Set Up A Home Recording Studio For Under $1,000

Making music on your computer is easy, but recording it in decent quality can be more challenging. Here's one music expert's take on how to get the equipment you need without spending a fortune.

Picture by biladay

While you can just record yourself strumming a guitar directly into a notebook PC, the quality is going to be pretty awful. If you aspire to anything more than knocking out the occasional riff on GarageBand, then investing in some basic equipment can make a huge difference.

This is based on the recommended setup list from Melbourne music consultant Benjamin Last, from a presentation he gave at the Australian International Music Show last weekend. For every option, there's a suggested amount to spend: you can always spend more, but investing the effort in learning to use the equipment you have is likely to be a better choice than spending massive amounts up front for what will almost certainly be a hobby. "What I like to see is people being able to write really great music with the most basic equipment," Last said.

This list presumes that you've already got a computer and some form of software for recording audio onto it (Audacity is always an option if you don't want to spend any money on the latter). While many musicians favour the Mac, Last argues that it doesn't matter whether you go Windows or Mac as long as you're comfortable with the system.

Audio Interface: $250. While you can pump basic audio into your PC directly via the sound card, an audio interface will give you far more options for feeding in multiple sources of audio, including the microphone and MIDI keyboard further down this list. You don't necessarily need a hugely complex design; something with a mass of mixing options onboard is likely to be more confusing than helpful. You can choose between either USB or FireWire interfaces; for the most part, USB is fast enough. If you do choose FireWire, make sure you test the equipment with your PC before purchase, as compatibility issues can arise.

Microphone: $150. Last recommends a large diaphragm condenser microphone (rather than the more familiar and cheaper concert-style mic) for better quality. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a microphone, but it won't necessarily make much difference when you're using basic equipment.

MIDI Keyboard: $150. The easiest way to add a variety of instrumental effects to your tracks is via a MIDI keyboard and appropriate software.

Speakers: $200. At a pinch, you can use simple cheap speakers like the ones that come with many PCs. Spending a little on separate speakers will give you a better idea of the quality of your recorded sounds, but this is one area where you could definitely skimp if the budget is tight.

Headphones: $100. The key use for headphones is so that you can listen to guide tracks when recording your vocals — as such, you want a pair with decent coverage so sound doesn't leak into the microphone.

Shock Mounts & Popper Stoppers: $120. Both will make a big difference to the overall quality of sound you record.

Accessories: $30. You'll inevitably need a few adapters and bits of cabling.

Got your own home recording tips for saving money? Share them in the comments.

Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


Comments

    A great audio interface is Apogee's One or Duet! You can pick up a ONE off ebay for about $180 and is a USB interface! The Duet is amazing and also includes firewire and more inputs but costs around the $500 mark! I use the ONE and its amazing. both mac and windows compatible!

      Apogee's One and Duet are not compatible with Windows, they are Mac only.

    One thing to be aware of is that Windows 7 has broken the software required for usb audio interfaces to have live loopback.

    If you want a sound studio stick with XP

      Just like to say that I experienced this problem when I first upgraded to Windows 7. Don't know if it will be the same for you but if you delve into the audio settings (there are alot more in Win7) you should find a nice little tick box to enable this.

      I've been using Windows 7 with a USB audio interface and loopback for 6 months now without issue.

      If not, perhaps your audio interface drivers need updating.

      Maybe.

    use Audacity... it's free, and it is great. the only downsides are the ugly interface (very plain but set out well) and there isn't effects in it. if you want better effects but a mutli-FX processor. and if u dont care about eyecandy then use Audacity. I have broguht reaper energy X2 and other one you need to buy and audacity is just as good. if not better!

      Audacity has hundreds of special effects in three menu-- Generate, Effects, and Analyze. Not sure how you missed them.

      Audacity does not support MIDI. Think of t as an excellent multi-track WAV editor that exports to virtually any audio file format and quality level.

      Linux is a killer audio production platform. Try Ardour for high-end multi-track production and MIDI support.

    A more sophisticated program is 'Reaper'. It's tiny, does what most of the big guns do,(Cubase, ProTools etc) and, despite the evaluation license being for thirty days, is not disabled in any way once you're past the evaluation period.
    I find it to be amazingly detailed, very customisable, and has some very nice sounding effects such as reverb and delay.
    Available for Mac and PC.
    Check the site here...
    http://www.reaper.fm/

    I started out with a very modest recording setup for my wife who is a singer, Our first home recorded cd used a Soundblaster Live with customer drivers and the lite version of Cubase and a cheap Behringer condenser mic & mixed entirely on Headphones. From there we've blown out to a full home studio gig with KrK monitors, Presonus StudioLive mixer & Rode mics. (Just name dropping to give some people ideas of good quality equipment on a budget).

    Definitely look at Reaper (www.reaper.fm) for your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software its coded by Justin Frankel of Winamp fame and with most of the features of pro software and more its a steal at ~$40US for non professionals. It has a big future IMO.

    And budget WAAAAY more than $30 for cables!

    if youre a beginner, step 1, dont get a pc.
    macs come with garageband and it is very good
    and when you one day want to step up, the mac platform allows you to go all ways, including the natural progression to logic studio, or if you wish, pro tools...
    buying a pc means youll have to spend more money on a beginner DAW software (and there not many that are good and free...no where near as good as garageband anyway)

    audacity is a good editor, but its a pain in the ass for making a song. its not loop based which makes such basic tasks like dragging and pasting in time very difficult.

      Wrong about the Mac. PC these days are just as good or better than a Mac if you have it built by someone who knows what they are doing. A professional built computer for recording is good either in PC or Mac. So buy what you want and like.

    I have my own ProTools Studio and would highly advise anyone into recording but not wanting to spend big bucks to avoid it. Instead check out Reaper which i see as the future of recording. Protools is full of errors due to a crappy "build on top of" software mentality and the only reason i would say to go for it is if you need to share sessions with others.

    As usual, the most important aspect of recording is overlooked- room acoustics. Software/hardware means nothing if you are recording in a bathroom.

    The difference between a condenser and dynamic mic should be explained, this is confusing for the beginner. I don't know if $200 for any speaker would be considered 'studio'. That's more a set of PC speakers.

    Misleading article for beginners.

      I agree with you Ben, that microphones and acoustics are vital, but I think the most important thing is talent. If you are serious about having a great recording book yourself some studio time. If you want to do this as a hobby get ready to shell out more than $1000. Good gear isn't cheap and DAW's and plug-ins like a lot of processing power. If you just want to mess around, get yourself an iPod touch and a couple of killer apps.

      Again funny comment here. This one telling you to avoid Peo-tools? Ha that is funny as hell. Protools is the king of recording software and based on all the other tips here with equipment I can see why you would not want it. Anything cheap and crappy is what I am seeing here. people who are more interested in saving money than getting a good recording. Protools does more than you will ever need and probably why this guy is saying not to use it. To much for him. This is really funny reading this. You guys are joking right? You don't think that using cheap equipment and not knowing what your doing is really going to give you a good recording do you? Oh My God.

    I have the opposite view of David, I have a small Pro Tools setup, and I absolutely love it and would recommend it to anyone. I'm using Pro Tools M-Powered with a Delta 1010LT interface- works out to about $500, but there are some cheaper ways to get into it. I've seen bundles of M-Powered with a USB condenser mic for $99. I haven't run into the errors that David mentioned (not saying they don't exist, I just haven't encountered them), and the tools and options available have made cranking out really polished, professional sound pretty easy.

    One thing that a lot of people haven't mentioned is using Linux. Much more of the software is free, including a pretty good MIDI sequencer (Rosegarden) and recording software (Audacity or Ardour, for more advanced stuff), at least that is the talk. The one problem is that the learning curve is steeper, and you may have to hunt for drivers. However, if you are willing to do a little extra work, you can get a much more advanced system going for much less because the software is free and the computing hardware is cheaper than a Mac.

    I also recommend Reaper DAW home recording software. It is fairly easy to use and has a very deep feature set and a good set of vst plugins. I'm using Win-XP, Behringer dynamic mics & booms, and a Line6-UX1 USB audio interface. For speakers, I use a pair of Yamaha NS-6490 with 8" woofers, which are excellent for the money. Appreciate the article...

    Dear me, Dear me, you do have expensive tastes.

    For the last ten years we have been working on a talking dictionary for the Mikmaq language. Mikmaq is a language spoken in the Maritimes of Canada.

    We started with: Cool Edit, shareware since purchased by Adobe; a dynamic mike; a stocking wrapped around a needpoint frame as a pop shield and the microphone strapped to adjustable arm lamp. The first computer was a 386 with a 8 bit sound care that had a parrot with a bizarre accent as the demo program.

    The audio equipment has become less expensive as it is built into the motherboard. If you going use voice. as in singing, a condenser mike is a definite no no. A dynamic attached to a sub $100.00 mixer is the way to go.

    Audacity is ok. The important thing is to set your baseline in sampling rates, channels and resolutions. You want to make sure that what sounds good today, sounds good in a decade.

      Hi Sean-

      I would have to respectfully disagree about Condenser Mics being a no no.

      I've been in audio for over a decade and recorded in many studios across the U.S and Canada. I honestly have never seen anyone use a Dynamic mic for vocals that are to be recorded for a song. I really haven't. My post is a couple down for this one.

      Can you explain this a bit more?

      Again, I'm not trying to be rude. Over the last year I've noticed an increase in how incredibly mean & angry people can become to one another on sites w/ articles & comment sections. Boggles my mind. Perhaps anonymity leads aids in "cyber-courage."

      Thanks,

      Scott

        Mick Jagger recorded the vocals to Exile on Main Street standing in the control room, playing the recording through the monitors, singing into an SM57.

        In most situations I'm on board with using a condenser mic, but don't ever write something off just because it's not what you usually do--sometimes changing it up brings the best results.

      Hi Wyatt-

      That's a good point. I've also heard that Bono often records w/ a Beta 57. To be honest, the last few sessions I've been recording w/ both a condenser & the 57 (equidistant from the vocalist & into separate pre's ---> the equidistant part's really important, as some may know, to control potential phase issues).

      I think what it comes down to is really what type of vocalist you're recording (tenor, whinny guy who's trying to sound less whiny, etc) and more importantly the stlye you're going for.

      When I heard that about Bono, I started using two mics (condenser & beta 57). It really does give you a very raw & authentic tone- somewhere in between what a live vocal would sound like and a polished condenser-recorded vocal; a polished live vocal, I guess. You can really hear the grit & the angst w/ the 57.

      On the other hand, if you're going purely for the highest fidelity & warmest sound you can get, I'd go w/ a condenser.

      Keep in mind that's just my opinion based on my own experience.

      *TIP- In breakdowns (piano + vocal, guitar + vocal, etc), where the song is often at it's most intimate & the theme is being relived in a very sort of in-your-face fashion, the 57 is GREAT! Even if you've used a condenser for the rest of the song!

      Great comments!

      I've enjoyed these discussions.

      Be Well,

      Scott

    All great advice in the comments above, but I will suggest one thing if you are a guitar oriented musician setting up your studio. I have been using Reaper and much listed above, but also a product from Native Instruments called Guitar Rig. You can plug into a virtual guitar rig that let's you sim everything from Marshall to Roland Jazz amps, tons of effects, pre and post settings, it's really endless. Plus, aside from running the software like normal when playing around with guitar, when it comes time to record, you can pull the full rig up from within Reaper as a plugin! Very awesome tool, and with the mobile USB interface, getting your sounds into the PC is a snap! Thanks ...

      Hey Sword, I have both Reaper and Guitar Rig, how did you get the two to work together? I have a Behringer UCG102 guitar interface(usb), but the two programs just will not play nicely with each other! Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Cheers! My email is [email protected]

    I've had a "home studio" every place I've lived for the past 25 years and worked in audio for over 30. For lo-$$ acoustic treatment, try fiberglass ceiling tiles. I've had good results with 2'x4'. Cover the back('glass-side) with light-weight fabric & then staple them to a wall--fabric side out, so you can do room matching colors or you can staple them to sheets of plywood(I use 3 and sorta splay the sides out a bit so the side walls aren't parallel & it stands on its own) cut to what ever size you need & hinged them together(use loose pin hinges, so you can break it down and store it when not in use), then throw a heavy blanket or comforter over the top for a quick, simple sound-booth. You could also rig up unused boom mic stands with moving blankets. Just "T" the stands and adjust to desired height--even simpler, quicker and cheaper. Good room treatment/isolation can make lo-$$ mics and a 4-trk cassette deck sound pretty good(what I started with).

    If anyone wants to learn more about acoustics and acoustic treatment, check out Auralex.com, they have great info on their website(I think it's auralex university--acoustics 101). They'll even give you a free consult. No, I don't work for them--just good products, if you want to spend the dough and a great source of info about how sound works. Good luck to everyone keepin' it real and alive at home!

    I started my own home studio in college, about 11 years ago, which eventually lead to a record deal, and a whole lot of expensive expansion to this home studio.

    The thing I have learned the most, is the extraordinary importance to not get too carried away with the technology & to focus on your music & writing.

    I'm a writer and I couldn't even begin to count how many times I've made this mistake. Some, if not most, of the greatest songs ever written (slightly subjective topic, ha) were done so without all this new gear (Soundcards, Pro Tools, etc).

    I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to learn, and learn well, how to use what you have. This will allow you to continue to focus on your writing/music and the recording and editing won't be so complex.

    This was mentioned in the article and I didn't really see anyone repeating its importance in the comments section.

    That said, I started with a PC & Sonar. I wouldn't recommended either. Sonar is actually a great program but is a bit complicated for a beginner's setup, in my opinion.

    I know this might not sit well with many folks but I would have to agree with the commenter "p.policar" in that gear wise, first step, get a Mac. Of course Macs are expensive and if you can't afford one now, just be cautious when you're purchasing other things. If you feel like this is something you'd like to continue down the road & are willing to buy a mac when you can, it would be wise not to spend too much money on your DAW software, perhaps the Reaper DAW that everyone's talking about (I've actually never heard of it). This way, you can transfer as much stuff as possible over to your “new” studio on a Mac, later down the road.

    Also, a descent preamp shouldn't cost you more than 200 bucks. This will give a warmer & rounder sound for pretty much anything you're recording (vocals, guitar, percussion, etc). Additionally, this will transfer to any type of computer or DAW as this is outboard gear, not software.

    I would recommend a descent, inexpensive condenser if you plan to record vocals. A Beta 57 is not too bad as well, if you already have one or can't afford a condenser. (Don't forget a windscreen).

    In my opinion, I WOULD NOT buy cables from Monster Cable. The truth is, some cables actually are better than others. The industry standard for cabling comes from a company called Mogami. They are very, very expensive. Monster cables are also expensive (not as much as Mogami), but in my opinion, the payoff is not there. That said, I would avoid HOSA altogether (the lowest of the low end) and go with something like LIVEWIRE which is sold at Guitar Center.

    So, computer, DAW software (Macs come with Garageband & it’s great for beginners), a preamp, a mic (condenser or 57) and some middle of the road cables. LEARN how to use this stuff. Master the DAW to the point where your focus is on your music & writing.

    Sorry for the nove guys. That’s just my 2 cents. I, like everyone else in the industry, run Pro Tools on a mac. I switched over about 7 years ago & have never even considered anything else. One of the commenters mentioned the M-Box Pro Tools stuff- while the software is of course great (keep in mind Pro Tools requires both the software and the hardware) the preamps on the M-Box are horrible, in my opinion….hence the preamp!

    Have fun!

    Scott

    P.S. I know I skipped speakers, headphones, etc...but figured it should be obvious that you're gonna need to have some way to hear what you're doing. Note- computer speakers NOT recommended, at all. Also, a sub may throw you off- remember you're trying to get a true, or flat, mix- so make sure to burn a CD & listen in your car, etc before you post it for friends/the public.

    Oh yeah, room acoustics. There are entire books written on this extremely complex & important topic. All I can say for a beginner is, don't CONTINUE to record vocals, drums or an acoustic instrument when you're not hearing what you like. Try something else or do some online research...that said, do some online research before-hand. :-)

    As a guy who has a small bedroom recording studio and who teaches folks to record, I do like the breakdown of the list in your post. Bottom line is that these are the types of things you need to think about in terms of getting up and running in the recording world. As far as what equipment, which software, and how much to shell out - those are all unfortunately a very subjective thing.

    For example:

    - I have never spent more than $50 on a single microphone and have achieved good enough results for my needs.

    - I have a $200 pair of monitors which function great in my space (not computer speakers - I would NEVER recommend those)

    - I control the sound in my bedroom studio with foam padding from Walmart.

    - I have a souped up iMac with Logic Pro, but still use Garargeband on occassion for quick projects just because it's so easy to get up and lay down some tracks.

    The purists and recording afficianados of the world will argue against budget recording and inexpensive equipment, but it all depends on what your goal is. For me, I get great results from the equipment I have - and haven't had to shell out the big bucks.

    Some names to look into:
    - Presonus audio interfaces
    - MXL condensor mics
    - M-Audio Studiophile monitors

    Setting up a home recording studio in this day and age can cost far less than $1,000. More like $0.

    Reaper has a free version which isn't crippled (and it's not the only free choice, either), plenty of free VST software's out there. That's enough to create amazing instrumental music.

    If you want vocals, and to not be limited to lo-fi, then yes, you'll have to spend a bit for an audio interface and a mic, but that's about it for the basics.

    Other things will improve your quality (monitors, for one), and your methods to express yourself (instruments, midi keyboards), but there's little reason for anyone who doesn't know how serious he is to begin with to get any of these things right off the bat.

    Check it, cheap shock mount, take one of those cup pen holders made out of a wire frame,Cut out the bottom and use rubber bands to suspend the mic in the cup, then attach a mic mount to it, also a cheap pop filter, use stockings and an embroidery hoop with some 10 gauge wire to hold it up, wallah, you just saved 120 bucks

    I use a Behringer USB Mixer, a Blue mic, some Bose headphones, and again a Behringer pair of near-field monitors (MS40) and MIDI controller.

    I definitely agree that acoustics have to be taken into consideration. I also think some training is a big plus for any home recordist.

    Get what ya pay for. To think you are going to get good audio recordings with the things suggested here is pretty funny. People that call a room in their home a recordinf studio is also funny. Recording studios spend a lot of money to get a good clean sound. One microphone can cost $1000.00 to $10,000.00 and a mixer from $8000 to $200,000.00. A/D converters $3000. just to convert the audio signal from analog to digital. Cable and wiring, sound control, floating floors. compressors, preamps cost thousands. Computers that can handle muti task & track recording and play back. Effects that cost thousands, software such as the industry standard "Protools" and on and on. If you think you can side step all that and have a great recording studio the way this post is talking you are really stupid. I suggest you go to recording school or take classes so you know why things cost so much. You get what you pay for and the sound you get will also reflect it. Get real. This about like when someone comes on the internet and tells you they can make you rich and you don't hardly have to do anything. What a joke. So sorry to bust your bubbles

    Despite what you say, the microphone is the MOST important piece of equipment you can have, and should not be overlooked. It is the first instance of the recording and everything just degrades from there, so don't skimp on it.

    Sure, everyone's got an opinion about recording and most are all about gear, gear, gear!!!! This is the wrong attitude. Dont waste your money on $100 headphones or $120 for shock mounts and windscreens. This is Lifehacker! Make your own wind screen with a coat hanger and pantyhose. Also, most software synths will also let you use your QWERTY keyboard as a piano keyboard, so spending $150 on a MIDI keyboard seems a bit ridiculous for the amateur recordist.

    Use the money you would've spent on that stuff and put it towards these key items:

    First and formost are speakers. Using speakers that can't accurately represent what you're listening to will fool you into making corrective adjustments to your recording, which might make it sound good on those speakers, but nowhere else. At the end of the day, all you are doing is pushing air though holes in a box. If those boxes dont sound good, then how do you know what you're listening to??? Guitar Center or your LMS has bi-amped speakers that are pretty reasonable. Usually around $500. My first pair of speaker monitors years ago were the Event PS6. Pretty flat frequency response and non fatiguing to the ear.

    The only other two things you need are a good mic and and a decent interface with a preamp. I'd suggest spending more on the mic than the interface. One reason is because digital audio is constantly changing and you'll want to upgrade your interface every few years to take advantage of that new technology. Microphone technology has been the same for decades. If it sounds good, it sounds good. Plus, you could bring the mic wherever you go and use it with better preamps and new interfaces as you upgrade... In opposition to this article, a condensor mic in the $150 range is exactly what you dont want. Your recording will be overly bright and too much bass with no body. Plus, it's very susceptible to loud noises, which will cause distortion in your recordings. You'll do more corrective eq and compression than you would if you had a great large diaphragm dynamic microphone. Dynamics are not for stage use only. Every great rock record ever made most likely used more dynamic mics than condensor mics. Even if you're only recording dialog, radio DJs have been using dynamics since the birth of sound capture. (I'm realizing that I could go off in several different ways about mics here, but I'm trying to keep this simple.) Beyer Dynamic makes a very versatile mic called the M88. You can find them for $300 or less. My other recommendation would be the classic dynamic mic, the Electrovoice RE20.

    Plenty of other people have already talked about decent/cheap interfaces and honestly, at this price range I dont think it matters. Just get one that works for you. Make sure it's compatible with whatever software you plan to use too. There are plenty of software tools out there that do the same stuff and I'm not going to begin to sway anyone one way or another.

    Again, the most important things are how you hear your recording and how you capture the sound. There's tons of stuff in between, but that stuff will come in time.

    If you don't know what you're doing then this isn't a bad set up. You'll quickly learn the limits of your gear if you are serious about recording good music. If you aren't so serious, then this will let you fiddle and fart-arse around enough to keep you happy and impress your equally ignorant friends.

    I used a PC for most of my music recording life and was able to generate a number of songs which have since been released by a number of groups (I'm a producer but I'm not name dropping because that's lame). That said, however, I switched to Mac about a year ago and I have to say - it makes me really regret sticking with PC for so long. The functionality of a Mac and the rock solid performance (I used to use a custom ADK machine) make the Mac just a better choice for me. Although, if you system works just fine and gives you no problems, then there is no real difference in the quality of the end product.

    Pro Tools is a wonderful software package but it really bothers me that you are locked into specific (often limited unless you spend big $$$) hardware. I use Logic Studio because it allows me to collaborate with other people who often want to plug strange hardware into my set up. Plus, it's cheaper and, once you get your head around some its stranger nuances, it's easily as sophisticated.

    Lastly, as some one pointed out earlier, room acoustics will make or break you. This is where the real costs come in and, ultimately, what people pay for when they head to a studio these days. Most people just can't afford to treat their room to achieve a nice recording environment. Personally, it isn't much of a problem since I don't often record live instruments and I have a vocal isolation booth which serves to limit the nasty room artifacts. If you aren't recording live bands (which is very very difficult in a home studio situation anyway) then you can get away with a less than ideal acoustic environment. Just make sure you check and check and check your mixes in multiple environments...

    My 2 cents.

    Couldn't agree more Bob. I started on PC's. Building my own due to limited finances and later when I had signed a couple of songs, bought an apple laptop for audio. Microphones and monitor speakers are also something that I've spent more on in later years, using headphones and home HiFi speakers and Shure stage mikes got me through the early days. Nice equipment makes the task much more pleasant but don't let lack of money stop you from achieving your goals. Be innovative and creative, embrace the restrictions and do something great! I would also recommend Live from Ableton as a recording platform. It suits what I do as it is a writing and performance tool as well.

    Yeah, a good list, but quite general. Putting some brand names, and some options of different ways to do it whether working on SUPER tight budget or a little higher. Also, the way to inout can be different, such as soundcard etc.

    try http://samehands.blogspot.com/2011/01/home-studio-recording-and-producing.html for an article i wrote in this interest.

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