Your First Home Recording Studio – Building Your First System On A Budget
You finally decided to take the plunge and get your home recording studio started. Needless to say, you are probably at a complete loss on how to start and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of available options. And this is going to be the focus of this article.
We start from scratch and we build a system that will meet your budget and personal needs. If you already did some research of your own, you will realize this is not a simple task, and in fact can be quite daunting.
There are so many things to take into consideration and so many different setups and options available that I am going to break up this post in as my different sections as possible for you you keep track and make sense of all the information. Yes, this article will be a bit lengthy, but the aim is to be as thorough as possible and cover all the issues and questions you may have, so bear with me.
I start by mentioning a few things I feel are important for you to keep in mind before moving on to building the actual system.
Important Things To Consider
Keep the following in mind when deciding on what type of home audio system you are going to start off with.
When choosing the components to be used in a computer based setup, make sure your computer can always be upgraded for use in a more advanced and expanded professional audio setup.
Your budget may not always allow it, but if possible, always go for the higher end component. It is always less expensive in the long run to purchase the high end piece of equipment than an entry level component, which you will anyway have to replace in a very short space of time with the better component as you expand your setup. Microphones and studio monitors are perfect examples.
Please note, high end does not mean going for the most expensive piece of equipment. (Sometimes a budget microphone may set you back 60 dollars, when you could have saved up and bought a good quality entry level professional microphone for 95 dollars, which could last you for years.)
When deciding to start with a basic computer based setup, always choose a desktop over a laptop. It simply is much easier to upgrade and expand the capabilities of a desktop, unlike a laptop where your upgrade options are very limited. (Memory, hard drives and sound cards are just a few computer components that can easily be upgraded on a desktop.) Since your computer will not only form part of a basic setup, but also be integrated in a more advanced professional setup, it is a worthwhile investment.
When setting up a computer, always remember most of your Digital Audio Workstation software requires a minimum of 4Mb (megabyte) of memory. This means it will actually perform optimally with 8Mb installed. If your budget allows it, always ask your supplier to have your system upgraded to 8Mb if it doesn't already come with that amount of memory already installed.
At the very least, make sure you desktop or laptop's memory can be upgraded to 8Mb or more in the future. (Fortunately almost all modern computers are capable of having their memory upgraded via additional memory slots or replacing the currently installed memory modules with bigger capacity ones.)
This can be a bit tricky to know when starting out for the first time, but always try and obtain a compatible component that can used later on in a more advanced and expanded professional system.
(Microphones are a perfect example. You may invest in a quality USB condenser microphone for you computer setup. A year down the line you are ready to upgrade to a serious professional audio setup. You invested in a good quality audio interface, but it only accepts professional microphone XLR inputs. Now you are stuck with an existing high quality USB microphone that does not fit into your new high-end system's XLR ports. If you invested in a condenser microphone with both USB and XLR outputs, you would have been able to make the transition without any additional costs.
(You do get condenser microphones with both USB and XLR outputs which are good examples of investing in a high quality components that can be used in an entry level computer based setup, as well as an more advanced professional home recording studios later on.)
The important thing to remember is to always try and think long term when assembling you system, and how what you purchase now can be used much later on as your home audio system expands. (It may even encourage you to invest in a higher quality piece of equipment right from the start.)
Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software can basically be seen as the heart of your recording setup where all recorded sounds are edited, mixed, enhanced and outputted to different media.
Before adding any new equipment to your home setup, make sure it is supported and compatible with your DAW software. You will save yourself money and a lot of headaches in the process.
(Some DAW software are very specific with the type of hardware they are able to work worth. As a result your newly purchased system component may not be able to work with your current DAW software.)
Choosing Your Starter System
There are basically 2 routes you can follow when you start building up your home first recording setup. You can start with:
- A simple computer based setup
- A basic professional home setup right from the start which can easily be expanded.
1. Basic Computer Setup
This setup is the least expensive for anyone on a tight budget. Here too, your system can be divided into 2 categories:
- You can use a standard desktop or laptop and just add the necessary input and output peripherals.
- You can use a desktop computer, customized to handle all the demands of your recording equipment, as well as your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software. Let's have a closer look at the 2 options:
a) The Standard Computer Setup
By far the most affordable home audio system you can set up. Built-in sound on motherboards of modern day computers have come a far way from a decade ago and can be considered adequate for recording and outputting sound. Don't expect something of exceptional high quality though.
Make sure your computer have at least:
- Intel Core i5 or bigger CPU processor.
- 4Mb of system memory. (Most DAW software require a minimum of 4Mb).
- 1 Tb hard drive space. Hard drives have become a lot more affordable over the years, so choosing a traditional hard drive no less than 1 Tb is recommended. (You will be surprised how quickly high quality audio files fill up space on your computer.)
Laptop computers are notorious for the bad quality of their built-in microphones and speakers, and most of your average desktop computer does not even come with built-in speakers or microphones.
As a result, at the very least you should invest a in good quality USB condenser microphone and a decent pair of desktop speakers.
Although it's a very basic system, you can actually produce and record quite a decent quality audio that will produce a fairly good representation of your voice or instrument. (I will make some recommendations for you to choose from on the Resources Page for microphones and speakers.) Just remember, this is a starter system, so don't expect professional studio quality sound.
b) The Customized Desktop Computer Setup:
We are now building a system that is fully equipped to handle all the demands of the DAW software. It should also be able to accept and process all the signal inputs from a professional home audio system. (This way you make sure that when upgrading your system and adding professional audio components, your desktop computer is already set up and you don'n need additional upgrades.)
For this reason your computer setup will be a little bit more expensive, but well worth the money. You must ensure your computer have at least:
- Intel Core i7 CPU processor (The Core i9 CPU is still fairly new and completely overpriced. Investing in additional system memory will produce better and less expensive results.)
- 8Mb of system memory. (More than most DAW software require, but necessary to handle all the processing power as well as potentially multiple input signals).
- 1 Tb hard drive space or more. (Especially when you start recording multiple channels or want to save different edited versions of your recordings, additional storage space will become essential.)
Additionally, I would strongly suggest investing into 2 additional components:
a) External hard drive. Not only important for backing up your valuable recordings, but for providing additional storage space as well. (I will discuss the different options available to you in a futures article.) Additionally, an external hard drive allows you to store data away from your studio for extra security.
b) Large Screen Display. Taking into consideration that so much information needs to fit onto one screen, investing into a monitor with a display size of at least 21 inches (to see the majority of timelines and toolboxes) is a very good investment. Just take into consideration that most DAW software mimic the layout of a mixing console with its overwhelming array of sliders and switches.
As with the you standard PC setup, at the very least you should invest a in good quality USB condenser microphone and a decent pair of desktop speakers.
You should seriously consider investing a little bit extra in a professional condenser microphone, if possible a large diaphragm microphone. (I don't suggest spending hundreds of dollars on a microphone. You can get a good entry level professional microphone for under $100.) The quality of your audio is largely dependent on the quality of your microphone. If you do, make sure its a microphone with both an USB and XLR port for future use in a high end system.
And that takes care of your 2 different computer based setups. There is still a lot more detail to look into, but I've already talked holes in your head. I hope you're keeping up!
Next we are going to look at a more conventional audio setup that will look very familiar to anyone working in a professional commercial audio studio. But this is specifically aimed at the home user.
2. A Professional Home Setup
There are quite a few scenarios where you might choose to build up a proper audio setup right from the start (apart from having a bigger budget to work worth.)
(You may already be a professional recording artist or podcaster, and need the convenience of a professional recording environment in the comfort of your own home. You may have a very good computer setup, but now needs to make that step up to take your audio quality to the next level.)
Whichever the case, you are now faced with an abundance of choices which can be a bit intimidating at first. The good news is, despite being more expensive, you can now build up a good quality system that is a fraction of the cost of a professional commercial studio. So good in fact, that most people will not be able to tell the difference between a home and commercially created recording.
To explain things in a way that will make proper sense, we will start from the first component that comes into play during recording. From there we follow the signal and address each component that gets involved along the way. First in line is obviously:
a) The Microphone
Not only is the microphone the first component the sound reaches, but most probably by far the most important component in your system. If you ever heard the expression, "Garbage In Garbage Out", it applies no more so than to the microphone. The reason for this is simple:
If the quality of sound your microphone picks up is poor, no amount of processing or post-production editing will rectify the problem. (Sure, you my be able to clear up the sound, reduce the background noise and make some other changes in your mixer or DAW software, but the detail lost and clarity of the original sound can never be recovered.)
Exactly for this reason your microphone is that important. If you are ever planning on saving up and wait a bit longer to spend that little extra on a component, your microphone must always take first priority. Whether you choose a condenser or dynamic microphone, please ensure it's the highest quality microphone you can afford.
There are 2 types of microphones you can choose from. Dynamic and condenser microphones. Each one has its advantages and drawbacks.
In short, dynamic microphones are very robust and passive (do not require an external power source). They provide a weaker signal though and need a device like a DI Box to boost its gain and provide balanced power to the audio interface. They are very popular for public, especially outdoor events, where their durability and resistance to the elements come into play.
Condenser microphones are active which means they require power to operate (usually in the form of 48V phantom power provided by the audio interface). As a result of their complex design, they are more fragile and not as robust as dynamic microphones. They do, however, produce a much stronger signal and do not need an additional device like a DI Box to boost its gain.
As I already said, whichever microphone you choose, just make sure it is the best quality one you can afford. (You can read more about these microphones and their differences here.)
b) The Mic Activator
A mic activator is widely used to balance and boost the gain of weak signals from devices like dynamic microphones and electric guitars.
These robust little metal boxes are either passive or active. Passive mic activators do not have build-in power and relies on phantom power from the audio interface to operate and boost signals. They are more robust due to their simpler design. Active mic activators come with their own power supplies and do not rely on external power. They are more complex and not as robust as a passive mic activator though.
(If you are using a condenser microphone you do not need a mic activator. They come with their own build-in amps that draws their power from the phantom power of the audio interface. This is something to keep in mind when deciding on a microphone.)
c) The Audio Interface
The audio interface is probably the second most important component in you audio setup. This interface receives all the inputs from the audio devices and converts them to a digital signals that get outputted to a computer (or mixer and recording device).
Many people see audio interfaces as a replacement for sound cards which is partially true. They provide so much more functionality than just acting as an interface (or replacement for a sound card) though.
First let's look at its input capabilities. It has at least one or more audio input port, usually a XLR audio port for a microphone input. The majority of interfaces have what is called "combo" ports. These interfaces are able to accept both XLR and 1/4" TRS inputs for instruments.
Depending on your needs, audio interfaces can have up to eight or more audio inputs. Some even include RCA line in inputs and even midi ports for keyboards. (Midi ports are very rarely used as an interface nowadays, so its importance is greatly diminished. As a result, support for midi devices on audio interfaces should not be seen as a necessity in any way.)
As far as output goes, apart from the digital outputs to the computer, most audio interfaces have line out ports for studio monitors. It's important to note that these line out ports are not amplified and must be connected to active (powered) studio monitors in order to work.
(Alternatively, if you already have an amplifier as part of hi-fi setup in the same room, the line out cables from the audio interface can be connected to the auxiliary line inputs of the amplifier, and played through your hi-fi speakers.)
You also need to pay attention to the type of digital output port your audio interface has for connecting to a computer. Most affordable audio interfaces make use of USB to connect to the PC. (USB2 is normally used, as USB1 has too low a transfer rate, and you are almost sure to experience latency problems between your audio interface and computer when using this early USB version. Make sure your computer system has at least one USB2 port to prevent any latency issues.)
Faster connections like FireWire and Thunderbolt are available on some audio interfaces, but they tend to be substantially more expensive. Also, not many computers come standard with FireWire or Thunderbolt interfaces, and you may need to install a dedicated card with the appropriate interface, which can become an expensive exercise. Make sure you check for compatibility between audio interface and computer before making a purchase.
Another very important function of an audio interface, is its ability amplify signals. Almost all audio interfaces have preamps build in for each one of its input ports, accompanied by an adjustable dial to control the amount of gain (volume) of each input. A master dial on the interface controls the amount of gain that gets outputted to the computer through the digital interface.
One future that is essential on any audio interface, is the ability to supply phantom power to connected components. This is used to power components like condenser microphones and passive DI boxes. These devices cannot function without power. Fortunately most modern audio interfaces come standard with phantom power. (It is normally indicated on the console by either the wording "Phantom Power" or "48V"). Just make absolutely sure your audio interface has this function before making a purchase.
Last but not least is the microphone output jack that comes build-in on the audio interface. It comes with its own adjustable dial to control the gain. It has the advantage of providing you with immediate feedback of what you are recording, enabling you to make adjustments in real time without worrying about latency issues between audio interface and computer.
A final word on the statement or common believe that audio interfaces act as external sound cards, just with more functions. As I already mentioned, this partially true. I still firmly believe that any advanced computer setup that use DAW software and output its sound directly from the computer, must have a good sound card installed to accompany any audio interface on the PC side.
Not only does it produce a much cleaner signal for output than a standard motherboard chip set, some dedicated sound cards come standard with the proper output ports to be connected to high quality active desktop speakers or amplifier. (I honestly don't believe the standard standard stereo headphone jack on a PC provides the high quality signal that needs to be send to the speakers/studio monitors or amplifiers.)
Sometimes taken for granted, a good pair of microphones are invaluable for any recording studio. Not only can you listen to what you're recording in privacy, but with an amount of detail and clarity that some speakers or studio monitors sometimes fail to pick up.
The ability to plug them into your audio interface provides you with the additional benefit of listening and making adjustments in real with zero latency. The benefit of making the necessary adjustments before all your audio gets recorded, can save you hours of post-production editing time in your DAW software.
e) Speakers / Studio Monitors
As great and clear as the audio through your microphones sound, they are no substitute for a good pair studio monitors or high quality speakers. You need to hear what your recording sounds like in an open space to get a clear indication of what your audience will hear.
I am not going to to go into too much detail here. (I am discussing the difference between studio monitors and high quality computer based speakers in this article.)
Just remember that you do need them and you need ones providing a high quality sound. Too many home recording studios rely primarily on the sound produced by microphones.
f) Room Space
Although discussing recording hardware is the primary focus of this post, room space is too important not to address when discussing recording equipment and home audio studios. I left this topic to be addressed rather late in this article. Ironically, this should be the first factor that you should consider and seriously look into even before you start thinking about purchasing equipment.
Yes, it is that important. First and foremost, you must have access to a confined isolated space, preferably a separate room. You need an environment that is small enough for you to control, yet big enough to accommodate all your recording equipment. Although its hard to guess precise measurements, the size of an average sized bedroom always springs to mind when thinking of a proper home professional recording studio.
Without going into too much detail, the isolation is important because background noise is always an issue, which can be control in a separate isolated room. Preparing a room for acoustics and reverberation is also much easier in a separate relatively small room.
(There are just too many variables out of your control when you work in a large open space.
If you have no access to smaller or separate space, consider partitioning the section where your recording setup will be. It is not as difficult as you may think. More on that in another article.)
The space I described should be sufficient to accommodate all your recording equipment. Obviously you need enough desk space for all your recording equipment, as well as floor space in case you want separate stands for studio monitors/speakers, standing space to perform in, as well as space next to the walls for acoustic treatment.
(The situation starts changing drastically when you start adding multiple instruments and individuals. This not only influence the amount of space you require, but also effects the type and cost of equipment you may need. This is not the aim of a smaller home recording studio though, and is a topic for another discussion.)
g) The Computer
Yes, I am including it just in case you forgot, but obviously the customized desktop computer setup I described earlier in this article will form part of this professional home setup.
I would not recommend using a basic computer with this type of setup, as the demands from the inputs of the audio interface as well as the DAW software, will be demanding on both your processor and system memory and you will need the the maximum amount of power to process the input signals. (Especially if you are receiving multiple signals from your audio interface.)
On the plus side, by the time you are building this more advanced professional home studio, you most probably already have your computer set up, and integrating it with the rest of your system will have minimum cost implications for you.
Well, if your head are spinning right now, I don't blame you. That was a lot to take in and you may have to go through the article a few times to makes sense of everything.
The goal of an article this size, is to provide you with as much information as possible to help you make an informed decision when deciding on how to start or upgrade you home recording studio.
You might have noticed that I focused primarily on audio hardware in this article. Needless to say there many other factors to take into consideration. I already touched on the issue of space, as I feel its too important not to bring it up in this article.
Other important issues include room preparation (acoustics, reverberation and sound deadening in general), DAW software and cabling. Each of these issues can be the topic of another full article, which I will definitely address in future posts. You will probably agree that there is already so much information to digest in this post alone, that adding to it by discussing these topics in detail, will just be too confusing and messy.
Obviously there is no absolute right or wrong way of going about setting up you own home audio recording studio, and some of the information in this post is based on personal opinion. I hope at the very least it cleared up some confusion you may have and provided you with more direction when it comes to making your decisions.
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or questions you may have. Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
Until next time, happy recording and enjoy the journey.