10 Things You Need For A Kickass Home Studio
So you want to produce music from home and make great music. Good! Despite what many ‘industry pros’ will tell you, it is possible to create world class music from home studios. In fact, having your own home recording studio allows for more creative time, compared to recording in a commercial studio where you’ll be racing against time.
Your home studio setup doesn’t have to be difficult. Home studios can be built and configured in many different ways. A hip hop producer would have his home recording studio built differently compared to a film composer. The hip hop producer would probably only need a two monitor speaker setup in his music studio while the film composer would probably look to have a surround system setup.
If you are new to home recording studios, then read on. Over the years of building my own home studio, I’ve made many good decisions and even more bad mistakes in the process of building my home studio to something that is able to produce world class music. In this post, I’ll throw you guidelines from my experience and cover the 10 things you need to build a kickass, great home studio.
1. Computer – The Heart For A Kickass Home Recording Studio
Walk into any recording studio today and you’ll find the computer sitted in the middle of the studio, ready for recording and editing. The rise of computers being able to multitrack record and edit has changed the music industry for the better. Today with just a click of the mouse, you can begin to record music. No patchbay set-up, setting up the mixers, getting a clean tape or turning on effect boxes. Gone were the analog recording days.
When it comes to buying a computer, people tend to say go for the fastest computer you can afford.
They also tell you to buy an Apple Mac if possible.
I’ve been a Mac user and a Windows user for producing music. While I’m currently on a Windows machine after switching back from Apple, there is nothing wrong in using a Apple. In fact its claims of being more stable is true. However there’s nothing wrong in using a Windows computer as well. Windows have come a pretty long way and Windows 8.1 as I’m on right now is great for making music.
The only thing I can complain about Windows computers is the lack of a reliable sound driver with low latency. Mac has Core Audio, which is amazing for music production.
More reading: Which computer should you buy for production? Mac or PC
2. DAW – Digital Audio Workstation
You have a computer, good. Now you need a software to start making music. Question is which to buy?
There are really many DAW in the market.
Before I go into explaining which DAW you should choose, there is this common misconception I like to clear. All DAW sounds the same. There have been claims where music exported out of Pro Tools sounds better compared to Logic and vice versa. Those are misconceptions. What is going to make your music sound better are your skills and ears.
First thing to look at when choosing a DAW is to look at your computer OS you’re going to be working on. The said industry standard is the Apple Mac but you’ll be surprised to find many pros like Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL and Hanz Zimmer using PC rigs who music production as well.
My advice is to use a DAW software that works on both the PC and Mac. Many software developers have actually made their software available for both the platforms. By doing this, you open yourself up to more collaborations with other producers around the world who may produce music on a different OS.
Don’t worry about choosing the ‘RIGHT’ DAW software, as there is no one right software for the job. DAW softwares are indeed slightly different in features from one another but the major DAWs today have all the tools you need to create great music. I find myself having a separate dedicated audio editor like Adobe Audition to do extra audio work that most DAW are not really good at. You can get Adobe Audition for a low monthly subscription.
If I had to choose a DAW though, here are some ins and outs of few major DAWs.
1. Logic Pro – If you’re on a Mac, get Logic Pro. Logic Pro is by far the most complete DAW I’ve ever used. There are tons of loops, samplers, instruments and basically it sports everything you need to go from scratching up ideas for a song to finishing the master mix. It’s also really affordable when compared with most major DAWs. Only downside? It works exclusively only on the Mac.
2. Steinberg Cubase – German made DAW software. Cubase has a steeper learning curve with its sophisticated interface that takes some time getting used to. The samplers included like Halion SE and synthesizer like PadShop does not give you the best sounding instruments in the market, but they are usable. I find myself digging into 3rd party VSTs like Native Instruments Komplete when on Cubase though. The thing I really like about Cubase was its stability. Had close to no unexpected crashes when producing on Cubase. Cubase also works on the PC and MAC, so collaboration would a breeze.
3. Pro Tools – Pro Tools recently launched it’s new subscription based plan where you can subscribe to use Pro Tools for only $29.99 a month. Known as the industry standard, most professional studios would be on Pro Tools, so if you’re thinking of joining the pro level, starting off with the lighter version of Pro Tools isn’t a bad idea at all.
4. Ableton Live – Ableton Live is the must go DAW software for electronic producers. The workflow on Ableton is different from the other DAWs. You can work really fast, creating lots of tweaks on your audio and tracks. If you are into electronic music, Ableton Live is a software you need to at least try. Ableton Live lacks a score editor though.
5. Presonus Studio One – Studio One was said to the easiest DAW to use because the DAW is based on a drag-and-drop structure. Everything from instruments, audio tracks and effects and be drag and dropped into the arranger window. Studio One was made to be the least technical among the major DAWs so you only focus on the music and no the technical parts of using a DAW. I somehow find Studio One limited in terms of effects, functionality and features. For example, it lacks surround mixing and score editors. If you can live without having an integrated score editor and want something straightforward/easy, take Studio One for a spin.
There are few more DAWs which I missed out here in this post. If you like a review about the rest, let me know by commenting below.
3. Audio Interface – Linking audio to and fro your computer
What’s an audio interface? The audio interface is really an external sound card that record analog audio into your computer. There are plenty types of audio interface in the market, from models which connects to your computer with USB, Firewire or even Thunderbolt. Some audio interface offers lots of inputs and outputs and some are audio interfaces with only a single input channel, great for use with an iPad.
Okay, so it’s a soundcard for recording. Why can’t I just use the soundcard in my computer to produce music if I’m not planning to record any instruments?
That is a question I get almost everyday, so below are two reasons why you need an audio interface.
1. Record Instruments & Output Audio From Your Computer
There will come a time when you need to record into your DAW. I mean you’re a producer, right? Well, keep your options open.
You may find yourself recording vocals with a microphone, recording a guitar or even going into drum tracking. Whatever it is, you’ll want to always keep your options open and have a dedicated audio interface to help you with those tasks
2. Get Better Latency With Your Computer
Latency what? Latency is the time interval or delay taken between when an audio signal enters your computer and then outputs.
In essence, most inbuilt PC soundcards have high latencies and is horrible at music production. In a production scenario this means when you press a key on your keyboard, you hear the sound being triggered a few milliseconds later. With some cards the latency gets even higher and you probably hear your note half a second later or more.
With a dedicated audio interface, you get very low latency when you produce music, so you’ll hear your notes and sound in real time. I can’t imagine trying to compose and produce with a latency problem. Try using your DAW without a dedicated audio interface. You’ll agree with me that it is really annoying.
Alright. I guess I’ll get an audio interface
Glad I got you on the right track. Which audio interface should you choose?
While it seems like every audio hardware company say that their interfaces are the best, there are few things you should consider before buying an audio interface.
Click to see: The top 10 audio interface to buy in 2015
Here are the few factors to think about
1. Inputs – The more inputs means you’ll be able to record more tracks simultaneously. Imagine recording a band. Three microphones for guitarists, one for the bassist, one more for vocals and another line for the keyboard. With this band setup you’ll need an audio interface with at least 6 inputs. We haven’t even talked about recording the drum yet. A drum recording setup can go up to more than 10 microphones!
I’d recommend buying audio interfaces with more inputs if you can afford it. I’ve never regretted buying the M-Audio Profire 2626 when I started out. Investing in an audio interface with more inputs have gave me the ability to take on more music projects.
2. Outputs – Buying more inputs aren’t the only thing. Outputs also offers more possibilities as well. Most music producers monitor their music with only a stereo speaker setup. You only need two outputs to achieve a stereo speaker monitoring setup.
However with the extra setup, you could hookup a 5.1 or even up to a 9.1 surround monitoring system, depending on the number outputs your audio interface has. With a surround system you can take on film composing projects and even mix for TV! All the reason to buy an audio interface with more outputs.
3. Pre-amp Quality – Most modern audio interfaces today have pre-amps built into them. This is so you can plug a microphone to the audio interface and start recording on your computer right away. However, not all pre-amps are made the same. I advise taking a test listen to pre-amp before buying. Does the pre-amps make lots of noise? Does the pre-amp adds color to your microphone recordings? How much gain can you crank on the pre-amp?
These are factors you should consider before buying an audio interface. If you were to ask me, I’d recommend Focusrite audio interfaces. The audio interfaces made by Focusrite are built with award winning pre-amps which sounds really sweet for it’s given price.
4. Company Reliability – Before buying an audio interface, check the company that makes them. See if they offer frequent driver updates for the audio interfaces they sell. It’ll be nice to have a driver update for your audio interface whenever you update the OS on your computer. You don’t want to be getting compatibility issues, do you?
5. Future Proofing – How long would you be able to keep your audio interface? Think about how many inputs/outputs it has and if you were to do more than bedroom producing in the future, would the audio interface still be usable? Can the audio interface record up to 192kHz/24bits? As you the industry progresses, more and more producers would be recording at higher sample rates in search for a better sounding recording. Your audio interface should be able to do that when the time comes.
I advise buying an audio interface with that records up to 96kHz at minimum and make sure to buy an audio interface with connectivity like USB3.0. There are many FireWire audio interfaces still being sold and used today but Firewire is slowly fading off. We know USB is here to stay, so it might just offer better future proofing. (This opinion is subject to many tech futurists though, some futurist claiming thunderbolt will still strive its way through)
4. Studio Monitors
No studio is complete without a good set of studio monitors you can rely your mixes on. You might you have good plugins and recordings but if you can’t listen to your mixes accurately, I can almost guarantee that your mixes will never make it to the charts.
A studio monitor is that important. As an aspiring producer you might just start out mixing and producers on a pair of cans, however if you have not bought your first set of studio monitors, trust me, it’ll change the way you produce. With good studio monitors, you’ll start to hear things you have never heard before on consumer speakers or headphones.
The experience listening to music on a pair of studio monitors is also more rewarding than compared to listening to music on a pair of headphone cans. This is because when you listen to a set of speakers, you actually hear the reverberation of the room as well. With headphones, you simply cup away all the room sound and with the cans on both side of your ears, stereo imaging can be misleading. That is why producers never recommend you to finish your mix on headphones. You gotta at least listen and tweak your mix on a pair of trusty studio monitor speakers.
Some guidelines to buying the correct studio monitor speakers:
1. Buy speakers with 6-inch woofers at bare minimum – I can’t stress this enough. I find most of my students (and myself) tend to mix more bass when mixing on a pair of 5-inch speakers. This is because you don’t hear much of the bass with 5-inch speakers, thus you tend to boost the bass when mixing. This often ends up as a shock when you finally realized you added too much bass after playing your mixes on other speaker systems.
Speakers with 8-inch woofers would be ideal for good mixing but if budget is a constrain, go for a 6-inch. Speakers with 5-inch woofers are good for referencing your mixes but in my opinion, not recommended to be used as your main monitors.
2. Take your favourite CD to the store – If you’re buying your speakers from a retail store, make sure to bring a CD album that you’re familiar with. Get the sales person to play your CD, so you can hear the difference in the many studio monitor speakers. With a CD album that you’re familiar with, you’ll be able to pinpoint a good studio monitor. The speakers you choose should be able to play your CD album in detail.
3. No speakers are really ‘flat’ – Despite what many speaker companies want you to believe, no speakers are actually made flat. Every speaker has its own characteristics and sound. This is due to the build of the speaker itself, from the cones to the drivers and the cabinet. So my advice here is not to buy speakers based on its brand and what people seem to say about it. After doing some sound tests, buy a speaker which you find offers the best listening, then train your ears to get use to your speakers.
I hope this list so far has been fairly informative. What setup do you currently have in your studio? Show them off! The comment section is just down below.
Next in the list are 6 more items you’ll need for a kickass home studio. They are:
- MIDI Controllers
- Acoustic Treatment
- Studio Mixer
- Your Music & Business Skills
Move on to the next section: 10 Things You Need For A Kickass Home Studio (Cont)
Click on the link above to continue to the next section.