Home recording studio on a budget

Computers have made building an advanced home recording studio a reality for many of us. It has also caused a flooding of the market by dozens of products (and more) that all basically do the same thing. The sea of marketing created in this environment has left quite a few home recording enthusiasts scratching their heads in confusion. Below you will find some basic recommendations on the key equipment needed to start your own home recording studio.

I would like to take a minute to outline my two ground rules for making home recording studio purchases.

  • Never buy anything new until your old one is actively holding you back.
  • When you do buy, get one that will last you a lifetime.

The first rule stops you from buying something with fifteen features when you already own something that has the three features you actually need. The second rule stops you from buying something cheap that will be obsolete or break down in one or two years.

Computer

The hub of today’s home recording studio is almost always a computer. Unfortunately this is also the piece of equipment that is hardest to offer buying advice for. Windows based computers are varied in configurations and the combination of some hardware can result in instability.

  • Low price: The computer you already own – 0$
    You aren’t going to find a cheaper computer than the one that is already sitting on your desk. Seriously, your five year old computer probably has enough horsepower to get some basic tracks going. I started recording on my computer in 1996 with a Pentium 100 and 16mb of ram. Your computer is probably miles better than that. If I could do 16 track recordings on that old thing, you can certainly start experimenting and cutting demos on your sister’s hand-me-down rig.
  • Mid price: Big box or roll your own – $300-$2000+
    Your next option is to buy a machine from a well known manufacturer or build your own. It is perfectly acceptable to grab a machine from Dell or HP and put it into studio service. If you’re handy with computer assembly you can also piece your own system together. Either way, try to have at least 1gb ram for Win XP or 2gb ram for Vista. Stick with a machine having an Intel or Nvidia chipset on the motherboard and you should be ok.
  • High price: Custom made DAW – $1800-$5000+
    There are some companies marketing computers specifically for recording purposes. These computers are pieced together from hardware that is extensively tested and verified to cause no conflicts. You will get a smooth running computer that is somewhat guaranteed to work as a DAW, but you will pay a premium price for that privilege.

I recommend using Windows XP for any home recording computer as it currently has the widest compatibility between hardware and software. Vista has been out for a while and is gaining momentum in the audio world, but XP is still the better choice.

Ben’s benchmark: I used the same home studio computer from 1998 to 2005. I built a new machine for my own home recording studio in 2005 and will likely be using that for a few more years. Don’t feel the need to get a bleeding edge computer system every two years.

Soundcard

The soundcard is the part of your computer that will actually transfer audio from your instrument to your recorded tracks. When shopping for a home recording soundcard you will see the term “ASIO driver” getting tossed around quite a bit. Don’t be scared if you don’t know what that means. ASIO is a set of technologies developed by Steinberg. ASIO drivers do not make a soundcard sound any better and are not required by any conventional home recording software packages. Use it if your soundcard has it but don’t let Joe down at your local Guitar Town talk you into buying a soundcard because, “you just gotta have ASIO drivers if you want pro recordings, dude!”

Another tip is to not be drawn into buying a soundcard because it supports 192khz and 24-bit recording “quality.” If you can’t recite to me a detailed technical explanation of the differences and commonalities of 24/192 and 16/44.1 recordings, then you really want to stick with recording at 16-bit and 44.1khz sampling rate. This is another area where people at your local Guitar Town store or around the internet will try to convince you to record at 24-bit and 92khz (or higher) to get “pro” results. They are all full of it. Trust me, if you are looking in internet forums for buying advice, then you are not doing a job that requires the extra resources necessary to make these high resolution recordings a necessity.

  • Low price: The soundcard that is in your computer – $0
    If the computer you are using as the hub of your home studio was made any time after 1995, there is a near 100% chance it already has a soundcard in it. If your computer was made after 1999 or so, there is a near 100% chance this soundcard will work to start getting some basic recordings done.
  • Mid price: Line 6 TonePort UX2 – around $140 (price check)
    The TonePort UX2 is a USB home recording device which means you don’t have to be a computer expert to install it. You plug it right into the back (or front) USB port of your computer. You can go cheaper (see the TonePort UX1 or other USB sound modules) but I recommend UX2 because of the extra features. It is a stereo recording device with built in mic preamps (including phantom power), instrument inputs, and line level inputs which you can use in just about any combination. It also includes modeling software to give you the sound of some classic mic preamps and other great recording gear. You can use all the features of UX2 with any DAW that supports ASIO drivers, or sacrifice a few of the highly specialized features to use it with a DAW that doesn’t support ASIO (but those are few and far between).
  • High price: Presonus FP10 – around $400 (PreSonus FP10)
    The PreSonus FP10 will fill your need for eight inputs nicely. It has eight internal mic preamps which means you don’t have to buy a large mixer. My main mixer only has four mic preamps so having them built into the soundcard is a plus for larger home recording sessions. This is a firewire device so your computer will need to have a built in firewire port or you’ll need to add a firewire card.
    Alternate: Line 6 TonePort UX8 – around $500 (price check)
    A good alternative is the TonePort UX8 if you would rather have a full featured USB soundcard for your home studio (so you don’t have to open the computer for installation).
    Alternate: M-Audio Delta 1010LT – around $200 (price check)
    Check out the M-Audio Delta 1010LT if you want eight inputs, don’t mind opening your computer, and are on a very tight budget. This is a no-frills card and the lack of features is reflected in the price.

Ben’s benchmark: I am able to complete nearly all my home studio tasks using my TonePort UX2. Don’t get sucked in to buying a 8×8 interface unless you need to regularly record lots of simultaneous live tracks. The majority of my readers don’t need more than stereo input and output, and that probably includes you.

DAW software

DAW stands for digital audio workstation and the term has been used to describe everything from keyboards with advanced recording features to all-in-one mini digital recorders. I think the best bang for your home studio buck is using your computer as the hub. So when I talk about your DAW, I’m referring to your computer and the software you have installed for use in your recording studio.

  • Low price: REAPER – about $50 (non-commercial, price check)
    I don’t think it’s possible to do better than fifty bucks for the power you get with REAPER. The version of REAPER for non-commercial use is identical in capability to the commercial version. This is a great opportunity to pick up a professional piece of software at a modest price.
  • High price: REAPER – about $225 (commercial license, price check)
    If you are setting up or improving your home studio for commercial purposes, REAPER is still a great choice. There isn’t much extra you can get from the “other guys” that you can’t do with REAPER.
    Alternate: Cakewalk SONAR – about $500 (price check)
    I often say I would be using Cakewalk SONAR if I weren’t using REAPER. To me it strikes a great balance between clarity, features, and system load.
    Alternate: Steinberg Cubase – about $600 (price check)
    Steinberg Cubase is another of the higher priced DAW packages that are really great.
    Alternate: Digidesign ProTools M-Powered – about $250 (price check)
    Pro Tools has had a long standing reputation as the software of choice for pro recording studios. This is not as universally true as it once was, but it is still a great DAW choice. I don’t recommend this to a great many people as it is a bit of a closed system that only works with specific pieces of hardware. Only go this route if you have a really good reason.

Ben’s benchmark: Cockos is not one of the big guys in terms of marketing dollars spent, but don’t let their marketplace anonymity scare you away. This is one serious software package. Start with REAPER for $50 and you’ll be able to go toe to toe with the big boys. Don’t be fooled by price or magazine ad space, make your own decisions based on research of your individual needs.

Studio monitor speakers

Your recording studio monitors are your aural link into the home recording world. I do agree that a talented engineer can do great mixes on the worst speakers, but I’m all for hedging my bets. With over fifteen years of home recording experience, I think I’m at the point where I could do some decent mixes on sub-par speakers, but I got here by learning on decent studio monitors that allowed me to learn that skill. I don’t think I would have progressed to this level without that experience. Don’t sell yourself short when it comes to studio monitors.

Active and passive are two terms you will hear when shopping for studio monitors. Active monitors are those that have the power amp built in, while passive speakers require an external power amp. Active monitors have come down so far in price that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to consider passive designs for the home recording studio on a budget.

You’ll notice a common theme among the three sets of studio monitors I’ve recommended. All have approximately eight inch woofers. There certainly are cheaper speakers you can get with smaller woofers, but no matter what the salesman tells you, there are some physical constraints with producing convincing low frequency sounds through small diameter speakers. I find the eight inch woofers to be the most convincing in terms of low frequency reproduction without use of a subwoofer. Subwoofers are also something I shy away from as they tend to hype the sub-bass frequencies too much, leaving you with a mix that is thin in the bottom end. You do have to be careful to learn the low frequency behavior of your speakers though, so you don’t have the opposite problem of bass-heavy mixes.

  • Low price: Behringer B2031A – about $340 (price check)
    In true Behringer form, the TRUTH B2031A gives great value for the money. The power might not be quite as clean or transparent as higher priced units, but you will still get the ability to hear elements of your mix with detail not possible using standard multimedia speakers.
  • Mid price: M-Audio BX8a Deluxe – about $500(price check)
    The Studiophile BX8a Deluxe from M-Audio strikes a great balance between cost and performance. This is quite literally a price-friendly speaker that you may never outgrow.
  • High price: Mackie HR824mk2 – about $1300 (price check)
    Mackie have created a high-tech aural masterpiece in their HR824mk2. These speakers are scientifically engineered for crystal clarity and articulation in every register. If your wallet can handle the hit, you won’t be sorry, but I’m not sure they offer enough cost to benefit ratio to justify the expense.

Ben’s benchmark: I use a set of Event 20/20 passive studio monitors powered by a Carvin HT150 power amp. Don’t bother looking, because you won’t find either item for sale anymore (though modern equivalents may still be provided by the manufacturers). While my setup may seem a bit old or quaint compared to more modern designs, these were great speakers when I got them around 1998 and continue to be great speakers today. Your gear never loses its original capabilities just because something newer and shinier comes out. This speaks to one of my guiding principles, when you are ready to buy, get one that will last you a lifetime.

Microphones

Most well stocked internet retailers actively stock over 500 models of microphones. The sea of choices is practically mind boggling. There are a few guiding rules you can go by when deciding on what order to build your mic collection in.

  • A cool dynamic mic can record just about any sound source you throw at it.
  • For whatever is left over, a nice large diaphragm condenser will do the trick.

Because of these two microphone truisms, I recommend starting with one or two great dynamic microphones, then adding a decent large diaphragm condenser, and later expanding to more dynamics and large or small diaphram condenser mics as necessary.

When it comes to that first microphone, you really can’t go wrong with picking up a Shure SM57 or three. This is the mic that costs $100 (price check) but can sound like a million bucks on anything you throw at it. There are certainly more specialized mics that might sound like 1.5 million bucks on a particular source, but the SM57 is the Swiss army knife of the audio world. That said, the next recommendations will cover that important first purchase of a large diaphragm condenser.

  • Low price: AKG Perception 200 – around $160 (price check)
    There are lots of great condensers for lower prices, but this is about the lowest price point at which you can get a switchable pad and low cut filter (two essential features for a flexible condenser). The pad is great for those times when you need to record very loud sources (like a snare drum or cranked guitar stack) while the low cut filter is great creating clear tracks on nearly everything that is not a bass focused instrument.
  • Mid price: AKG C3000B – around $330 (price check)
  • High price: AKG C214 – around $600 (price check)

Ben’s benchmark: It is apparent that I have named all AKG brand mics in my recommendations. I have had great personal experience with mics by Audio Technica, Shure, Neumann, Oktava, and even budget mic company MXL. Consider these mics and price points basis for comparison of features.

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26 Responses to “Home recording studio on a budget”

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  1. Jimbo says:

    Garageband on the Mac is the best thing since sliced bread. It’s very powerful but so easy to use! I would whole heartedly recommend if you are going to buy a new computer to do recording to make it a Mac. Garageband comes free with all purchases of Macs.

  2. Michael Hogan says:

    Low price tag for Linux and Mac in the DAW category is Ardour. You can download and use it for free. It has lots of pro features and is supported by the SAE.

  3. Stone says:

    Download TrakAx DAW software. It is simple to use, powerful, and completely free. Period.

    I was using Sony Acid and downloaded TrakAx out of curiosity. I wanted something I could record some quick guitar and vocal demos with. It is so easy to use, my 10 year old son, who plays piano, records his own music!

    I bought ‘Band In A Box’ to lay down the accompaniement backup tracks, because I write my own songs, but don’t use a backup band.

    You can’t loose with this combination.

  4. bvesco says:

    I had never heard of TrakAx software before so I checked it out based on your recommendation.

    - Simple to use? Looks that way.
    - Completely free? No argument there, though they do try to get you to buy a bunch of loops. I have no problem with someone trying to make money off their hard work. Good for them.
    - Powerful? Well, you and I must have a different idea what constitutes power because it looks like a toy. I’m willing to give it a download and try it out though.

    Here’s a walk through my first five minutes with the program:
    Oh good, it opens on a demo project. Hit space bar to play. Hmm, that didn’t do anything, guess I gotta find the play button. There it is. Click. Ok, that’s a nice groove. I wonder if I can add some reverb to the drums. I don’t see where the inserts are. I don’t see a plugin button. Right click a track, nope. Right click a sound region, nope. Hey, what’s that funny colored area on that sound region? Oh, adjust effect properties? So there must be an effect on this track. Now how did they get it there. Right click, maybe insert? Yeah, insert audio effect. Ok, I’ll insert the Waves Renaissance Reverb. Awesome, there’s the settings window. Now rewind the track. Hey, why can’t I click on anything? Oh wait, I can’t click anything while the reverb window is open. How unexpected. Ok, that’s cumbersome but I’ll close the reverb and rewind, then open the reverb again. Click to close. TrackAx just crashed. Don’t tell me this program can’t even use an industry standard Waves plugin? Maybe it was a fluke. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Open the program again. Wait, where did the demo track go? It didn’t open this time. It isn’t on the “recent” file list. In fact, I don’t think this program even has a recent file list. I’ll try to find it on my hard drive. There, found it in the installation directory. Looks like the file association is set up. Double-click the demo project file. TrakAx opens, but does not open that demo project. It opens to an empty workspace. Ok, maybe that wasn’t the actual demo project. After looking around that has got to be it. I’ll try opening it from the file menu but I’m going to be very disappointed in this program if I have to do that every time instead of clicking the project file on my drive. Oh great, it worked from the file menu. I’m losing faith quickly in this program. Time to add that reverb to the drum track again. Hit space bar, oh yeah, space bar doesn’t start playback like it does in every other DAW I’ve ever used. Find the play button again. Now that the song is playing I can add that reverb to the drums. Right click the drum region, insert audio effect, choose Waves RVerb. Oh man, I gotta rewind because that drum part is over. Click to rewind, nothing happens. Right, I have to close the reverb to rewind. Click to close reverb. TrakAx crashes again. I have lost all faith in this program. It is not worth my time to continue reviewing. I will uninstall it now. Oh isn’t that nice. They didn’t even create an uninstall shortcut for me. I guess by “simple to use” they mean “program does nothing to help you out with anything you might want to do and crashes while performing basic mixing tasks.”

    I do not recommend this program to anyone who is looking for a full-featured DAW that will stand the test of time and allow their skill to progress unhindered.

    Don’t trust me though. Download it and make your own decision!

  5. Roy says:

    How about FL studio? I know every electronic producer wannabe on youtube use it but after a year with Sonar, I found that FL is much more intuitive to me. The workflow, the Fx chaining..etc. With the right VSTis and FX plugins (I’m using all the fx plugins from sonar :) FL can be a real beauty. I know it’s sequencer based, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything less than the track based DAWs. It’s nothing much, but personally I like the fact that FL integrate VSTs, DXIs, rewires what have you, into channels, rather than having to setup a rack of plugins.

    I think a decent, experience producer can work with anything, provided the stuff he’s working with have the bare minimum functions. A lot of guys, like on KVR, and other forums, kept chasing after “the best VSTi”, “the largest sample pack”, “the patch “insert name here” used” etc, but ignorant of the fact that the basic craft must be mastered before a good track can be composed. Like the 3xosc plugin in FL, three simple oscillators, much humble compared to the modern soft synth of today that gives you 8 osc, 8 LFO, 16 filters, and a milky way of presets, but amazing things can be done with simpleness.

    I’m not saying a good VSTi is not important, I just feel that many of us have fell into this “Program fetishism”, “must get the that synth before I can start on this track” or “must have this plugin before I will touch that”.

    excuse my ranting :)

    Best,
    Roy

  6. bvesco says:

    FL Studio certainly looks like a capable DAW though I have no personal experience with it. Looking in from the outside my only complaint is price. It looks like it doesn’t include some basic functionality until you step up to the $200 version. The cheaper versions:

    - Lack ability to record with ASIO
    - Lack envelope automation of all parameters in the playlist

    Also the basic plugins like delay, eq and modulation seem to require a separate $100 addon pack. It also doesn’t seem to have any out of the box reverb option.

    These are things that would make me mark FL Studio down in a review, but they don’t mean it is not great software. It does look like FL Studio does a bunch of things specially for electronic music production with loops that no other DAW handles as well. So if the FL work flow fits your workflow then there is likely no other DAW that would satisfy you.

    I’m curious about what you mean by integrating plugins into the track instead of requiring a rack. I also agree 100% with your assessment about a capable producer being able to create wonderful music with any decent tool. REAPER is the coolest DAW to ever grace my screen but FL Studio is your engine of choice. Nothing wrong with that, every person must evaluate the choices and make up their own mind. Once you’ve done that, don’t let anyone knock you for your choice.

  7. Roy says:

    Thanks for the reply. I agree with you on the fx options, that’s why I said with decent plugins :) considering the usefulness of FL, it doesn’t seem like a bad choice to invest in some packs for it, like waves.

    And yes, I agree that FL lack in the recording department, though they do have some great wav file handling plugins that allows you to do pretty much the same thing with other DAWs.

    Automations though, are in fact the strongest point of FL studio. Anything can be automated, I’m not sure what parameter are you referring to in the playlist, but if the parameter is not readily available in the playlist, then it’s accessible, and automate-able somewhere else.

    And by integrating, I meant FL load each instruments, samplers, plugins, midi scores, layers, as channels, if nothing else, they are graphically equivalent, which makes work flow more intuitive for me. :) Although I do agree FL’s mixer is somewhat of a joke, I still use Sonar for mixdowns.

    Btw, your blog is one of the best I can find, love all your reviews, tutorials. you’re a very knowledgeable man. Keep up the good work!

    Best,
    Roy

  8. bvesco says:

    Thanks for the clarifications. I’m still not sure if I understand the “fx as channels” thing. Some day I’m going to have to check out the program for myself so it will make sense. Additionally, since you still use a separate DAW for mixdowns and want to purchase additional plugins above the included lot, that is why I don’t want to include Fruity Loops as a suggestion in an article about home recording on a tight budget. It really does look like great software but doesn’t fit for the audio engineer looking for an all in one solution for little cash.

  9. Ron says:

    What about latentcy issues? That’s always the biggest problems when recording to computer. What is best way around these problems? (don’t use a computer?) ;-)

  10. bvesco says:

    I have been recording digitally to my PC since 1996 (on Windows 3.1) and have never worried about latency, have never had to worry about latency. Maybe you need this article?

    http://benvesco.com/tonemonster/the-digital-age/2008/latency/

  11. Roy says:

    it’s more of a personal preference than a core designing concept really, but like you said, try it for yourself to see. :)

  12. Gino says:

    I got a few Questions:

    - I have a POD X3L can I use it for recording sessions or I need a Sound Card (Better than that I have) or buy a UX unit ???

    - I need the MICS if I only want to record the Guitar and Bass parts ???

    - I have the SONY Acid Pro, the Ablenton Live 7.1, the Cool Edit Pro 2.0, the Cake Walk Sonar 6 and the Dimension Pro … I know that the Sonar is the best for recording, but can I use the Ableton, its more easier to drive it ???

    - Can I use like monitor my Stereo Mini Component ??? is an LG MCD 112 ???

    But away its a great Blog …

  13. bvesco says:

    > …can I use it for recording sessions…

    Yes, you can use X3L as your soundcard.

    > …I need the MICS if I only want to record…

    Do not understand the question.

    > …know that the Sonar is the best for recording…

    I do not believe in such a thing as the best. There is the best for you to get your music made and nothing else. If Ableton fits you better then use Ableton. The important thing is to start making music!

    > …my Stereo Mini Component…

    As long as it has the inputs you need then you can use it. It might not be the most true sound but not everyone needs that. If you are doing recordings for yourself then it’s great. If you are trying to open a studio and charge money to record other people then you might need something a bit more true.

    Thanks for reading!

  14. Gino says:

    > …I need the MICS if I only want to record…

    Do not understand the question.

    Maybe is not clear … JIJIJI my english is not good ’cause I’m from Peru …

    - I need the Mic’s (microphones) if I only want to record the Guitar and Bass parts ???

  15. bvesco says:

    Ok. Actually you don’t need the mic at all if you only want to record guitar and bass because guitar and bass can be recorded directly through the device itself using a standard 1/4″ cable.

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