You Really Don't Need Much
Most people are told that you need that $5000 Neumann microphone, $1000's of dollars worth of acoustic foam treatment and only the top of the line equipment in order to make high quality recordings, but that simply isn't true. Sure, back then, about 20 years ago or so, music equipment was much more expensive and education was not nearly as accessible unless you went to an audio production school, but times have changed. You could build a professional Home Studio for just $350 or about $800 - 1000 if you need a PC.
Make sure you checkout my shopping list below where I compile the best home recording studio equipment for under $350!
All you truly need to make professional sounding music is as follows:
Desktop Computer or Laptop (Most People Already Have 1 of These)
Microphone Pop Filter
Studio Monitor Headphones
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) ("Reaper" is Free)
Virtual Instruments (Many Are Free)
Below are optional items, but Beneficial to Getting That Pro Sound:
Microphone Shock Mount
Studio Monitor Speakers
Acoustic Foam Treatment
Microphone Isolation Shield
Live Instruments (Guitar, Bass, Acoustic/Electronic Drums, Percussion & More)
Automated Mixing/Mastering Plugins
1. Desktop Computer or Laptop
This is probably obvious to most people, but you'll need some kind of computer to get going with making music. Arguably, you could make music on your smartphone/tablet, but you would most likely be making electronic music, or music entirely composed of virtual instruments (nothing wrong with that, you're just very limited). It's difficult to get good recordings with a device that has such a tiny display screen with clumsy touch based controls and makes setting up microphones and other live instruments extremely unintuitive. You technically can set up midi keyboards, a Bluetooth keyboard & mouse for more traditional controls and also some mics and whatnot, but after setting all that up you might as well just have a dedicated place to hook up all your equipment to a normal PC, so you won't have to lug everything around. A laptop is the only other realistic option, if you're trying to save space, or have plans to play in live/DJ scenarios, but ultimately there isn't much difference between a PC and Laptop. The only other main differences is that you will spend much more money on a laptop due to its convenient features and you will most likely run into overheating issues and you will also find that you need to keep it plugged in to its power supply to get the full processing power (This unfortunately defeats the whole "portable" purpose of a laptop), which is why I always recommend a Desktop if your space permits it.
What About the Mac Vs. PC Debate?
It's honestly a waste of precious time trying to fight over which is better, since they both can give you the same exact performance. The main difference is that you're just going to spend more money on a Mac for the same specs when compared to a PC.
So What Kind of Minimum Specs Do I Need for Making Quality Music?
8 GB of DDR3 Ram (16 GB or more is preferred)
Intel I5 Quad Core or AMD A7 (Intel I7 Or AMD 10 is recommended)
500 GB Hardrive/SSD (1TB if you use lots of VST's)
15 inch monitor/laptop screen (Although, you should get a bigger screen)
Mouse & Keyboard (Comes with most Desktops)
2 USB 2.0/3.0 ports (4-8 ports allows more midi keyboards/ to be hooked up)
What about Graphics & Sound Cards?
The onboard graphics is more than enough (it comes built into your PC/Laptop's processor), since external graphic cards are more suited to video editing. You won't need to worry about the sound card, because you will be using an "audio interface" as explained below.
So what if I don't have enough money to buy a new computer?
Then simply just use what you have! It's better to take what you have and start creating music than to keep making excuses as to why you can't start making music. This type of poor thinking actually tends to plague all areas of life for some people, but I've noticed that this bad habit really halts your progress when it comes to music production! This actually is a well known thing among musicians called "G.A.S." (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) which I talked about in my last article that you can check out "HERE".
2. Audio Interface
The audio interface is realistically going to be your first purchase (assuming you already have a PC, which is the most important tool to making music). The reason why you need an audio interface is because the built in sound card on your PC just isn't powerful enough to run virtual instruments (VST's) without an extreme amount of latency (lag/delay) and you aren't able to effectively connect live instruments to your PC without the XLR/1/4 inputs that the audio interface provides. Technically, you could hook up your microphones and instruments by using the XLR/1/4 to 3.5mm headphone jack connection, but you will experience extreme latency issues since it still connects to your PC's onboard sound card. There are also "MIDI to USB" cables that connect a midi keyboard to your PC, but you still run into the issue of latency, unfortunately. If you don't think the lag/delay is that bad, trust me, it is. I tried the "MIDI to USB" method for myself and learned the hard way. The latency was so horrible that it ruined any possible way for me to record anything in acceptable time. I would be forced to input each note separately inside the "piano roll" function in my DAW, which I will cover that in more detail in a different blog post. Once you have your audio interface properly hooked up to your computer and set up in your Digital audio workstation, (DAW) you can hook up your midi keyboard through USB because it will be using the audio interface's sound card to process your connection. You most likely will be experiencing 1-2ms delay at best or around 5-6ms delay with a slower PC (delay/latency also depends on your audio interace's sample rate and block size settings). These Delay speeds are more than doable when performing live recordings.
In Summary, "STAY AWAY" From Devices Like This MIDI to USB Cable. They Are Cheap & Useless.
Also This "1/4 to 3.5mm Male Cable" Plugged Straight into your PC Will Not Work Properly.
3. Condenser Microphone
A condenser microphone is what you should purchase next, assuming that you want to record your vocals. The reason why you would want a condenser for vocals over a dynamic microphone is because a condenser is more sensitive and picks up more detail. Sometimes a dynamic microphone can work very well for vocals like the "Shure SM7B", but a condenser is what most professionals use in most situations. I also suggest going with the "$100 Mic Rule", which simply means that if the price of your microphone is at least $100 than you can use it for recording professional tracks. I've seen plenty of people use cheaper mics and get just as good results, but going with this rule can help you invest in a microphone that will be good quality in sound and that has a durability that will last you.
4. Microphone/XLR Cable
So, once you buy that nice mic, you'll need a XLR (External Line Return) cable to connect to the audio interface. "Monoprice" has some really great cables for very cheap, but most $10 - $20 cables will suffice. Don't worry too much about "Gold plated" vs. "regular" cables, just go with Gold plated cables if you want your cables to be protected from corrosion/oxidization.
5. Microphone Stand
Stands can be had for pretty cheap, but you're going to want to get a stand that can support the weight of the microphone effectively along with the pop filter and especially if you're going to be adding a "microphone isolation shield" (discussed in more detail below). Most boom stands will work just fine. You can also get a stand that attaches to your desk if that works better for you.
6. Microphone Pop Filter
Pop filters are another essential item that should be added to your home music studio shopping list. Pop filters soften sibilances, which are high frequency/sharp noises from high pitch sounds (such as words with s, sh, t, k, letters) and they also remove boomy, low end, breathy type of sounds (like words with the letters b and p). The greatest thing about pop filters is that they are super cheap, usually costing around $10 - $20 at most!
7. Studio Monitor Headphones
Studio Monitoring Headphones will probably cost just as much as the microphone you''re looking to buy. Usually I recommend the $100.00 rule to headphones as well (My recommendation is down below). I suggest that you invest in a pair of studio monitoring headphones over studio monitors speakers only because headphones are more portable, more cost effective, allow you to work in private and also help you when recording vocals properly.
8. DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
One of the final and most important tools you'll need is a "DAW". This will allow you a platform to record into and craft music from start to finish. Most DAWs have a built in "Timeline" that displays the length of the song and your individual recordings, loops and midi data. Don't worry so much about what DAW to get, since they primarily do the same exact things. Just go with one that you can afford and one that looks appealing to you. Most people use "FL Studio" and "Ableton Live" for Electronic/EDM music, but you can technically use whatever you want. I make lots of electronic music and I use Reaper, mainly because it was "free" to use for 60 days. Technically, you can keep evaluating the product even after 60 days if you want. I didn't buy Reaper for at least 2 years! The full license for someone who makes under $20,000 in their music business/record sales is eligible for the discounted $60.00 price. If you make more than that then it costs $220.00 for the commercial license. Since, you're just starting out, you obviously qualify for that disconnected $60.00 price. I don't think you'll find a better price on the market as you could spend up to $2500 on the full package of Pro Tools. Reaper will give you all the necessary tools you need to get going like built in eq's, compressors, reverbs, delays, etc.
Here's a link to checkout Reaper:
9. Virtual Instruments (VST's)
Virtual Instruments are technically not Essential, but they are extremely beneficial and tend to border the line between necessary and unnecessary tools for your studio. If you can't play drums and want acoustic drums on your track, than you might want to consider a virtual drummer like EZdrummer 2. If you can't play Piano/Keyboard or need some help building chord progressions, than you might also want to think about getting EZKeys. There is an endless amount of options when it comes to virtual Instruments, from acoustic/electric guitar amplifiers simulations and even bass guitar plugins ("plugins" being another word used to describe virtual instruments and other software tools used in your DAW) The only time virtual instruments are completely necessary for audio production is when you're producing "in the box" music (this is music that is composed of "mainly" or "only" using virtual instruments and plugins inside of your DAW meaning that live instruments are not used or needed). This is very common in Electronic/EDM music production which makes in the box music making very convenient for portable/on-the-go setup situations or very confined spaces in your studio. There are plenty of good VST's to use that won't cost you a thing!
I will list some free VST's in my shopping list section below!
Optional, but Extremely Helpful Tools:
1. MIDI Keyboard
MIDI Keyboards are probably one of the first tools you'll want to buy after you purchase your essential equipment. Some people may argue that a midi keyboard is necessary, but it is truly not required. However, it will change the way you approach music making and will be more inspiring to work with as opposed to manually inputting notes into the piano roll function in your DAW, which is honestly not that fun. Yet, the piano roll can be great for helping you find notes/chords that fit into the musical key of the song you are working on. Regardless, you'll eventually want to invest in a midi keyboard, especially if you're planning on using virtual instruments. You'll have to decide between 25, 37, 49, 61, or 88 keys and your decision will ultimately come down to how much space you have available in your home music studio. Keys also come in "standard" and "mini" size. Most of the bigger MIDI keyboards like 49, 61 and 88 have all the features you need in a midi keyboard like pads, knobs, faders, pitch and mod wheels/strips, octave buttons, volume knobs and programmable buttons. With the smaller keybeds like 25, and 37 keys, you'll find that you're missing one or more of the following: pads, knobs or faders. Most midi keyboards should have a pitch and mod wheel and octave buttons, but these smaller MIDI keyboards usually have like pads and faders, but no knobs or perhaps knobs and faders, but no pads. Again, your keyboard of choice should be more about how much space you have to place it on your desk/table, since MIDI keyboard features are not necessary, but simply useful tools that help you navigate your DAW and modulate your recordings.
My recommendation: The 25 mini key Akai MPK Mini MKII
2. Microphone Shock Mount
If you're going to be purchasing a condenser microphone, its really important to invest in a shock mount, eventually. Shock mounts reduce the amount of vibrations that run up the mic stand when bumped into or just simply reduce the sound of walking around the room. This keeps recordings nice and clean and will provide a more "frustration-less" experience. Remember, condenser microphones are very sensitive and pick up all sorts of sounds, even at low volumes. Another thing is that shock mounts come in different sizes depending on the "mm" size of your condenser. It is best to go with a shock mount that is recommended for your particular mic. Just do a Google search or look around on forums to see what other people are using on the mic you have or are looking to buy. Sometimes a condenser will come with its own shock mount and hard shell case.
Here is my suggestion for a well rated generic universal size shock mount (it also comes with a pop filter):
Dynamic mics are not nearly as sensitive as condenser mics and only pick up sound that is directly in front of it. You will not need a shock mount for dynamic microphones, since you won't run into issues with it picking up sound in your room. Dynamic mics are great for live performances as they can be beat up pretty badly and still work just fine. They are a great option for recording electric/bass guitar amplifiers and acoustic drums. You can use these mics for recording vocals as well, but they are usually only preferred when recording harsh vocals like yelling or screaming. Leave the clean/softer sounding vocals to condenser mics.
Here is my recommendation for electric guitar amplifiers: Audix I5
Here is my recommendation for live vocals: Shure SM58
Here is my recommendation for electric bass guitar amplifiers: Shure SM57