An absolute newbie’s guide on how to set up your first recording studio.
DAWs. Soundcards. Monitors. Speakers. FruityLogicProCubase Tools…to someone brand spanking new to music and audio recording, it’s an intimidating mess of words and acronyms that probably doesn’t make much sense. What you want to do is just “begin” making and recording a hit track. But between you and your dream is what appears to be a massive mountain of software, hardware, wires, and plugs. And if you’re like most folks new to home recording, trying to conceptualize how it all fits together most likely makes your brain go numb.
TV and our own imaginations have trained us to imagine legit recording studios as being fabric-draped rooms built around a huge mixing board with knobs and sliders, a beautiful looking microphone behind a glass window with a bright “Recording!” sign flashing over the studio entrance.
In reality, though, technology has changed what it really takes to get our music and creativity within realistic reach. In today’s world, a home recording studio is a powerful and *highly* accessible tool that virtually anyone with a few simple accessories can put together at the basic level.
The step by step below is meant to give you a thousand foot view of what you’ll need to get started. It is by no means the only way to get a reliable recording set up in your home; the configurations and equipment out there are virtually endless in terms of size and budget (even that iPhone in your pocket is a mini-recording studio). This list, however, is meant for anyone who just wants a few hints and pointers towards navigating the labyrinth of recording tech. By the time you’re through this article, you should have a sense of what you’ll need and where you want to put your money. Everything on this list is necessary, but we’ll order it in terms of priority.
Computer: Be it a laptop, a desktop, an iPad or other, the machine you go with will determine almost every other component on the rest of this list.
The computer you decide to settle on needs to fit your requirements – are you going to be traveling and recording? Are you planning on capturing audio outdoors? Or do you want a traditional, stationary setup where you can clunk down behind massive screens and work away?
Whatever you pick – don’t underestimate the decision. You want a machine that is going to be powerful and has a ton of memory, or at least the option to expand both. Music files and audio take up a ton of space on your computer, so it’s always safe to go a little extra here in terms of budget. Secondly, going down the route of a Mac or a PC has it’s own set of rules – neither is right or wrong and you’ll be safe either way as both these worlds have millions of fans – and support – on either side.
Software: So remember that picture we had in our minds of sliders and knobs? That’s where we’re at now. The software you run *is* your recording studio in a box. It’s where you’ll get to record tracks, stack them, apply effects like echoes and delays and reverbs. It’s where you, as a producer and audio creator, will most likely be spending the majority of your hours. There was a time where you had only a handful of options, but now, there are virtually hundreds of options to choose from.
For Mac users, Logic Pro X and Garageband are standard go-to options. Garageband typically comes preloaded on most Mac devices (including iPads) and is a great entry-level option before graduating to Logic Pro X. For PC users, the library of choices is even more expansive. Cubase, Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason are just a few of the many available options.
Some industry standards, like Pro-Tools, play on both systems and come either as a subscription-based purchase (you pay monthly to use it) or as a perpetual (permanent) purchase/download. Each software, in essence, acts the same way and allows you to create music in layers – what the cost comes down to are the features, the support, and the ease of use. For many creators, the high-end options aren’t all that necessary at first, but as you become more accustomed to the process, you may find yourself wanting to upgrade. For now, pick one that works with your system and fits in your budget. Buy it, load it, and let’s move to the next step…
Soundcard: Once you’ve decided on your main computer and software, the next critical purchase will be your soundcard. The soundcard is a beautiful thing and one of the most important parts of this setup. It’s basically a piece of equipment (usually a box about the size of a medium book) that lets your computer “talk” with all the other equipment. This is where you’ll be plugging in your mic, your keyboard, your guitar, your speakers, and/or your headphones.
But…but… your laptop already has a tiny headphone jack, right? Yea…no…that’s not going to cut it. Think of the soundcard as that tiny laptop headphone jack on steroids. Based on the machine you chose in Step 1, you’ll need to buy a compatible soundcard. The soundcard will then connect to your computer either through a USB, FireWire, or other connection point, based on the machine you’re using.
You’ll see a variety of these boasting things like low latency (that’s how fast your computer can interact with all these things we’re plugging in – the lower, the better), the number of inputs (how many instruments and mics do you want to connect at once), and a bunch of other features. In the end, pick out the one based on your budget and what you will likely be recording.