Your home studio assembly is underway! You’ve sifted through dozens of online forums, chats, and videos, trying to figure out exactly what you need. Your mind is buzzing with words like DAWs, preamps, compressors, you name it, but at the end of the day, you just want the essentials. You’re working on a budget and want to know exactly which equipment to not cheap-out on.
Some might say the DAW is most important, or the audio interface. While these are necessities in your studio, there are many affordable (and sometimes free) options that essentially all do the same thing; the price tag here only jumps up based on convenience and some fancy features that aren’t necessary to make a great sounding record. You can read more about DAWs, audio interfaces, and computers in this article (link to Connect This With That article).
No, it comes down to two pieces of equipment in your home studio that deserve investment for high quality recordings: your monitoring system (headphones, speakers) and your microphone(s). These control how you hear your work and how the sound that you make is recorded.
So let’s jump into it…
Your Monitoring System
How do you know how great (or poor) your music sounds if you don’t hear an accurate and honest representation of your work? Simply put, a poor monitoring system causes you to work blindly – it’s that essential. Consumer headphones or hi-fi speakers won’t cut it here – they reproduce sound with enhanced high and low frequencies, which gives an inaccurate representation of your work. A studio monitoring system is designed to deliver a flat and honest sound.
Your monitoring system can be two things: headphones or studio monitors/speakers. Both are important, but each have advantages over the other depending on your application.
If your room is acoustically untreated, or full of empty walls that may reflect sounds in an unideal way, then a quality pair of headphones is the best investment for you. These come in two models:
- Closed-Back. These headphones are perfect for compete isolation, making them an ideal choice for recording/tracking by eliminating any outside noise or any bleed from your headphones to your microphone. If your main monitoring need is for tracking/recording, then this is generally the choice for you. A popular option is the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x (Amazon).
- Open-Back. If you’re looking to mix with your headphones, then the open-back model is a great choice. This design provides a more natural and open sound, mimicking a studio monitor concept. The AKG K 240 is a great choice for this model (Amazon).
If your room is acoustically treated, then studio monitors are an essential investment for quality audio playback. Monitors help create a stereo field for your sound, which essentially allows you to place sounds more accurately over a full frequency and stereo range. For mixing purposes, this is especially helpful. Monitors also come in different sizes. In general, smaller monitors reproduce high frequencies better and larger monitors cover low frequencies effectively. More importantly, the size of your monitor must correspond to the size of your room – big monitors in a small room are just unhelpful. Truthfully, any studio monitor pair with a flat frequency response is a good choice – differences in brands and models are a matter of preference. Choose a good pair and learn how they work. Study how they reproduce your sound. A very popular monitor choice is the Yamaha HS series, known for its extremely flat response (Amazon).
No matter which monitoring system you choose, always check your work on different audio systems like your phone, a car sound system, and other headphones/speakers. This is the best way to hear your recording in a variety of environments and puts yourself in the shoes of your listeners.
You’ve heard it said before: you can’t polish a turd. No matter how much mixing and editing you do, if the quality of your recording is poor, then your finished product will be too. The key to a great sounding song is capturing a quality recording – it needs to sound excellent right from the beginning. That’s the job of your microphone.
So, which microphone is right for you? It all depends on your application. An acoustic guitarist may need a different microphone than that used to mic a guitar amp for a metal record, and the microphone for a snare drum may be different than the microphone for a rapper. It’s easy to see why large commercial studios have so many microphones… the applications are endless. But you’re here for the essentials. While there are many types of microphones and microphone applications, the most common microphones, the essential microphones, are condenser and dynamic microphones.
- Condenser Microphones. Condenser microphones are a go-to in many studio recordings. They’re characterized by their sensitive response and ability to effectively record a full frequency range, making them popular for vocals, piano, and acoustic instruments. You’ll find both large diaphragm and small diaphragm condenser microphones – the small diaphragm option is specialized for high frequency details. The large diaphragm condenser microphone is the go-to general studio microphone – this will cover most of your instrument recording and is the standard microphone of choice for recording vocals. Arguably one of the most popular first large diaphragm condenser microphones for studio owners is the Rode NT1-A (Amazon).
- Dynamic Microphones. Often seen as “workhorse mics”, dynamic microphones are more rugged than condenser microphones. While they capture less detail in recording, they are perfect for handling high volume sources like drums, guitar/bass cabinets, or rock vocals. The famous Shure SM57 or SM58 (Amazon, Amazon) are clear choices in this category.
A microphone on its own won’t do any good… essential add-ons for your microphone include the following:
- Pop Filter. This is a must have for recording vocals, especially rappers. It is a filter placed in front of your microphone that eliminates the plosive sounds, or harsh consonants, from your recording.
- Microphone Mount. Many microphones come with a mount, but for large diaphragm condensers, it is worth investing in an elastic shock mount; this isolates your microphone from any external vibrations that can affect your recording.
- Microphone Stand. Consider the height requirements for your recording needs when picking a stand. Boom stands, or stands with an extendable arm, are great choices for flexibility in positioning your microphone.
- XLR Cables. All you need is one to start – look for a cable that is at least 25 ft long for versatility and ease of positioning.
When choosing to invest in a microphone, it’s important to consider two factors: the genre of music that you want to record and the instrument/voice that is being recorded. Having a condenser and a dynamic microphone will cover almost all of these recording factors effectively – they are the studio essentials. Microphones can be thought of like camera lenses; while you can use any lens for a shot, only the right lens will truly capture the moment. It is worth investing in a quality microphone to effectively capture your recording moment.