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. Rich says:

    “you really want to stick with recording at 16-bit and 44.1khz sampling rate. ”

    This isn’t good advise IMO. While we may mix down to 16-bit for CD or MP3 in the end, having those extra bits in 24-bit (while tracking and mixing) affords more headroom and the ability to mix “in the box” with a higher quality of sound. The sampling rate at 44.1khz is fine in either case (for non DVD applications) but suggesting that 16-bit is equal to 24-bit is misleading. Most people will hear an appreciable difference in the quality of tracks even after converting back to 16-bit. Anyway, the point is somewhat moot because most products now support 24-bit even at the low end. Consider revising this statement.

    Otherwise, a great article and I REALLY enjoy your site :~) Thanks for putting this all together. It’s very helpful…

    Rich

  2. bvesco says:

    @Rich

    I absolutely agree that 24-bit is a great improvement. High sampling rates are somewhat superfluous for conventional audio, but bit depth offers noticeable improvements in quality. We are on the same page there. However, there shall be no revising of any statements. I stand by the original text (which does not suggest that 16-bit is equal to 24-bit).

    Tracks running at 24-bit use quite a bit more computational horsepower than those running at 16-bit. Yes, 24-bit gives more headroom but if you really want to keep it “in the box” then 24-bit also gives less tracks. When I first started recording natively in Windows 3.1 on a Pentium 100 with a whopping 16mb ram there was no such thing as mixing in the box. I had just enough horsepower to preview live plugins on two or three tracks tops and then the effects had to be “printed” to free up resources to mix some more tracks.

    In these days of increased CPU speeds I prefer to keep the whole mix live. I have comfortably done mixes of 32+ tracks on my current box with plugins on every track at 16-bits. The last time I experimented with 24-bit recording I had a track count of 14 and once plugins were going on every track things got rough.

    If you are a pro with buckets of money to spend and are very knowledgeable in the ways of digital recording then by all means buy yourself a powerhouse computer with all the latest whosy-whatsits and record at 24-bits. I choose a different path. There was a ten year period where all your favorite albums were recorded, mixed, mastered and printed at 16-bits and you loved the sound of every one. I’ve got plenty of songs for sale on iTunes (search for Ben Vesco) and every one of them has a full 16-bit signal path from the first bit to the last. I’ve never had anyone listen to my tracks and say, “sounds good, but it could really use that 24-bit clarity.”

    I’m all for the eventual move to full 24-bit everywhere, but we’re not ready for that yet. This article is aimed at jumpstarting the beginner who wants to get into home recording but needs a little advice. “Spend a grand on a new computer” is not a piece of advice that person needs. They need to know how to get going by spending just a few hundred dollars or less, and that includes the computer. Articles aimed at the pro would be written with a much different tone than these aimed at the hobbyist.

    Here’s a sanity check for anyone considering recording at high bit depths or sampling rates. If you can list five reasons why your project would benefit from a higher bit depth or sampling rate (from memory, Google is cheating) then you should absolutely do it.

  3. Sampling Rate vs Bit Depth says:

    The reason I use Linux for recording is because you get more out of lower powered computers. However, Linux can be a PITA if you’re not familiar with it.

    AFA sampling rates and bit depth go, I feel that higher sampling rates are much more important than bit depth. 16 bits gives plenty room to describe a waveform, and increasing bit depth just gives you more dynamic range. Most CDs aren’t using close to the dynamic range available in 16 bits.

    However, at 44.1kHz, a sine wave at 20Khz records at best as a triangle wave. The Nyquist principle refers to the ability to transmit digital data (1s and 0s), not how to reproduce high-quality audio.

    • bvesco says:

      We’re going to have to agree to disagree on sampling rates vs. bit depth. 16-bits gives plenty of room to describe a waveform sure, but it gives much less resolution in the least significant bits (that’s least significant mathematically, not sonically). 24-bit affords you greater resolution on your reverb tails and other low volume sounds.

      A 20kHz sine wave at 44.1kHz? Who records sine waves? Who records sine waves at 20kHz? Scientists, not musicians. If science is your game then by all means $pay$ for the $higher$ numbers. If you wanna make music at home and sell some records on the side then 16/44.1 is good enough for you, just like it has been good enough for the entire record industry for the last twenty years.

  4. Josh Panton says:

    Can you go through a tutorial on how the heck to get Pod Farm working as a VST plugin with Reaper? I can’t for the life of me figure out why it wont process sound when i add it as a vst plugin for the armed track im trying to record. I’m using my Pod x3 live through usb as my sound card both input and output for the audio.
    PodFarm comes up when i select it as a VST, but when i go to play i hear no audio, no audio levels are moving in Pod Farm, but when i stop using it as a VST on that track, i hear my audio being processed fine….

    any thoughts?
    thanks
    josh

  5. Guitarzan says:

    I found the perfect low end solution for my needs-

    * My existing laptop
    * Lexicon Alpha USB Recording Studio

    That’s it! $80 and I’ve got a dedicated interface with all the basic features to record my guitar/Pod XT and Cubase Lite, which is all I need to record multiple tracks.

    Installed in minutes, worked out of the box and I was recording right away. Sweet!!

  6. Matt says:

    This is great advice. I just jumped into this ocean of DAW/Home Studio…after playing sax for 30 years and dreaming of a home studio…I’m finally making it happen. I have Cubase Studio 5…incredible software; probably more than I need right now…This is my current setup I’m considering:

    * Audio Capture: Roland/Edirol UA-25EX, M-Audio Fast Track Pro, or Motu 828mkII/UltraLite-mk3 (considering FireWire…but will need to upgrade my PC; for now USB 2.0 should work).

    * Effects for home studio and live performances: TC Electronic M-One XL Effects Processor.

    * I have an m-audio Axiom-25 with 8 pads; and a Yamaha KX49 for my controllers.

    * My speakers are currently Logitech PC speakers with a sub-woofer; I also have a pair of Sony MDR-V700 headphones; however…I do have a nice pair of studio monitor stereo speakers not being used…from 1987 (they still sound nice).

  7. Brian says:

    I’m using Cakewalk Music Creator 5, picked it up at Cakewalks site (download version) for $34.00, and Line 6′s gearbox ToneDirect DI Silver (about $90.00). Just ordinary Sony headphones for around $20.00. For recording the guitar work, it’s more than adequate… not so great for voice. Music Creator 5 is quite a step down from Sonar, but I find it syncs well, mixes well, and is quite good for recording demos.

  8. First off excellent site! I check back here daily but I was hoping if someone could give me a little pointers. I happened to stumble upon a site that offers a lot of free mp3′s and claim they pay their users for uploading but has anyone here tried them out? I think the site was http://www.albumhunt.com but I’m not 100% sure. Thanks for any information you can provide.

  9. Dave Borntrager says:

    It could be that by now nobody is reading this anymore. In case someone is…

    This is a great article for me. Much of it is still Latin because I am a true beginner. (just throwing ideas around in my head about a home studio)

    Audiophiles, please, when an article is listed as “for beginners” or “advise for those just starting out,” PLEASE, PLEASE don’t confuse those of us who actually are by arguing some points which are significant to you, but are pedantic to us, with the author. We are having a hard enough time as it is, trying to learn what you already know. I am sure that there are more appropriate places for you to do that.

    I don’t care what bit rate is best to use when trying to capture the warm timbre of the 20 Hz range of a camel fart is a sandstorm.

    What IS important to a beginner is getting the sounds into the computer and getting back out again.

    Thank you for allowing my RANT.

    Dave

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