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The bare minimum amount of gear you need to create great digital recordings at home.

If you’ve read my post about New Year’s Resolutions, you know I’ve been spending some time putting my home recording studio back together after a long break.

Some of it came back to me like riding a bike. Some of it (like Pro Tools) did not! Which brought me, of course, to YouTube, searching for online tutorials — where I found a video that appealed to me for completely different reasons…

Part of the beauty of recording in a small home “studio” (mine is basically just a bedroom filled with gear) is that you can use limitations to your advantage. So I’ve been obsessing lately over the basics, wanting to break my gear, my signal path, and my creative process down to something that allowed for quick tracking and decision making.

One of the “back-to-basics” videos I came across was by producer and audio engineer Graham Cochrane (who runs the Recording Revolution blog and video series). In the video below he does a great job explaining what gear you need, what gear you don’t need, and why.

A couple days after I watched the video, Graham wrote a guest post for the Echoes Blog on the exact same topic. Strange connections! Anyway, I thought I would summarize his points below — and if you want more in-depth explanations, watch the video above or read his full article HERE.

What do you need in order to make great digital recordings in a home studio?

1. A good computer

Graham says, “More often than not you already own a computer that is capable of being the hub of your home recording studio.”

Mac? PC? Graham says you should go with what you know. Great music is being made on both. His one specific recommendation is to get as much RAM as you can afford.

2. Any DAW (digital audio workstation)

This is the program which you’ll be using to record and edit (and sometimes mix and master) your music.

Graham believes that most of the popular DAWs are great — so just get one that’s compatible with your computer (and in your price range) and get started!

Choose from one of the following digital audio workstations:

3. A solid audio interface

You need a way to turn analog or acoustical sounds (vocals, guitars, etc.) into a digital signal. That’s where the audio interface comes in.

Graham says, “Most DAWs work with just about any brand of audio interface. This leads to an endless list of boxes to choose from. Let me give you a suggestion: limit yourself to just 2 channel interfaces. What I mean is, don’t buy more than you need.”

Check out the following audio interfaces:

Quality microphones for home recording4. A quality studio microphone

Mics are important. BUT… if you’re working mostly by yourself, or tracking instruments one at a time, you don’t need more than one or two mics.

Also, Graham cautions that because there are so many quality mics on the market now, you shouldn’t spend any more than $100 on a microphone, unless you’re looking to own a specific mic for a specific reason.

5. A pair of studio headphones or monitors

… because you have to HEAR what you’re recording! Only own headphones? Great, start recording and mixing on headphones. You can always listen to your mixes on other people’s systems, or in the car, or wherever, in order to get a reference for how the headphones are positively or negatively shaping the mixes. Don’t own good headphones yet? Get some.

And when it comes to buying new monitors, don’t spend too much.


Clearly the theme throughout much of Graham’s advice is to keep it simple, start small, don’t spend too much, get to work, and have fun!

As you record more and more at home, you’ll discover ways to solve problems WITHOUT spending money or adding gear (though a nice preamp does sound pretty good about now). Ahhh! OK. Back to work.


For a similar take on what you need in order to create great-sounding tracks in your home studio, watch the video below:

Do you agree with these recommendations? Did Graham miss any essentials? How do you create your home recordings? What’s your go-to piece of gear?

Let me know in the comments below.

In this article

Join the Conversation

  • Steve

    Great post ! You could simplify it even more “all you need is ears ” – George Martin.

    Here’s a post I stumbled on not too long ago :

    http://forum.cockos.com/showthread.php?t=29283

    Would love to hear your thoughts about the recording process on the next podcast !

    Best
    Steve

  • Great tips! It’s always refreshing to streamline that creative cataloging process when setting up a home studio. Sometimes the gear can just complicate the process and the raw creativity starts to suffer. “Back to basics” 🙂

  • richardmac

    I disagree with #4. I think $200 is more realistic. A Rode NT1A is a great mic for vocals and can handle everything else. A hundred dollar mic isn’t going to give you the same results. I also disagree with #5. You need to mix on speakers, especially if you’re new to mixing. You should also check your mix on a set of iPhone headphones, because that’s how a huge amount of people listen to music. I agree with #1, but would also add that if you’re not a computer nerd and know someone that is who will be willing to help you, go with what they can support. For #2, on the Mac you get GarageBand for free and it’s good enough to start. But then once you’re ready, avoid Pro Tools and get Logic. It’s only $199 and it has everything you need, from instruments to drummers with artificial intelligence to amp modeling to pitch correction for vocals and instruments. And it’s all top notch quality. Logic is the best band for the buck DAW on the market for any platform. And for #3, don’t skimp! Expect to spend between $100 and $150 for a good two channel audio interface. You can buy one for $29 but don’t. Get a Focusrite or something similar.

    • I wouldn’t recommend your advice to someone even just below entry level audio recording.

  • Graham missed some things like for example plugins. You need decend eq and compressor, some synths or libraries, virtual drums or real instruments. I would also recommend to spend as much as you can on monitors. Mixing with headphones is nearly impossible. Mixing with cheap monitors is like walking in the dark.

  • Yes, sir. I imagine it’s twice as true when you start to introduce video along with audio.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Ha. That post is funny. And great GM quote.
    As for the podcast, that’d be fun. I’ll holler at Kevin and see if he’s down.

    @ChrisRobley

  • I agree with @richardmac – Logic is the best way to go, especially with how well it is integrated with the Mac itself. I would also add:
    1. Quality cabling is important/essential. You are only as good as your weakest link.
    2. While there are many great interfaces, I think onboard DSP processing is a must, which will put you in the middle to high range price-wise.
    3. I also think that if you can afford it, a tube preamp for the lead vocal mic is (almost) essential.

    • Cool. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve been reluctant to try Logic just because… well, I haven’t yet and figured there’s a steep learning curve. But maybe it’s time for me to check it out.

      @ChrisRobley

      • Actually, the learning curve is steep, but there is a great set of video tutorials online… you can learn about any DAW you choose (the Logic ones are especially good), but you can also learn about effects and plugins, highly recommended. http://www.groove3.com/str/

      • Worth the learning curve. I’ll admit that several years later I’m still finding out things I didn’t know it could do — it’s deep the way Photoshop is deep. But versatile and well worth the money!

      • Worth the learning curve. I’ll admit that several years later I’m still finding out things I didn’t know it could do — it’s deep the way Photoshop is deep. But versatile and well worth the money!

  • Kathryn Kelm

    Thanks for the info. I use Garageband. Even the built-in mics are okay for worktapes. I am no expert, but I do agree: learn to use what you have. Sister Kay Kay

  • Lena Lalani

    Great list. I’d add a backup/external hard drive. Computers crash (I know from personal experience, and yes, it was my macbook pro!) But also, with all that comes with DAW ( I use Logic) and depending on what’s being recorded — you can fill up your hard drive pretty quickly especially if you’re using a laptop. Logic seems happier when its not trying to read and write from my laptop at the same time; it’s better to divide the work between my external hard drive and my laptop.

  • You also need some sort of MIDI trigger device. even a simple/cheap keyboard with MIDI out will do. Agree that you need to mix on decent reference monitors, not just headphones. I’ve done demos in Cubase and Ableton Live and ended up always putting everything in ProTools eventually. Go with PT, industry standard (IMHO). But create a system that let’s you easily focus on right brain creativity – make technology your servant, not vice versa!

  • ontheforum

    I agree. This simple and to the point advice seems motivating for someone looking to get into recording. For example, when I used to hear things like “you need this equipment” or “you should work with that program”, etc., etc., etc. I often got stuck and did NOTHING instead.

    Recently, I found that working with Audacity (a free program) offers way more features than some costly recording software. As for a mic, mine is around $100 (an SM57). I also like my mic because it’s the same type of mic that Tom Petty has used to record and perform with. In addition, it sounds great even without a windscreen.

    Anyways, perhaps it’s best to just start recording regardless of one’s budget. Since a person can’t buy back time or experience, why not start now? Besides, it seems that it would be less difficult to upgrade as needed, and as funds become available.

    On a side note.. Having even the most basic recording equipment may also proove valuable when preparing to go into a professional recording studio.

    Terrance
    3000 Records
    http://www.3000records.com

  • I’d absolutely add sound treatment. A mic is only marginally useful in an untreated room,unless you’ve got access to a space with naturally amazing acoustics. Most people reading an article like this have access to a spare bedroom, so panels are in order. You can make a pack of six 4’x2’x2″ panels for about a hundred bucks.

    Though, on that note, the mic itself presumes you’re a vocalist or an acoustic instrumentalist. I know scores of EDM artists who don’t need a mic at all.

    • WW4

      Sometimes room treatment is necessary; I wouldn’t say it’s essential off the bat. If it’s a spare bedroom situation, stuff like a carpet, bed, sofa, futon, or bookshelf can help tame reflections. You can always close-mic stuff.

  • A.C. Coleman

    How full of s*** can one be? $100 mic? Any DAW? Headphones “or” monitors? I have had a home studio for 12 years, and know you have to have quality mics costing more than $500, room treatment, and monitors…. the more the better. Have several seats and stfu.

    • WW4

      There are a lot of fine mics for under $500 but yeah, you should probably look to spend at least $200 just so you have something decent to work with. (There’s nothing wrong with an SM57 but when it’s all you got, it gets old, quick). Someone starting to get into recording themselves doesn’t need much though. It’s as you go, you learn the things that make a difference in sound quality, you learn what mics work best with what sounds, learn what compressors do, etc. I do think you need both monitors and headphones, though (headphones for tracking, monitors for mixing).

    • Michael McDonald

      You don’t *have* to have any of those things. People have made decent recording sitting in their bedroom using only headphones with no treatment and an affordable mic. This article is talking about getting a basic setup going, not running a professional studio in your house.

  • Very true about EDM, though probably still good to have one around in case.
    Good tip about treatment too. I’m thinking of doing that for my home studio since a cube of drywall isn’t known for its brilliant, forgiving acoustic properties.

    @ChrisRobley

    • I know right? Mic or no mic, engineering in a plaster box sucks.

  • I agree. Start now and get the experience. Even if you don’t keep the early stuff you record, it’s valuable time spent learning how to improve your engineering skills.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Yeah, a MIDI keyboard is pretty essential if you’re doing anything in-the-box. Good point. Thanks for commenting.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Maybe there’s a way to use plaster to our advantage! Could be the sound of the future. (Maybe it already is).

    @ChrisRobley

  • Sweet. Thanks for the resource.

    @ChrisRobley

  • OH, great call! Yes, recording to your computer’s drive sloooooooooows things down for sure. Thanks for commenting.

    @ChrisRobley

  • One other suggestion – buy used gear. You’d be amazed at what you can find in your local Music-Go-Round or Guitar Center. Sometimes it’ll take some patience or digging to find what you’re looking for. Some great bargains I came across were an M-Audio Axiom 25 at Guitar Center for $30 – it’s like new and it’s an excellent no-frills MIDI controller. I also traded up a distortion pedal for a Behringer Xenyx 1204USB – a great little USB mixer that definitely gets the job done. I built most of my “broom closet studio” (very small bedroom) by purchasing and trading used gear. I mean, why pay $300 or better for M-Audio BX5’s (my favorite monitors) when they’re readily available, and like new, for half that price? I found an Akai MPD32 for $80 at Music-Go-Round – the list is endless.

  • Craig Einhorn

    Two comments:

    1. Recording too much with just one mic makes the mix dry. Also one should spend more than $100, and perhaps as much as $800 on a Nuemann KM184. But a great musical instrument mic which is really inexpensive is the Studio Projects C1 for $200 or so new. On ebay they go for $100 to $150. I suggest one vocal mic like the Sure SM58 Beta, and the other two I mentioned for instruments.

    2. You didn’t mention pre amps. Preamps can be separate or you can use the ones in your interface. The best right now attached to the interface, in a small set up, is the Universal Audio Twin Duo. It’s a noticeable difference. Universal Audio’s mission statement is true. They try to create digital products with analog sweetness. They’ve done an amazing job on the Twin Duo. I’m blown away.

  • nataliegelman

    Thanks for sharing this summary and the video! I’m just getting started on the recording side of things and watching it gave me more confidence. I actually knew a lot more then I realized and love the clarity watching and reading this gave me!

  • Albert Bouchard

    The sm57 is a top quality mic for around $100. In my experience recording for the past 60 years, the 57 is the most useful mic to have. That being said, my go-to is the tlm103. The problem with cheap interface is that the drivers are seldom updated so that cheap box may not be that useful in a couple years. Mixing on headphones is very taxing IMHO. But there are reasonable speakers (around $300) that can do the job as long as you have a mastering engineer with skills. Regular backups are worthy of another essential component. There are a number of strategies for placing mics in enclosures that minimize room sound. I like the Kayotica Eyeball but all these products (some under $100) are good to have if you’re planning on tracking vocals.

  • I agree with this list.

    If you’re just starting out and you are going to buy a $500 microphone, how will you know which microphone to get? A ribbbon? LDC? Dynamic? Without experience you are just throwing your money away. I’ve learned this the hard way.

    Start cheap with the basics. Learn how to record. Learn how to play in a recording environment. Listen to your recordings and ask yourself what you don’t like about them. Question whether or not you can hear your recordings properly.

    Ask yourself what you want your studio to do (tracking drums, live bands, EDM, or singer-songwritters? Mixing? film soundtracks?). Your studio will look very different over time depending on what you focus on.

    Take that experience and your hard earned money and spend it on the thing that would improve your recordings the most, then save up for the next thing. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole gear lust thing but remember that they are just tools to do a job. Always ask yourself: “why am I buying this? what does this piece of gear enable me to do?”.

    Some perspective: Iron & Wine recorded a commercially successful album on a noisy 4-track tape recorder. Don’t underestimate the power of good song writing. People want to hear the perfect song, not a perfectly recorded terrible song.

    • burrus1206

      Terrence,

      Was particularly drawn to your, “some perspective” comment in the last paragraph..,

      What advice would you give to someone who [hallucinating or not] believes he has created quite a few “perfect songs” but ain’t worth crap as to performing them instrumentally and marginal on the voice?

      It is my understanding that a song is composed of beat [drums], chord progression, bass, and melody.., with melody [together with lyrics, if applicable] comprising the cornerstone/most essential element in judging whether the song is crap, good or “perfect”.

      At 66, I’ve written [mostly country] melodies for some 45 years for personal pleasure and have submitted/promoted ZERO. fyi: I probably have created a few hundred melody/lyric songs of which [like the proverbial monkey on the typewriter] I think, maybe, 15 or worth expending energy on since.., hell.., I think they’re pretty damned good.

      Continuing the hallucination, my intention is to produce some facsimile of the song in order to interest various talented vocalists with whom I’ve become acquainted over the years.

      Presently, I have a Yamaha PSR E443 Digital Keyboard connecting [usb to a/b] to a PC [RAM] laptop with nice Sennheiser Headphones;

      Given my objective, and considering both the equipment I possess and a limited budget.., could you recommend the sequencer program and mic for my needs.

      Anything else?

      THANKS SO MUCH.
      William

  • A.E. Dynamo

    Great video choices! Both channels have great info!

  • Thanks for commenting, Craig. Good recommendations. Always nice to hear people’s picks for affordable preamps.

    @ChrisRobley

    • Craig Einhorn

      Hi Chris, Thanks for the initial article which got us all thinking and sharing. There’s so many products its hard to sort through them. A while ago Electronic Musician magazine had three top sound engineers choose their favorite mics. Many of the them picked the same mics including: Sure SM58 and SM57 (beta if you like), and Neuman KM184, and AKG 414 BULS (AKG has a new similar mic)

  • Nice. Yeah, always good to get a refresher to make you feel… re-ready.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Cool. Thanks for the tips. And thanks for reading.

    @ChrisRobley

  • So true. I love that record, btw. The tape hiss never bothered me. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Yeah. I like both channels. One is a little more EDM-focused and one is more pop rock, but they tend to agree on many points.

    @ChrisRobley

  • That’s what I’m aiming to do for now: the draped clothing approach. Thanks for commenting.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Oh, great call. Thanks for sharing.

    @ChrisRobley

  • If you need royalty-free music free for your recordings: http://www.locutortv.es/musicalibredederechos_music_free.htm . It is free.

  • Love2Learn

    Great way to get started. If you get a good USB mic you could even skip on the interface. Don’t forget a “Pop Filter”. They’re a must have in the studio. I bought one the other day for less than $7. Take time to learn more each day. You can get started with little but there is always room to grow, always. I wrote a book to help people get started called “How To Build A Recording Studio For Less Than $200” available on amazon. Shameless plug I know but I wrote it with intentions to make the road to recording as smooth as possible.

  • Here’s a more thorough guide if you’d like 🙂 http://musicproductiontips.net/home-recording-studio-setup-for-beginners/

  • Audio Interface

    Some great advice and information on this web page. If you’d like to read more about what kit to buy for recording as singer song writer then check out this article https://soundbaseblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/building-your-home-recording-studio-singer-songwriters/

  • cswappo

    My band recorded our first ep in a storage unit. it turned out soooo good! Big props to our engineer. Dude killed it on this. https://open.spotify.com/album/6WrY2sN9zqzoIMwuEWYNhf

  • Thanks. I’ll check that out.

  • Great attitude. Thanks for sharing.

  • I love my Tascam 388. It’s an old 8-track reel-to-reel. Compact. Decent sound. Thin tape though, so… record accordingly!

    • Sir Baby De Porky

      I plan on using a Tascam DP 32 SD , but reluctantly , as I don’t trust them SD cards … at all !!!

      But I really don’t like using computers to compose / record my stuff , because I’m not too saavy with them , and I tend to get very disturbed by all the technical giberish , glitches , latency crap !!!

      What would be your take on that , and are there other routes ( short of a ” Radar ” type of recording option , which costs an arm and a leg ( and I only got two of each ) ?!?