Hello loyal readers. For those of you who have followed my posts from day dot, or those of you who are reading an article of mine for the first time – welcome, and I’m sorry in advance.
Over the past 6 months I’ve imparted a lot of knowledge regarding individual elements of a music studio, preparing you for your ventures into the expansive world of audio editing.
While all of this information was undoubtedly interesting and helpful, there’s been something lacking – the glue between each article. Like an inexpensive eBay lego set, all the pieces are there but they don’t fit together.
So, I’m back again, to right my wrongs and to present you with a comprehensive guide on how to incorporate all of the totally useful physics lessons on sound waves I gave you when making your very own home studio.
This is going to be a fun, expensive and occasionally frustrating journey, but when making your next greatest hit is as simple as rolling out of bed – you’ll be glad you did it.
I’m about to begin, but first…
Let’s Go Through What I Have to Consider
Unfortunately, I can’t just blindly rush into making purchases, waving my money around like those people lining up outside Apple stores whenever a minor, purely cosmetic adjustment to an iPhone is made.
No, there’s much for me to consider before I can even think about what audio interface I might like.
The first thing I’m going to think about is this: what are my goals for this music studio?
The reason this question is so essential to ask first is because building a studio can be seriously disorienting – there are so many possibilities in the world of audio.
What you ultimately decide as being your prime objective will affect things like how you prioritize your budget, the room you use for the studio and the hardware you buy.
I’m primarily interested in recording my music in an amateur manner, as well as mixing and mastering others’ work professionally.
I’m aware that this may change in the future, so flexibility is another element I need to factor in. However, I also know I don’t want to record instruments such as drums, or do multitrack recordings, which will save me on both equipment and room space.
Considering all of that, I know that my budget will need to be fairly lenient without being exorbitant, which leads me to my next deliberation.
There are a few ways I could go about sorting out my studio’s budget – I could spend incrementally, buying pieces I need as I can afford them, or, I could set aside a chunk of savings and craft an estimated number I’m willing to spend and work from there.
Both strategies have their obvious advantages and disadvantages, and which way you decide to go is entirely up to your own financial situation.
Either way, this won’t largely affect the end quality of my studio.
What will however, is how I prioritize my budget. It’s worth keeping in mind certain elements are going to cost more than others – a microphone is going to cost more than a microphone stand, I should hope – but for the most part, how much I spend on a specific building block should be determined by my ultimate goal.
I know that I won’t be recording multitrack, which allows me to save on my audio interface (because I’ll need less inputs) and microphones (because I’ll need less of them).
This money will instead be put towards a powerful set of studio monitors and virtual plugins, as I know that my focus will be on mixing, mastering and other semi-professional engineering tasks.
A music studio can be as simple as a cheap audio interface and a sing star mic, all the way to what one might expect to see if they poked their head inside Abbey Road – how much you want to spend is entirely up to you.
Let’s say my budget is $1500. If my maths is correct (and I extend my gratitude to whoever invented calculators for assuring me it is) my equipment list would look something like this:
- Audio Interface – $200
- Microphones – $200
- Studio Monitors – $300
- Studio Headphones – $100
- DAW and Plugins – $500
- Misc. (cables, mic stands) – $50
- Acoustic Treatment – $150
If you want to add an original Fender Strat plus Deluxe Reverb Amplifier on top of a fully-weighted 88-key keyboard to your studio, don’t come crying to me when it doesn’t fit into my ENTIRELY THEORETICAL 1500-dollar budget. That would just be ridiculous.
To save on your studio, nearly every piece of music studio hardware can be purchased second hand while maintaining its original efficiency and functionality.
The budget outlined above will mostly be second-hand gear, however it would also be sufficient for a more than serviceable studio if I purchased all of the equipment new. You might just have to skimp on a few elements compared to what I have done. The choice is yours…
…because of course, buying used has its obvious drawbacks. They can be faulty, stinky, or disfigured.
Not to mention the adrenaline rush when you find that unbelievable deal. Nothing else compares. *clears throat* Anyway, moving on…
I will cover acoustic room treatment shortly, but before I spend a dime it would be remiss of me to not consider the room that I’ll be using for my studio.
In my case, I will be making the classic bedroom studio. While there’s not a whole lot of floor space on offer, many great albums have been constructed in more dour circumstances, so I have no excuses to not be winning the next Grammy for independent artists.
That being said, I will still have to be stringent with the way I structure everything. I know that I will not need room for a drumkit, or multiple musicians recording simultaneously, so I can devote more space to things like microphone stands, amps and studio monitors.
If live band recording is one of your goals, you would need an uncannily large bedroom – one most predominantly found in the ridiculous mansions rockstars own – so it’s worth sourcing out studies/living rooms and assessing their suitability to host a parade of raucous musos recording their masterpiece.
The other major factor to deliberate on is the noise-level of a given room. If you’re like me and you live with your family – and worst of all, pet birds – no room is safe from sound bleeding into your recordings. I just have to deal with it.
However, things to look for in a room other than space are:
- Where it sits in the house. Is it far from the main, noisy, ‘play area?’
- Is it carpeted (ideal), floorboarded (less than ideal), or god forbid, TILED (you better hope you’re an opera singer)?
- Are there enough electrical plugs spaced throughout the room to power all your hardware?
- Is the room square (not ideal) or does it have longer dimensions (ideal)?
Building the Studio
I know, I know. I promised this would be an interesting read and I’d dive STRAIGHT into demonstrating how I’d go about making a music studio, and yet here we are, 1300 words later.
And while I’ll continue to reiterate how important these considerations are to make before rushing into any large investment, I know you don’t want to hear it anymore.
You want to get stuck into building your own musical haven. You’ve had enough of warnings, tentative advice and complicated sound-related physics.
Well, let me just tell you – you’re going to absolutely love step one.
Step 1: Acoustic Treatment
You know how in amateur music studios – and when I say amateur, I mean it – you sometimes see entire farms worth of egg cartons hideously taped onto every bare bit of wall that could be found?
That, in an entirely ineffectual and redundant way, is a form of acoustic treatment.
I think the best way to start the discussion on acoustic treatment is by instantly putting a few common myths to the sword.
Myth 1: Egg cartons are a cheap way of acoustically treating a studio because their uneven shape will diffuse echoes.
This is true to a degree, but they are nowhere near dense or big enough to be actually effective – they will absorb a tiny amount of high end which will leave your room with a gross, boxy sound. Also, knock over a candle in your studio and see what happens.
Myth 2: Soundproofing a room as an amateur is possible. Okay, so technically it’s possible, but it’s extremely expensive, time-consuming and more frustrating than you can possibly imagine.
There are all sorts of strategies, but basically if you have thin walls, a hollow door and a busy household, there’s going to be sound leaking no matter what. You can either build something from scratch, or like me, make the best of what you’ve got.
Myth 3: Ebay.com’s ‘acoustic foam’ is a good investment and will substitute for real acoustic panels. It won’t. Don’t even go there.
Myth 4: Soundproofing and acoustic treatment are the same thing. They’re not. Soundproofing is preventing bleed – both in and out – from one space to another.
Acoustic treatment is intended to retain the integrity of a recording/sound as the shape of a room, the positioning of walls and corners, and frames of your favourite bands will alter the audio you’re listening to.
So… What is Acoustic Treatment and Why Will I Need It?
Even for me – someone who takes diabolical pleasure out of imposing unnecessarily complicated physics-based explanations upon my hapless readers – imparting the sheer mathematical and scientific complexity of acoustic treatment upon you would be far too cruel.
When I first started researching this topic, I all but lost my mind. It was constantly swirling with mathematical equations, thoughts of fiberglass and trying to figure out what on earth ‘early reflections’ were. I don’t pretend to be an expert on acoustic treatment, so don’t take my word as gospel.
I will try to explain it as simply as possible, using my room as an example. So, starting at the source of the audio (be it my vocals or my studio monitors), sound will travel outwards, bouncing between flat, hard surfaces of my room.
As it bounces, bass frequencies will build up in the corners (particularly tri-corners) of your room. Some of these may come back into your microphone, affecting the quality of your recording. It will also alter what you’re hearing when trying to mix and master music.
Luckily, my floor is carpeted which removes one point of reflection for sound to distort upon, but I do have a lot of bare walls, malevolently plotting to ruin my mixing engineer career before it has even begun. This is where acoustic treatment comes into play.
Buying these panels pre-made can be a very expensive process, especially if you want it done professionally, as there are a lot of tests (sPL, room shape, etc.) that need to be conducted.
Remembering back to our ‘goals’ section, we need to assess whether such an expensive and time-consuming procedure is really necessary for what we want to achieve.
For me, I will definitely need some semblance of acoustic treatment, as it is simply vital if you plan on doing mixing and mastering. However, I won’t be running a fully professional studio, and most of my engineering gigs will be on the side, for independent artists with small budgets.
Spending thousands on acoustic treatment would be a poor investment – one I could never recoup. If you are only planning to do amateur recordings, jam with a band or only use electronic instruments and have your work mixed by someone else, acoustic treatment is a headache you can simply avoid.
To fit in my budget, I will get hands-on and work on some DIY acoustic panels and bass traps. My room is rather small and certain things like beds and windows get in the way of important reflection points, so I will also have to make these panels portable by attaching a frame and stand to them.
Using a specific type of fibreglass (certain types of polyethylene works too), I will create rectangular panels with a frame backing of MDF, making sure to leave an inch or two gap between the back of the panel and any given wall. This gap is less important for bass traps.
And there you have it. My extremely uncomplicated yet somehow still pretty damn complicated explanation of the basics of acoustic treatment.
Hopefully, you now have enough of an understanding of the concept that you could impress people at parties with it, but I must recommend if DIY acoustic treatment is the route you choose to go down, to continue your research at various forums such as Gearslutz and HomeRecording.com, as I did.
PRICE OF ACOUSTIC TREATMENT: $120
OVERALL MONEY SPENT: $120
Step 2: Setting Up
Look, we’re not quite at the exciting part, where we get to throw our money away and receive shiny boxes in the mail – but I promise we’re getting closer and closer to it.
Setting up is an exciting and invigorating experience in its own right. You get to lay the foundation upon which you build your musical fortress.
First thing’s first, I’m going to take stock of the equipment and instruments I already have. This will be an important factor in deciding what items you want to prioritize going forward.
I imagine it’s safe to assume most musicians own at least one instrument which is probably a good start – though strangely not strictly essential – to making music.
I own quite a few, so before I try to even organize anything, I gotta clean the living daylights out of my soon-to-be spotless studio.
Bank statements strewn on my desk? Binned. Chewed up pens lying in my drawers? Binned.
A well-meaning gift from my grandmother that takes up at least the same amount of space a guitar would? Straight into the attic (sorry Gran).
Take advantage of every nook and cranny you can muster. Think about what DIY options are available to you for saving space.
For example, I own three guitars, and instead of letting them selfishly hog tactically significant carpet locations, I was able to construct a wall-hanging platform for them by painting a piece of ply, attaching tool hooks and securing the plank to the room’s studs. This was a simple procedure, and that’s coming from someone who would never be accused of being handy.
This stage of the process may require some measurements. For example, these are the steps I went through to prepare for music-hardware lego:
- 1) Measured desk space (accounting for computer screens and case) to ensure optimal position of studio monitors,
- 2) Create guitar hanger and – somewhat obviously – hang guitars from it,
- 3) Set up keyboard stand in an easy to access location, ideally one not far from my computer’s keyboard. I chose to put mine adjacent to my desk right next to my chair, meaning all I have to do is swivel 90 degrees to record any MIDI.
- 4) Shove existing cables into a drawer. Possibly not the most efficient method of cable management, but hey, that’s why it’s a home studio.
- 5) Put in place acoustic panels and bass traps I created earlier
- 6) Ensure there’s enough room to walk around.
Of course, everyone’s procedure will be different, depending on the size of your room, the equipment you have and the equipment you’re planning to buy.
It might be a fruitful exercise to look at online demonstrations of both home and professional studio rooms to get inspiration when it comes to organization.
If everything is clean, easily accessible and in logical locations, it will be so much easier to find that little bit of extra motivation to use your studio productively.
MONEY SPENT ON THIS SECTION: $0
OVERALL MONEY SPENT: $120
Step 3: DAW and Plugins
Weird right? I bet most of you expected me to list the DAW last. It seems like the kind of thing to consider last, as it is probably the least exciting purchase you’re going to be making. But let me walk you through a scenario demonstrating my logic before you accuse me of being out of touch.
I purchase a 400-dollar, second-hand microphone (or any piece of hardware really) off of eBay. I mistakenly overshot my budget and cannot afford DAW software.
I have no way of testing my microphone’s recording capabilities. Come next paycheck where I buy cheap DAW software, to my horror I discover the microphone clicks incessantly, ruining any recording I attempt.
Upon contacting the seller, I receive a simple reply: ‘Sorry bro. 2-week warranty only. Buyer beware.’ And I’m suddenly out of pocket 400 dollars.
Luckily, this situation is avoidable due to the fact that free DAW software exists (as well as free trials of premium products), but my point still stands that you should prioritize downloading a program capable of testing whatever hardware you purchase, from instruments to microphones to audio interfaces.
In terms of choosing a specific program, there isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to DAW software.
I will purchase and install Ableton’s Standard version, with the goal of upgrading to Suite using money I make from mixing and mastering others’ music.
It’s important to know I’m not choosing this program for any specific, music-based reason. I have past experience using it and am comfortable with its workflow – nothing more.
While a DAW program is a good idea to get started on, plugins can be purchased at any time throughout your studio journey and should probably be prioritized last.
The only reason I have mentioned them here is that you can save a good amount of money buying certain VSTs in conjunction with DAW software, so it may be worthwhile getting them sooner rather than later.
Otherwise, push plugins from your mind for now otherwise you will fall into a deep, distressing rabbit hole costing you thousands of dollars in exchange for the coveted ability to turn any song into ‘Party Rock Anthem’ by LMFAO.
PRICE OF ABLETON LIVE: $449
OVERALL MONEY SPENT: $569
Step 4: Audio Interfaces
If the major reasoning for prioritizing DAW software as my first purchase was so I could test other gear, it stands to reason my next purchase should be an audio interface.
So…let’s just assume I am a logical person, that I don’t get overcome with excitement and greed at the first good deal on Facebook marketplace I see and move on with the article.
An audio interface is one of the most integral pieces of a home studio – it is the glue that connects your microphone to a computer, your ideas to reality. Perhaps more so than any other hardware you are going to buy, and yes, I’ve said this so much I feel dizzy, but you really need to consider what your goals are before making a decision.
Interfaces can range from as cheap as a few pieces of premium chocolate to nauseatingly expensive. Some have functions that are simple as Plug A into B and get sound on C, others as complex as onboard recording and having enough I/Os to support the London Symphony Orchestra.
Think about how many simultaneous recordings you will ever need (Will you record a full band? Will you multi-mic drums?) Are you willing to sacrifice clean preamps for saving a bit of money or digital-to-analog conversion quality for ins and outs?
Most modern audio interfaces are more than suitable for a variety of entry-level audio tasks, even those sitting ever-so-smugly under the 200-dollar mark. Yes, we get it: you’re cheap and good.
My studio purposes – personal recordings never involving more than 2 people and semi-professional mixing and mastering – make the required functionalities of my prospective interface crystal clear. I:
- Won’t need a lot of ins and outs, but more than 2×2 as is standard for entry-level interfaces
- Require a powerful headphone amp
- High quality digital to analog converters
- Seeing as I don’t need a huge number of ins and outs, I know that I can aim for something with above-average preamps. Additionally, I know I won’t be using an external preamp in the immediate future, so it is in my interest to prioritize having good preamps.
There are a number of great interfaces that fit these criteria, but I ended up going with the Audient iD14 and choosing to spend a bit extra on flexibility compared to interfaces in the $200-dollar new ballpark.
I also got it second-hand in a FANTASTIC deal… but I’m getting too excited. Let’s not talk about it, okay?
PRICE OF AUDIENT ID14 (SECOND-HAND): $170
OVERALL MONEY SPENT: $739
Step 5: Studio Headphones and Monitors
From this point on there’s no real necessity to prioritize any one item over another – you should simply purchase whatever good deal comes at you, or whatever you feel you need based on goals for your studio.
1) Even if you aren’t planning to mix and master your own music (or others’ music for that matter) having studio monitors allows you to get a better reference in your mind about what you might want the engineer to do.
2) Even if you’re just building a studio to casually record and practice some piano playing, having a good set of studio headphones is just motivational. Working super hard on a piece only to have it sound like garbage on a ten-dollar set of cans isn’t the most inspiring thought.
3) Most commercial headphones aren’t really designed to isolate sound that effectively – they still tend to bleed a little bit as your studio is going to be a whole lot quieter than a bustling street, or a train going 60 miles an hour. Certain studio headphones make the recording experience a much cleaner and pleasant experience.
4) If you’re mixing and mastering you need them. It’s that simple. Mixing and mastering on consumer headphones or speakers is a disaster. Don’t do it. Please.
In my situation, I know I will need three items to spruik up my studio to a point where it can be used professionally.
- Studio monitors
- Studio open-back headphones (for mixing)
- Studio closed-back headphones (for recording)
While this will be the second most expensive step of the studio building for me based on my goals, I’m not going to pretend these purchases – particularly for the studio monitors – are industry-standard.
While I will be mixing professionally, it’s not going to be for Oasis or Radiohead at a rate of $500 an hour. With that in mind, I will be targeting value items that fairly represent the type of monetary return I am to recoup from this investment.
For studio monitors, I will acquire second-hand Yamaha HS8s. You can be looking at upwards of 5-600 dollars for a pair new, but I was lucky enough to find a superb deal on some that had cosmetic damage with no effect on sound quality.
There are plenty of other decent studio monitors around this price-point, like the JLB 305 MKII. A step up in quality and price would mean considering Adam A7Xs, and a step-down Presonus’ Eris series.
For studio headphones, I don’t plan on doing a whole lot of mixing at all with them – they will simply serve as another point of reference with my monitors doing the bulk of the work. It’s a good idea to avoid relying too much on studio headphones when making studio decisions (more on that here).
A solid set of open-backs – Grado SR80s – will be my go-to for this circumstance, and the well-known and industry-standard closed-backs of Sony MDR-7506 will be my weapons of choice for minimizing bleed when recording.
Price of Yamaha HS8s (second-hand): 250$; Price of Grado SR80s (second-hand): $30; Price of Sony MDR-7506 (second hand): $50
MONEY SPENT ON THIS SECTION: $330
OVERALL MONEY SPENT: $1069
Step 6: Microphones
Buying a microphone is a task that can feel akin to a war at times. You’re constantly battling back and forth with your judgement, your budget, and the immense number of high-quality options available to you.
Traditionally, dynamics are flexible, sturdy and suitable for loud instrumentation like guitar amps, percussion and live performance.
Conversely, condenser mics are far more sensitive and generally encompass a greater clarity in the higher frequency ranges, making them suitable for acoustic guitars, overheads and most commonly, vocals.
Ribbons sit somewhere in between in terms of sensitivity, often having a dark and warm frequency response. These microphones are appropriate for orchestral instrumentation and percussion.
Look, I will behave and not venture into any further specifics than the above summaries for the machinations of microphones. Those of you who have already endured my 2-part behemoth on the subject matter are probably scarred enough. Remember that stuff about transducers, electrical signal conversion and, most terrifying of all, VIBRATIONS?
I will spare newcomers from such meaty topics as you don’t really need to know how microphones work, though if you are a music nerd like me – I’m sure many of you are – it is pretty interesting information to have in the old memory bank.
Normally I am reluctant to suggest a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for any purchases when building a music studio, and only give advice based on my specific circumstances.
However, I am going to gleefully throw that philosophy out the window and make the following recommendation: your music studio will benefit from having an SM57.
The sheer versatility and value of these microphones make them a must-have for a lot of home studios, and professional ones too. You can usually get them for around 50-100 dollars, and they’re super easy to find second-hand because they’re indestructible. The Nokia of microphones.
Without the requirement of multitrack recording or working with something like drums, the Shure SM57 is more than capable of carrying the workload of instruments I generally use in my own music.
But even though my singing is questionable at best, having a microphone dedicated to vocals is an important factor in optimizing and diversifying my home studio, while thankfully being a good vocalist is not. As discussed previously, I will mostly be looking at Large Condenser Microphones to fill this role.
One person making RnB might say they hated the frequency response and warmth of a certain mic, while another might have loved these very elements for their lo-fi sample recordings. This was the process I went through.
Armed with this information, I created a shortlist of mics commonly seen in my price range second-hand and kept a keen eye out for bargains daily to ensure nothing slipped through the cracks of my fingers.
My shortlist was:
Ultimately, I went with the 2003A, as the other microphones – arguably all a tier above the MXL in terms of sound quality– never entered into my budget range and I needed the microphone by a certain date.
I would normally argue for the virtues of patience but in this case, it was impossible. With that said, the 2003A has been a more than serviceable member of my music studio family and will continue to provide me with more than adequate recordings for years to come.
Price of SM57 (second-hand): $75; Price of MXL 2003A (second-hand): $170
MONEY SPENT ON THIS SECTION: $245
OVERALL MONEY SPENT: $1314
Step 7: Atoning for Your Sins
Okay great – you’ve made it this far. We’re so close to the end. But this is the frustrating section.
This is where you’ve spent a thousand dollars, multiple hours researching and find out that you’re missing that one cable that brings it all together. Or that you mismeasured your desk and your studio monitors don’t actually fit on the available space.
This is where all your nightmares come to life.
For the meticulous – feel free to skip this section, as I’m sure there’s nothing you missed or forgot in your elaborately plotted home studio purchase regime.
For the rest of us who can sometimes be a little overzealous, I’ll take you through a list of things I forgot that were vital to my home studio properly functioning.
- 1) Sustain pedal. This was more a quality of life thing than anything, but using a midi keyboard and trying to record anything piano-based was a distasteful experience without one.
- 2) Cables, particularly ¼” TRS cables. Also worth considering XLR cables and aux cables/extensions for headphones if they fail to reach from your audio interface to where an instrument is mic’d (full guide on cables).
- 3) Power adapter for a guitar pedal. This one was very stupid of me. I bought a second-hand pedal, assuming I’d have a spare adapter with the right specs. I didn’t.
- 4) Guitar capo. This wasn’t technically something I forgot, more something that I lost. Anyway, add it to the list of niggly purchases because it might be something you require alongside your first guitar purchase.
- 5) 1/4” to 1/8” adapter. So I can use generic headphones with my audio interface’s headphone amp.
- 6) Pop filter. Completely necessary for any sort of vocal work, especially with a condenser mic.
- 7) Mic stand. I already had one, but this wasn’t enough for me when I realized using both mics simultaneously to record guitar sounded much better than just one.
You may find none of these items make or break your studio, or that I haven’t mentioned the one (or twenty) pivotal factors that kept your particular studio from being perfect, meaning your local delivery man has to become repeatedly acquainted with your doorbell.
These are just some of those things that, in your eagerness to get creative, you simply forget and need to stretch your budget for.
MONEY SPENT ON THIS SECTION: $100
OVERALL MONEY SPENT: $1414
Final Step: Use Your Studio and Have Fun
This has been a marathon of an article. I know by now you’re tired, and quite possibly on your fourth attempt to actually make it to the end.
I apologize for my contempt of brevity – building a music studio just makes me excited. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed the ride and my own process provides you with the confidence and inspiration to set out after your audio-related goals.
With enough hard work and a willingness to learn, create and spend money (It’s important to note that the prices listed here are my own experiences and you may find these items to be significantly more or less expensive when buying used vs new).
I look forward to hearing what comes out of your new and undoubtedly impressive music studio. Feel free to drop me any questions about my studio, my experience building it, or issues you run into in the comments section below.