Curriculum: Essentials For Your Home Recording Studio
Reverb and She Shreds team up to guide you through an at home studio setup and finding the best deals on the most popular essentials.
With most live shows on hold, touring on pause, and orders to stay inside, you may now find yourself with plenty of extra time within the walls of your humble abode. Welcome to the world of home recording! Come on in, the water is fine.
It may be overwhelming as a prosumer to dive into the endless abyss of equipment, signal routing, and software caves, but don’t fret! You can start with the basics and venture out from there—dip your toes in, if you will. By the end you will be able to identify your goals and the best tools needed as your own recording engineer!
Before we get into it, we’ve included a Table of Contents below to help you choose the amount of knowledge you wish to ingest. Throughout our buying guide, we’ve listed a range of prices depending on the condition of the gear and your budget. On Reverb, you can buy new or used gear. Many sellers on Reverb accept offers below the asking price, so don’t hesitate to negotiate—it’s a totally normal part of buying musical gear. Around 15-20% off original asking price is the sweet spot for a reasonable offer, but Reverb also sees players get anywhere from 5-30% off by making an offer.
Table of Contents
Identifying Your Goals and Budget
The first step in building out your home recording rig is to ask yourself what you want to do with a home studio. Are you looking for the bedroom basics, to be a producer or a digital collaborator, or are you a future studio master?
“As you begin your foray into home recording, be prepared to spend some timae figuring things out, but remember that it’s a learning experience,” says Britlynn Hansen-Girod, a musician who works on Reverb’s team of experts that review gear listed for sale to ensure it’s categorized correctly and can be found easily.
“When I started, I was using a Tascam cassette recorder. It worked great, but analog recording methods—which are less plug-and-go and more expensive—aren’t your only option. Things are different now. Musicians can get high-quality sound from relatively inexpensive digital equipment and be up and running in no time. That’s why I encourage beginners to not take things too seriously. Trial, error, and figuring out what works best for you is all part of the journey.”
Start by asking yourself: what are your current goals? What are the instruments you plan on recording? Who are you recording for (demos for yourself, album for Spotify, ideas for collaboration)? What does your space look like? Do you have room for a full band? What kind of isolation measures should you take? What is your budget? It’s a good idea to determine your budget before you dive in since it’s easy to use your entire paycheck and more as you begin collecting gear. Here’s a simple breakdown to help you realistically budget:
Entry level: $300 – $1000 (assuming you already have a computer or smartphone)
Standard level: $1000 – $5,000
High Quality: $5,000 – infinity and beyond
Whatever the answer, it’s important to understand the essentials that will make your studio feel in production. Your essentials are a computer (or smartphone), interface, recording software, microphone, headphones, and studio monitors (speakers).
An audio interface is the liaison between your instruments and your computer’s digital audio workstation, or DAW, as it is lovingly referred to by nerds everywhere. Your DAW is your chosen recording software, but we’ll get there in a second. Your interface will be your unsung hero.
Buyer’s Guide: Interfaces
Skill Level: Entry
Skill Level: Standard
Inputs and outputs
Interfaces vary in number of inputs and outputs. This affects how many instruments you can be playing at once. If your goal is to record yourself, you may only need one to two inputs, but if you’re looking to record a full band or your local orchestra, you’re going to want to look at interfaces with eight or more.
I would suggest starting out with an interface that has built-in preamps, or if you’re looking at interfaces with upwards of eight inputs and outputs, an interface that has at least some built-in preamps.
A preamp, in a nutshell, is what gives your signal volume. As you progress with your recording skills, you’ll discover that different preamps offer different tones or noise color. You can liken it to how different guitar amps offer different tones.
Connections and Cables
Another important thing to consider are the ports in your computer. USB interfaces are usually less expensive than Thunderbolt or USB-C, but you’ll often notice latency. If you’re making beats, or recording one thing at a time, the latency probably won’t be a problem. Often vocals suffer the worst latency on USB interfaces. Some people can deal with it and still perform well, and some can’t. If you find yourself in a situation where the latency is too much, you can lower the buffer size of your session in your DAW. Oftentimes, this will either solve the problem or make the latency sound like a chorus effect. The latency does not affect the recorded track, it’s only a monitoring issue—meaning that you only hear the delay when you’re performing the part, not when you play back the track. The signal simply isn’t traveling fast enough through the USB connection, into your computer, then back out to your headphones or speakers in real time. All of that said, USB interfaces are wonderful, affordable options, and the latency doesn’t mean your brand new interface is broken.
Other unsung heroes of your recording rig are your cables (XLR and TRS). I recommend paying a little bit more for cables, no matter how tempting the cheapest option may be. “Lifetime warranties” are offered with some of the most expensive cable options, and might be a good idea if you don’t see yourself learning to repair the cables on your own. Most musicians agree that spending just a bit more from the base options, to get cables with connectors that you can make DIY repairs on, or prioritizing gold-plated pins on the connectors to prevent oxidizing, is the way to go. Within standard copper wire, there are differences in gauge, braiding, shielding, and more, but the differences in sound quality for basic home recording are negligible.
Digital Audio Workstation
Choosing your software is a matter of personal preference. There are “industry standards”—for example, you’ll find Pro Tools, not Logic, in many big fancy studios. Pro Tools is the leading software for live recording, but it doesn’t come with any digital instruments. Pro Tools is what you’ll want to use if you’re primarily recording live instruments like guitar amps, drums, strings, brass, etc.
“Also remember that to bring files into your DAW, you’ll want to save them as WAV files, which are the highest quality file,” says Reverb’s Hansen-Girod.
Buyer’s Guide: DAW
If you’re an electronic artist, it may be better to choose a DAW that comes with MIDI instruments. Ableton and Logic are both powerful programs that allow you to plug in a MIDI controller to your interface and experiment with the different sounds built into it. All you need is a MIDI controller to access a whole library of digital instruments. This can save you loads of money on synths, keyboards, and other instruments when you’re getting started. These programs also need not be exclusive from each other. For example, you can use Pro Tools as the master program where it controls the playback of another program. This is an advanced move, but good to know for the future when you want to mix and match analog and digital sounds.
You’ll want to spend hours getting used to your DAW. Expect set backs and frustrations as you’re getting started. Patience is incredibly important in the world of recording. Troubleshooting is, no joke, at least ¼ of the recording process. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, you’ll run into at least one conundrum in every session.
Buyer’s Guide: MIDI
We talked about MIDI when choosing your DAW and interface. MIDI is a type of signal that’s universal across every interface. It’s sheet music for computers; if you record MIDI, you can give that part to any digital instrument and it will play it back within it’s parameters. For example, if you play a bass part on a MIDI controller through a digital synth bass instrument, but then decide you’d rather have a cello sound, you can change the digital (MIDI) instrument without needing to re-perform the perfect take. You can also draw in and delete notes and fully customize the attack on every note played after the fact. MIDI controllers usually look like keyboards, but they don’t make sound on their own. They are plugged in with a MIDI cable into your interface and you use them to play digital instruments. They make MIDI controller guitars for anyone more comfortable on a guitar neck than a keyboard.
If you’re a guitar player, odds are you’ll want to capture your own sound through your amp and pedals. Choosing the right microphone is clutch.
There are three different kinds of microphones: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon. The differences between them have to do with their diaphragm. Microphones work like our eardrums; there is a thin material in the center of each microphone that moves with the vibrations of music.
“A major part of growing as a musician is upgrading your gear as you begin to explore the nuance of your sounds,” says Reverb’s Hansen-Girod. “As you start to learn more about how your own sound works with certain mics, you’ll likely want to branch out and explore more expensive options.”
Buyer’s Guide: Microphones
Skill Level: Entry Level to Standard
Skill Level: Standard to High Quality
Dynamic microphones are what you’ll find most in live settings, as they are the most durable and can handle very loud frequencies. SM57s and SM58s are the most common examples.
Condenser microphones are used mostly in studio settings, as they tend to pick up more frequencies. They pick up very faint signals, including high end, and are great for vocals, room mics, and even drum overheads. Unlike dynamic microphones, condensers need to be powered; 48v, or phantom power, is something that comes from your interface to power your condenser mics.
Note: You want to be careful with phantom power. Always plug in your microphone before turning it on, and unplug before turning it off. I recommend reading all about your microphones before using them.
Ribbon microphones have a very small piece of metal as a diaphragm. They are the most delicate of all microphones and the most expensive. Some ribbon mics need phantom power and some will be destroyed by phantom power—always refer to your manual. Ribbon mics have a darker tone that some describe as warm. You want to be careful with these mics because the air moving from a guitar or bass amp can damage the thin metal diaphragm. That said, these sound great on guitar amps, drum overheads, and even some vocals.
My favorite guitar mic is the SM57. It’s affordable, versatile, and has been used for decades on some of the most iconic records. I also like the AKG414, but these are far more expensive, and honestly, in my opinion, have a similar sound.
Reverb’s Hansen-Girod agrees: “When you’re beginning your recording journey, a Shure SM57 is a great buy because it’s good for everything from vocals to amps. It’s a great durable starter mic and when you decide you want to upgrade, it’s easy and quick to resell it too.”
Monitor and Headphones
The last studio essential we’ll cover are studio monitors and headphones. I highly recommend both. It’s a good idea to invest in studio monitors that aren’t your computer speakers. This will help you make balanced mixes.
‘When you’re just starting out with home recording, be prepared to test and experiment. For example, try playing in different rooms or on different surfaces, like rugs,” says Reverb’s Hansen-Girod.
Buyer’s Guide: Monitors
Acoustic Treatment and Optimal Listening Zone
If you really want to get into it, you can dive into the frequency response of speakers that you’re interested in. This is helpful to know when you’re mixing, because if you have a speaker that peaks at a certain frequency, you may roll it off too much in your mix and then wonder why it sounds different when you play it back in your car. It’s important to note that these charts are measured in anechoic chambers. This means they’re tested in a room with zero reflections; essentially a giant pillow. This is relevant because your speakers will reflect off of the walls in your room. While you don’t need to turn your room into a giant pillow (although it does sound cozy) you will want to add some kind of acoustic treatment to get the best out of your studio monitors.
The Optimal Listening Zone: Coined by the very well-known and respected studio designer Wes Lachot, the 38% rule suggests setting your chair at a distance that is 38% of the total length of your room and halfway between the other walls. So if your room is 10’ x 10’, set your chair 3.8 feet away from the front wall and in the middle of the other walls. Since your chair is where you will sit, you’ll want to place your speakers so that you are in an equilateral triangle with them. (Just in case anyone needs a geometry brush up, an equilateral triangle means that the distance between both your speakers should be the same distance you sit from them.) For the best stereo listening experience, you’ll want the tip of the triangle that hits your head to be just behind you— once you get a decent measurement, bring your speakers ever so slightly towards you. Note: As with any rule in recording, except for abiding by all proper electricity needs, this rule is meant to be bent and morphed into what’s possible and/or sounds best in your room.
Acoustic Treatment: To get the best out of your studio monitors, you’ll want to take a few minor steps to ensure your room reflections don’t sabotage the sound. The most basic thing you can do is to put foam or other absorption material in all the corners of your room. If you want to step it up slightly, add some absorption material to the side walls directly next to your listening station. For primo mixing conditions, add a diffuser (materials like wood or foam set at different heights in order to diffuse frequency reflections) directly behind you on the back wall [see diagram 2 above].
The best way to learn how sound travels is to experiment with it. Put on a song you’re really familiar with and stand in different parts of your room. Take note of how the frequencies change depending on where you’re standing. You can find your bass traps and then treat them. You can buy foam made for studio treatment, but you can also improvise with cheaper foam that is made for other applications. You’ll want to treat your room well enough so that you don’t have a bunch of extra reflections hitting your ears; this will help with ear fatigue as well as keeping your mixes balanced and a consistent translation ( Having a pair of headphones is really helpful when checking your mixes; I check mine on multiple speakers and headphones, including Yamaha HS8s as my studio mains, JBL L96s as my reference speakers, a really old pair of GMAX-2000s for small speaker reference, and then I check my mixes through my computer speakers, earbuds, and Sennheiser HD450s for higher end consumer-grade reference.
Buyer’s Guide: Headphones
This is a lot of information to digest, but I encourage every musician to have some kind of at-home recording setup, even if it’s only to make good quality demos. There’s magic in hearing back your songs; it can make you a better songwriter, and save you money on studio time if you’re able to experiment some on your own. Recording is all about experimenting; you need a little bit of knowledge and the rest is just turning knobs until it sounds good. Nothing is too weird to try, and some of the best records were made with the kookiest set ups. All you need is a small investment in the right tools, and the rest is to be discovered!
About the Author
Glenn Michael Van Dyke began her musical career in Jacksonville, Florida, playing in middle and high school bands and recording them in her older siblings’ bedrooms. Also a nearly collegiate level soccer player, Glenn opted to save her body from injury and pursue her passion for recording engineering at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. While in NYC, she played in several bands touring both nationally and internationally for a decade before returning to her hometown in Florida. Currently in Jacksonville, where the water is warmer, Glenn has eyes and ears on helping cultivate the local music scene. She runs a record label, annual festival, and recording studio all under the name Winterland. She currently plays in a new band called Kairos Creature Club.