As we slowly grind our way into 2013 one thing is clear--there has never been a better time to record at home or build a modest studio. With continued improvement of digital technologies, the streamlining of "all in one" wonder units, sensible product design, integration with tablet/iPad devices, and a wide-open market filled with consumer choices it has been possible for the last few years for home studios to reach new heights of professional sound. However, the sheer number of products on the market--not to mention the peevish suspicion for the home recordist that their gear "isn't professional enough"--can make things confusing for even the most experienced engineers. What to do?
So let's start with a basic assumption: your budget is limited. It could be extremely limited, or it could be fairly large for a start up HR studio... say 5,000 USD. Even in the best case scenario that money is spent very quickly; it'll be spent even faster if you have your eye on "top shelf" equipment found at the better equipped pro studios. So, right out of the gate you have to recognize this basic fact: you will never have the same equipment (in quality or option) as a pro studio. Here's the kicker: it doesn't matter!
Seriously--it doesn't matter. You are a home recordist. You only need to record YOUR material (and maybe your friends'). You only need to work YOUR way, using the gear YOU would like to use, only recording the instruments YOU need to. On the other hands, studios don't have it that easy--they have to be prepared for (almost) anything that walks in the door! Depending on the studio this could range from rock/metal one day to symphony orchestras the next and everything in between. Consider your focus on YOUR music and the ability to construct your studio, and all the gear within it, around just that.
Lesson 1: focus ONLY on the equipment you need to accomplish your goal. Care only about spending money to further this goal. Prioritize on the the items you MUST have to operate and only on that. As your needs or skill grow, so can your studio and equipment list. Studios aren't built in a day, not even OceanWay or Abbey Road!
Okay, so what are the things you MUST have in your studio? Well, nowadays that list has grown shorter and shorter as consumer recording equipment has grown more and more consumer friendly and less specialized (like having preamps, AD/DA converters, monitoring outputs and MIDI all in a single box for 199.99?). So let's focus on bare necessities that most everyone will require to produce finished audio:
(1) Recorder, including a way to record and play back previous recorded material, as well as an ability to manipulate it (console, mixer, DAW)
(2) Monitoring system, including speakers and whatever power system required, headphone systems and so on
(3) Effects, including EQ, compression, reverb and so on
(4) Microphones (optional: only if recording voice or other external sources)
(5) MIDI including inputs, outputs, and sequencing capabilities (I/O optional: only if you have external devices like keyboards/synths)
(6) Connectors (i.e. cables) to hook everything together
(7) An environment to permanently put your gear (optional: if you have a laptop system or are otherwise mobile), or the location of recording live instruments
Not really that big of a list, eh? The deal is made sweet once your realize there are about a dozen digital audio workstation (DAW) programs that run on either PC or Mac which handle many of these functions by themselves. A typical DAW gives you a recorder, effects, MIDI sequencing and an ability to edit, mix and otherwise manipulate your data. What's even better is that most DAW programs are only a few hundred dollars, offering capabilities unheard of in home recording just 15-20 years ago. Nothing can beat a DAW on a bang-for-the-buck functionality. Plus, now that DAW technology is mature and well-understood, not to mention the radically powerful computer processing available, they are extremely reliable when properly configured.
In my opinion, a DAW is a no-brainer as a working platform for most home recordists. Too much power for too little price. Of course, you need a machine to run it on... but you don't have to go "hog wild" and spend thousands of dollars on a state-of-the-art CPU anymore. Find something that meets your needs and doesn't blow your budget, or buy used machines. An iMac from just a few years ago has already dropped significantly in price and has plenty of horsepower to run audio sessions. (Besides, if you learn a few rudimentary "work arounds" to conserve processing power, like using various "freeze track" functions, or printing virtual instrument tracks to wave files, printing tracks with tape/console simulation processing prior to mixing and so on, grouping tracks as submixes like the old days and so forth, you can pretty much tackle any size of project.) Not to mention that most DAW's come with plugins for EQ, compression, reverb and so on; granted, in my humble opinion most of these are pretty "blah" compared to name-brand plugins by top companies, but at least provide you with the essential tools to process audio.
As far as nearfield monitors go, you don't need to go nuts and drop a lot of dough. Avoid obvious turkeys that get bad reviews, but don't expect to get something like Genelecs or Focals for your home studio. Tannoy Reveals seem reasonable for the price/performance ratio--I sure liked 'em when I had a chance to hear 'em. You could even pick up some Yamaha NS-10s or their more recent knock offs. Believe it or not there are plenty of low cost, quality monitors that will let you do what you need to do on them. Sure, the best monitoring environment helps, but some people act like you can't record or mix unless about 20 grand was dropped on acoustic treatment, construction and monitors. That's a bunch of bull! Buy the best you can afford that makes sense, get the most use out of your monitoring space, make whatever adjustments you need to, and proceed carefully... you'll do fine. If not, you can always remix. Not a big deal.
Since we're speaking of gear, try to get everything you can used. The used market is flooded with recording equipment, microphones... pretty much everything you need. People spend top dollar putting together recording studios with high hopes and lose interest, or just lack the time or patience to really use it. So the studio collects dust, or an urgent bill comes due, and before you know it they are selling things off. Or someone decides to upgrade and sell some stuff off. Either way, anything you could possibly want that isn't brand-spankin'-new is going to be on the used market. Take advantage!
Unfortunately, buying used software is pretty dodgy. That's one area where you are mostly stuck having to buy new. Luckily software had radically came down in price and really improved in quality over the last decade!
Lesson 2: don't always think you have to buy NEW. Buy used and save money. You can pretty much double the amount of equipment buying used. You do NOT need to have the "latest and greatest" equipment to do a great album. Look at the vintage recording gear market--it's jumpin'! Granted, DAW's don't age gracefully, but the computers than run them, the devices that input and output your audio, the microphones and nearfields CAN be useful for decades to come. If you can, buy used cables.... especially from reputable brands like Mogami or Monster. A well-built cable almost never goes bad, and can usually be fixed! Avoid buying crummy, cheap cables; on the other hand, don't feel you need to drop 200 bucks on a cable--the difference it makes won't be amazing. Personally, for value and quality conscious home engineers I recommend ProCo.
So, you have your computer, DAW, answered the MIDI question and so on. You have most of the basic equipment checked off including cabling. Now you need a way to get information into the computer, which means preamps, AD/DA (analog to digital/digital to analog inputs and outputs), direct inputs for guitar or bass (DI's) and microphones (for live instruments, vocals). Luckily, the market is flooded with a ton of all-in-one wonder units with all of the above! There are plenty to choose from, running USB, Firewire and newer protocols with even faster data transfer and lower latency (the lag between input and recording/playback) times. Do some research, read some reviews, ask advice, try to demo stuff... and if you can, buy it gently used.
The main question you need to ask yourself is: how many simultaneous channels do you need to record? Believe it or not, if you don't have to record drums, the answer is probably going to be "two channels." This is great, because it will save you a ton of money. The real problem (and cost) for home recording is when you decide you just GOTTA record drums (more on this later); all of a sudden you need 8, 12, 16, or maybe 24 channels to "do it right." However, for most of us, we'll only need a maximum of two channels at any point... heck, usually we'll only need one! Vocals usually only need one track; recording direct guitar or bass only takes one, and so on. Remember: for each simultaneous track you "have" to record you are probably looking at needing a microphone on the other end... which can get expensive really fast, even if sticking with sub-200 dollar microphones.
So let's ask the big question: do you really need to record drums live? In my opinion you do NOT. There are tons of great drum sample programs out there that sound 100% convincing if sequenced with a little care and skill. Some sample kits consist of thousands of samples for a single drum kit consisting of multiple snare hits that respond to velocity, articulation and are "randomized" to avoid that machine gun sound of 80's drum machines. The best part? They are often inexpensive! Far cheaper than a decent 8 channel AD/DA box and 8 SM57's hooked up to it. My personal recommendations are: Steven Slate Drums (best sounding) and Native Instruments (most realistic sounding).
Sticking to using sampled drum kits is probably the number one way that a home recordist can radically improve the sound of his finished product and save money at the same time. Now, some of you may be thinking that's "cheating" or "fake" or even shows that you have "no skill." Remember the purpose of your home studio: to create the best sounding music you can muster. Your goal isn't to "prove" that you have "skills" and don't "cheat" (whatever that means, some of the greatest engineers "cheated" all the time!). Forget about all that BS--focus on your goal: great sounding recordings and not going broke putting your studio together. If you're concerned that people will notice the drums are fake take some extra time sequencing and learning about the program, how drummers play and so on. It is absolutely possible to have 100% credible performances that are all samples. Would you be surprised to hear that many, many albums produced in the last decade were totally sampled and passed off as their drummer? It's true. There's one smaller record label that pretty much exclusively does this, and those bands get on TV. I'm serious. You can do it too.
Speaking of "fake" instruments, I recommend using as many sampled and/or software instruments as possible. Want a Minimoog but don't have the cash for one? Well, there are plenty of software recreations out there that pretty much nail it as good as any home recorder needs (Arturia and GMedia have the best ones). Don't have 5k for an ENGL, Bogner or Soldano stack? No problem, pull up Guitar Rig or Amplitube and dial up a sound. Who cares if it is "real?" Trust me, if you have an ear for sound and record the parts with care to get 'em right nobody will know the difference or care. Remember your goal: best sound within your budget. It costs big money to get a pro guitar sound; trust me, you can get "big studio" sounds with this software. Same thing for piano, strings.... practically everything is sampled these days. The power is at your fingertips and for not a ton of money. I recommend taking FULL advantage of it!
I'm not really going to talk about microphones a whole bunch, except to note they are some of the smartest things in which to buy used whenever possible. Try to focus on "slightly off-brands" like Groove Tubes, Audio-Technica or ADK. Try to avoid the low end, Asian mics.... some of these are really, really bad investments. In my opinion, the most cost-effective and multi-purpose dynamic microphone I'd heartily recommend to any home recordist that will get a tone of use is a mod'd Shure SM57, especially the TAB modified one. Less than 200 bucks new and it truly makes a difference. Heil Microphones are good choices for cost-effective dynamics as well. For condenser/ribbon mics I'd look at those Josephsons, Cascade Fatheads (shockingly neat), and the Avenson STO mics. Caveat emptor as always, but do some research to see what fits your needs. Don't feel you need big dollar Neumann's to get a good sound... you don't.
Lesson 3: get by with the smallest system you can muster, which is probably two channels of input for vocals, DI of guitar and bass, and live instruments. Unless you absolutely, positively, undoubtedly MUST-MUST-MUST record something like drums or live guitar, use software instead. It's not about "showing off" or "being skilled," it's about getting the best sound for the budget you have, the limitations of your environment, and the amount of time you have to mess around with making things sound perfect in imperfect situations. Whenever possible seek a virtual solution to your problems!
Now you're left with the one super-frustrating, never seems to work out just quite right, and probably biggest difference between a decently stocked home recording studio and professional studio--the ENVIRONMENT. Any pro recording studio worth its salt has got halfway decent acoustics, they were designed that way. They have isolated control rooms away from the din of the recording space. The recording space has been optimized for recording on some level. In fact, subtle things, like having a power system free of hum, loops and so on, have already been taken care of. A new home recordist setting up shop in a new environment probably has none of these luxuries.
First thing is first: make sure your power is decent. You shouldn't pick up radio stations and air traffic controllers in your monitors. Try to run stuff from a single circuit. If you have to, ask an electrician buddy or even pay a guy some bucks to check your wiring. Trust me, this can save a *ton* of problems! Especially if you are really new and don't know what to expect or how gear should perform. It is a very common error that novice engineers will blame their lack of skill or experience for a subtle equipment issue. If something doesn't seem right try to document the problem in some manner and share it online looking for solutions (use pictures, film or audio recordings if need be). Free help online is seldom more than 24 hours away these days.
Next, try to choose the most acoustically sound area. A lot of guys really freak out on acoustics, and with good reason, but let's be realistic--this is a home studio, not a pro studio. You don't have a thousand bucks, much less tens of thousands, to have extensive room treatments with diffusers, bass traps galore and so on. Work with what you have and try to understand it. Once again--document and take pictures. Get advice. Also, use your ears. Most of us can tell when a space is acoustically compromised or just plain unworkable. Look up some tips for "golden ratios" and room dimensions. Try to avoid boomy, "weird" sounding rooms. Generally, anything shaped like a hallway is probably not ideal. Really low ceilings under 6' tend to be no-nos. Rooms with background ambiance from AC, heaters or other sound intrusions should be avoided. Use your best judgment.
Lesson 4: make best use of your environment. Accept ahead of time that you probably won't have "ideal" working space. Realize that acoustics are critical for top notch recordings, but recognize you can only work with what you have. Learn to make the most of it. The best solution for "bad sounds" due to acoustics is often moving things around in the room, or altering the room in some manner with absorptive material (like your mattress--not perfect, but once again, using what you have); the best thing is moving items around is free.
Okay, everything is pretty much set. One final word on what I believe is the most important element in home recording: software plugins. In today's market, with the combination of cost effective and powerful plugins running on practically every system (gone are the days of the "best" plugins being TDM/ProTools HD only), software plugins is the one area that you can use the same thing as most small and mid-sized recording studio. It's true, most small and mid-sized recording studios are heavily dependent on software plugins and digital mixing. Chances are they use the same products or similar quality as what you can afford. Seriously, the days of big dollar plugins is pretty much over!
However, you are on a limited budget. Don't expect to have every plugin under the sun. Focus on one good channel strip consisting of equalization and compression. There are plenty to choose from, most of utmost quality. Personally, because of its versatility and wide acceptance I'd recommend making it one of the many SSL G clones out there; this will give you gating, compression/limiting and EQ in a single plugin.... pretty much 90% of what you need to mix. The difference between most DAW's onboard EQ/compression and something like the UAD or Waves SSL is huge! It will add character and clarity, and they are easy to use. Second, I'd aim for getting a halfway decent reverb, as most onboard DAW reverbs are iffy (Logic's Space Designer, however, seems to be an exception). Nowadays, chances are you'll want to get some "analog warmth" (whatever that means) on your tracks and pickup up some of the various console or tape emulators out there--they are getting better all the time! (However, they don't "magically" make your mix... their influence is pretty subtle when done right, but they do add that something.) Having a decent limiter is a good idea, maybe some more characterful compressors or EQ's as well. But start out small, and start out with a general purpose channel strip like the SSL. It is not only possible, but probably desirable, to throw one of those channel strips on all your tracks from the get-go and adjust as you move along. You don't need options, you need quality. Trust me, a few high-end plugins make a world of difference and help bridge the gap between home recording and pro recording faster than you think.
Lesson 5: software is your friend. Get one high-class channel strip (EQ/compression) as a priority. By adding some top drawer plugins you'll be mixing with essentially the same quality gear as 99% of your local studios. Aim for quality over quantity. I'm willing to bet most top mixing engineers could manage to produce almost identical output using their choice of a handful of plugins like a channel strip, two compressors, a reverb, a delay, maybe some saturation/distortion plugs, and everything else being DAW stock.
Taking all of this into consideration I'm willing to be most people could get a rockin' home studio online for about two to three thousand dollars to start. The biggest chunk is probably going to be the computer, the next biggest the software. Most DAW software is so inexpensive its barely a consideration, as are your basic I/O boxes complete with preamps, MIDI and so on. The important thing is to match your gear with your objectives, your limitations (skill/budget/space/time), what you need to record and so on. Try to avoid wasting money on things you don't need. Accept that today's DAW's running the right plugins probably blows away any mixer/hardware setup you could reasonably afford. Never feel ashamed of your small, budget home setup--instead, be proud of how close you can get to a "big" pro studio for a percentage of the total cost.
And have fun. Once it stops being fun take a breather. Then come back to it. Keep plugging away. Each session gets easier.