For many years, the recording studio was the exclusive dwelling of rock stars and millionaires; and for anyone wanting to produce high quality audio, a professional, well-equipped studio is still the number-one option. However, in the last 20 years or so, the cost of producing music yourself has come rocketing down, and we’ve published articles before on creating a home studio for under $2,000 dollars. But, let’s say you needed something basic. Is it possible that thrift shop mentality can help you smash the price down further? With second-hand bargains a-plenty, and cheap software and sounds available on the devices we already own, the music production capabilities are there for the taking. Use our tips and tricks below to get started.
- Borrow, swap, or trade things if you can. Try car boot sales, local ads and thrift stores
- Facebook marketplace, Gumtree, and Ebay are your new best friends.
- YouTube or Udemy tutorials can replace all lack of skill or knowledge
You definitely need…
Let’s first assume you have either a laptop, a phone, or an iPad that is less than five years old to become your free music workstation. iOS (I’m afraid Apple mobile devices are the best for making music) has an unlimited number of connectable apps to improve your options. For the most part, what you already own is enough to get you started.
Do a little research making sure you are using the right tool for the music you want to produce. You may favor something that has a more logical layout for beginners, for which GarageBand wins hands down. Recommended free DAWs include:
PC — Limms, Music Maker, Jamm, Audacity
Mac — GarageBand
iOS — GarageBand, Launchpad, Korg Gadget, Jamm Pro
The more money you spend on this item the better. There are lots of suitable podcast mics (condenser type is preferable) at around $50 that will already have a USB connection that goes straight into the laptop. The Audio Technica AT2020 or Samson CO1 are good ones to search the pre-loved boards for. Make a pop shield out of a pair of tights and a wire coat hanger.
With a laptop, most things are USB but there’s a bit of jiggery pokery required to plug your MIDI controller or microphone directly into a phone or tablet. This is an essential requirement and unfortunately could cost between $20-40, although the audio interface option described below is also worth considering.
Not 100% essential, but makes the workflow smoother. You can get something compact with a keyboard or drum pads for as little as $20-$30, but also look out for 80s/90s home keyboards with (5pin or USB) MIDI sockets as they come with lots of internal sounds you can use too.
Your software will come with a few, but once you have a mic, a vocal booth made out of pillows, and some internal effects on your device, anything can be a sound, even real instruments. Thanks to sampling technology, you only need to bang a door shut or blow a bugle once to create the entire rhythm and horn sections. Be creative, record everything. Freesound.org, and sampleswap.org are also great, or sign up to subscription sites like Splice or Roland cloud.
At the very least, a decent speaker system or pair of headphones over the value of $50 will suffice, although recognized budget gear like Samson’s SR850 headphones or KRK Rokit 5’s can be had for a snip in the second-hand market.
If you don’t have a laptop or tablet or just want to get away from them, it is possible to go down the digital multitrack option, cheap Zoom or Boss ones can be found for as little as $40.
AUDIO INTERFACE/USB MIXER
If you think you will want to record more than one thing at a time or you need a different input than a mic (e.g. Guitar) then an audio interface with a couple of inputs will suffice. A USB mixer will mean more inputs and can often have built in effects too. Both options start at $30 second-hand.
There are some great pre-used multi-effects devices or guitar pedals around which will offer a more dynamic option than software. Delays and reverbs are the most essential ones. From $15.
There is a wealth of cheaper synth and drum machines that have come on the market in the last few years that can achieve amazing sounds at great prices, check out second-hand prices of gadgets from Korg Volca or Pocket Operator or, for a little more money, Roland boutique or Behringer.
The old eggboxes on the wall are a bit of an urban myth, I’m afraid, but heavy curtains, rugs, office desks, house plants, mood lights, and big sofas can be harvested for free or very cheap if you need to dampen the acoustics and turn a box room into a creative space. Having minimal gear improves your options.
So that’s it?
Well yes, actually. Effectively you are making use of the advancement of the great software that’s available free for the device you already own, the abundance of cheap gear you can find online, plus a lot of creativity and ingenuity. We haven’t even gotten started on the amazing opportunities there are now to market your music, network with other musicians, or even upload your tracks for sale. Good luck and share your thoughts or ideas below.
NOTE: Prices listed are as of November 2020. Second-hand markets can vary, but the purpose of the article is to challenge yourself to dispense with as little cash as possible.