to spec out your hardware and have the ability to upgrade them as you go along. You can build a PC with higher specifications than a similarly priced Mac. Purpose-built PCs are more "Futureproof" as well.
Higher specifications like processor speed and ram amount enable you to have more resources to work with multiple tracks and instances of plugin fx. They also help reduce latency when recording. More disk space means you have more storage for project files. Solid-state drives are becoming more common the past few years and many studios now prefer using SSDs for internal storage for faster boot-up times and stability. HDDs are still used for project files and sample libraries because of their larger capacity. For HDDs, 7200 rpm is preferred for its stability and read/write speed.
Another thing to consider is compatibility with the software and hardware you are going to use. DAWs like Logic Pro X, for example, can only be used on Macs. Some plugins are inherently more stable on one OS versus the other. Hardware integrations like Pro Tools and UAD will be among the things to check for compatibility with your chosen system.
Choosing The Right Audio Interface
A good rule of thumb is to have more inputs than you need. If your setup will involve recording an entire band set up. you may need more than 8 inputs. Most audio interfaces will indicate more inputs than 8 but would only have 8 mic preamps built-in. Other inputs will only be usable with extensions via ADAT. If you intend to record a fully mic'ed up drum kit with 6 to 8 inputs, you may need an additional extension rackmount preamp with 8 more inputs, or use a Digital Mixer as an audio interface instead. Digital Mixers are more expensive but offer more inputs and outputs than a dedicated Audio Interface.
If you are primarily set up for a podcast, a bedroom set up for making Youtube videos with instruments or for recording interviews with no more than 2 inputs at a time, A USB Condenser mic may be enough if you have no plans of expansion. For more flexibility, It is preferable to get an audio interface with at least 4 inputs as well as midi i/o for other devices.
Listening / Monitoring Devices
Having a studio monitor setup makes your rig function more like a studio. Choosing the right listening devices all depends on your budget as speakers and headphones tend to be better as you go upwards in price points. One very important thing to remember is to be careful with selecting speaker size; having large speakers in a small room will wreak havoc on your low frequency balancing and perception while having small speakers in a larger room will have minor reflections may tend to be as loud as the source but if one has to be chosen, choose smaller speakers. It's easier and cheaper to control higher frequency reflections than low-frequency resonance.
If you have a less than optimal room with a minimal budget, the best option would be to use headphones. Using reference-quality headphones takes away the inconsistencies of a poorly treated room. The trade-off would be a lessened perception of depth that studio monitors offer. Studio monitors usually give a sense of a phantom center where tracks panned in the middle appear to "float" in a three-dimensional space. Lowering the level on the track makes it appear to go to the back of the space while raising the levels would bring it closer to you. This phenomenon does not happen with headphones. Panning is also less intuitive while using headphones since both drivers are directly in your ear. We need reflections from the environment to perceive space properly.
One workaround I found was to make use of HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) based "speaker emulations" for headphones. My favorite is the Beyerdynamic Virtual Studio which is a free binaural room simulator where you could simulate hearing your mix on studio monitors or a live concert. It even has a "car" simulation for those without one. A more transparent solution is Redline Monitor which does not have any inherent room or speaker simulator; an HRTF binaural simulator. What this does is give back some of the "feel" that is usually lost with using headphones while having the advantage of a virtually well-treated room. Insert it as the last plugin on your master buss during mixing with headphones but remove it when mixing with speakers or making a mixdown. It may not replace having a well-treated room and good studio monitors but it's a good enough compromise to get balancing issues sorted out.
Even if you already have monitor speakers, having a good pair of headphones can help you get final checks done especially on the low and high frequencies. I have a pair of generic iPod earbuds, some cheap common headphones, and earphones that people are likely to use for checking whether my mixes translate on consumer-grade listening devices.
Microphones and Inputs
Choosing microphones for your project studio can be confusing because of the sheer number of options. If you only intend to record vocals for podcasts, voice-overs or streaming, USB Microphones are your best bet since you won't need to buy a separate audio interface with phantom power. This option sacrifices scalability for convenience so if you are sure you won't be doing anything beyond 1 channel, a USB microphone may be your best bet.
One area of confusion for first-time buyers is whether to get a dynamic or a condenser mic. This goes for both USB microphones and standalone mics that need an interface. Without getting too technical, a condenser mic is best used if you want the best high-frequency detail and sensitivity. For more isolation on the vocals, especially for broadcasting, a dynamic mic would be better. Another factor would be where you and the mic will be positioned in relation to each other. If you move around a lot or have a multi-camera setup, a condenser mic would be better since the volume stays more consistent with your positioning. If you tend to go closer to the mic or prefer a handheld microphone, a dynamic would be your best bet. Broadcasters in radio and TV prefer the more intimate sound of a dynamic microphone.
For those who want a slightly more versatile setup for doing Youtube covers and gear demos, and podcasts, having more than one mic is necessary. A great way to get started is to have one large-diaphragm condenser microphone and one handheld dynamic microphone paired with an audio interface with at least 4 preamp inputs. This is a great starter set up for those who want to record both their instrument/amplifier and do commentary at the same time or for podcasters with guest speakers.
For those who want to mic up a drum kit for recording, there are several drum mic sets available on the market. Since most drum mics have 6 pieces (Kick, Snare, Rack Tom, Floor Tom, and a pair of overheads), it's best to have an interface with at least 8 inputs.
If you have less than 6 inputs on your interface, you may not be able to have an input for a guide guitar for the drums. This is not a problem if your audio interface is a digital mixer which usually has upwards of 16 inputs. For the simultaneous recording of a 5 piece band, you will need at least 12 inputs (6 ins for drums, 2 guitars, 1 bass, 1 lead vocal, 2 backup vocals). Again, it's best to have more inputs than you need. A good way to know how many is to have half as much more as you need. If you need 12 inputs, get an interface and extension or digital mixer with 16 inputs.
D.i. boxes are not a necessity if you have a good audio interface since modern interfaces have a selectable mic/line input plus DB pads when available. D.i. boxes are best used if you're recording an amplifier with a mic but want to split the signal from the guitar and record a dry signal for in the box processing or reamping. For these purposes, a passive d.i. box will suffice.
For those who want to put up a home setup to produce beat-based music, Midi keys and Midi pad controllers are a must-have. Though you can still get away with programming music note for note, having keys and pads does wonders for productivity since you won't have to worry about losing track of ideas while programming hits and notes. These extensions of your setup should be treated as real instruments because they usually have a learning curve to them. Master them and you can both write and perform your music with the same hardware.
Outboard Gear and Digital/Analog Hybrid Setups
Eventually, you may want to upgrade your project studio with some nice outboard analog and digital gear. These are pieces of equipment that process your tracks' signals outside the computer. This is also known as "OTB" or "outside-the-box" processing as opposed to mixing "ITB" or in/inside-the-box" processing. Outboard gear requires that you have sufficient inputs and outputs to send the signal from the computer as playback to the gear and enough inputs to route the processed signal back into the session. Another option is to use your computer for playback and rout audio into an external mixer and back into the computer as a stereo out. This might sound needlessly complicated but there are those who swear that analog summing still sounds more pleasant than anything done in the box.
Upgrading your studio to accommodate outboard gear may come at the added cost of buying new furniture and racks, renovation and other expenditures. I work completely in the box for my projects since modern plugin technology has advanced enough to provide near-convincing results with regards to emulating analog gear.
In recent years, the popularity of Digital Effects for guitar like the Line6 Pod and Helix, AxeFx series, Kemper Profiling Amp and several other contenders has risen in the bedroom setup. They are usually the centerpiece for guitar-oriented project studios and are a staple in many YouTube channels. While the "Emulation vs Real Amp" debates rage on, there is no doubt that the convenience and tone these effects have made it easy to come up with great guitar and bass tones without ear-splitting volumes from a tube amp. If you favor complete control over your tone, nothing can beat mic'ing up a real amp. However, with real amps, one good tone comes an infinite number of bad ones and taking the time to find that one tone may not be ideal for some.
If you want to know about all the other types of gear available then take a look at this Extensive Home Recording Studio Equipment List.
Music Production Software
DAW selection can be hard if you're not entirely sure what your direction is going to be. Pro Tools is still an industry standard but doesn't hold the monopoly anymore. There are a few DAWs that have a little bit of everything like Logic Pro X and Cubase while some are more utilitarian but customizable like Reaper. There are DAWs dedicated to electronic music production like Ableton Live and FL Studio. Harrison Mixbus offers a DAW with built-in console emulation on each track to simulate an analog workflow. Each DAW has its pros and cons and ultimately depends on the feature set you need.
If your focus is beat creation and electronic music, Ableton and FL Studio are great DAWs with a lot of features built. Ableton Live is often included in many MIDI hardware while FL Studio is available at different tier packages with great sounding synths and effects. Most people start on either one of these two for electronic music production. For Mac users, Logic Pro X has an extensive library of samples, virtual instruments, and effects available for download from within the app.
For those who prefer a DAW for multitrack recordings, there are several offerings available. As I previously mentioned, Reaper is my go-to DAW for multitrack recordings. For those on a tighter budget Audacity is usually the first DAW that comes to mind. Audacity is great but is severely limited as a DAW and there are better choices that get you on the right track in building specific workflows. Pro Tools has come out with its free version, Protools First. Longtime industry giant Cakewalk Sonar has been repackaged as Sonar by Bandlab and is a fully-featured daw for free.
Plugins and Effects
Choosing plugins can be a daunting task if you don't know what you're looking for. You can get very far with your mixes with just a few plugins that you understand well enough. You will find a lot of specialty plugins like Transient Shapers, Clippers and so on but the main staples are Dynamics processors like Compression and Limiters, Equalization, Modulation and Time-based effects like reverbs and delays. Many plugins come in the form of emulations of analog gear but there are also great plugins that are unique to the digital realm.
I rarely use more than 3 plugins per channel for my mixing style since I follow a more analog-inspired workflow. On each channel, I have a Tape simulator, A console channel strip, and a console summing plugin. Each channel sends to a group bus with a Tape simulator, a Buss compressor and another console summing plugin This workflow is adapted from my early experiences working on tape, large format consoles and outboard gear. Everyone mixes differently and my workflow may not be optimal for you. The good thing with plugins is that they're cheaper and not to mention easier to implement than buying their analog equivalents. This means that you can try anything before settling on a few go-to plugins and effects that fit your style and goals best.
Some DAWs already have an extensive library of built-in plugins that you can use right away. These range from minimal like those found in Reaper to near-equivalent emulations of expensive hardware like those found on high-end Pro Tools/UAD rigs.
If you're strapped for cash, there are a multitude of free plugins you can download. A simple Google search brings up several sites where you can download them. What is essential is that you try them all and see if the ones you like have "better" equivalents. I say "better" because there are several free plugins that are quite good as is. Using free plugins also forces you to learn them since a lot of them do not have presets. I had to study how an 1176 Fet compressor behaves and how professionals use them so I could make most of how to use the plugin version. Don't get caught up in the forum wars between plugin x and plugin y just yet.
A good way to start is by having the following on your plugin list:
- 1 or 2 hardware compressor emulations
- 1 hardware equalizer emulation
- 1 digital equalizer
- 1 tape emulation
- 1 mastering limiter
- 1 good reverb plugin
- 1 good delay plugin
Virtual Instruments can be handy if your budget and studio space is limited. A good alternative to recording live drums is to use an Electronic Drum Kit or E-drums to control a Virtual Instrument like Toontrack's EZ Drummer or Superior Drummer. Most E-drums have a USB out for sending MIDI signals to your DAW. Just assign a source to your virtual instrument track and you can make use of the virtual instrument of your choice. There are several virtual drums in the market today that have a specific sound and feel. A good free virtual instrument is MT Power Drumkit. Take note that some instruments may need to be manually routed to each part of your E-drums.
The advantage of this approach is the ability to tighten performances by using MIDI Quantization on the recorded MIDI tracks. This is most common in modern metal production as the instruments need to be precisely locked and edited together. Another is the wide selection of drum sounds available and the routing options on some of them enable you to process MIDI recorded drums like a real recorded drumkit.
Recording / Music Production Environment / Layout
This guide was written with the assumption that your goal is to put up a project studio in a spare room, your living area or even your bedroom without renovations and committing to remodeling. So to complete your setup, one of the most important things to consider is your immediate working environment. While professional acoustic treatment consultation and installation are readily available these days, they will cost a bit and may require some renovation to your space. The goal isn't to make your space into a million-dollar control room. Instead what you should aim for is to reduce glaringly obvious negative factors that may affect your perception of the sound coming out from your speakers.
Take a second to stand where you want to be positioned in your working area. Clap once and observe the kind of sound it makes. Does it have a high pitched buzz? Does it sustain around the room? Depending on your observations after this simple clap test, you will get some insight into how you'd want to treat your working area. Ideally, studios have a relatively dry sound with minimal reflections so that as much of the sound emanating from the speakers reaches your ears directly. This doesn't mean the room is "dead" or "anechoic". Some reflections give us a perception of space and depth and keep our ears rooted on the idea that we are in fact, still listening to speakers.
This can be a challenge if the room your setup is in isn't designed specifically for recording purposes. There are ways of managing reflections, resonance and other artifacts that may skew your perception of sound. First, you have to identify potential problem areas. A square/rectangular symmetrical room is almost always going to be a problem since sound reflecting between two parallel walls tend to build up at certain spots. Without getting too much into mathematical formulas some areas will tend to feel like it has more or less bass. One part it might feel like your track has almost none then one step backward, you might feel like it has too much.
One immediate solution is to put some furniture in your room. A thick, plush couch with a fabric cover absorbs low and low mid frequencies well and also provides your clients a place to sit. Bookshelves that are taller than your speakers function great as makeshift diffusers to prevent linear reflections. Thick carpeting absorbs tames high-frequency reflections for the vertical axis. The denser the material, the lower the frequency it absorbs. A thick curtain can also help as long as it's at least a few inches away from a wall to trap some high-mid frequencies.
Be aware that thin "egg foam" does next to nothing. It manages some high frequencies but unless the material formula is dense enough to absorb specific frequencies, you are better off using furniture and fabric as absorption.
Once you've put some initial measures in place, The next step is to deal with your corners where low-frequency buildup can occur. If you want to DIY your treatment, you can make multiple acoustic panels by making a wooden frame around rock wool panels and covering them with fabric. Position them around corners in your room as well as the corners of the ceiling if you made enough to cover them. The goal is to make your space less rectangular and more uneven to disperse focused sound waves and put in acoustic treatment to absorb the excess.
It's ok not to have a fully treated room but whatever you add will help in giving you a more objective sense of the sound coming from your speakers. The less of a factor the room is and the more your speakers are in focus, the better your mixes will translate. Having room bias tends to keep mixes from translating to other systems.
Moving on to speaker placement, One common mistake I've seen happen a lot is not placing the speakers in an optimal position. The best position for speakers is to have the tweeters at ear level. The distance between them should be at least 4 to 6 feet apart for nearfield monitoring. Nearfield monitoring is best for project studios since the room is less of a factor at that distance. The distance between speakers should also be the distance from your head to one of them. This positions your head as one corner of an equilateral triangle. The speakers should be facing you as well. One good way of aligning speakers is to sit in the center of your setup where you would usually work, close your left eye and look at the far edge of your left speaker with your right eye. Adjust your speaker so that you can no longer see the far edge of the speaker. Do the same with your opposite eye and right speaker. this ensures that both speakers are at the same angle pointing towards your head.
Good speaker placement reinforces the spacial image that is formed when you listen to music on a stereo setup. It strengthens the "three-dimensional" feel to listening through these speakers. Tracks panned center will feel like they are directly in front of you with a near-realistic feel. Turning down your volume will feel like the sound is moving away from you. This "3D" spacial perception is what gives you the ability to pan, level and process your tracks properly.
The last thing to consider for your project studio is a vocal isolation booth. Rooms that are relatively well treated may not need a vocal isolation booth but if your room is less than ideal, a small, arced panel of foam around your mic can work wonders for reducing room reflections especially when using a condenser microphone. I have built a mini vocal room that's 5ft x 5ft x 8ft and made out of thick plyboard with a pallet base for floor elevation. The inside is treated with thick rubberized foam for absorption and has a glass window to the side for communication.
I hope this guide was able to help you understand what you need to make the kind of project studio you want. There are certainly more things that I haven't yet covered that I omitted since they wouldn't be too concerning for a small home studio. For additional resources, I highly suggest reading books like "Modern Recording Techniques" by David Miles Huber, which is a great general reference and provides examples of studio layouts that you might want to draw inspiration from. Another is the classic "The Art of Mixing" by David Gibson. This book helped me "see" tracks in my mixes in three-dimensional space between my speakers. A properly positioned speaker pair and decently treated room are required for the spatial effects of studio monitors to work, however. The book also has a trippy video accompaniment that can be seen here.
Feel free to ask questions and start discussions in the comments section below.