Looking to upgrade your home studio but don’t have big bucks to spend? How about some inexpensive upgrades that will take your productions to the next higher level than where you are now? Read on for seven essential add-ons that will provide quantifiable results without breaking the bank!
What we don’t include
This article assumes that you already have the basics covered: an audio interface, a set of computer speakers, a MIDI controller keyboard, etc. We don’t include mixers, outboard gear, and the like because they are pretty complex pieces that deserve more in-depth detail than we can provide in this article.
We also don’t cover soundproofing, which–although essential–is simply too broad a subject to cover in this particular guide.
Instead, this article offers a list of fairly affordable items that will enhance your workflow and make a marked improvement in the quality of your productions. Add these items to your setup as your budget allows, and you will almost certainly see some progress in your mixes and recordings.
1. Second hard drive
A secondary hard drive is one of the cheapest and most useful additions to a computer music setup.
If you are just starting out, you probably have all your project files, sample libraries, and rendered audio living in a single drive. Chances are, this is the sole internal drive that came with your computer–the same one where your operating system and music software reside.
Having all your user-generated files–your songs, samples, etc.–in the same drive as everything else isn’t exactly ideal. Over time, this drive fills up with more files, along with orphaned data chunks, bloatware, and even malware. This can cause read/write access to slow down considerably, negatively affecting your computer’s performance.
Furthermore, having all your files in a single drive means that you lose everything if the drive malfunctions. The solution? Install a secondary hard drive.
Storing all your user-generated files on a secondary drive prevents them from bogging down your primary hard drive. It also ensures that your files are safe even if the primary drive goes down, not to mention makes it easier to back them up to yet another drive.
Running your audio tracks and large sample libraries from a newer drive will also improve read/write times, which will speed up your workflow.
An external 2 TB drive will provide sufficient space for all your project files (current and archived), audio tracks, sample libraries, and more. A USB 3 drive is preferable for future-proofing purposes, but you need to make sure that you have the necessary port on your computer.
2. Powered USB hub
Speaking of ports, you probably already have plenty of devices plugged into the USB ports on your computer. Between your mouse and keyboard, MIDI controllers, and audio interface, you probably don’t have any ports left for anything else. If so, consider picking up a powered USB hub or two.
USB hubs are essentially port expansions that let you plug in more devices in a single port. If your computer only has three or four USB ports, for example, having a USB hub enables you to connect way more than four devices.
Keep in mind that USB ports can only handle so much data. You can’t plugin in a couple of external drives, an audio interface, and a MIDI controller and expect them to play nice together. With so much information passing through, the data stream will quickly get clogged up, leading to dropped notes, corrupted data, and audio glitches.
If possible, always plug resource-intensive devices such as hard drives and audio interfaces directly to a dedicated USB port. Use your USB hub for less demanding devices such as your mouse and keyboard.
It is also best to go for a powered USB hub that plugs into a mains electrical outlet. Most hubs will draw power from the USB port they are plugged into.
But sharing power between several devices may result in impaired performance and place a higher demand on your computer. By plugging the hub into an outlet, it will be better able to run several devices simultaneously.
3. Power conditioner/surge protector
As your studio grows, so will your list of studio equipment. Over time, you will place more and more demand on your electrical system, which may not be able to keep up. This can cause problems ranging from electrical interference and signal noise to equipment malfunctions.
Short of rewiring your entire studio (which is the last recourse if nothing else works), you can solve many of these issues by using a power conditioner. These are rack-mounted devices that normalize electrical power by reducing spikes and dips. Your equipment then receives clean and stable electricity, which minimizes line noise and allows all your gear to perform at their best.
Many power conditioners include surge protection circuitry that protects your devices from power surges that can fry delicate components. If you want to ensure your equipment’s ability to provide years of reliable service, a power conditioner/surge protector is a worthwhile investment.
4. Soundproofing blankets
As we mentioned earlier, soundproofing is an intensive and complex undertaking, the details of which are well beyond the scope of this article. It can also be costly, which means few beginner music producers can afford to get it done.
But you do have options for minimizing sound escaping from your studio, as well as noise coming from outside. Soundproof blankets are a suitable alternative, and some of the best can cut down noise leakage surprisingly well.
Soundproof blankets or curtains are designed for installation over problem areas where sound typically passes through. Place them over your doors and windows, and you can reduce noise transference to a considerable degree.
Of course, soundproofing blankets aren’t a replacement for proper soundproofing. If you are ready to take your studio to the next level, more intensive soundproofing is the way to go. But if you are on a tight budget (as most home studio owners are), they can be a feasible solution for keeping sound contained or preventing external noise from coming in and ruining a great take.
5. Monitor speakers
If you’re still mixing on your old hi-fi or computer gaming speakers, consider moving up to a pair of studio monitor speakers. Although most consumer speakers are fine for casual music listening, watching videos, and gaming, they probably aren’t suitable for mixing and serious music production.
The reason? Most consumer speakers hype up the bass and treble frequencies, making tunes sound bigger and more impressive. But as flattering as they may be, those speakers won’t be doing your mixing and productions any favors.
Mixes done on consumer speakers will likely sound dull and lack bottom end when played on other speakers. Your music may also sound mushy and ill-defined, and the balance between the different elements may be off.
Studio monitor speakers will allow you to make mixes that translate well across a wider variety of speaker systems and playback devices. Although their neutral character won’t make music sound all that impressive, the more balanced and accurate reproduction will help you improve your mixing and production skills.
6. Studio headphones
Monitor speakers are essential for getting an accurate and balanced mix. Even so, it is still a good idea to get a good pair of studio headphones for critical listening and mixing.
Headphones will reveal details that most speakers won’t. Many producers use headphones for tweaking high end detail and tuning bass elements for the desired harmonic relationship and maximum punch.
Headphones are also useful for sound staging (the placement of individual elements within a 3-D space) and stereo imaging (the placement of specific elements along a left-right axis).
Some producers rely solely on headphones for their mixing and production work. Headphones can be handy for small studios that don’t have acoustic treatment. With headphones, you get a more accurate representation of your mixes without bass buildup and standing reflections getting in the way.
Even so, studio headphones won’t take the place of a good set of monitor speakers. For best results, get the ‘bones’ of the mix together with your speakers and use the headphones as an alternative reference and for tweaking the finer details.
7. Mic preamp
If you’ve just started on your music production journey, you probably plug your microphones directly into your audio interface, many of which have built-in preamps. Or if you have a mixer, you might plug into its onboard preamps.
Mixer and audio interface preamps work well for the most part and will be adequate for demos and less-demanding projects. But if you want to improve the quality of your recordings, it is worth stepping up to pro-level mic preamps.
Professional mic preamps usually have higher-grade components than those on your mixer or audio interface. They allow you to get clearer and more accurate signals into your audio interface, translating into higher quality recordings.
Some mic preamps–particularly tube models–even impart a desirable warmth and analog-like character to your recordings. If you find that the preamps on your mixer and audio interface are a bit too clean and clinical-sounding, a good vintage-style tube preamp could be just what you need for that extra ‘vibe’.
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of everything you need to bring your studio setup to the Big Leagues. There are many other things you can add that will enhance your workflow, speed up the creative process, and improve your productions. In fact, most music producers will agree that upgrading the studio is a never-ending process.
That being said, we feel that what we’ve given you is a fairly concise and comprehensive list of essential studio add-ons that will have a tangible effect on your productivity and the quality of your work. With the items listed above, you will have the makings of a pretty capable and inspiring music production studio.