You might be a seasoned studio pro, a passionate home recording enthusiast, or someone who’s beginning to tinker with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). One thing’s for sure – everyone’s gotta start somewhere in their recording journey. If you’re reading this with no clue about the hardware you need to get started, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some of the important technological decisions you’ll face as you start putting together your home recording studio.
Both PC manufacturers and Apple make computers which are ready for music-making right out of the box, and it’s up to you to decide which suits you best. For starters, you might want to consider between a desktop or something more portable, like a laptop.
If you’re intending to take your computer to gigs, travel between studios or writing sessions, or work on the move (on trains and planes), your choice is easy. The moment ‘mobile work’ is a significant factor in your workflow, the laptop is for you.
Other considerations in choosing a computer include the speed of the CPU (Central Processing Unit), as well as the number of computer cores the internal architecture offers. Remember to look at its Random Access Memory (RAM), with many DAWs requiring a fair amount of memory when projects get busy with software plug-ins (more on these shortly).
If you can afford it, 16GB as a minimum RAM allocation is a good place to start, and of course, more never hurts. Some desktop computers ship with inbuilt computer displays (like Apple’s iMac), whereas others don’t, so be ready to add that cost if necessary. Some DAWs only run on one computer platform – like Apple’s GarageBand and Logic Pro X – whereas others are cross-platform. So remember that your choice of computer and DAW might need to be linked when picking one for your recording studio.
Check the computer’s ports too – you’ll be making connections to devices like audio interfaces, so check compatibility there or, if necessary, the cost of adaptors.
Digital audio workstation (DAW)
Inevitably, the relationship between your chosen computer platform and software needs to be made in tandem. A modern DAW provides an entire recording environment, with multiple tracks which can be assigned to audio (for recording ‘real-world’ instruments through microphones or line-level sources such as guitars, bass and hardware synths), as well as ‘virtual instrument’ software tracks, through which you can trigger sounds hosted within your DAW and from third-party software instrument manufacturers.
DAWs are environments that can be further enhanced with plug-ins from a range of manufacturers, not only offering bespoke sound libraries for synths, drums, orchestral instruments, sound effects and beyond but also for effects processing. However, DAWs are also self-contained and you can definitely get great results by using the included instruments and effects.
The right DAW choice is a balance between its strength of functionality in the musical areas in which you’re most interested, its complexity and capability, the computer platform(s) on which it will run, its cost and its future expandability. Read user accounts about stability and watch YouTube videos showing you how each DAW works; there are a lot of resources online to help you get a sense of which might be the best fit for you.
For those just starting out, there are also many free DAWs such as BandLab to help you get more comfortable with working with one.
You’ll notice that any computer you buy won’t have the microphone or 1/4” jack ports your instruments use. This is where an audio interface comes into play. Think of this as a hub, allowing all of the connectivity – otherwise known as interfacing – that you’ll need to record.
Interfaces come in all shapes and sizes but their most important specifications are what type of connector they use, such as USB or Thunderbolt etc., and how many input and output ports they offer; often shortened to I/O when you’re looking at specs. Pro tip: An interface with a small I/O count doesn’t necessarily restrict your creative options, less can be more sometimes!
- For example, if you’re happy to switch your connections from your microphone cables to your line-level sources for each new recording you make, a two-in, two-out interface will let you make as many consecutive recordings as you like, building arrangements one part at a time.
- If you’re intending to record drums or several sound sources at once, you’ll need a more generously appointed interface to plug more things in simultaneously.
Read more: Producer series: Guitar and bass
Some interfaces ship with software suites of effects or other goodies to entice you, and some do a better job of converting audio signals into the digital code (and vice versa) your computer will need (a process known as DAC or ‘digital (to) analog conversion’) – which means that some sound better than others. As always, do your research before getting one for your recording studio.
Headphones and studio monitors
You can’t make records without being able to accurately hear what you’re doing, and that means you’ll need a good pair of headphones and speakers for your recording studio.
Headphones are great as they’re portable, keep sound for those around you down to a minimum – great for working late at night or in shared spaces. More importantly, good quality headphones used for monitoring will provide plenty of mix insight too. But you may realise that most sound engineers mix music on speakers, and there’s a good reason for that. There’s extra detail, the chance to hear sounds in a trusted room and, usually, a much truer sense of stereo.
Again, there are many options to consider but start by looking at near-field monitors and check on their bass response. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the speaker, the higher the lowest frequency will be – meaning that you’ll get a compromised sense of what kick, bass and other lower frequency sources will be doing.
Read more: A beginner’s guide to mixing music
Mics aren’t just for vocalists! For those who record their voices, instruments or other sounds, a quality studio microphone is an indispensable tool in your recording studio.
Dynamic microphones are great for live performances or for recording super loud sound sources like guitar cabinets and kick drums, but most studio-based recordings – like vocals – will benefit from a large-diaphragm condenser microphone. These require phantom power, which your audio interface already provides. Don’t forget a pop shield if you’re recording vocals. It’ll prevent plosives (‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds) which can overload and distort your recording.
Read more: Tips and tricks for recording vocals at home
Keyboards and control surfaces
If you’re intending to play software instruments, a controller keyboard will prove extremely useful. Many DAWs let you use your computer keyboard as a musical-note-input device, but that’s not the most ideal way of making music. A dedicated keyboard controller gives you the touch, feel and ability to play across a wider range of notes. It’s also much easier stringing together a tune compared to your computer keyboard.
Many controllers are USB-bus powered, meaning you won’t require a separate external power supply. They also come in all shapes and sizes, from super compact and portable designs to eight-octave, weighted models.
Beatmakers or those who want to add greater expression to your tracks, look out for drum pads and controllers. Electronic drum triggers and control surfaces awash with assignable buttons, sliders and pads can offer a range of approaches to playability. They are much more tactile and musical than simply using your computer via its keyboard, mouse or trackpad.
Read more: What is MIDI? A simple and practical guide
While items above form the bulk of what you’ll need, here are the accessories to get everything working.
Firstly, cabling. Many products you buy may not come with the necessary connection cables, especially in the case of Thunderbolt interfaces. Remember to check what’s provided in the box and grab those cables you need while you’re shopping for one.
It’s the same situation for microphones too, so be ready to buy an XLR cable if necessary, And don’t forget the cabling between your audio interface and your studio monitors. Plot a simple signal flow diagram of your recording setup, and start cable shopping from there. This will make sure you know exactly what cables you need for your entire setup.
For those recording with a microphone, a pop shield isn’t the only important accessory to have. Pick up a microphone stand. Be it a floor or table stand, you’ll free up your hands for other tasks, like playing an instrument.