Music production is one of the fields that are so blessed by the fantastic technological development of the last 30 years. Back in the day owning a studio meant that you had to invest a whole lot of money in buying all kinds of gear needed for proper operation: multi-track tape machines, 2 track tape machines, consoles, outboard gear, etc. – nowadays all that can be replaced with more modern technology that comes with a far less terrifying price tag and is a lot more easy to use – hence the uprising of home studios.
A lot of professional projects nowadays shift away from big studio facilities and towards home studios because of the costs involved in working with big professional studios. In this article we will be taking a look at the essential gear needed to build a home studio and we will share some tips and tricks for making the most out of your home studio.
In order to make planning easy I suggest you think about your home studio as a system or a chain. A signal flow diagram is how I designed my home studio. Making a signal flow chart means drawing every component of your studio from the first input to the final output – be it a speaker system or headphones. This is how my chart looks like:
The Essential Gear
So what exactly do you need in order to build your very own home studio? Well, I suggest you ask yourself a few of questions before taking anymore steps forward. What do you want to use your studio for? Do you want to record audio or just fiddle around with virtual synthesizers and samplers? How much space do you have available for your build?
While all these questions will help you decide on specific gear that you will need in your studio, most setups revolve around three basic things – an input and output device – the audio interface, a storage and manipulation device – the computer and either speakers or headphones for monitoring.
Sure, you will need instruments to record, microphones to record with or at least a MIDI controller so you can play virtual instruments but given that you can draw in MIDI with your mouse it is not necessarily essential – but the most essential things are the audio interface, the computer and a monitoring system.
The Monitoring System
The type of monitoring you choose is very important as this will be the one and only way that recorded sound will be played back out of your system. If you have a decent sized room I suggest you take a look at this awesome guide about acoustically treating your room and go for a system with active speaker monitors. There are many products out there when it comes to monitors and they come in all shapes and sizes. However, if your room is small and making a lot of noise is not an option for your situation then buying some awesome headphones such as the Beyer Dynamic DT770 is a very good way to go about it.
You want to make sure that the computer you use for your system is up for the job. There are a few things to take into consideration: processing power, RAM memory, storage and i/o ports are the most important ones. Things like ergonomic design for laptops is also really important. The compatibility between your DAW and your computer is also super important.
You should check the DAW manufacturers website for compatibility issues or even write a friendly e-mail to their support team just to make sure your computer can do the job before committing to a buy. Most DAW’s need a multicore processor in order to function and at least 4 GB of RAM memory. Of course, the DAW you choose for your system is important as well – the big players in the DAW market are Steinberg with Cubase, Avid with Pro Tools, Ableton with Live, Presonus with Studio 1 and Apple with Logic.
The Audio Interface
As I mentioned above you need to think about your necessities before being able to decide upon a product.
For example, if you are going to be recording just one musician at a time or maybe two, there is no need for a big audio interface with eight inputs. If you want to use your studio for audio post production and/ or voice over recording then the above conclusion stands true – you do not really need more than two inputs. However, maybe you want to record external sound modules and send MIDI messages from the computer to them – then you need MIDI i/o; or maybe you want to use external preamps to boost the number of pre’s for a session – then you will need ADAT.
Really spend some time analyzing what kind of interface you would need. If you are unsure, however try to choose one that covers as many jobs as possible. Greater flexibility means that you will be able to adapt how you use your audio interface to all kinds of scenarios.
Why Do You Need An Audio Interface?
There are two things that an audio interface does for you. Both are very important. The first one is that it creates an interface for audio to come in and out of your computer by standardized inputs and outputs in formats such as balanced XLR and 1/4 inch line. The second one is that it takes the analog to digital and digital to analog conversion load of your computer. “Why would you want to perform that task outside of your computer?” – you may ask.
The A/D D/A conversion process happens like this: a lot of snapshots of the electrical signal that is coming in are being taken (for example, your guitar outputs and electrical signal to the input of your interface) and then assigning numeric values to each snapshot. There are two parameters that define how accurately the digital signal will reproduce the electrical one: sampling frequency and bit depth.
Audio interfaces provide with higher quality converters than your computer and some allow for 192 kHz, 24 bit conversion where your computer can only do 44.1 kHz at 16 bits. Also most DAW manufacturers state that a compatible audio interface is a minimum requirement for operation.
Microphones, Cables, Instruments
Of course, no studio is complete without microphones to record with, cables to connect your instruments or microphones to your interface and instruments to play. There is no such thing as baseline setup. Some people don’t even own a microphone as they never actually record any acoustic sound sources. Some people only use virtual instruments so the only cables they need is from the outputs of the audio interface to the speakers – that is unless they are using headphones. However, this is an ever evolving part of your studio.
The Best Home Studio Interface
As I stated above I think that the best home studio interfaces are those that have the most flexibility. A balance between preamp count, line inputs and outputs number, general i/o protocols and last but not least PRICE is hard to find but there are a few products that have such a balance. It is hard to name an absolute best. One of my favorite products is the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8.
This interface can do the conversion process at sampling frequencies as high as 192kHz, and 24 bit depth with 106 dB dynamic range. It has four pristine mic preamps and an extra four line inputs.
The only thing it lacks is more outputs – it just has the main stereo output and a pair of headphone outputs for monitoring so using outboard hardware is out of the question with this one unless it can connect via S/PDIF – because that is exactly where this interface makes up for the lack of outputs- Midi, S/PDIF and ADAT are big, big pluses for this interface.
All that, plus cool design and a lot of software that comes bundled with it. For the money it is hard to find a product that can compete with it. The Steinberg UR44 is one of the competitors of this interface. The UR44 has 6 outputs – one main stereo output, a copy of the main stereo output and another set of two outputs which you can use for routing things out of the board.
However, considering overall flexibility and performance and value, I think the 18i8 is simply the best audio interface out there to start building your home studio.