A decade ago, it was almost impossible to produce your own music to any level of quality unless you owned – or had access to a professional recording studio.
Today you can create your own Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) with a computer, software, and a few peripherals. This is our recording DIY introduction our Beginners Guide to Music Production
These are the products that will get you up and running.
The most important element to your studio is a computer. It can be a desktop PC or a laptop, and should have at least a modern dual core processor and 4GB of memory inside or better. The faster, the better. At today’s standards most people have a computer powerful enough, but if not, there are plenty to choose from in the mid-to-high end range. The serious DAW has a dedicated computer, that’s not cluttered with games and other unrelated applications. It is also important to have multiple hard drives. One for the system software and another to save your projects to. If you use a lot of ‘soft synths’ (software instruments), then a third hard drive is good to store the sound data used by these programs. If you’re using a laptop, you will require external hard drives. Make certain these drive use fast connections, such as Thunderbolt, USB3 or FireWire 800.
Music production software is what acts as your virtual studio – Multi track recorder, MIDI sequencer and mixing board. It allows you to record, program, adjust levels, layer, and edit tracks. Some computers, like Macs, come with music production software right out of the box. But in most cases, you’ll need to purchase it separately. Entry-level software is a great introduction to the world of audio production, but as you progress, an upgrade to something more advanced will allow you to do more. For example, Garage Band (for Mac only) is a great piece of software to show you the basics of recording and production. But for extended functionality, you’ll want to go with something more advanced. There is a lot of different software to choose from, and often the differences are quite subtle. Do a bit of research to find out which application will suit your needs best.
A MIDI controller is a piece of hardware that typically connects to your computer via USB, allowing you to record ‘performance information’ such as a piano part or drum pattern, and even to tweak effects and other parameters in real time. MIDI is simply information. As a user you can send that information to MIDI capable applications. For example, you could play a song on a MIDI keyboard and send that information to a ‘piano’ soft synth. Because MIDI is simply information, you could later decide to send that same performance to an organ soft synth… or glockenspiel! You can speed it up, slow it down, edit it… Think of MIDI like sheet music that you could put in front of different musicians, and transpose, comment, edit and more.
Most MIDI controllers are plug-and-play, meaning you simply plug it in and you’re good to go. Ensure the MIDI controller you purchase is compatible with the software you’re using. Some controllers include fully compatible software in the box.
MIDI Controllers come in all shapes and sizes. From 25 note compact keyboards, to 88 note weighted pianos. Some have extra knobs, sliders and ribbons that can be used to control other parameters in your software. Some MIDI controllers are designed to interact with your DAW’s transport (play, stop, record) and mixer so you can record and mix without having to reply solely on your mouse!
An audio interface is used to record live audio, such as vocals, guitars and drums, as well as play back the audio from your DAW, which includes soft synths, through your speakers and headphones. Audio interfaces often connect via USB, FireWire or thunderbolt, although some have to be physically installed in your computer’s PCIe slot. So always check that you computer has the required connections.
Entry level interfaces usually come with one of two inputs, which allow you to record up to a single stereo track at a time. Higher-end ones have lots of inputs so you can record multiple tracks simultaneously. Multi-input interfaces are important if you want to mic an entire set of drums or any number of sounds all together like recording a band live.
A mic is an essential tool to have in your home studio. It lets you record vocals, drums, random sounds and even more cowbell! Not all microphones are built for the same purpose, and the quality of their abilities varies. But if you’re just getting started, a standard dynamic microphone – like the ones used in live performances – should do the trick.
If you’re going to record vocals, or any instrument with a subtle, nuanced sound, consider getting a condenser microphone. They are extremely sensitive and pick up the sound in more detail. Because of their increased sensitivity, your recording environment has to be absolutely silent except for the sound you’re recording.
In recent years, ribbon microphones have also gained popularity in home studios as manufacturing cost have come down. Ribbon mics capture a similar level of detail to condenser mics, however they generally have a darker, more natural tone. Condenser mics typically have an excited top end (treble), which is why they are great for vocals.
All-In-One MIDI Controller and Audio Interface
These devices combine both an audio interface and a MIDI controller into a single unit, which helps reduce the footprint on your workspace and the number of cables you’re using. This streamlines much of the functionality that you receive from both, and makes your setup more mobile. This can be handy if you ever want to take your setup down to a rehearsal, or away on holiday!
Audio Interface with Effects
The main function of an audio interface is to connect your analogue devices such as a microphone, guitar, headphones, speakers etc. Some interfaces have built in effects, such as guitar amp modelling, reverbs, echoes and more, that allow you to record the effect straight into your project.
This can be handy because you can hear the effects as you record. Often adding the effect in your DAW while you record can result in latency, which is basically the time it take the computer’s CPU to process the sound. This latency can make it very difficult to perform, as the sound is sometimes delayed so much that you hear it a second or so after playing it. By using an interface with the effects built in, there is no latency.
Monitors and Power Amp
‘Monitors’, is another word for speakers. Your laptop or computer’s speakers will give you a decent idea of what your tunes sound like. However, for quality playback you’ll need a pair of studio monitors. Monitors can be active or passive. Active, or ‘powered’ monitors, have amplifiers built into the speaker box, and these amps are specifically tuned to the speakers. Passive monitors have no amp, hence ‘passive’. Passive monitors require a separate power amp.
Monitors come in all shapes, sizes and price points… From a few hundred dollars, to $100k+! Whether monitors are active or passive is less important than what they sound like. However, it’s often neater to use active monitors because you don’t have to find more room for a power amp… and they are more portable!
When choosing a set of monitors, it’s best to audition them by listening to different songs that you are very familiar with. Listen to multiple sets in the same showroom, at different volumes.
Work Station and Mic Stands
To be well organised, a workstation (desk) with multiple tiers will provide room for the gear you need to work with. It will let you position everything in a way that’s clutter free and easy to reach. There are a number of these on the market purpose built for a DAW. Often they have built in racks, that are a standardised size for pro audio gear.
A mic stand is essential for recording from a mic, as the movement from simply holding a mic can cause a deviation in sound, as well as excess noise.
Monitors are a great way to hear everything the way it is meant to be listened to, but, if you’re up late, or want to hear detail in a noisy environment, investing in a decent set of over-the-ear headphones is a good idea. Headphones will also give you a better representation of the stereo image of you mix. That is, where sounds are placed in regards to left/right speakers. When listening through your monitors, an asymmetrical room will skew your stereo image. For example, if your workstation is setup in the corner next to a wall on the right, the sound will bounce off that wall faster than the wall of the left, and give you a false stereo image. Headphones are unaffected by the room.
Headphones can be open, closed and semi open. This refers to how much sound spill is created by the headphones. For recording, it is best to use ‘closed’ headphones, as you can turn them up, with less sound leakage (spill) into the microphone. However, for mixing, open headphones provide a more accurate listening experience – but create more spill. For a home studios, semi-open or closed headphones are a good, versatile choice.
What cables you need really depends on what kind of gear you have. Different items, brands and models use different methods of connecting. These can include MIDI cables, USB cables, MIDI-to-USB cables, FireWire, and of course, your standard patch cable. Check the inputs and outputs on your equipment to determine which cables you need to purchase. Low quality cables affect the signal from the device – buy good quality cables, as they carry the sounds you are trying to capture!