Basics for Setting up Your Home Studio
If you’re fed up with listening to poor-quality phone recordings of your songs, this is the answer you’ve been looking for.
What if you can finally listen to your music, played by a band or a big orchestra?
And even better. Once you’ve written a part for every instrument, you can send it to your friends to learn for your upcoming band rehearsal.
Or you might want to practice your composing skills and try writing a song in different genres. Or try writing a soundtrack for a short movie and learning how to sync the background music with the screen events.
The possibilities are endless!
Actually, many mainstream artists today use their home studios to create whole albums. Just look at Charlie Puth’s album Voicenotes or Billie Ellish’s debut studio album, they’ve made all the songs from their home studios.
With that hype in mind, let’s look at the basic things you’ll need to set up your home studio and start writing some amazing music.
Here’s a list of gears you’ll need to set your own studio.
Many of the requirements are similar to the ones needed to play videogames because making music draws a lot of resources you’ll use for plugins, multiple tracks, virtual instruments, and other fascinating stuff.
Laptop or Desktop
You’ll need a decent computer to run all the programs and VST’s and be able to hear what you’ve composed with a certain degree of reliability.
If you choose to buy a laptop you’ll need the following specs (keep in mind: these are the minimum):
- 2.2Ghz i7 quad-core processor or higher
- 4GB of RAM (better 8GB to start with)
- 64-bit operating system
- At least 256GB of internal storage (HDD or SSD: latter preferred)
- At least a 15-inch screen (having a second screen is highly recommended)
- At least 2 USB 3.0 ports (or buy a USB hub to compensate)
Consider that you’ll have certain devices plugged into your laptop, such as a MIDI keyboard, headphones, speakers (2), auxiliary screen, and so on, so you’ll need those USB ports to handle it. If you buy a USB hub, consider using one that has its own auxiliary power, so your laptop is not handling all the power needed to run all these devices.
Why chose a laptop?
- It gives you portability. You can take it anywhere, produce music on the road, and can set it up easily.
- If you want to do DJ gigs and/or produce music at different locations.
Downside: they easily break, last less than a desktop (around 5 years), and are difficult to upgrade.
Why chose a desktop?
- You get a better value for the same price as a laptop.
- More reliable in their performance.
- Easily upgradable.
- If you intend to produce music at one location.
Downside: low portability.
There’s a lot of debate about which type of computer you should choose but think about where you’ll be using it and choose the one that best suits your day-to-day work life.
So if you’re lost on where to start your search, here are two lists of good and affordable computers for your home studio:
Headphones and Speakers
You’ll have to use both at one point.
When you’re recording late at night, or whenever you don’t want to disturb people around you, I’d recommend this set of headphones.
Those are the ones I use and they’re very good at portraying both high and low-frequency sounds. This is called a plain response which means that you don’t hear certain sound frequencies more amplified than others.
When it comes to speakers, these are used mainly for the mixing part. You set one speaker at each side, both at the same distance from the sides of the walls. And place them pointing towards you.
Here’s a list of affordable speakers you can choose from for your home studio sound system.
MIDI Controller Keyboard
This is your creative gear. The device that will turn your music into something called MIDI.
Thanks to the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), you’ll be able to play your music with any virtual instrument, send files to your musician friends, and translate those songs into sheet music. You’ll be learning a lot about it over time, so don’t worry too much about it now.
As a beginner, you’ll want to look for a keyboard that has both piano keys and other integrated functions such as faders, modulation/pitch bend wheel, pads, and different buttons for you to play with. After a while, you might have a keyboard just with keys (and maybe a modulation/pitch bend wheel) and all these other devices as separate hardware.
I’d recommend you start with this keyboard. If your space is limited, you might want to have 49 keys or 61keys, and you’ll see how your keyboard will also contain all these other useful buttons for your music composition process.
Apart from a keyboard, you might want to record some live instruments like a bass guitar, acoustic/electric guitar, or some drums.
For these recordings, you’ll need an audio interface. A small box that offers connectors to plug in these instruments and microphones so that you can do the recording yourself. It’s like the middle man between the instrument and your computer. It translates the signal into data that can be processed by your recording software.
The most used audio interface on the planet is this one. It has two channels, so you can simultaneously use two mics to record an acoustic guitar, or use one to record a bass guitar and the other one to record your voice. You can also choose one with more channels, depending on the gear you have at your house.
To record your voice or any other acoustic instrument you’ll need a mic.
It will connect to your audio interface and load into your music edition program where you can then make any adjustments to fit it in your song.
Keep in mind that there are 2 types of microphones used in a studio recording:
- Dynamic: better for capturing loud and strong sounds (booms, drums, powerful vocals). They don’t require a power supply, they’re fairly low cost, durable, and low maintenance. E.g. Shure SM57 and Shure SM58
- Condenser: better for capturing delicate and higher frequency sounds (vocals, strings, acoustic guitar). Very sensitive. They need a power supply, are more expensive, and delicate. E.g. AKG 414 and Shure SM81
Here’s a list of the best mics on a budget you might want to check out. Consider having one or two mics depending on your music needs.
And don’t forget to have a Mic stand!
We’ve covered all the basic hardware, now let’s look at some of the software you’ll need to start making music at home.
I’ll just comment on the extra software you need to purchase since some of these come with the hardware you’ve already bought. This means that when you buy your audio interface and MIDI controller keyboard, you’ll need to install their software too.
Sometimes, the software has to be downloaded from the webpage of the manufacturer, so keep that in mind.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Everything you’ve bought so far will be processed through this program.
It’s software that will enable you to compose, record, produce, mix, and edit your audio and MIDI input.
There’s much debate on which DAW you should have but depending on how you’ll use it (and which type of computer you have) you can narrow down your options.
Here’s a quick overview of the most frequently used DAW’s
It’s one of the big players in the field.
It’s mainly used for live performances and electronic producers are its most frequent users. You can trigger clips and loops that will make you look like an amazing one-man-band.
There are tons of high-quality samples and synth plugins that you can use. And they keep releasing vast amounts of sample packs you can put on your tracks.
The latest version is Ableton Live 10, but the 11th version will soon be released, so stay tuned!
Here’s a crash course for beginners you might want to check out.
It’s the golden standard for mixing music and almost every professional studio uses it.
It was designed for recording sessions and you’ll see that it excels at editing and creating the best sound for your album.
Usually, people use this DAW to record electric and acoustic instruments and mix them in a high-quality mixing environment. It’s less used for working with virtual instruments (VST’s), compose background music for films, or play live with it.
The latest version of Pro Tools is the 2020.11.
Here’s a beginner’s course to get a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into.
This is a classic for every Apple user. It’s free and it’s a perfect way to start getting yourself around this world of music-making.
Sadly, it’s not supported for Windows. However, there are great alternatives to produce your first songs.
It’s a simple tool that can help you start your music career, and if you already have a Mac, you can find it right away!
The latest version is GarageBand 10.3.5
Here’s a beginner’s course you might be interested in.
Logic Pro X
Another Apple music production software, but you have to pay for this one. I know, a real bummer.
Like all Apple products, it’s easy to use, and if you’ve been playing with GarageBand, it will be a smooth transition.
There are thousands of samples and plugins that can set you up for great recordings and compositions. Now, if you try using it on a PC it’s going to give you some headaches, so for any Mac user, this seems like an easy decision.
The latest version is the Logic Pro X version 10.5
Here’s a beginner’s course to start exploring this DAW.
This is the one I use, so I may be a little biassed on this one.
It’s easy to use with great compatibility with VST plugins. It comes with a lot of sample and plugins libraries, but you’ll need to purchase additional ones if you want to compose with big orchestras in mind (this applies to all other DAWs too).
Until the 10th version came out, you couldn’t export audio and video at the same time, but that has changed thankfully.
This is especially useful (and much needed!) for any film score composer. I use it for this purpose so that’s why I’m so hyped with it.
The latest version is Cubase 11.
Here’s a beginner’s course on this DAW.
Note: DAW’s in general
They all do the same, make music basically. Changes are in the layout and some unique features for each one of them.
If you’re not sure about the ones I mentioned earlier, here are some others you might want to try out.
Some manufacturers have different versions depending on how serious you want to engage with music-making. For instance, Cubase lets you choose between an amateur, middle ground, and pro version. Others just have one version.
I’d recommend you first try 2 or 3 of the ones you’ve put your eye on. Get the demo. Test it. And then buy the version that best suits your needs.
Now you’ve got a quick overview of the basic stuff you need to start making some serious music.
It seems a lot, I know.
When I first started assembling all of this I was very confused, and this article would’ve helped me start this journey much easier.
So that’s why I’ve written it.
I want you to have an easier transition into this amazing world, and don’t get discouraged by all the new things you see here.
You’re about to make a dream come true, and sorting these things out should be the last thing stopping you from making it happen.
I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, and I’d be even more thrilled to hear about your first experiences with music production.
Listening to your music for the first time, played back to you, is something you’ll never forget.
Let the music flow!
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