10 Home Recording Studio Essentials for Beginners
Are you an aspiring artist who wants to build your own recording studio? They say start small, but where do you really start?
Having a home recording studio is something that is now becoming fairly common among music producers, artists, and even hobbyists. The thing about the modern recording studio today – is you really don’t need much to start producing music.
Thousands of branded studio equipment have now become accessible and affordable more than ever, and the digital age has made it easier – with computers and plugins replacing studios.
Know what you need and work within your budget
If you’re on a tight budget, you can go for a minimalist approach and buy gear that’s compact and affordable. As long as it does the job, you’re better off starting with the basics. However, if you have more money to spend, you can go ahead and splurge on a more intermediate set of studio equipment.
But before buying anything, it’s important to set a specific goal.
- Are you taking music production as a hobby?
- Or are you planning to make a full-time living with it?
According to Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, effective people always start with the end in mind. So knowing the reason you set your studio and visualizing it will determine the type of equipment you’ll invest in.
Written your goals and purpose down? Okay, let’s talk about the essentials for a home recording studio.
1. A Music Production Computer (Laptop or PC)
Your computer will be the heart of your studio. From recording, composing, arranging to mixing – you’ll do most of the work on a computer. Generally speaking, a laptop or desktop PC with at least 16GB of RAM, running on a Core i5 processor is a good start.
Get a Laptop for Music Production if:
- You plan to record and make music on the go.
- Want to use the same laptop you produce music on – for performances, DJ-ing, etc.
- Doing music production as a hobby.
- You’re not planning to record lush and large film scores.
Get a Desktop PC for Music Production if:
- You plan to have a stationed recording studio.
- Need more CPU firepower to produce larger scores or music.
- On a budget, and don’t mind losing out on mobility.
- Want to go all-out into a music-producing career.
- Prefer future upgradability.
Obviously, the reasons to go for either a laptop or computer will vary depending on your needs.
However, you’ll almost always get more years out with building your own custom music production PC, compared to a laptop. And when it comes to computers for recording and producing – faster storage drives (SSDs), bigger RAM and CPU are your friends.
But from experience and as a fan of mobile music production, most producers can produce decent music without needing supercomputers.
Few music production computers to give you an idea.
- Apple Macbook Pro 16 – If you have the means to and want to use a DAW like, Logic Pro, get an Apple computer, like the Macbook. The Macbook Pro is a hit among music producers and DJs. I like it for its reliability and Core Audio, the digital audio infrastructure that comes with a Mac.
- PC Audio Labs – Rather than buying off-the-shelf PCs, you’re probably better off with a custom-made PC that is made for music production. The experts over at PC Audio Labs makes pretty good computers for music production.
Read More: Top 10 Best Laptops for Music Production
2. Choosing a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Your DAW is the software that you use for recording, editing, mixing, and producing music.
If you own a Mac computer, it already comes with a free DAW, Garageband. You can then upgrade to the full version called Logic Pro X, available on the Apple store for $199 – which honestly, is one of the most complete DAW in the market – widely used by music producers.
Choosing a DAW again depends on your needs and goals. With so many to choose from, allow me to shed some light:
i. Reliability and Support
Choose a DAW that has good support and updates. It helps to go for DAWs that have many active users who discuss the DAW. This is valuable because anytime you bump into an issue, you can almost find the solution on a forum somewhere on the internet.
ii. Cross-Platform DAWs
These days it pays to use DAWs that work on both Windows and Mac (and sometimes Linux). This opens up more opportunities to collaborate with other music producers around the world who might be working on different computer OS.
Using a cross-platform DAW like Studio One and Reaper, also makes it better for you, if you were to have a dual OS set up in your home studio.
iii. Industry Standard DAWs
Like it or not, if you work professionally with music, especially in broadcast audio – you’re going to find yourself in scenarios where you’ll have to work in ‘industry-standard DAWs like Pro Tools or Steinberg Nuendo. It pays itself to be a producer who knows how to use Pro Tools.
Other than that, I’d suggest you try a few DAWs to get a feel of producing with them, before settling for a DAW. Look for how intuitive the interface is and if it helps you produce music more efficiently. Are the included effects, plugins, and instruments enough for your production needs?
Here are some quick DAW recommendations for beginners:
- Logic Pro – If you use a Mac, definitely get Logic Pro. It’s the most complete DAWs at $199.
- Reaper – Affordable and highly customizable, for Windows, Mac and also Linux!
- PreSonus Studio One Priced for as low as $99.95, Studio One is a good DAW to start learning with.
- FL Studio – Recommended for electronic music producers. Having started as a ‘fun’ software, it has now turned into a serious DAW, with a complete sequencer, arranger, and more.
- Ableton Live – Kind of the ‘staple’ for electronic music and DJ-ing.
- Pro Tools – Industry-standard DAW for commercial recording, mixing, mastering, and broadcast work.
- Cubase – Steeper-learning curve. However, it’s a very stable DAW and seems to be the favorite for many music and film composers.
Read more on choosing that perfect DAW: How to Choose a DAW to Produce Music
3. An Audio Interface
Think of the audio interface as an external soundcard that allows you to connect microphones & instruments (analog audio), to record into digital audio on your computer. An audio interface has better analog-to-digital (ADC) and digital-to-analog (DAC) converters, so that makes it essential for high audio quality recording and mixing.
You’ll need an audio interface if you plan on doing any type of recording like vocal recording, guitars and as well as capturing live performances.
Even if you don’t plan on recording, having a dedicated audio interface will help you with lower audio latencies – especially when you use many virtual instruments and plug-ins on your DAW.
From the many factors to decide on an audio interface, the most important three are:
- Number of inputs & outputs: Are you planning to record a band? Think about the number of inputs you’ll need during your usual recording. As a rule of thumb, I always recommend getting a 2-in/2-out audio interface at a minimum.
- Computer connectivity: The most common audio interface connectivity is USB, although you’ll find FireWire, Thunderbolt and PCI-card audio interfaces. For beginners, choose to go for an audio interface with USB-C (USB3.0), which has faster speeds, meaning that you’ll get lower latencies too.
- Phantom Power: If you plan to record with condenser microphones, make sure the audio interface you buy has pre-amps with phantom power. It’s a standard for most audio interfaces, but well, it helps to check before you buy.
Some popular audio interfaces for beginners are:
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) – Known for their quality preamps, including the new ‘AIR’ function that adds ‘silver’ to your recordings, Focusrite Scarlett series is a popular choice for many music producers. This USB-powered audio interface is equipped with 2 ins/2 outs, 1 mic preamp, 1 instrument input, and a bunch of bundled software programs for Mac and PC.
- PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 – At below$100, you get a solid 2-in/2-out audio interface, a MIDI I/O and a bundled version of Presonus Studio One Artist DAW. A serious deal.
Want to research more recommended audio interfaces? Read our post on the Top 10 Recommended Audio Interfaces For Serious Music Production
4. A MIDI Controller
When it comes to producing music on your computer, unless you have a MIDI controller, you’re missing out on being able to play virtually thousands of instruments on your computer.
Sure, playing and recording a real instrument, for example, a guitar would be best artistically. However, VST instruments have gotten so good that they have become essential for any music producer, whether you are producing electronic or film music.
Sure, you could program notes into your DAW by clicking notes into it, but without a MIDI controller, it’ll be hard to add expression and feel, to your MIDI recordings. A MIDI controller enables you to play virtual instruments expressively with the use of keys, drum pads, effect knobs, pitch bend wheels, and other controls.
So, which MIDI controller should you buy?
There are two usual types of MIDI controllers in the market – a keyboard MIDI controller and a MIDI pad controller.
If you are used to playing the piano or keyboards, then get a MIDI controller with at least 61 keys. The smaller 25-key or 37-key MIDI controller is usually better for someone who’s just starting out or is looking for a second MIDI controller.
Generally, to be on the safe side – a 49-key MIDI controller makes a good companion for your studio, even if you don’t play the keyboards. The reason I recommend a 49-key controller for most producers is that it’s versatile enough to play most instruments, sits nicely on most studio work desks, and is usually inexpensive.
Here are 3 inexpensive MIDI controllers for beginners:
- Alesis V49 – A slim-profile 49-key MIDI controller, with 8 drum pads and 4 assignable knobs & buttons that gives you enough flexibility to play any virtual instruments and control any DAW.
- AKAI MPK Mini MK3 – At $119, the MPK Mini is a USB-powered mini MIDI controller that you can take anywhere. Equipped with 25 synth-action keys, a 4-way thumbstick for dynamic pitch and modulation control, 8 MPC-style drum pads, built-in arpeggiator, and 8 assignable knobs – it’s like a controller that does it all.
- M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 – Want a MIDI controller without the pads & knobs, and feels expressive to play on? The M-Audio Keystation 49 is a compact MIDI controller with a great touch response on the keys. Best yet? It’s only $99.
I don’t recommend pad controllers for beginners unless you especially prefer to program beats and rhythm using drum pads. Otherwise, you should be able to program most instruments, including drums – using a keyboard MIDI controller.
See the list of MIDI controllers I recommend: 12 Best MIDI Controllers Which Are ‘Actually’ Worth Buying
5. A Microphone
There are many kinds of microphones you could buy for your studio – depending on the recording you’re planning to do.
However, if you can only buy one microphone, I’d suggest spending your money on a solid condenser microphone, like the Rode NT1-A.
But everyone says get the Shure SM57!
Sure, the Shure SM57 is a great dynamic microphone, primarily because it’s extremely versatile for recording different types of instruments. It also has a higher SPL level, making it better for recording loud instruments like drums.
However, you’ll never get that lush, full-sounding vocal with a dynamic microphone that you would with large-diaphragm condenser microphones.
A condenser microphone sounds more broadcast-ready, because of its warm, full-bodied sound. You can record voice-overs, warm vocals for your tracks, including acoustic instruments like violins and guitars.
Generally, a condenser microphone makes a good start because you’ll be able to tackle more audio and music projects with it.
What about USB microphones?
The only advantage USB microphones bring is their convenience. This makes it ideals for people who frequently run online meetings, webinars, or live streams.
However, as a music professional or producer, I’d suggest going for XLR microphones. Think of buying microphones as an investment. Take care of them and they’ll last you a lifetime.
How to choose the best microphone for your studio.
The truth is every microphone has its own sound character, and that translates differently for different vocalists and instruments.
For instance, using an MXL 770 microphone will be perfect for recording raspy female vocals or male rap. Recording the same vocals with a Rode NT1-A however, gives female vocals more sibilance and male raps more depth.
The type of microphone to buy will also depend on what you plan on recording. Generally, condenser microphones are often used to record vocals and single instruments like an acoustic guitar, while dynamic microphones are better for recording drums.
The most ideal way to choose a microphone for your studio is to try them at a physical music store, whenever possible. Of course, not everyone has the luxury to test microphones at their local music store, so here’s what I recommend:
Just go with one mic, and then spend hours using it.
Rather than obsessing over choosing the ‘right’ microphone, I prefer to look at microphones from an art standpoint.
Once you buy a microphone, do as many recordings as you can with it. Experiment with different mic placements, techniques, and instruments. In time, you’ll begin to learn its characteristics and sound. Use that to your advantage by creatively molding its sound to your production.
Eventually, you’ll outgrow the microphone and begin to have the itch to try another microphone. When that happens, simply repeat the process by investing in another microphone with a different character.
Here are a few beginner studio microphones that I recommend:
- sE Electronics X1 A – At only $104, the X1 A will get beginners really far. I in fact use one at work. The mic has a natural frequency response, handles a very high SPLs at 150dB, and comes built with a switchable attenuation and low-cut filter. Whether you record vocals, acoustic instruments, drums or electric guitars, this is the one mic that can do it all.
- MXL 770 – One of the most affordable condenser mics on the market, this $70 mic comes with a free shock mount and a rugged carrying case for safe-keeping. This multi-purpose mic will give you that warm sound without compromising the top-end clarity.
- Rode NT1-A – If you’re looking for a complete package, you can purchase one of the most popular mics used by vocalists, studio owners, and musicians. Although Rode microphones come at slightly higher prices, it’s always worth the buy. The Rode NT1-A comes ready with a pop filter, shock mount, a 20-inch microphone cable, and a carrying pouch.
Here’s a video comparing the LCT 240 Pro and sE Electronics X1 A condenser microphone:
Just in case you’re looking for a more in-depth and detailed guide on how to choose the perfect microphone for your studio, here are more posts to read:
- Ultimate Guide To Choosing Microphones for Your Recording Studio
- The 11 Best Vocal Microphones For Your Home Studio
6. A Pair of Headphones
In order to be able to monitor while recording or maybe to mix and master on the go, you’ll need a decent pair of headphones (called ‘cans’ sometimes) that can reproduce sound as accurately as possible, without coloring it.
There are usually three types of studio headphones you can buy:
- Closed-back headphones – Headphones with closed ear-cups, for the purpose of sound isolation.
- Open-back headphones – Headphones that are ‘open’ at the back. The best-sounding of the three.
- Semi-open headphones – Semi-open at the ear cups, where some air still goes through. Sort of a balance between closed and open.
The most common headphones for recording are the closed-back types. This prevents sound from leaking from the headphones into the microphone when you’re recording.
For mixing and cross-referencing, semi-open and open-back headphones are usually preferred, for their better and more natural sound.
If buying studio monitors are out of your budget right now, you can opt to mix on headphones as well. Eventually, though, you’d want to invest in studio monitors. Because the headphone drivers are just next to your ears, they disregard the space and environment in which we usually listen to music. they cannot reproduce a natural listening soundscape. That’s why it’s no advisable to rely on just headphones for serious mixing work.
Besides, using headphones for an over-extended time may cause hearing fatigue and even ear damage.
Nevertheless, a pair of headphones is still an essential gear for your recording studio. Check out these options if you’re just starting out:
- Sony MDR-7506 – One of the most commonly used headphones by recording studios around the world, the Sony MDR-7506 will give you that accurate sound on a pretty affordable deal.
- Audio Technica ATH-M40X – Another affordable headphones from a well-known brand, the Audio Technica ATH-M40X comes in a nice build quality bundled with accessories and a detachable cable setup, useful for proper storage and traveling.
- Samson SR850 – Not too ideal for recording, unless you don’t mind a little sound leak into your mic. Soundwise, the Samson SR850 sounds ridiculous good for the price it’s asking for.
Check out the 5 best headphones for music production on a budget
7. Studio monitors
Studio monitors are an essential piece of studio gear that you cannot skip if you want to produce better-sounding mixes. Studio monitors are designed to be flat-sounding (without EQ or color) and to reproduce your music as accurately as possible.
Because studio monitors will be one of the more expensive gears you would buy for your studio, it helps to choose one that suits you.
Choosing a suitable studio monitor depends on your preferences and the size of your recording or production studio.
Generally, start with smaller monitors if you have a small space. I usually recommend choosing a 6-inch studio monitor at minimum, simply because studio monitors with smaller cones cannot accurately produce the low-end bass frequencies.
It’s also worth getting a speaker stand to isolate your studio monitors. Stands often help studio monitors to reproduce bass responses more clearly. If speaker stands are not an option, then a cheaper option would be sound isolation pads.
Here are some good entry-level studio monitors to consider:
- Yamaha HS5 – Recommended by most mixing engineers and music producers, the Yamaha HS Series is one of the best industry standards that will give you that accurate reference with exceptional features for its price range.
- KRK Rokit G3 6″ – Another big player in the studio monitor game, the KRK’s have that neutral frequency response with back-panel controls that let you balance the low-end. This will definitely give you your money’s worth if you’re on a tight budget.
- JBL Professional 306P MkII – The JBL 306P provides a good low-end response with a 6.5″ woofer, excellent flat response, and good detail. Especially when you do lots of editing and sound restoration work, you’ll hear things that you didn’t with smaller monitors. Once you outgrow it, opt to pair them with the JBL sub.
Read moe studio monitor options here: Top 11 Best Studio Monitors Worth Buying Despite The Hype
8. Acoustic foams and panels for acoustic treatment.
More often than not, most beginners start with buying expensive gear before considering acoustically treating their rooms or home studios. Although buying acoustic foams may seem like the last thing to do for your studio – it’ll go a long way, especially if you plan on mixing and mastering on your own.
Soundproofing a room, on the other hand, is different from acoustic treatment. When it comes to soundproofing, the goal is to keep the sound from leaking into the outside of your room and vice versa. If you have that extra money to spend, you can, of course, include this item on your list.
In acoustic treatment, however, you are simply controlling how sound is reflected; balancing its diffusion and absorption in order to make better-sounding recordings.
The good news is these days companies specializing in room acoustics have room analysis services, in the form of a questionnaire or app, which you can use to analyze your home studio for free. Here are some examples:
Once you get an idea of how to treat your rooms, find a local distributor of these brands in your country and have them shipped to you. You can also buy these items off Amazon if you want something more affordable.
Here are three types of common acoustic panels for home studios:
- Bass Traps – These thicker foam panels are placed at the corners of your room to deal with bass frequencies by absorbing mid to low sound wave frequencies.
- Acoustic Panels – Common acoustic panels you’ll see in home recording studios to absorb general frequencies. They work, but use them sparingly, not to overkill the sound in your room.
- Diffusers – Acoustic diffusers are used to treat echoes and reflections. Instead of absorbing sound waves like an acoustic panel, diffusers are made to scatter sound waves, killing echoes.
9. External hard drives
As you go into the world of audio recording and music production, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of files. You may think that your computer has enough storage. Or maybe you’ll naively believe it’ll be enough to rely on cloud storage.
Based on experience, external storage (fast ones) are your best friends in the world of music production. And believe me, you’ll want to get the fastest external drive you can afford.
I once stored all my samples on a 2TB external hard disk drive. For years, I spent waiting for minutes every time I loaded a new Kontakt instrument. To make matters worse, I didn’t know that the bottleneck was because I was using a hard disk drive.
Today, since I mainly produce on a laptop, I use an external SSD to store my samples. Yes, it’s expensive but on the plus side, the fast loading means I don’t waste time waiting and killing my creative drive.
Tips to optimizing your computer performance:
To get the most out of your computer’s performance, install your DAW, plugins, and VSTs on the main drive. Place your audio and sample libraries on a second drive on your computer or an external drive.
Use solid-state drives (SSDs) whenever possible. Your productivity will skyrocket. And again, get the biggest drives you can afford.
Here are some SSD drives worth buying:
- SanDisk 2TB Extreme Portable SSD – The new generation has sped up to 1,050MB/s which means your samples will load as fast as lighting. It also has a rugged enclosure meaning it won’t break down so easily if you were to drop it.
- Western Digital 2TB WD Blue – For desktop computers, the WD Blue SSD gives you space and speeds up to 560MB/s without costing too much.
10. Cables, adapters, and other studio accessories
The last item on the list is your recording accessories. This may not be the main focus when setting up a studio but you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll need them.
I’ve been in a situation so many times, with some clients recording at my studio until someone whips out an instrument and needs some sort of audio converter to connect it to my mixer. Not having the needed adapter or cable, really kills creativity and mood.
Here are some of the most common cables/adapters you’ll want to stock up for your studio:
- XLR cables for microphones.
- 1/4″ jack instrument cables.
- TRS 1/4″ balanced cables.
- Headphone 1/8″ jack to RCA cables
- 1/4″ Male to 1/8″ Female Adapter
Other common studio accessories will include microphone stands, pop filters, reflection filters, headphone amplifiers, and the list goes on depending on where you’re deciding to take your home recording studio to.
Now that you have an idea of the home studio essentials you’ll need for a successful home recording studio, you can go ahead and do a bit more research before buying the gear.
I’ve only listed 10 studio gear in this list because I know how easy it is to get the GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) syndrome as an aspiring music producer. Remember to work with what you have and use that as your creative advantage – rather than obsessing over buying more studio gear.
Other essential studio gears that you might need, depending on your recording & production work:
- Audio mixer – Mixers are generally in charge of linking every piece of audio equipment together in your studio. As a solo producer, you probably don’t need one yet. Get an audio interface first.
- Instrument libraries and samples – I skipped this because they are an additional luxury. Start off with the samples and instruments that came with your DAW first.
- Studio chair – Believe it or not, the chair in which you sit on is going to play an important role, as you spend more time in your home studio. Invest in a good chair and your back will thank you.
- Microphone pre-amps – I went many years recording with the onboard pre-amps on my audio interface before really exploring dedicated mic pre-amps.
What is one studio equipment you absolutely cannot live without, that you think I should add to this list? Let me know in the comment section down below!