With the steady rise of the do-it-yourself artist comes the challenge of building a home recording studio on an affordable budget. Artists like Justin Bieber and Grouplove, got started garnering massive amounts of exposure on websites like YouTube, using recordings they made at home.
The days of spending thousands of dollars to record your first demo in a professional studio appear to be over. But when you’re a musician just about to embark upon the recording process, and you have other financial considerations, like guitars and amps (or mortgages, rent), how can you afford to build a home studio that will produce awesome-sounding material? Easy, just follow these steps to build a start-up home studio for less than $2,000 based on manufacturers’ suggested retail prices.
First you need recording gear. A digital audio workstation (DAW) is absolutely essential for home recording. While there are a range of options, like Cakewalk, Sonar, and Avid’s Pro Tools, GarageBand is still probably the most affordable since it is included with most Apple products. GarageBand also doesn’t require much outboard gear, like an interface—though you may want one in order to track more than one instrument at a time. It has made leaps and bounds in terms of the features it affords—from loops to amp simulators you’ll be able to explore a wide range of tonal and rhythmic possibilities. You can also use it with your iPad, making it quite possibly the most accessible resource for musicians on a budget.
However, since we’re going to build a PC-based home studio, and we’re on a tight budget, we’ll go with Acoustica’s Mixcraft Pro Studio 6, available for $199. The computer system requirements are: 1 GHz CPU, 2 G RAM, and compatibility with Windows 7, Vista, and XP. Mixcraft 6 ships with a dizzying array of features like graphic equalizers, compressors, limiters, room emulation, and guitar effects, as well as more sophisticated effects like pitch correction, parametric EQ, guitar amp, and cabinet emulations, and other signal processors. It also has a comprehensive vintage keys library.
Mixcraft 6 requires an audio interface for analog-to-digital conversion. We’ll go with the Allen & Heath ZED-10FX 10-channel USB mixer for the low price of $329. Because it’s a USB digital audio interface, it’s ideal for small band mixing and building up a home audio project track by track. Other features include discrete FET high impedance inputs, two stereo sources with MP3 player compatibility, separate two-track record outputs, and it can support up to four microphones at once.
You’ll need a simple MIDI keyboard so that you can program beats and access sound samples. The M-Audio Axiom 25 2nd Gen 25-Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller is almost an industry standard for home studios, and it will only set you back $279. Featuring piano-style, semi-weighted keys, the Axiom 25 also has large, dynamic trigger pads, making it easy to program beats and trigger one-shot samples. Encoder knobs and buttons deliver complete real-time control over the software. The DirectLink mode provides easy, automatic access to common DAW functions including transport, mixer, track pan, and virtual instrument parameters.
To hear everything you’ll need speakers, and ideally, a solid pair of headphones, for mixing and monitoring. Samson’s SR850 studio reference headphones are $79 and feature oversized 50-mm drivers, providing extraordinary depth and low-end resolution. A semi-open-back design prevents bass frequencies from being too overwhelming, allowing you to hear fine details of your tracks. For speakers we’ll use the KRK Systems Rokit 5 Active studio monitors. Though the price, $249 each, fits our budget, the specs are what really got us salivating: one-inch neodymium soft-dome tweeter, five-inch glass aramid composite cone woofer, frequency response of 52Hz-20kHz (+/-1.5dB), and a waveguide contour that affords amazing detail and imaging.
You’ll also need a quality microphone and you won’t go wrong with a Shure SM58—possibly the world’s most popular vocal mic. It’s a dynamic mic known for its distinctive upper-midrange presence peak to ensure an intelligible, lively sound, and for its rugged design. It can withstand years of studio use and abuse for $124.
Our total so far is $1,510. That leaves us roughly $500 to invest in sound baffles and other accessories to help with acoustics. Try to locate a sound-neutral spot in your house—acoustics are a science, and although basements and spare rooms are usually ideal for an in-home studio, they may be subject to other considerations, like humidity and outside traffic noise, that you don’t want interfering with your gear or sessions.
True soundproofing—the total isolation of a sound source—can only be achieved with major renovations. However, enhancing the acoustics with absorption and diffusion techniques will improve the quality of sound on a budget. A few easy do-it-yourself tricks that can make a big difference in the overall sound of the room include covering hardwood floors with rugs, hanging curtains, and adding fully stocked bookcases and floor pillows, all of which can help deaden any echo. Discarded egg cartons, en masse, make excellent sound baffles. But since we have a budget and some money to spend lets look at some options. Professional products with specially designed cell structure and density work best. They’re made to alleviate slap and flutter echo. Auralex offers complete kits to treat an entire room. The Auralex DS-2 Pro Designer Kit is made for rooms of less than 100 square feet and costs about $329.
At $1,837 we’ve reached our goal of creating an in-home studio for under $2,000. You may want to use the extra cash for mic stands, mic cables, and other accessories you’ll need. Or you can invest in some resource books such as: Recording On A Budget: How to Make Great Audio Recordings Without Breaking the Bank, by Brent Edstrom (Oxford University Press, 2011), or The Studio Builder’s Handbook: How to Improve the Sound of Your Studio on Any Budget, by Bobby Owsinski and Dennis Moody (Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc., 2011).