How to Start Up a Home Studio for like $700
Before We Start
Let me just take a minute to explain what I intend for you to absorb from this atomic bomb of text that comes with bits of advice. This is intended for people who:
- Are musicians that want to record their own material.
- Are interested in recording music for their friends/others in their area that don't have their own means of recording.
- Are tired of not being able to tell what is going on (sound-wise) in their current recordings, and would like a consistent setup so they can record their ideas.
If none of the above apply to you yet you are still interested in reading, I won't discourage you. There are useful tips that can be used by everyone.
I would also like to point out that most of this is directed at guitar/bass driven music, and primarily instrumental at that. There will be a bit of vocal recording talk too, but I can't offer much help with that as I am still trying to perfect my technique on vocal recording and mixing. RECORDING LIVE DRUMS ISN'T INCLUDED IN THIS HUB. I have never recorded live drums and had them sound good. This is all direct-input, programmed drums, nothing mic'd except vocals. This also excludes talk of using microphones on amps to record. You can create a wide variety of tones. It's not going to sound like your Bugera but if you need the sound recorded (and recorded well) you'll understand that direct input is much easier to mix when on a budget. Speaking of mixing, there will be parts where I very briefly explain presets or actions you can take before you ever start recording. Ideally, these will consistently help you achieve clean, coherent takes in the future.
Most of my experience comes from recording louder, more powerful music such as rock, metal, and punk. However, this is not exclusive, as a lot of these techniques and tips can be used for ambient, electronic, and even softer music types such as acoustic.
Lastly, part of this will depend on what your goals are. If you're going to be live recording orchestral instruments and such, I really can't help you there. That is a different read. If all of your songwriting and recording is to be done on a laptop, that reduces how much you're going to have to spend. Naturally, if you're going to be a bit more picky about your sound and might want to be doing high quality vocal takes as well, you may have to increase your budget.
I know $700 isn't exactly pocket change, at least for most people, but if you're really determined to make recording music part of your life, $700 is great compared to the thousands of dollars that other people will make you believe that you need.
In case you didn't know...
This is a Bugera head. This is probably what you won't be using to record in this hub scenario, unless you're way ahead of me and are supplementing your knowledge of mic-recording with this direct-input oriented article.
What You'll Need
First off, let's go over what you're going to need. I'm going to divide this into two sections. The first will be what you need to already have before you buy anything from this "under $700" list. The second, well, that's the budget list I just mentioned.
This is what you'll need before you can apply any of this to what you're doing.
- A laptop or computer - it doesn't even have to be a very good one, or solely dedicated to music recording. If you can swing that, already have plenty of space, and have a good sound card, that is the best case scenario and you should be very happy. Fear not, though. I am currently using an '08 Dell laptop, I have less than 5 GB of storage left, it takes forever to start and do anything. The screen is extremely wobbly and it's been dropped, had soda spilled on it at least a dozen times. Basically it's a piece of garbage. The reason for this extent of detail is to prove that you can literally use a piece of garbage old laptop as long as it has some sort of functioning sound card, the slightest bit of space, and at least Windows 7... Or whatever the Mac equivalent is. I say at least Windows 7 because I haven't used an older Windows for everything I do so I'm not sure if it works.
- A musical instrument, someone with a musical instrument that wants to record, or some way to create songs - the latter is paired with some details I go over later in this read. One of the vital tools I will help you acquire can actually help you put together your own melodies and entire songs, but the specifics of how good you want it to sound are not necessarily included in here; it gets too complex and specific past a certain point.
- Instrument cables - if you are using a guitar or a bass, I know this seems like a no-brainer, but it is an easy mistake to make. Especially if you've been recording quiet, unplugged ideas into voice memos on your phone for so long that you haven't thought about that cord you left at your friend's house.
- Headphones/Speakers - You need to know how your recordings are going to sound. It's preferable if you have both. However, I currently only use headphones and they're working fine so far. The best kind of headphones are ones that actually go over your head and cover your ears, not the in-ear kind. Use whatever you have, but your best bet are ear-covering headphones designed for a fair amount of bass.
- Patience - this almost seems unnecessary to add, but it is a nice reminder. Nothing you do immediately will sound amazing, you might do a step wrong and give up on setting up your "studio" because you think you screwed up beyond the point of no return, etc. In reality you can come back to this hub or just do a basic Google search of help forums for your specific software/what-have-you. There's always a solution, if not an alternative.
Next, here's what you'll need from that $700 or under you hope to pay.
- A USB audio interface ($50) - the one I'll be telling you about is called the Lexicon Alpha. On Sweetwater it's $50. If you can find a nearby music store that sells one of these, or any USB audio interface within the 50 dollar range, go for it. It's not the end of the world if you have to order one online though. Musician's Friend and Sweetwater are both reputable online music stores that have given me good service. Sweetwater put a bag of candy in with my Lexicon so I guess they rank slightly higher than Musician's Friend for me right now.
- A DAW (from free to $89.95) - This varies widely. The two things you should consider most when choosing one of these is price, and user-friendliness. The top two for me would be REAPER and Cubase (LE 5, specifically). I'll elaborate more on this later, but in short, I used REAPER for years due to both user-friendliness and price. The program costs $60, but since they don't believe in technologically enforcing that price point, you can use the program for free until you have the money. I highly recommend buying it when you do get the chance though, especially if you end up using it long term and being productive. It is very quick to learn, easy to use, and comes with some pretty decent EQs, along with your standard reverb and delay effects. However, I switched to Cubase LE 5 because it came for free with my Lexicon Alpha that I ordered, thus making it an incredibly worthwhile purchase. Cubase felt a bit more complicated to figure out but it was free and I can do everything I did with REAPER on there. If you wanted to get a little more expensive, Mixcraft 7 is a good investment. The last Mixcraft I used was 6, but it is absolutely user friendly in every sense and possibly the best first DAW to get into since it will be helpful long after the beginner phase. It's $89.95 though, and I strongly discourage spending more than that if you're completely new and just trying to put together your first home studio. When discussing buying a DAW, I'm mostly talking about buying them as downloads from the developers' websites. However, there's nothing stopping you from going and physically buying it from your local Guitar Center or whatever. I just don't know if you're buying a box that has a disc in it or if it's just a download code. I have always bought downloads and therefore have no experience buying any DAWs or plugins from a physical music store.
- VST plugin(s) ($200) - The 200 dollar price point I'm using is just to give an idea of the most you'll have to spend. This could be one plugin to use for your guitar and bass, or it could be a set of synths and different instrument emulators. Again, this is because you really shouldn't be spending more than that if you're just starting out. If you end up abandoning recording later, your wallet will be hurting less. The VST plugin I'll be discussing in further detail later on is Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 5. In short, it's amazing for beginner and advanced recording guitarists/bassists. It's easy to use, comes with loads of presets, and has so many different modulators, EQs, dynamics, and others at your fingertips. It's possible to get an incredibly tight and clear sound if you really spend some time tweaking your tone. Similar to REAPER, you can use Guitar Rig 5 for free. However, they do technologically enforce it somewhat with the "demo" version you'll be forced to use until you pay for the full version. In the demo version, you can use the basic presets for free, but once you open up an advanced preset or start trying to put together your own tone, you have 30 minutes before it cuts you off and you can't use it anymore. You can close and re-open your DAW to reset it but this limits you to using the program's presets, along with the fact that you can't load saved presets that you created.
- A VST drum program ($179) - as with DAWs and other VST plugins, there are a large number of them that are cheaper, or more expensive, higher quality, more user-friendly, etc. The ones I have experience with are EZdrummer and Superior Drummer, both developed by Toontrack. EZdrummer 2 is $179, so that is what I used as the price point. I use the old EZdrummer, and an older version of Superior Drummer. There are other programs out there, but for the price and the amount of tweaking you can do just within the programs themselves, they're among the best. You can always settle for a sub-par program and do your EQ, compression, and whatnot all within your chosen DAW. Keep in mind even if you get a solid mix out of your chosen drum program, you're always going to want to do finishing touches on an outside EQ that's within the DAW.
- TuxGuitar/Guitar Pro (free/$59.95) - These may be optional if you have other ways of writing drum tracks and melodies, but for me this is a critical part to your songwriting process. This is what makes your drum program play what it plays through MIDI. These programs are made for reading, writing, and playing tabs. It's very popular for people to look up a tab for a song they want to learn, download it onto one of these programs, and play along to it as opposed to looking at a still text tab. The beautiful part is, you can write your own songs using this. You write the drums, export the MIDI, and import it into your DAW running your drum VST. You can also write synths and other instruments that you'll then be able to load into your VST synths if you're composing electronic music. I'll explain all of that later though. The only Guitar Pro available for purchase right now would be Guitar Pro 6. If you've never used Guitar Pro, you can give that one a shot, but I enjoy 5 a lot more and still use it to this day. Unlike Guitar Pro, the other option, TuxGuitar, is actually free. It works and sounds very similar to Guitar Pro 5. I strongly suggest you go with TuxGuitar, as most tab websites primarily have .gp5 formatted tabs which are files created in Guitar Pro 5. TuxGuitar reads .gp5 files, so if you ever want to go download a Guitar Pro 5 tab from a site like Ultimate-Guitar and learn it for free, you can just use TuxGuitar.
So, what does all of that add up to? Let's take a look: $50 Interface + $49.95 Worst Case Scenario Alaska Shipping Price I Had to Pay That Hopefully You Won't Have To Pay + $89.95 DAW + $200 VST Plugin(s) + $179 Drum Program + $59.95 Guitar Pro 6 If You Really NEED It
If you bought the most expensive thing in each category and didn't go with TuxGuitar like I suggested, you're at $628.85. This can seem like quite an investment if you don't have at least some of that money just lying around. This does not include a microphone for recording vocals. If you need to record vocals, I suggest reading some vocal mixing/recording articles throughout the web since that tends to be a whole other dimension. Make sure it's compatible with the Lexicon Alpha or whatever recording interface you end up getting. I highly recommend buying a dynamic mic. This will allow you to record vocals, and acoustic guitar/other non-DI (direct input) instruments. If you truly want to record, and you don't want to pay $300 for a 6 song EP that a studio engineer wanted to slack off on mixing since you didn't pay him at least a grand, this is probably the best way to get your foot in the door.
Your Guitar, Your Laptop, and This Thing
Lexicon Alpha on Sweetwater
- Lexicon Alpha | Sweetwater.com
Sweetwater is the world's leading music technology and instrument retailer, offering highly knowledgeable Sales Engineers, in-house Technical Support and Service Departments, huge selection, amazing prices, and free shipping.
Here's What All of That Stuff Does
If you're not doing 100% of your songwriting and recording on the laptop itself, that means you'll have bought a USB audio interface. These connect to your computer's USB port and allow for better signal than if you tried recording using the built-in mic on your laptop or computer, assuming it has one of those. Another thing that beginners will try is plugging their amp or pedal into the line-in jack, usually right near the headphone jack. This makes it very hard to get full, high quality recordings. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work, and it usually isn't worth it compared to just buying an interface.
So, you have your audio interface. Let's assume you bought the Lexicon Alpha. It has a headphone jack that you can plug your headphones or speakers into. You don't need a headphone-to-1/4 inch adapter either, it's the size of a regular headphone input which I find very convenient. This allows for you to hear everything that's going on. You can adjust your headphone/speaker volume using the output knob.
Next is your DAW, which stands for Digital Audio Workstation. This is what you'll be using to record, mix, and master your tracks. From here you can render them into different sound files for playback once you're finished recording. Among these are .wav and .mp3 files. This is what you'll be loading your VST plugins into, and you'll be importing your MIDI files that you export from Guitar Pro or Tuxguitar for drums (and your overall song if you're creating electronic music).
Now for the VSTs. You might be thinking, "what even is a VST? Plugins? That sounds complicated." For me, that was my exact train of thought when I first discovered them. VST plugins are what you load into your DAW, and open them under your FX, Inserts, or equivalent. If you buy a Lexicon Alpha that comes with Cubase LE 5, it will be called "Inserts" and it'll be located in a list once you click on your audio track. I'll explain everything in a little bit. It's not too complicated.
The two different VSTs you're going to be using are for drum simulation and guitar processing. Guitar Rig 5 will be used to create your tones and get your guitars and bass sounding nice. EZdrummer or Superior Drummer will be for playing the beats you created and also for some of the mixing for your drums.
Guitar Pro and Tuxguitar are for writing your beats and other elements of music that don't involve your guitar or bass. But primarily I use it for writing beats. You export your MIDI from this and load it into your DAW so your drum VST can play it.
What Writing Looks Like
Get TuxGuitar Here!
- Download :: TuxGuitar
TuxGuitar Official Web Site. TuxGuitar is an opensource multitrack tablature editor. You can read and write Guitar Pro files using TuxGuitar.
Figuring It All Out
Alright, so I've explained what everything does. As much as I'd love to add how to install the programs, import plugins, and all of that fun stuff, that would add on a whole other article's worth of text. Why read my step-by-step instructions when you can follow the help pages and website forums? Don't worry - it's not as dreadful as it sounds. People need help all the time setting things up, especially with first time VST-plugin users. I believe at least one or two of the programs I mentioned even have a how-to section with pictures.
However, I can help you still with figuring out your course of action. Let's say you're writing electronic music. You ignored the guitar related parts, and yet somehow still took interest in the other relevant parts of the article. This is good, because Tuxguitar and Guitar Pro can still help you. There are many synths, as well as different types of drum samples, that you can use to write electronic-sounding music. When you get your notes down, you can export the midi into any VST synth of your choice (which I'm hoping you bought, since you didn't buy Guitar Rig). When you export the midi tracks, you locate them and drag them into Reaper. You can then add effects, equalize the sound a bit more, copy and paste sections of the song, and do everything you need to do. Reaper makes it very easy to figure out how to do this, and has a useful "help" section in case you hate figuring it out yourself.
Acoustic guitar player/singer? Bought a dynamic room mic like I suggested? Good! Also using Reaper, you would arm your tracks, hit "record", do a rough take, and see how it sounds. If it works fine for you to sing and play guitar on the same track, with minimal EQ, then perfect. For some it requires separate takes. If a part is too quiet or too loud, you can even go directly to the sound wave and either increase or decrease the volume. This is also provided in the help section but if you're at all familiar with programs and computers, you'll see how to access the volume options after you right-click on the track. If you ended up buying Guitar Rig you can still do an amount of EQ and even some effects.
Anything else primarily direct input and electric guitar driven, you'll be doing through the audio interface itself. There are knobs there for a reason. Be safe with your hearing, make sure all the knobs are on the lower volume levels when you start, and figure out how each one affects your sound as well as output. You may find that at one point you're putting too much gain in through the interface and it's causing the sound to clip. Or, you could have the output on your interface too high and when you render the song, it sounds too quiet. Always double check, just to be sure. The same rules from earlier apply for dragging and dropping MIDI files from Tux/GP into Reaper. You'll be dragging and dropping the drum tracks into EZdrummer (or whatever you chose). You'll be able to mix the sound to your liking before you render it, via both the plugin itself and the EQ under the DAW's track effects.
If you managed to score a mic (and hopefully a stand) primarily for recording, make sure you take every measure you can to get a decent vocal sound. Mixing vocals is one of the most elusive things out of all types of EQ and mastering you'll have to do. It is all too easy for someone to make the vocals overpower the music, or vice versa. Even worse, one may mix the vocals to the perfect volume but for some reason it just doesn't "fit" no matter what kind of EQ, compressor or reverb you use on it. This is where online recording articles, forums, and other help sources come in handy. At the very least, before you record vocals, make sure you have a pop filter (a screen used for dulling the harsh hiss of an "S" or popping "P" sound in words) or a DIY equivalent (clean socks pulled over the mic). Also make sure that, if not recording in an acoustic-treated room, you record in a small space such as a closet. It doesn't have to be in a closet, but if you walk into the room, clap, and it echoes too much, you will be losing a lot of the vocal sound to the rest of the room and it won't stand out to the mic as much.
DISCLAIMER: I AM NO PROFESSIONAL RECORDING ENGINEER, TAKE THIS ADVICE WITH A GRAIN OF SALT. If something works for you, do it that way, even if it doesn't follow the rules I just listed. Sometimes, things "just work" even when, on paper, they aren't supposed to. Also, some people will agree with part of what I've said, but there may be a trained sound engineer or studio owner who would get their face stuck in a permanent cringe just from reading this.
HOWEVER. SO FAR, IN MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, THESE THINGS HAVE BEEN HELPFUL FOR ME TO DO, AND IT IS BASED ON WHAT I'VE SEEN EXPERIENCED PEERS DO. AS A RESULT, IF YOU ARE HAVING TROUBLE, TRY DOING AS SUGGESTED ABOVE. IT MAY HELP.
Give It Some Time
If you go through with it and buy all of these programs, a nice interface, and have run through everything a few times without slamming your head against a wall in confusion, that's a good sign. You will become eager to show everyone what you know as soon as you learn the first thing about DIY digital recording. Don't get too carried away, though. Before you start offering to record other people, make sure what you do sounds good to people other than yourself. If you like the certain way a riff plays out in a song but another person can't tell what is going on, that is a problem. You've heard the song before, because you recorded it, whether you played or another person did. So of course you're going to have an ear for the riff that's being played, or the drum beat that's going on. But someone who has yet to hear it, hears it when it's of sub-par quality, they aren't going to appreciate that ghost-note snare they can't even hear or that sliding guitar solo that's mixed way quieter than the plunking chord progression from the rhythm section.
My point is that you simply must give yourself time to figure out how things are supposed to sound. See what all the buttons and knobs do. Try mixing different tracks in the same settings, or differently from each other. Know your way around the program. Get an ear for how something is going to sound rendered as opposed to pre. Owning the gear and the programs is only half the battle. That's not to say that you need to be some sort of sound guru; I mix my tracks enough to be coherent and audible even though I sometimes consider myself to be tone deaf when it comes to proper EQ.
If you're able to spend some time watching videos of people recording and producing, that will help. I can't stress this enough - read some articles about it. Everyone has a different approach. Some may make more sense than others.
The Production Quality I Got With My Basic Setup
The gist of this hub would be a few main points. Most importantly that, simply having all of this gear and the programs won't immediately yield good sound, at least not until you train your ear to what sounds good and what doesn't. However, you've opened that door up for yourself, and you can learn how to get yourself going rather quickly - especially if you really get into it as much as possible from the start.
I also would like to emphasize on the fact that there are ways you can do things without having to go the traditional route, such as going to recording school, a professional studio, or buying this next-level super expensive program. Just learn to make do with what you have once you have it, and try to figure it out from there.
A lot of this advice may sound vague and some of it, not exactly helpful at first, when you have no idea what you're doing. But that's because it's a very vague process, becoming a self-taught recording engineer. It takes some work, but it's worth it. Take the video posted above for example. It sounds better than what our local professional recording studio is doing and it is just a demo... not to toot my own horn.
If you think this boosts your confidence, makes it sound intimidating, or makes me sound dumb, I would absolutely love your feedback. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and best of luck on your recording endeavors!