Building Your Home Studio – A Buyer’s Guide For Beginners

Lifestyle image of the Universal Audio Volt 476 USB audio interface. A great choice when building your first home studio.
Universal Audio’s Volt interface series is a top choice for a beginner home studio.

We’re living in a Golden Age of music gear. If you told someone back in the ’60, ’70s, ’80s or even the ’90s what a beginner home producer has access to today – it’d blow their mind! Gone are the days where you had to book out studio time to make a quality recording, let alone a demo. Today, a musician with even a modest budget can own a setup that’s capable of making a polished, professional-sounding track in their home. Nowadays we’re truly spoilt for choice when it comes to affordable studio recording equipment. This wealth of options can make it hard to decide what to go for. That’s where our buyer’s guide to building your home studio comes in.

Universal Audio‘s Volt or Focusrite‘s Scarlett? SSL or Audient? Shure or Rode? Arturia or Akai Professional? What size studio monitors should I go for? How many inputs should my interface have? Do I need a MIDI keyboard? Should I buy a dynamic or a condenser mic? What’s even the difference between a dynamic and a condenser mic?

These are some of the burning questions you may be asking if you’re a budding producer, songwriter or engineer that’s looking to record on their own terms. Never fear! Our GAK guide to building your home studio is here to help.

Building Your Home Studio – Part 1: Laying The Foundations

Firstly, the most important thing you’re going to need if you want to get into computer recording is a – you guessed it – computer. Your computer, whether that’s a PC or a Mac, is the nerve centre of your home studio. With a more powerful computer, you can run bigger sessions and use heftier plug-ins without the CPU having a meltdown. We highly recommend buying a computer with the best specs your budget allows. Even if you’re a singer-songwriter that’s only using a few tracks, a better computer will allow you to make more ambitious projects if you want to in the future.

Building Your Home Studio – Part 2: Choosing Your DAW

Now you’ve got your computer ready, we can finally get into the nitty-gritty of building your home studio. You’re going to need a digital audio workstation (or DAW for short) to record, process and export your music. A music-orientated DAW is like having a virtual recording studio inside of your computer (minus the physical inputs for mics and instruments, we’ll get to that soon). From top-flight recording studios or to the simplest home setups, a DAW software is an essential ingredient. In this guide, we’re going to take a closer look at a few of the most popular DAWs out there – Ableton Live, Pro Tools and Studio One. Other notable mentions that are great beginner DAWs are Cubase, Logic Pro X, Reaper and FL Studio.

Ableton Live

Ableton Live is known for its fun, intuitive and flexible workflow, which is one of the many reasons why it’s so beloved. Famous Live users include Kevin Parker (Tame Impala), Flume, Deadmau5, Mac Demarco and Four Tet. Whilst most DAWs offer only one way of composing tracks, Live features two distinct workflows. First up is the Arrangement View, which lays your track out on a linear left-to-right timeline like a traditional DAW. Secondly, we have the Session View, a defining feature of Ableton Live. The clip-based Session View allows you to record and sequence loops on the fly. You’ll love the free-form nature of Live’s Session View if improvisation is a part of your workflow.

Ableton Live 11 introduced a bunch of inspiring new features. Highlights include MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE), Linked-track Editing and Tempo Following. The Tempo Following feature adjusts Live’s tempo in real-time based on an incoming audio source.

Live comes in three editions – Intro, Standard and Suite – which sit at different price points. This makes getting into Ableton Live a lot more accessible and there are discounts if you decide to upgrade. Whilst Suite is the most complete edition of Ableton Live, each version comes with top-notch sounds, software instruments and processor plug-ins. As a Live user, you’ll have everything you need to produce and polish your tracks.

We recommend Ableton Live 11 if you:

  • Like a fast, fun and creative workflow.
  • Want a rock-solid and efficient running DAW that excels both live and in the studio.
  • Love to improvise and create free-form jams.
  • Enjoy warping, stretching and time manipulating your audio.

Avid Pro Tools

Avid‘s Pro Tools is arguably the industry standard when it comes to recording and mixing. Turn on the radio and listen to the first track that comes on – there’s a high chance it was mixed using Pro Tools. Go into any professional recording studio and they’ll likely be running Pro Tools as their main DAW. Whilst your first home studio setup may not have to meet the demands of a pro-studio, Pro Tools is still worth your consideration. If you’re mainly recording bands and don’t need to use your DAW as a creative tool, Pro Tools could be the one for you. Whilst Pro Tools can work for electronic music, there are other DAWs that are geared more towards those styles.

Pro Tools can handle ambitious multi-track arrangements with ease, making it a go-to DAW for orchestral music and soundtracks. Mixing and mastering engineers love Pro Tools for its flexible editing workflow and arsenal of handy shortcuts. Whether you’re recording a punk band or a symphonic orchestra, you can count on Pro Tools to deliver pristine, high-fidelity mixes.

There are three versions of Avid Pro Tools to choose from depending on your budget and requirements. There’s the free Pro Tools First, the standard Pro Tools and the comprehensive Pro Tools Ultimate. The paid versions come with an impressive selection of virtual instruments and plug-ins. You’ve got a couple of options if you want to become a Pro Tools user. You can either purchase a perpetual licence (where you make a one-time payment) or become a monthly or annual subscriber. The standard version of Pro Tools will do the job if you’re building your home studio and getting into music production. Ultimate is only worth the extra outlay if you’re going to mix audio for film, TV or broadcast.

We recommend Avid Pro Tools if you:

  • Are doing mostly ensemble/band recording.
  • You prefer a streamlined, straight-ahead workflow with plenty of useful shortcuts.
  • Need a seamless transition between the analogue and digital domain.
  • Plan on doing a lot of mixing and mastering work.

PreSonus Studio One

PreSonusStudio One is relatively new on the DAW scene. Despite that, Studio One has quickly established a firm reputation as a top-notch DAW that holds its own amongst the big dogs thanks to its unique creative capabilities. Studio One is no slouch when it comes to versatility, featuring a Show Page which is dedicated to live performance and a Project Page which boasts an integrated mastering suite.

If you’re a songwriter, composer or producer, you’ll love the Arranger Track and Scratch Pads. The Arranger Track makes experimenting with the structure of your song a breeze. With this feature, you can instantly re-organise your arrangement by simply clicking and dragging the section. When you do this, it moves all the elements of that section in real time. The Scratch Pad allows you to try out new ideas without having them clutter up your timeline. No more having to drag a potential idea all the way to the end of the track!

There are two versions of Studio One available – Artist and Professional. Professional is definitely the one to go for if Studio One takes your fancy, as it gives you all the exciting features the DAW has to offer. You can also subscribe to PreSonus Sphere on a monthly or annual basis. Sphere gives you access to Studio One Professional, extra native FX plug-ins, online collaboration tools, a bigger sample & loop library and more.

We recommend PreSonus Studio One if you:

  • Want an easy-to-use DAW that gives you an inspiring and creative environment to record in.
  • Need an adaptable workflow that can handle recording, mixing, mastering and live performance with ease.
  • Like having the ability to effortlessly chop up and re-arrange your music.
  • Are you a podcaster that requires an all-in-one audio editing solution.

Still undecided?

Each DAW has its own advantages and workflow, with some more geared towards certain styles of music. At the end of the day, the best DAW is the one that matches your workflow and how you like to create music so it’s well worth trying them all out. Luckily, there are free trial versions of all the DAWs mentioned so you can get a feel for each one before you put your money down. If you’re in education, there are usually educational licences for DAWs available at a lower cost.

Building Your Home Studio – Part 3: Choosing Your Interface

Next, we’re going to discuss audio interfaces (also known as sound cards). Without an interface, you won’t be able to record your microphone or instrument into your computer! Your audio interface “interfaces” with your computer and converts your audio into a digital language that it can understand. The interface then converts the audio back into the analogue domain before sending it to your monitors (which we’ll cover in a bit).

Aside from your computer, your audio interface is the most crucial part of your home studio setup. If the computer is the “brain”, the interface is the “heart”. An interface also gives you a lot more control over your sound and level before it reaches the DAW. In fact, some interfaces are equipped with sound-shaping features that can add a desirable character to your voice or instrument on the way in.

What are you using your interface for?

If you can decide from the get-go what you want to do with your interface, it’ll greatly narrow down your search. For example, if you’re going to be tracking a full band then you’ll need a hefty interface with plenty of onboard preamps and inputs. If you’re mainly composing with virtual instruments and only record vocals, a simple 1-input box is all you need.

How many inputs do you need?

The best way to figure out how many inputs you need is to take a look at the kind of recording you want to do. A guitarist or producer may only require a 1-in / 2-out interface like the Scarlett Solo. If you’re a singer-songwriter that needs to record their instrument and a voice at the same time, a 2-in / 2-out interface will do the trick. An interface with more inputs is handy if you want to record a band or run multiple instruments in your studio. When you’re in the flow of recording and creating, there’s nothing worse than having to fuss around with plugging in and unplugging cables.

The greater the input count, the more likely your interface will need to use an external power supply. This is something you need to factor in if you also want the option to use your interface on the move or in a remote location where power isn’t readily available. Interfaces such as Universal Audio‘s Volt 276, Focusrite‘s 2i2 and Studio State Logic‘s SSL2+ are all USB bus-powered. This means that they run off of your computer’s USB port – no external power required.

What connections should your interface have?

The vast majority of audio interfaces will be outfitted with a pair of line outputs for your monitors and a headphone output. For a beginner home studio, this should be all you need. If you want to send and transmit MIDI data from your computer to an older hardware synthesizer that only has DIN ports, it helps to have an interface with onboard MIDI I/O. Higher-end interfaces feature optical digital audio connections, allowing you to expand your interface’s channel count.

Entry-level and affordable audio interfaces tend to be USB based. This means they’ll work regardless if you prefer to use a PC or Mac.

Here are some of our top picks for beginner audio interface series:

  • Affordable – PreSonus’ AudioBox
  • Mid-range – Universal Audio’s Volt, Focusrite’s Scarlett
  • Premium – Universal Audio’s Apollo, Focusrite’s Clarett

Check out our article Top 5 Audio Interfaces For Beginners for a more in-depth look at our favourite beginner interfaces.

Building Your Home Studio – Part 4: Choosing A Microphone

Now you’ve decided on your DAW software and picked your interface, you’re going to need a microphone. It doesn’t matter if you’re an instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter, composer, producer or engineer. A good mic will become a cornerstone of your setup. Even if you’re a guitarist that tends to use amp software, you should still have a mic in your arsenal in case you want to record an acoustic or with your guitar amp.

Some of our favourite beginner interfaces come bundled with a microphone and a pair of headphones, putting you further along the path to completing your first home studio:

Should you pick a dynamic or a condenser mic?

The most common microphone types that are used in beginner home studios are dynamics and condensers. Whilst both do the job of capturing your audio source, they have their own sonic characteristics and work in different ways. One isn’t better than the other, though one may work better in a certain application.

Dynamic Microphones

Functionally, dynamic mics act like a reversed speaker. They can take on a tonne of signal without being damaged. This makes them ideal for recording loud and harmonically-rich sound sources such as snare drums and guitar cabs. As a result, dynamic mics are often less sensitive than condenser mics. This quality can make them a better choice when recording in untreated rooms. On the whole, dynamic mics are less affected by the sound and natural reflections of your room so they’re great for home studios. Plus, dynamic mics are often incredibly robust and sturdily built, making them perfect for live use, too. In terms of polar patterns, the majority of dynamic mics you encounter will have a cardioid or super-cardioid pattern. This pattern is useful if you need to focus on picking up one sound source. If you’re a podcaster or streamer, this is a huge advantage.

Here are some of our top picks for beginner dynamic microphones:

  • Affordable – sE Electronics V7 X, Rode M1, Sennheiser e 835, AKG P3 S, AKG P5i, Shure PGA57
  • Mid-range – Shure MV7X, Sennheiser e 845, Shure SM57
  • Premium – Sennheiser e 945, Shure SM7B

Condenser Microphones

Condenser mics tend to be more sensitive to signals than dynamic mics. Because of this, a condenser mic may not be the best choice when recording a loud source as it can produce a lot of distortion when used this way. However, this increased sensitivity makes condenser mics perfect for capturing detailed, nuanced and natural recordings. Generally, condenser mics deliver a superior high-frequency response, a faster transient response and a wider dynamic range. A condenser mic is often the go-to choice in studios when recording vocals, acoustic guitars, piano and room ambience. Condenser mics always require phantom power to work, so make sure your audio interface‘s inputs have it. Condenser mics come in a variety of polar patterns, with some more versatile models able to switch between different types.

Here are some of our top picks for beginner condenser microphones:

  • Affordable – sE Electronics X1 A, sE Electronics sE2200, Rode NT1-A, AKG C214
  • Mid-range – sE Electronics sE2300, Rode NT1000, Neumann TLM 102 mt, Warm Audio WA-87 R2
  • Premium – sE Electronics Gemini MKII, sE Electronics Z-5600a MKII, Neumann TLM 103 mt, Neumann U 87 Ai

Building Your Home Studio – Part 5: Choosing Monitors

The final key element you need when building your home studio are a pair of monitors. Monitors are what you’ll mainly be using when playing back and mixing your music. Unlike a set of hi-fi speakers, studio monitors often have a flat response and will aim to give you an honest, authentic representation of your mix. When it comes to studio monitors, the modern bedroom producer on a budget has never had it so good. High-end features that were previously reserved for top-of-the-line monitors, such as 3-way speakers, ribbon tweeters and DSP, can now be found in affordable models.

Monitors vs. Headphones

Whilst it’s definitely worth owning a quality pair of headphones, they shouldn’t be your only means of monitoring. Headphones are handy if noise/neighbours/housemates/room acoustics are an issue and can be a second reference point when mixing. However, they can give you dreaded “ear fatigue” pretty rapidly and prevent you from making informed mix decisions. A pair of studio headphones should supplement your setup rather than act as a replacement for monitors.

Studio monitors are more representative of how your music will be listened to out in the world. They also put a lot less pressure on your ears so they can be used for longer without giving you fatigue.

Active vs. Passive

We recommend going for a pair of active monitors when building your home studio. Active monitors are a lot simpler to use, as they have everything they need to run internally. Simply plug the power cables in, hook them up to your interface and you’re good to go. On the other hand, passive monitors require an external amplifier to work. You also have to make sure the impedance and power ratings match up, which can be tricky if you’re new to recording.

What size monitors should you go for?

As a rule of thumb, the monitors you buy should reflect the size of your studio space. If you’re fortunate enough to have a large, acoustically treated space where you can properly drive your monitors then you’ll benefit from a monitor with an 8″ or 10″ woofer. However, if you’re a bedroom producer that’s recording in an untreated room, you’ll achieve better results, sonically and in terms of studio space, with a smaller monitor.

A large monitor with more power doesn’t only equal increased volume, it also gives you additional headroom, low-end, dynamic range and transient detail. This results in less distortion and allows you to make better decisions when mixing. To that end, you should aim to get the largest and most powerful monitors that your space can handle.

How important is treating your room and monitor placement?

A little bit of acoustic treatment can go a long way if you want to get the most out of your monitors. It’s well worth investing in some acoustic panels or bass traps if there are a lot of reflections in your room. A set of isolation pads or speaker stands can seriously improve the sound reproduction and low-end of your monitors. They do this by isolating your studio monitors from resonant surfaces, preventing any interfering vibrations.

Where your place your monitors is also very important. You want to consider where you place the monitors in your room, their height and where they’re pointed. Ideally, your monitors should form an equilateral triangle with your head. The tweeters should be vertically aligned with your ears. A pair of speaker stands will also make it a lot easier to place your monitors in an optimal position.

Give our Essential Tips For Your Home Studio article a read if you want to learn about monitor placement and acoustic treatment in more detail.

Here are our top picks for active studio monitors:

Building Your Home Studio: Part 6 – Move That Bus!

If you’ve made it to this point, you should have a much clearer idea of how to put together your first home studio. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the different elements you need. Once you decide on the kind of music you want to make, what your requirements are and what your budget is, building your home studio can be a fun and rewarding process. At the end of the day, not much comes close to being able to create and record your music in your own home!

As with anything, it’s a good idea to invest in the best gear that your budget allows so you don’t have to upgrade it any time soon. If you’re still having trouble deciding or have any questions, the friendly and knowledgeable team in our Pro Audio department are on hand to answer any home studio queries you may have. Pop into our store to see them or give them a ring during opening hours if you live further afield!