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What Not to Buy: How to Stretch Your Home Studio Budget Wisely

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Ok we lied. We’re not going to tell you exactly what to buy and what not to buy. That’s up to you. But we would like to help you avoid the trap that says you must have every piece of whiz-bang, top-of-the-line technology in order to make great recordings.

In fact, as many bedroom producers might tell you, going the lo-fi route is often much more fun and enjoyable.

But without taking aesthetics into account, we wanted to give you a basic run-down of how to prep your home studio without spending too much in the process.

Let’s get started!

Computers

Unless you plan on recording to tape or old school DATs, you’re going to need a computer. You can pay anywhere from $1,500 and up to get a laptop or desktop computer that’s customized for audio. So how do you keep a lid on your computer spend?

Two ways. Know exactly what you need and optimize.

Look up the minimum requirements for the DAW software you plan to run and keep that in mind as you shop. You may find that a regular ol’ modern day computer is suitable. For reference, here are some bare minimum specs you’ll need to be able to produce audio:

  • 2.5GHZ multi-corem processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 5-20GB space for the DAW software itself (not including storage of files, consider getting external hard-drives to back up your sessions)

4GB of RAM is nothing these days, but that’ll get you by. To be really comfortable, though, opt for 16GB. Anything less than the above specs and you won’t really be able to work, no matter how optimized you get.

Next, make sure you optimize your Operating System for audio. If you’re a Mac person, check out Steinberg’s guide for optimizing OS X, and if you’re into PCs, check out my Recording Magazine article, “Tweak Your Own.” You can make a cheaper computer go a long way with a few operating system tweaks.

Pro Tip: Although “used” isn’t great with computers, “refurbished” can be. I paid half of the retail price for my current laptop, simply because it was a refurb. And I’ve never had problems.

Software

You can spend way too much on DAW software, plugins, add-ons, sample libraries, etc. Think about what you’re doing production-wise, and stick to what you need, rather than chasing trends.

Digital Audio Workstation

When it comes to DAWs, there are the industry standards like Pro Tools and Cubase. They don’t cost much in the grand scheme of things, but if you’re short on funds, you may look into the totally free Cakewalk by Bandlab or Ardour, or the very cheap Reaper, all of which are fully functional DAWs which some producers actually even prefer to the more famous packages. Unless you’re a commercial studio owner managing client expectations, there’s no reason you have to drop thousands.

That said, here at Soundfly, our favorite DAW in terms of its affordability and versatility is far and away, Logic Pro X. In fact, we love it so much, we built an entire online course about how to get the most out of all its features and time-saving workflow functionalities. Check out Intro to Making Music in Logic Pro X here.

Plugins

Plugins will eat your lunch. Do you need every single Waves bundle, Slate subscription, next gen iZotope badassery that comes out? No.

Instead of chasing trends and buying into the hype, think about what you want to accomplish. Some products, such as iZotope’s Ozone, really are game changers and can make your life easier. Some products might make life easier for someone but not you, because you never need what they do.

There’s a ton of great free plugins out there, especially for Logic users.

When it comes to the producer’s bread and butter, however, there are four things you will almost always need:

  • EQ
  • Compression
  • Reverb
  • Delay

Almost every DAW comes with these basic processing tools built in. Don’t assume they’re bad or generic. In fact, they’re often quite powerful and optimized to work well with the DAW — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other wonderful free or cheap options out there to give you variety.

In the case of Cakewalk, EQs and compressors are available directly in the channel strip, which can save a ton of CPU time. If you’ve got a favorite third-party plugin or a few, great. Keep your setup tight, focused on what you know you’ll use.

Pro Tip: There are hundreds of incredible free plugins out there. Try some!

Microphones

Everybody wants a huge mic locker. Almost nobody needs one. Again, assess what your home studio is built to do and equip accordingly.

If you’re a vocalist, figure out the best mic for your particular voice. That may be a $25,000 Telefunken tube condenser, and it may not. Would a $300 Røde do just as good a job, with some proper room acoustics?

If you’re a drummer, you can optimize your setup with carefully selected mics and when you want to change things up, tweak the placement rather than opening up the pocketbook.

No matter what you play, you may want a bunch of choices for different occasions but think about which of those esoteric mics are actually getting used. You may find that your collection of vintage Russian SM57 knock offs are just collecting dust.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have any variety in your cabinet. Just make it work for you; don’t try to cover all the bases and don’t that assume expensive always equals better.

Hardware

If you don’t secretly covet an original UA 1176, I don’t know why I’m talking to you.

Just kidding. When it comes to outboard gear, you can do the whole thing without any outboard effects, compressors, vintage gear, or rack-mounted anything. If you’ve got a particular sound you want to repeatedly achieve, then by all means, purchase the gear. But don’t be fooled into thinking you’re stuck if your studio’s not a vintage gear museum.

The only thing you’re almost certain to need is some kind of mic preamp. For many applications, the preamps in your interface will do just fine. If they don’t, follow the same rules you follow with mics. Shop for the preamp that will help you achieve your sound. That may be a tube pre and it may not.

Pro Tip: There are services that will run your audio track through almost any analog gear you can think of – so if you want a real 1176 on something you don’t have to buy one. Try RackFX, MixAnalog, or Access Analog.

Instruments

We’re not going to tell you guitarists what to do with your money — but, some big stars have been known to rock some pretty janky instruments.

For everyone else, if you’ve read this far, you know what I’m about to say. Focus on the instrument that works best for you. A toy violin might not work, but neither may a Stradivarius. It’s ok that you care about the action on your keyboard, but that doesn’t mean the $4,500 Nord will feel better to you than the Casio Privia.

If you want to add a cajon to your collection, awesome! But go and play some and pick the one you like — don’t just sort by price on Amazon and pay as much as possible (yes, people do this).

Used Gear

Some things you want to buy new. Some things are never sold used (like software). But a whole bunch of stuff you may need — from mic stands to furniture to synths to guitars to mics — can be found on Ebay or Reverb.com or Craigslist or even just through friends.

Some recordists avoid the used gear market, but don’t be afraid of it.

You’re probably getting the gist by now. Yes, you’ll need to spend money, and when you care about quality, you may have to spend a good chunk of it sometimes. But the overall point is, make sure the quality you care about is the music you make. Don’t be afraid to make the best choice for you and leave the rest out.

Believe it or not, that change in thinking alone will save you a ton.

Happy shopping!

Continue learning with hundreds more lessons on mixing, home audio production, recording, beat making, and much more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like Modern Pop Vocal ProductionAdvanced Synths & Patch Designand Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques (to name a few). Subscribe for access here.

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Aaron Trumm
Aaron Trumm

Aaron J. Trumm is a producer, writer, singer (ok rapper) and personal trainer (yep, you read that right). He's always looking for the next awesome thing to say, and loves to talk to people, so social media him up!