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How to Build a Versatile Home Studio for $537

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It's easy to overspend when you start building a home studio. You start looking at reviews online, reading online forums and suddenly start doubting your initial decisions. The $200 USB interface you were initially hoping to purchase is now a $500 interface.

This is the problem with forums like GearSlutz—they completely underestimate the value of skill. When you get to a professional level, of course gear is important. But the best studio in the world will still produce amateur mixes if you don't know how to use it.

Focusing your time and money on developing your skills is a much faster way to improve your mixes. Start with the key home studio essentials and focus on practice and self development—instead of gear and plugins.

After working with thousands of musicians and engineers, this is one of the main reasons why people give up or fail.

In this guide, you'll learn the basic items you do need to produce professional mixes at home. With these items alone, costing under $500 in total, you will have the ability to put out records that wouldn't sound out of place on the radio.

You'll be able to do it by learning the gear, a DAW, and the stock plugins inside out.

USB Audio Interface—The Hub of a Studio

USB Audio Interface
Focusrite interfaces (from wikimedia)

Assuming you already have a laptop or computer to work with, the first item you'll need is an audio interface. This is the piece of equipment that allows you to record audio onto a computer. This is where you plugin in a microphone.

Different connections are available but I recommend starting with USB—I have never had any issues. 

As with most of the equipment on this list, affordable gear is now extremely powerful. The Focusrite 2i2, for example, only costs $150—yet it looks great, sounds great, and is an absolute pleasure to use.

If you're looking around at other USB audio interfaces, ensure you've the following as a minimum:

  • Two XLR inputs
  • Phantom power
  • Powered headphone output
  • Balanced stereo XLR or jack outputs for monitor speakers
  • Direct monitoring switch
  • Instrument input switch

These are all incredibly useful things to have. Many affordable USB interfaces provide all of these features.

Two Microphones—Condenser and Dynamic

Condenser microphone
Condenser microphone

Now you need something to record with. I recommend starting out with one of each mic type, both with a cardioid pattern. 

Having both a condenser and a dynamic gives you more options for recording and getting different tones. Making sure they are both cardioid pattern means your less-than-ideal room won't have a negative impact on your home recordings.

Start with a good large diaphragm condenser, like the Rode AT2020, only $99. This type of microphone is ideal for recording vocals, acoustic guitar, drums and over acoustic instruments.

After that, grab a solid dynamic mic, like the AKG D5, also just $99. I prefer this mic to the far more popular Shure SM58. This will be ideal for vocals too (test both mics and see which sounds best), guitar amps, percussion and more. Dynamic microphones will pick up less of your room, so are super useful in environments with poor acoustics.

Accessories for a Studio

This is the boring bit. Once you have some mics you will need the appropriate accessories to use them.

When purchasing accessories I opt for mid-range items. Cheap stuff never last long and the expensive stuff isn't worth the cost. Mid-range items, though, costs less and will still last.

For around $30 you should be able to acquire the following essentials:

  • 2 mic stands
  • Pop shield
  • 2 mic cables

Mic stands and cables are essential, and a pop shield will stop your from ruing your vocal recordings with plosives. As with everything on this list, consider purchasing these items second hand if the budget is tight.

Recording Software and Finding a DAW

People obsess over this step. You could spend months deciding which DAW to use. That's wasted time that could be spent recording, mixing and creating music.

I recommend starting with Reaper. They have an unlimited free trial, and it's only $60 to purchase afterwards. You get everything you need, and in many ways Reaper is more powerful than most other DAWs.

There is, however, a steeper learning curve than most other DAWs and it isn't the most visually appealing software. If time is more valuable than money to you, go for Logic Pro if you are on Mac or Studio One for Windows.

Mixing with Headphones

A pair of headphones
A pair of headphones

You have everything you need now to start recording and creating awesome tracks. You also need to consider mixing.

Before you invest in a good pair of studio monitors take the time to learn how to mix on headphones. This way, you don't have to worry about the acoustics in your home studio as much. This will be vital later, but you have enough on your plate for now.

When it comes to headphones the important thing is to stick to one pair and learn them. Learn how they sound. Mix on them all the time. Use reference tracks when mixing—pull in a professional track and compare it to your mix.

I have been using the Sony MDR7506 headphones for years, and couldn't recommend them more. They cost $99, and will last ages.

Putting It All Together

Here is a complete list of the items I recommend starting with in your home studio:

  • Focusrite 2i2—$150
  • AKG D5—$99
  • AT2020—$99
  • Accessories—$30
  • Reaper—$60
  • MDR7506 Headphones—$99

With these items alone, and some creativity, you could produce mixes worthy of radio play.

Focus on removing your room from the equation as much as possible—this is your main obstacle when recording at home.

Don't spend money on plugins, either. The stock plugins that come with Reaper or any other DAW are more than sufficient for producing studio-level mixes. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

If money is tight, you can cut costs by only purchasing one microphone, or using a free DAW. You could also use cheaper headphones like the Samson SR850's.

Now, go and make music!

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