When I first got started in music production, one of the hardest things was knowing what equipment to invest in to get that professional quality sound on a shoestring budget. It took some time, but I finally have a home studio that I love. I’m still buying gear like crazy, but these are the most important tools in my musical toolbox.
A great computer
When recording at home, the most important thing you’ll need is a computer to act as the center point of your studio. Your computer is what you’ll use record and store your audio files, sequence samples and drum tracks, edit, master, export, post, and promote your music online. Get a laptop with as much RAM as you can afford (16GB should do it), and the biggest SSD (solid state drive) you can get your hands on. You’ll probably want an external hard drive (1TB+) for your archives.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
A DAW is the software you’ll use to record, edit, and mix your music. If you’re on a budget, I recommend Reaper. It’s only $60 for a non-commercial license, and it’s packed with features. Logic Pro X is also great, but it only runs on Mac computers. If you own a Mac, then you’ve already got one of the most powerful FREE music apps around, Garage Band. For performers and touring musicians, Ableton Live is a powerful, versatile recording and sequencing program. And of course, Pro Tools is the industry standard, but you’ll need an Mbox or other authorized Pro Tools audio interface to “unlock” the software.
You’ll need an audio interface to connect your instruments and microphones to your computer. Look for something with at least 24-bit/96kHz resolution and USB or Thunderbolt connectivity. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 is a great option in the $200 range. Just remember to get an interface that works with the ports on your computer. If you get a Thunderbolt 3 interface and your computer only has USB-A or USB-C inputs, you’ll need to get a dongle or adapter to make it work.
Dynamic and Condenser Microphones
You’ll need at least one good condenser microphone for recording vocals, acoustic instruments, and amplifiers. I recommend the Rode NT1-A for a budget-friendly option. Other popular condenser mics are the Audio Technica AD2020, Shure SM7B (the podcaster’s choice), or the holy grail, the Neumann U87. But don’t get your hopes up about the Neumann, a U87 sounds amazing, but they retail for around $3300. You’ll also need a workhorse dynamic mic for recording higher-decibel ranges like loud amps and snare drums. For the past 50 years, the best dynamic mic on the planet has been and always will be the Shure SM57. I won’t bore you with the details here, but the SM57 is the go-to mic for recording studios and touring bands of all types.
Acoustic treatment & soundproofing
Once you have your microphones set up, you’ll need to treat your recording space to ensure that your recordings sound their best. This generally means adding absorption panels to your walls to reduce reflections and echoes. You can make your own panels relatively easily and cheaply, or you can buy them ready-made.
A good pair of headphones is essential for monitoring your recordings while you’re tracking (recording). Don’t waste your time trying to use Airpods or Beats to record. Consumer-grade headphones have bass and treble boosters that will color your audio and affect your mix. For recording and mastering, I recommend the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro. They’re a bit pricey, but they’re worth it. If you’ve ever sat at a mixing board for 12 hours straight with a pair of headphones on your ears, then you know a $250 pair of headphones is a solid investment.
Once you have your recordings done, you’ll need to listen to them on some quality speakers to make sure they sound good. studio monitors are designed specifically for this purpose and will give you a more accurate representation of how your music will sound than regular home stereo speakers. I recommend the KRK Rokit 5 G3. Once your track sounds good on the monitors, take it out to your car stereo and see what it sounds like there.
Cables, cables, and more cables
You’ll need a variety of cables to connect all of your equipment, including XLR cables for your microphones, instrument cables, and speaker cables. Make sure you get good quality cables that are the right length for your needs. I suggest buying as many different cables, adapters, direct boxes, splitters, joiners, and every other doodad you can think of. I’ve been recording for 20 years and I still don’t have EVERY cable I need, but I’m getting close.
A power conditioner is a device that cleans up the electrical current coming from your wall outlet, providing cleaner power to your sensitive electronic equipment. This can help reduce noise and interference in your recording. I recommend the Furman M-8X2.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the equipment you’ll need for music production, but it’s a great start. With this gear, you’ll be able to get professional quality recordings at home without breaking the bank. Best of all, you could buy everything on this list, and you’d still be out the door of Guitar Center for less than $5k.
— Darren Fewins 2022