Home Studio Essentials for Songwriters on a Tight Budget

By | October 14, 2015
Image by Noel Feans via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Noel Feans (via Wikimedia Commons)

So you’ve written a great song and you want to record it, but you don’t have access to any fancy studio equipment. While technology makes solving this problem easier than ever, the decision-making process can still be extremely overwhelming. In this article, I’ll walk you through the essentials of creating a simple home studio setup for guitar (acoustic and electric) and vocals on a $900 budget.

1. Computer

This pretty much goes without saying, but you need a computer first and foremost. The more powerful, the better, but at least 4GB of RAM will suffice until a later upgrade. Make sure you also have a lot of hard drive space or an external hard drive on which you can store your recordings.

2. Digital Audio Workstation

The next thing you’ll need to invest in is a digital audio workstation (DAW). If you’re just getting your feet wet with home recording, you may want to start off with a free program to get a feel for it before you drop a couple hundred bucks on one of the industry-standard DAWs. If you have a Mac, GarageBand is included with your computer and is a great user-friendly program for making quick, simple demos of your songs. Those without Macs can use Audacity, which is also very easy to use.

When you’re ready for an upgrade, I’d recommend taking a look at the following three DAWs.

  1. Avid Pro Tools is pretty much the industry standard. The full version costs about $600, but annual subscriptions are much cheaper at around $100-$200. Pro Tools is a robust and powerful program capable of recording, editing, and mixing your tunes, and it also features a wide variety of plugins.
  2. Apple Logic X is a fantastic (and cheaper) alternative to Pro Tools. At only $200, this program is perfect for MIDI-happy songwriters. It boasts a sleek, user-friendly interface, though it’s not as powerful in the mixing department.
  3. Propellerhead Reason has a huge sample library, its own line of plugins, and virtual instruments. In addition, Reason has what it calls a “Rack,” which allows you to rack up these options to whatever your computer’s RAM can handle. The possibilities are virtually limitless within Reason.

3. Audio Interface

An audio interface is a little box that combines expensive equipment in professional studios into a neat little package. Essentially, you plug a mic into the interface, which is plugged into your computer. The interface contains a preamp for your mics, so no need to worry about purchasing that right now. For our purposes, I’m going to suggest two interfaces that are under $200 and have two inputs: one for guitar and one for vocals.

  1. The PreSonus AudioBox 22VSL is a solid choice for any beginner, but tends to have clipping issues when plugging guitar directly into the input selection.
  2. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a bit more expensive than the AudioBox, but arguably has a better preamp and fewer clipping issues.

4. Microphones

Condenser and dynamic mics make up the majority of microphones used in performing and recording. Condensers are generally better in high-frequency situations, and dynamics in low frequencies. Selecting a microphone can get very complex very quickly, and there’s no clear-cut answer as to what you should use in recording, but I’ll make a couple of budget-friendly suggestions based on my personal experience. 

  • For vocals, pick up the Shure SM58 dynamic mic for $99.
  • For acoustic guitar, I suggest the AKG Perception 170 condenser mic, which has been discontinued by AKG, but you can still find used for around $100 or less.
  • For electric guitar, check out the Blue enCORE 200 dynamic mic for $150.

You’ll of course need a couple of mic stands as well, so buy a solid tripod boom stand stand and a low-profile boom stand for about $40-$50 total. These will allow to you work while standing or sitting, and mic everything you need.

While you’re at it, pick up some quality XLR cables (I like the ones from Mogami) for about $1 per foot. More length is always better, so aim for 25 feet. You will need two XLRs to complete your beginner’s home studio setup.

5. Studio Monitors and/or Headphones

Studio monitors can be quite expensive, but they’re important because they give you a flat sonic experience, which makes mixing your recordings more accurate. I recommend starting with the Presonus Eris monitors for $200 and upgrading later if need be. For headphones, Sennheiser HD 280 Pro is only $100 and provides a decent mixing experience.

 

Assuming you have a computer already, the cost of purchasing everything else brand new on this list adds up to about $900. Still too expensive for your budget? Buying used equipment can easily cut that cost down by several hundred dollars.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to buy everything at once, or even buy the items listed above. You could always research cheaper products or find a nice package deal with everything you need to get started for about $300, and still make pretty decent home demos if you dedicate a little time to learning how to get the most out of your equipment.

Whatever you do, let your music and hard work carry you forward first, and your equipment second. After all, you will never truly be finished building your perfect home studio.

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