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 a working home music studio is a laptop and a USB Microphone; but why stop there? From my experience, a studio can either be built up two ways. All at once as a complete home studio setup (which can be expensive) or slowly scaled over time where your gear and environment grow with you. 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 who has budget limitations, yet still want to build our own at home music studio.
Home Studio Setup: Recording Gear
Getting an up-to-date recording computer is your top priority for starting a home recording or music studio. While it is possible to still make music on machines older than 3 years, it severely limits your rig's growth. Something might go wrong or it may become obsolete down the line. Investing in a new computer with more processing power and 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
Mac vs PC, which is better for a home studios?
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 work with multiple tracks and instances of plugin fx. They also help reduce latency when recording. More hard drive disk space means you have more storage for project files. Solid-state drives are becoming more common the past few years. 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 you can 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. You can also opt for a PA Mixing Console which allows for even more connectivity options.
A USB Condenser mic may be enough for a podcast. Or a bedroom set up for making Youtube videos with instruments. It's also viable for recording interviews with no more than 2 inputs at a time. This is especially 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 for Recording Mixing
Having studio monitors is one of the hallmarks of a home recording 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 ranges.
One very important thing to remember is to be careful with selecting speaker size. Having large speakers in a small home recording studio will wreak havoc on your low frequency response balancing and perception. While having small speakers in a larger home recording studio will have minor reflections may tend to be as loud as the source.
Can Headphones be used as reference monitors?
If you have a minimal budget, the best option would be to use reference-quality closed back headphones. They take 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.
Speaker Emulations for Headphones
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, 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. Note that it is no longer available from Beyerdynamic, but it is up for download from other plugin sites.
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 studio monitors, having a good pair of headphones in your home recording studio can help you get final checks done. It's especially useful on the low and high frequencies. I have a pair of generic iPod earbuds, some cheap common open back headphones, and earphones that people are likely to use. These are for checking whether my mixes translate on consumer-grade listening devices.
Microphones and Inputs
Choosing microphones for your home recording 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 Studio Microphones are your best bet. With a USB mic, you won't need to buy a separate audio interface with phantom power. This option sacrifices scalability for convenience. If you won't be doing anything beyond 1 channel, USB studio microphones may be your best bet.
Condenser vs Dynamic Mics for Home Studios
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. This is especially true for recording vocals.
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 while recording vocals, or have a multi-camera setup, a condenser mic would be better. The volume stays more consistent with your positioning. Condenser microphones are also great at recording acoustic guitar. 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.
Having more than one mic is necessary for those who want a slightly more versatile home recording studio setup. This is advisable for doing Youtube content like song covers, gear demos, and podcasts. A great way to get started is to have one large-diaphragm condenser microphone and one handheld dynamic microphone. Then get an audio interface with at least 4 preamp inputs. This is a great starter set up for those who want to record electric guitar amps. It's also great for using more than one mic to record acoustic guitars. Podcasters with multiple guests also benefit from this home recording setup.
Studio Setup for Recording Acoustic Drums
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 live performances of a 5-piece band, you will need at least 12 inputs (6 ins for drums (including kick 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.
Home Studio Accessories
Home recording studios aren't complete without these essential accessories: pop filters, microphone stands and XLR mic cables. To make the most out of your home recording studio equipment, you'll want to pair them up with quality accessories.
A good pop filter will mitigate plosives without affecting the sound quality. The cheapest pop filters are usually made of a mesh filter with a round plastic ring. More expensive pop filter types include metal mesh filters which divert airflow instead of blocking most of it. You might save money upfront but it's more expensive to replace broken gear.
A high quality mic stand is a lifesaver, especially for hoisting delicate condenser mics. Microphone stands are often overlooked in terms of quality. If you use a poor quality microphone stand, it will droop at best and completely fall over at worst.
D.i. boxes are not a necessity for a basic home recording studio if you have a good audio interface. 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, a MIDI keyboard is a must have, preferably with MIDI pad controllers. Though you can still get away with programming music note for note, having keys and pads does wonders for productivity. 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. MIDI keyboards vary in size, so make sure you pick one that can fit your studio desk space. Compact studio gear are perfect for small studio setups.
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 studio 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. This is 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 studio computer for playback and rout audio into an external mixer and back into the computer as a stereo out. This might sound 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. You might also need to do renovation. I work completely in the box for my projects. Modern plugin technology has advanced enough to provide near-convincing results emulating analog gear.
Digital Guitar Processors
In recent years, the popularity of Digital Effects for guitar has risen in the bedroom setup. They are usually the centerpiece for guitar-oriented project studios and are a staple in many YouTube channels. There is no doubt that the convenience and tone these effects have made it easy to come up with great guitar and bass tones. 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.
Home Studio Setup: Music Production Software
The music software you use on your home music studio will dictate much of what you can do, and your sound quality. So it is imperative that you pick the right one that matches the music style that you're planning to produce.
Digital Audio Workstation DAW
Digital Audio Workstation selection can be confusing 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. 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 software instruments, and effects available for download from within the app.
For those who prefer a Digital Audio Workstation for High-Fidelity 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
Aside from studio equipment, choosing plugins for audio production is an important part of a home music studio set up. You can get very far with your mixes with 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 recording equipment but there are also great plugins that are unique to the digital realm.
What plugins are essential?
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 and equalizer emulations
- 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 home studio recording space is limited. A good alternative to recording live drums is to use an Electronic Drum Kit or E-drums. This is 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. 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. This can enable you to process MIDI recorded drums like a real recorded drumkit.
Home Studio Setup: Recording / Music Production Environment / Layout
This guide was written with the assumption that your goal is to put up a home recording studio in a spare room. This might be your living area or even your bedroom. And this also assumes renovations and committing to remodelling. So, to complete your home music studio setup, one of the most important things to consider is your immediate working environment. You have to consider lighting, ambience, temperature, humidity and ofcourse, acoustic response. Professional acoustic treatment consultation and installation are readily available these days. More often than not, 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, aim for reducing negative factors that may affect your perception of the sound coming out from your speakers.
Home Recording Studio Assessment
The first step to recording studio design is assessment. 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 use acoustic treatment in your working area. Studios have a dry sound with minimal reflections so that as much of the sound emanating from the speakers reaches your ears. 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 home studio is in isn't designed 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. 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.
DIY Acoustic Treatment
One immediate DIY acoustic treatment solution is to put some furniture in your home music studio. 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. 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 for your home recording studio. Unless the material is dense enough to absorb specific frequencies, you are better off using furniture and fabric.
Once you've put some initial measures in place, the next step is to make bass traps that can deal with your corners where buildup can occur for bass frequencies. If you want to DIY acoustic treatment, you can make multiple acoustic panels. They're made with 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 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, this is an important consideration for a home studio set up.
Placing Your Studio Monitors
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 a home recording studio setup 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 in home studios is to sit in the center of your setup where you would usually work. Then, 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 is critical for home recording studios. Good positioning reinforces the spacial image that is formed when you listen to music on a stereo setup. It strengthens the "three-dimensional" feel when listening through monitor 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. You also have to use good quality monitor stands to reduce unwanted vibrations.
The last thing to consider for your home recording studio is a vocal sound 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, arched panel of foam around your mic can work wonders. It's still reduces 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 set up a home studio that suits your needs and wants. There are 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 suggest reading "Modern Recording Techniques" by David Miles Huber. It is a great general reference and provides examples of recording studio layouts that you might want to draw inspiration from for your own studio.
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.
About the Author and Contributors
Here are the key people and sources involved in this guide's production - click on linked names for information about their music industry backgrounds.
Lead Author & Researcher
I've been an audio engineer for 20 years specializing in rock and metal recordings, and also I play guitar and produce original music for my band and other content creators.
Aside from endlessly window shopping and watching hours of gear reviews for leisure, he enjoys playing competitive FPS games, MMORPGs and caring for his 5 cats. He is primarily influenced by guitarists like Kurt Ballou and Paul Gilbert. His favorite pieces of gear are his Ibanez RG550RFR, Orange Brent Hinds Terror amplifier and EQD Acapulco Gold fuzz.
Alexander Briones: Editing.
Jason Horton: Editing and Illustrating.
Main/Top Image: Original photograph above by Dejan Krsmanovic (CC BY 2.0).
The individual product images were sourced from websites, promotional materials or supporting documentation provided by their respective manufacturers.