The Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main St.” Nine Inch Nails, “The Downward Spiral.” Billie Eilish, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” Radiohead, “Ok Computer.” These iconic albums have one thing in common: They were all recorded at home. And while it’s true that some of those homes might have been more fabulous than others, those sessions prove that you can capture musical masterpieces with a home recording studio setup, even if you’re in a kitchen, an attic, or a garage.
It used to be that quality studio gear was out of the reach for musicians recording at home. In 2021, a home studio is a big investment, but you can set up a decent studio for less than $2,000 rather than, say, $20,000. “Perfect” is personal. It’s about your space, your budget, and, most importantly, your creative vision.
Start small with your first home recording studio
When you’re starting from scratch, less is more. Whether you’re a musician, podcaster, or a voiceover artist, you can get a recording studio up and running with just a few basic elements. A microphone to record, a decent PC, audio “workstation” software, studio monitors, and an audio interface to link everything together.
Even when you focus on those criteria, there are a lot of options. The choices can be overwhelming. Start by getting specific: Figure out exactly what you need your gear to do. Will you be mobile? Maybe a portable recorder is for you. Are you producing podcasts with a single narrator? You can probably get by with a single microphone. Do you want to record a big rock band? You’ll need more mics and lots of audio inputs.
It’s also important to weed out things you definitely don’t need. Home studio gear often features a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s better to prioritize recording quality so you won’t be stuck with mediocre gear with tons of superfluous features that you’ll eventually outgrow.
Let’s explore the five essentials and how to choose the gear that’s right for you.
Beef up your computer
Your computer is the nerve center of your home recording studio—your recording, processing, and mixing hub. In an ideal world, you would have a dedicated computer for music production, but it’s not critical. Most modern computers have the processing power to handle basic audio recording, like a podcast.
The moment you add more people or instruments, audio production quickly starts gobbling up processing resources (and storage space). If you’re hoping to create elaborate multitrack productions with your eight-piece band, you’ll hit a wall, fast.
At the very least, beef up your RAM as much as you can and consider storing your files on an external drive. High-resolution, multitrack audio files are very large and can take a long time to process, so you don’t want slow data transfer speeds holding up your workflow. The rugged SanDisk Extreme portable SSD is a great choice, with a read speed up to 1,050 MB/sec.
Your DAW defines your workflow
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an application that enables you to record, edit, and mix your tracks into a single, complete audio file. Any workstation app can get the job done, but the programs vary when you get down to the specifics. The differences in DAWs have to do with interface and workflow, track count, and number and quality of effects. Most DAWs come with built-in tools for sculpting your tracks with reverb and other effects; you can expand your palette with the best music production software.
For recording most music, AVID’s Pro Tools is the industry standard, used by most professional recording engineers. If you’re looking for more features aimed at songwriters and composers, check out Apple Logic Pro. Ableton Live is preferred by a lot of electronic music producers. If you’re just starting out, there are many free apps for simple recordings, like Apple GarageBand and Audacity. All DAWs offer trial versions, and you can find lots of comparison videos online, so there’s no risk in exploring your options. Most of these programs have companion apps for working on tablets.
The ins and outs of audio interfaces
Your home recording studio will need a way to get sound from your gear into your computer; this is where an audio interface comes in. An audio interface converts analog signal coming from your microphones, instruments, and other audio sources into digital information that your computer recognizes, and routes audio from your computer to your studio monitors. Interfaces come in endless configurations for connecting to all types of audio sources so, first, think about what you want to record: The more tracks you plan to record at once, the more inputs you’ll need. If it’s just you and your guitar, a 2-channel interface should suffice. But if you’re tracking a live band, you might want to spring for 8 channels.
Microphones, instruments, recording gear, and consumer devices all connect using different types of inputs—which is not the same as an interface’s total channel count—so make sure the I/O configuration matches your needs. Other considerations include digital I/O and high-speed computer connectivity. Some interfaces even include built-in mixers and effects. If you’re looking for a place to start, we like the Focusrite Scarlett Solo, PreSonus AudioBox USB 96, and Universal Audio Apollo Twin. Or maybe you’re simply capturing field recordings or on-the-go audio with your smartphone. Consider something compact, casual, but capable like the Roland Go: Mixer Pro-X. The options are plentiful.
There are so many styles and models of microphones, shopping for one can be overwhelming. And when you’re starting out, you’ll probably be working with just a few mics, so take care to choose versatile models that will capture gorgeous performances, no matter what you want to record.
Put simply, mics fall into two general categories. Condenser mics are more sensitive to sonic nuances, making them an especially great choice for both instruments and vocals. A multipattern condenser, which lets you adjust its directivity, is a versatile studio workhorse.
Dynamic microphones feature rugged, simple designs that are not very sensitive to high frequencies and high sound pressure levels, which makes them perfect for recording loud instruments, such as drums or electric guitar.
If you’re recording podcasts, a multipattern USB condenser like the Blue Yeti (ubiquitous for good reasons) might be the way to go. If you’re a musician, consider picking up an all-purpose dynamic microphone like the iconic Shure SM57 (you’d be amazed at how many legendary records were recorded with this $99 wonder) and a versatile, large-diaphragm condenser like the RØDE NT1. If you’re recording yourself singing with piano or guitar, or you want to record a drum set, consider a dedicated stereo microphone, such as the Audio-Technica AT2022, or a matched pair of mics (try the sE Electronics sE8).
Studio monitors keep you honest
Studio monitors are speakers designed specifically for audio production. They provide a single source of sonic truth, the lens through which you’ll judge your mixes. Unlike commercial or “hi-fi” speakers and headphones, which enhance lows and highs to provide a more “enjoyable” listening experience, studio monitors are designed to provide neutral, uncolored sound.
If you’re recording with microphones and listening back in the same space, you’ll need to use the best mixing headphones to prevent feedback caused by playing real-time recordings through speakers. In general, audio engineers tend to prefer open-back headphones for their airy feel and open soundstage. We particularly love the Sennheiser HD 800 S and the more affordable beyerdynamic DT 1990.
For a true home recording studio vibe, though, you can’t beat studio monitor speakers. The most important thing to consider with large speakers is size. You’ll want speakers that are small enough to operate efficiently in your space but powerful enough to effortlessly reproduce your most dynamic content. Five-inch and 8-inch models, such as the KRK Rokit 5, JBL 305, and PreSonus Eris E5 are all great fits for a home studio.
Home recording studio extras and accessories
Here’s where we drop the fine print: You actually have to buy more than five pieces of gear to build a working home recording studio. These five devices make up the core recording station, but you also need a few basic accessories, such as cables for your microphone, to get things working. From there, you can add upgrades like a pop filter, mic boom arm or stand, and a portable acoustic shield, which serves as a mini vocal booth.
If you’re making music with synths or other MIDI devices, you’ll need a hardware MIDI controller. Its functionality should match your production style—whether you like to use a keyboard, faders, jog wheels, or pads. Other add-ons: a power conditioner, a tuner, backup storage (either physical or cloud), and a great chair.
Acoustic treatment is pretty complex, but it’s easy to make big improvements to your space by learning how to soundproof a room. Just remember that foam and other wall treatments designed to manage the sound inside your space don’t perform actual soundproofing. Things might sound better in your room, but if you crank the sound up, it’ll pass right through your walls.
Keep your home recording studio in perspective
Gear Acquisition Syndrome, that unrelenting urge to upgrade and expand your setup, is real. The more comfortable you get with your home recording studio, the more you’ll want to add new and shiny equipment to the mix, whether you need to or not. It won’t take you long to get the hang of your new home studio setup and you might find yourself browsing around for more microphones, more effects, more everything, sooner than you think.
At the end of the day, better studio equipment doesn’t make you a better performer. Your gear is here to serve you, not the other way around. The goal is to spend less time tinkering and more time creating, so choose straightforward, high-quality tools that’ll give you confidence in your creative process.