So, you’ve written some songs and now want the world to hear them! As we musicians know, booking studio time can be very expensive, but luckily, it is not as difficult or expensive as you may think to set up a simple “home studio”. We have collected bits and pieces of tech for our home set-up over the years, and although our equipment is relatively basic, it’s good enough to put together some great demos.
Here we will talk through the elements of a home studio that you’ll need, and make recommendations based on our own set up. We are by no means experts on audio recording, so will just focus on the equipment that we own and how we make it work for us.
You might be wondering where on earth you have space to record, we hear you! We recently set up a humble recording space in my (Ella’s) room whilst my family were away. It was a bit cramped but it did the job.
More importantly however, you’ll need to think about the acoustics. You’ll need a room that has a lot of soft furnishings that will absorb sound, and therefore create a ‘drier’ recording. A drier recording is generally better as it means you can set the amount of reverb on your track, without room noise getting in the way (it’s near impossible to mix it out of the track). So, choose a living room or bedroom as your recording space, if you can. I looked at Reddit forums to read about other people’s home recordings to find out where they recorded and this was the general consensus.
There is much debate online about where it is best to record with no definite answer. We even considered recording vocals in our wardrobe, but after some more reading it transpired this is not the best idea (you don’t want to sound like you’re in a small box!). The centre of my bedroom worked fine for us.
The reality is that without a professionally treated room, you’re always going to get a sense of the space in the recording, so don’t get too bogged down by the space. A touch of reverb should sort out the boxiness.
Here was our recording space for the week
DAW stands for digital audio workstation, and refers to the software you will use to record your tracks. The best option will depend on whether you are a Mac or Windows user.
For Mac users
Naz is a Mac user and my Dad is a designer so I have access to a Mac at home too, which gives us access to Garageband, a free recording and mixing software that is pre-installed onto Macs. Garageband is both sophisticated enough that you can do some pretty cool stuff, but is also intuitive so it doesn’t take ages to work out. You can also add MIDI (digital) drums, and the latest version has a “virtual session drummer”, which works out an appropriate beat for your track and really brings it to life. I highly recommend Garageband to start off with if you have access to it.
If you’d like a step up from Garageband, Logic is a great shout. Logic is very similar to Garageband as the interface looks the same, but is far more sophisticated in terms of the tools available to mix and produce your tracks. We recently made this upgrade which cost us £199.99 (a one-off payment) and have enjoyed playing around with the additional tools and options of effects that were missing from Garageband.
If you’re thinking of downloading Logic, then check out some of the useful resources online to help you learn the ropes.
For Windows users
Macs are very costly and we cannot all afford them or justify the expense for recording software, but luckily there are some good options for Windows users.
Other low cost DAW’s that I’ve come across but not used include Pro Tools First (free), Zynewave Podium (free), Ableton Live (£69 for basic version, £319 for standard and £539 for the full package), and Reaper ($40 - $200). I’ve linked to tutorials/ guides.
If you’d like an upgrade, Cubase is another good option and they have different versions, depending on how sophisticated you’d like your software. On the lower end is Cubase elements, which is the most basic, but still excellent for home recording and will cost you £85. As a beginner, this will give you the opportunity to learn the basic ropes of recording and audio production, without being overwhelming. A step up from that is Artists at £284, designed for those who want to record high-quality demos, or even finished tracks. The final step is Cubase Pro, costing £499 and designed with professional producers and sound engineers in mind.
Using a USB Microphone
For years, I was just recording demos with a simple USB microphone (and I still use it now and again). Though they are designed more for podcasting rather than music, they are really useful for laying down some simple recordings/rough demos. In fact, the guitar in the songs in our lockdown series all used a USB mic.
The best thing about using a USB mic is that they are super easy to use and don’t require any other fancy kit, simply plug in and record!
The one I have is the Samson CO1U, which can be bought for £60-£80. I also see a lot of people using the Blue Yeti as well, so this may be a good shout if you decide to go down the USB Mic route. These go for around £130.
Tip - I only recommend using a USB Microphone for Mac, as both of my USB mics don’t work with Windows 8+, and I have seen others mention this problem online.
The guitar parts and backing vocals in our cover of Heart Shaped Box and Between the Bars was recorded using the Samson CO1U. The lead vocals were recorded with the Rode NT1A (more on this below). These tracks were recorded and mixed on Garageband.
The Rode NT1/ NT1A
This microphone is the holy grail of inexpensive home microphones. It is a condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern, and has a wide dynamic range. Polar patterns refer to how much sound the microphone will pick up from different directions. A cardioid polar pattern picks up sound from all around, but it picks up the majority of sound directly infront, and just off-centre. Read about the different polar patterns.
You can get one with a shock mount and pop shield included (more on these below) for £166. I have to say, this mic is excellent for the price, and I’d definitely recommend it for anyone setting up a recording space.
For recording with this mic, you will also need an audio interface, in order to connect it with the computer and give it enough power. Unlike the USB microphone, it’s not just plug in and record, but it is still very straightforward to use.
Our cover of Running up that Hill by Kate Bush was recorded with the Rode NT1-A. We recorded and mixed it on Garageband.
The most common user interface for beginner studios is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen, which costs around £140. A user interface basically just allows your microphone to interact with your computer.
You will need a special type of cable called an XLR to connect your microphone to your user interface. These can be bought for as little as £4.
Our Scarlett Focusrite 2i2 3rd Gen audio interface and recording headphones sitting atop my makeup table!
If you are on a really tight budget, any headphones will do. It’s best to get a pair that at least have a long lead and do not leak out sound. So many times I have used a leaky pair and heard the metronome picked up in my recording, which was very annoying. Wireless headphones can cause latency (delay in recording), so I wouldn’t advise these.
If you want to be more professional, then there are specific headphones you can get for the studio. Why? Well, studio headphones offer a flat frequency response. Unlike consumer headphones, they don’t try to jazz up your music and create their version of what an ideal sound is, so no bass boosts or sparkly trebles, you’ll hear the music exactly as it is. We recently purchased a pair of Shure SRH440’s for £50 , which are comfortable and do the job.
Some similar options include Sennheiser HD280 Pro (£70) and Sony MDR-7506 (£87).
A pop shield helps to avoid the dreaded plosives from a singer (the harsh P, B and F sounds) which are caused by the expelling of fast air, and it generally helps to protect your microphone. They are worth having, and inexpensive, and luckily if you purchase the Rode NT1, one is included. If you are crafty, you can also make your own pop shield at home using a pair of tights and a coat hanger!
The USB microphone I mentioned has three tripod legs so can be placed down as long as you have surfaces that are the right level to pick up the sound. For the Rode mic, you’ll really need a stand as you cannot place it down and it’s not ideal to just hold it. You can get a decent mic stand for £15-£40, which will enable you to place your microphone wherever you need it to be. For the optimum comfort when recording, a stand and cradle really is better than relying on a stand up microphone.
Shock mount, or “microphone nest”
Again, the Rode NT-1 comes with one which is super handy, but generally shock mounts are good things to have. They are what the microphone ‘sits’ in and they reduce rumble and low frequency noise. If you are recording at home, it’s handy to have one as your house will likely be noisier than a professional studio setting.
If you are struggling to find a suitable soft furnished room then grey foam can help. That spongy grey stuff you see on the walls of recording studios are to help with the acoustics. Afterall, there really is nothing worse than a boxy reverb. Acoustic foam won’t entirely alleviate this but it may certainly help, and allow you to work with drier recordings.
Here’s Naz recording vocals. You’ll want to position yourself 6-10 inches away from the microphone with the popshield in between. You can move closer for quieter more vulnerable parts of the song, and further back when you’re belting.
So, how much will this all cost?
If you use a free software such as Garageband and purchase a simple USB microphone to use with it, your whole recording set up will cost you just £60-£80!
Using a free software, but you purchased the Rode NT1 microphone, XLR cable, mic stand, and audio interface. This setup will cost APPROX £325 (£300 if you’ve already got a mic stand and XLR cables).
Using Logic, Rode microphone, XLR cable, stand, and audio interface will cost you £525 (£500 if you’ve already got XLR cable and mic stand).
And if you’re anything like us, you’ll have collected some of these bits and bobs, such as microphone stands and XLR cables, you can deduct those from your overall cost.
That may sound a lot, but when considering just one hour in a studio will cost you around £40+, you will save a lot of money in the long run, either from having good quality demos, which will make you more efficient when the time comes to book studio time, or simply recording all your stuff at home. Recording on your own will also give you the opportunity to develop a new skill. Production in particular takes time to learn, it’s something you can only really learn through experience, so recording and mixing on your own will start you on your own learning journey.
When thinking about recording your music, it’s important to consider what the purpose of it is as well as your budget, and this will help determine whether you go “pro” or do it at home. For radioplay with something like BBC Introducing, they will expect top quality recordings that will need to have been mastered. For giving your fans an insight into your new songs, a decent home recording will be absolutely fine.
So, there you have it, this is our set up and recommendations for your first budget studio. Today it is easier than ever to record your own music, and it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you may think. For whatever your budget, there are options for you out there. If you have any questions, please ask us in the comments below and share any tips/ pics of your home studio! Happy recording!