“We live in a time where anyone can release their own music online,” says Jon Foster, a Toronto-based composer, producer and drummer who, alongside his writing partner Steve Poloni independently recorded and released the soundtrack for the short film, “Camista,” in October of 2018. While sites like Soundcloud and YouTube let users upload their finished songs, access to affordable recording equipment has made it easier for people to create their own tracks as well, further democratizing the DIY movement that has made stars out of everyone from Juice WRLD to Justin Bieber. Once accessible to only those with money to burn on a pricey studio or with access to a large space, recording and mixing a decent track is now as simple as acquiring a few key pieces of equipment, and finding a couple extra inches of table space.
“Professional quality studio equipment is now so compact, it can fit on your desk or kitchen table,” says Foster. “As long as you have space for a desk and a chair, you’re basically ready to set up the foundation of your home studio.”
For Bryce Avary, lead singer of The Rocket Summer, having a home studio is all about flexibility, and having the freedom to create on your own schedule. “I’m constantly writing and making music and I like to see where the music leads me as it’s happening, follow it, and then capture it right in the moment,” he says, citing his last album, “Zoetic,” which he recorded in a tiny room of a house at the bottom of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles.
For Avary, who recently converted a friend’s backhouse into a recording space for his next album, “Having my own studio allows for spontaneity and much more experimentation, rather than coming up with ideas beforehand and then banging them out in a big-time pro studio, all whilst hearing the expensive tick-tock of the clock.”
Foster agrees, saying that setting up a recording space at home is decidedly more affordable than booking a studio, which can often run up to thousands of dollars an hour. “It’s more cost efficient for artists working on a smaller budget,” he says. “Not everyone can afford to have a studio booked for months at a time to accommodate their spontaneous creativity.”
Whether you’re just getting started with music or looking for a cheaper alternative to booking studio time, here are eight things you need to set up a fully functioning, professional recording studio from the comforts of your own home.
“Most of the best songs we’ve ever heard were written in bedrooms or hotel rooms,” Avary offers. “Modern technology now makes easier than ever to capture those brutally honest moments in the actual moment they were born.”
Start by picking up a reliable computer, which will serve as the backbone for your home studio. Look for something fast, with decent storage, and capable of easily processing the audio you’re recording. While some musicians have a full desktop set-up, many like to use a laptop, which allows them to record and track on the go. Purchase: Apple MacBook.
2. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
“You’ll need a way to record your ideas,” says Avary. “Most commonly, people record with a computer and a DAW such as Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton or Cubase.” Avary tracks and mixes in Pro Tools, though he says Logic is a solid option for those who like to work quickly or try new sounds, as its selection of “virtual instruments” allows for more options and experimentation.
Foster says he likes Logic Pro X thanks to its “user-friendly interface,” and its more than 2800 instrument and effect patches and 7000 Apple Loops, which are a great way to get started on a track. Purchase: Logic Pro X.
3. Audio Interface
Unless 100% of your music is made solely “in-the-box” (I.e. created using virtual sounds), you’ll need an audio interface to record your vocals as well as any “live” instruments you want on the track. Both Foster and Avary recommend UAD’s “Universal Audio Arrow,” which does a great job at emulating the classic mic preamplifiers at pricey recording studios. “You plug right in and it essentially sounds like you’re plugging into a channel on the Neve at Sound City or an API console at Sunset Sound,” says Avary. Purchase: Universal Audio Arrow 2×4 Audio Interface.
4. MIDI Keyboard
Basically a mini electronic keyboard, “a MIDI keyboard is an essential home studio tool,” says Foster, and best of all, “you don’t need an advanced knowledge of piano technique to use it.” Think of it as a way of testing different sounds and adding virtual instruments into your production. Foster recommends the Korg microKEY25, which is sleek and compact (just a little over 15″ long), and “perfect if you’re tight on space.” It’s also super lightweight and tucks easily into your backpack or bag for easy transport. Purchase: Korg microKEY-25 MIDI Keyboard.
Avary says using a Midi keyboard “opens up a galaxy of sonic possibilities,” essentially letting you soundtrack an entire song using sample libraries and VST (Virtual Studio Technology) instruments. Still, as someone who plays all his own instruments on his songs, Avary encourages musicians to tread lightly on the MIDI train. “I’m a pretty firm believer in the importance of quality musicianship, so I think it’s imperative to try and hone in on becoming great at one or more actual instruments as opposed to swimming in a sea of options that require more of an IT prowess than a musical one,” he says. Purchase: online guitar lessons on Udemy.com.
5. Studio Monitors
You’ll need a decent pair of speaker monitors to hear what you’re recording or mixing, and most models these days are not only affordable, but also small enough to fit on your table or out of the way on the floor. While Avary says the Yamaha NS10 is a longtime staple in the industry, these days you can only find them used – and they’re pricey. He recommends KRK, which makes a range of solid monitors at a lower price. Foster likes the KRK Rokit 5, calling them “the most affordable high-performance speakers with good low-end and clarity in the mid and high-frequency range.” Purchase: KRK Rokit 5 Studio Monitor (Pair).
Once you get the monitors you want, make sure you grab a pair of Balanced 1/4” TRS cables to connect your speakers to your audio interface.
Not all headphones are created equal, and just as you would look for sweat-resistant headphones for a run or workout, you’ll want a pair of closed-back headphones while recording, to minimize any bleed from the audio you’re tracking to. Foster recommends the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, which delivers solid frequency response and more precise sound replication, while also providing the isolation you need to eliminate outside noise and tune into what you’re working on. Purchase: Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Closed-Back Monitor Headphones.
While there a ton of microphone options in the marketplace, ranging from vintage-inspired (Neumann) to sleek and modern (Telefunken), Foster says the Rode NT1 captures decent clarity in vocals and provides a more natural sound that’s true to the original when recording live instrumentation. The flat-topped condenser microphones are also more sensitive and are known to have a better frequency response than dynamic microphones (the ones with a round top you usually see performers holding at concerts). Purchase: Rode NTI-KIT Condenser Microphone Pack.
Avary recommends the Shure SM7B as a safe bet for people wanting to make great recordings on a budget, thanks to its easy set-up and ability to be used on amps, acoustics and a host of other audio sources. Purchase: Shure SM7B Vocal Microphone.
8. Creativity and Conviction
“It can be addicting and sometimes artistically stifling when attempting to wrap your head around gear,” says Avary, “and it can also be discouraging when you don’t have the means to get the ‘good stuff.’ But the reality is, nothing is more important than what’s coming out of your soul, your fingers and your vocal chords.”
The thing you truly the need the most: “The willingness to forget all of the rules and just create,” Avary says. “The human aspect of someone cutting a vocal or an acoustic guitar in their bathroom or closet will often outlast something done in a visually fancier place that’s perhaps edited within an inch of its life,” he continues. “At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the performance, and whether what you’re saying or playing is authentic, believable and honest.”