Setting up a decent home studio on a budget: our setup

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.

The space

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

Your DAW

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.

Your microphone

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.

Ella recording with usb mic samson co1u

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.

recording vocals home studio

Audio Interface

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.