This article about how to stretch your home studio budget first appeared in FlyPaper by Soundfly. I reprint it here with permission and I encourage you to check out their courses. You can get a 15% discount code on a subscription using the promo code AJTRUMM15. Finally, you may come across affiliate links, and I may make a commission if you buy.
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 whiz-bang technology in order to make great recordings.
So, let’s go over some quick concepts to keep you from spending way too much, so you can stretch your home studio budget.
Unless you plan on recording to tape or old school digital hard drive, you’ll need a computer. You can pay anywhere from $2,000 on 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 processor multi core
- 4GB RAM
- 5-20GB space for the DAW software itself
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 OS for audio. If you’re a Mac person, check out Steinberg’s guide for optimizing OS X, and if you’re into PC’s, 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 retail for my current laptop, simply because it was a refurb.
You can spend way too much on DAW software, plugins, extras, sample libraries, etc. Think about what you’re doing 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’re not that much in the grand scheme of things, but if you’re short on funding, you may look into the totally free Cakewalk by Bandlab (update: Cakewalk won’t be free for much longer, but legacy copies will still work) or Ardour, or the very cheap Reaper, all of which are fully functional, not cheapo DAWs which some people actually prefer to the more famous packages. Unless you’re a commercial studio owner managing client expectations, there’s no reason you have to go with the obvious choice.
Plugins will eat your lunch. Do you need every single Waves bundle, Slate subscription, next gen iZotope badassery, and whiz bang super crusher 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.
When it comes to your bread and butter, there are four things you will always need:
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. In the case of Cakewalk by Bandlab, 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. Bonus: this will make things easier to find, which will make you faster.
Pro Tip: There are hundreds of incredible free plugins out there. Try some!
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 assume expensive equals better.
Hardware – Mic pres, outboard gear, etc
If you don’t secretly covet an original 1176, I don’t know why I’m talking to you.
Nevertheless, don’t bother. When it comes to outboard gear, you can do the whole thing without any outboard effects, compressors, vintage gear, rack mount 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 you’re not in vintage gear heaven.
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 pre 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.
We’re not going to tell you guitarists what to do with your money – we know how you get! We’ll just say…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 four million-dollar Stradivarius. It’s ok that you care about the action on your keyboard, but that doesn’t mean the $4000 Nord will feel better to you than the $400 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).
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 jist by now. Yes, you’ll need to spend money, and when you care about quality, you may have to spend a good chunk 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.
We’ll go out with one last tip I use to keep my head straight when it comes to spending – unsubscribe from all manufacturer email lists. Rather than reacting to a sale (which happens every day), react to your own need and go looking for a deal. This may be the best way to stretch your home studio budget.