Home Recording on a Budget

Charles home studio

By Marc Shapiro

You don’t need a fully equipped, expensive studio setup to be able to make a good recording. With some essential pieces of gear, you can build your own small studio at home. Even for the most budget-conscious musicians, there are a variety of affordable options.

A home recording rig is a great way to bring your musical ideas to life, according to Stages Music Arts engineer Dave Nachodsky.

“A song becomes a story and every song becomes its own thing. Songs want to come out. And this is a way to portray the song and show it in a better light.”

Dave NachodskyStages' Engineer

Home recording can also help prepare musicians for recording in a professional environment down the road, said Nachodsky, who can advise students on what equipment to buy for their home recording purposes.

Below, Nachodsky explains the essential home basic recording gear for students on a budget.

What’s the first thing you need?

“You need a computer, first and foremost. A newer computer with the latest operating system would be best, but an older computer may work if you’re only recording one or two tracks at a time. Most recording software is going to need the computer to have the latest operating system, so keep that in mind. The other feature to pay attention to is the kind of connectivity the computer has – USB 2.0, USB 3.0, Apple Lightning – and making sure your recording interface works with that connector. In terms of Mac vs. PC, both will work for home recording.”

What is an interface and what kind do I need?

“This is the device that we hook instruments and microphones up to in order to get audio to the computer. Other than the connection type, you need to think about how many audio channels you need. A singer-songwriter might just need two channels, one for guitar and one for vocals. If you’re recording a full drum set, you’ll need at least eight channels, possibly more. The interfaces get more expensive the more channels they have. For most people, two or four channels should be enough. There are a variety of interfaces out there, but I particularly like the Focusrite Scarlett series. The two-channel Scarlett 2i2 third generation goes for about $160. The eight-channel Scarlett 18i20 third generation goes for about $500.”

What kind of software do I need?

“The software, which allows you to record, mix and edit your audio, is known as DAW (digital audio workstation). There’s a variety of software out there that runs the gamut in price.

If you have a MacBook, it comes with an entry level DAW called GarageBand. Audacity is free. Reaper has a free evaluation version, and costs $60 for the full version. Apple’s pro version of GarageBand, Logic X, goes for $200; Steinberg Cubase Pro 10.5 goes for $552; and Avid Pro Tools goes for either $599 for a perpetual license or $34 per month. For electronic music, many people use Ableton Live and FL Studio. Many companies allow for trial periods of software, and some offer college students discounts.

The more expensive software generally comes with more features, but people are still recording albums using the most simple, basic software.”

Is it difficult to learn recording software?

“People can get overwhelmed when they walk into a studio and see a 48-channel board. The thing is, you just need to learn the knobs on one channel, because those are repeated on all 48 channels. It’s the same thing with the software. You just need to learn how to record one track, and after that, you now know how to record 30 tracks. You just break it up into chunks and sections so you can learn a little piece at a time. Record some vocals, then put that microphone in front of your acoustic guitar and record guitar. Then maybe you can start playing around with compression and equalization. You can do all of this while you’re working, you can incorporate more features when you’re ready for them.”

Do I need speakers and headphones?

“You at least need a pair of headphones to hear the music you’re recording. For example, you can hear your vocals as you record them without them leaking back into the microphone, as they would if you were using speakers instead. Your interface will have a headphone output with its own volume control. While any kind of headphones will do, headphones and speakers are one of the areas where I wouldn’t skimp on what I purchase. This way you can trust that you’re hearing the music you recorded in a high-quality format. A pair of speakers can start at $99 and go into the thousands. For entry-level speakers, a good price range is $200-$400. At Stages, each classroom has a workstation that has JBL 306P MKII powered speakers, which run $399 a pair.”

What kind of microphone should I get?

“This is another area where I wouldn’t skimp if you don’t have to. A really bad mic will sound really, really bad, and a really good one will sound really, really good. A good all-around mic is the Shure SM58, which runs $99, or a Shure Beta 58, which runs $159. If you want to take a more ‘studio-like’ approach, a condenser mic is a good choice. The Rode NT1-A is a good entry-level condenser mic at $229.

Don’t forget that for every microphone you buy, you need a cable and a stand. Most interfaces will have inputs for ¼-inch cables, which guitars and basses use, as well as microphone cables, which are called XLRs. For mic stands, I recommend a straight mic stand with an adjustable boom arm, which allows you to extend the mic out from the stand, a more comfortable situation for recording and playing live. Recording drums and other instruments may necessitate different kinds of stands.”

Is there anything else I need?

“If you’re going to making any keyboard sounds or recording electronic music, you’ll want a Midi USB keyboard. You can get a beginner Midi keyboard for as little as $69. Some good entry-level models include the Nektar SE49 ($89) and the Launchkey Mini ($109).”

Ok, I have a computer, an interface, recording software, headphones, a microphone, cable and mic stand. Am I ready to record?

“You’re all set! Remember, this sky is the limit when buying equipment. There’s nothing wrong with starting small and using inexpensive equipment to get your feet wet in home recording. You can upgrade as you go. Good luck and happy recording!”

Have you written songs you’d like to record at home? Are you looking for budget-friendly equipment recommendations? Stages Music Arts engineer Dave Nachodsky is available to give one-on-one home studio consults to make sure you get the gear that you need to make those recordings shine! Contact Stages at 443-353-5300 or info@stagesmusicarts.com

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