Determining What You Need for Your Home Recording Studio

Home recording studios can vary tremendously. A home studio can be as simple as a cassette deck and an inexpensive microphone set up in the corner of your bedroom. Of course, you can opt for something elaborate, like a multitrack digital recorder with thousands of dollars in outboard gear and expensive instruments residing in an acoustically treated addition built onto the side of your house (whew!). Your first step in choosing what type of home recording system to buy is to determine your recording goals.

Use the following questions to help you uncover what it is that you truly see yourself needing (and wanting) in your home studio. As you answer these questions, remember that most recording studios aren't built all at once — pieces of equipment are added slowly over time (a mic here, a preamp there). When getting your first home studio system, start with only those pieces of gear that you really need and then add on slowly when you get to know your equipment.

For most home recordists, the weakest link in their recording system is their skill as an engineer. A $2,000 mic is useless to you until you gain an understanding of the subtleties of mic placement, for example. You may want to wait to buy that next piece of gear until you completely outgrow your present piece of equipment.

To get an understanding of what kind of home studio is best for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much money can I spend on equipment? For most people, this is the ultimate determining factor in choosing their studio components. Set a budget and try to stay within it. The sky's the limit on what you could spend on recording equipment for your home studio, but you don't need to spend a ton of money. If you know your goals and do your research, you can create top-quality recordings without having the best of everything.
  • In fact, your skill as a recording engineer will have a much greater effect on the overall quality of your sound than whether you have a $3,000 preamp. As you get to know your equipment, you can make recordings good enough to compete in the marketplace.
    Digital recording technology has improved tremendously over the last few years and it will continue to improve in the years to come. Don't get sucked into the belief that you have to have the latest, greatest thing in order to make great music. After all, great albums and #1 hits were recorded on lesser equipment than you'll find in most home studios today. Focus on the song and the arrangement, practicing good solid recording techniques, and you can get by with any of the pro or semi-pro recording systems available.
  • Is this studio just for me or do I intend to hire it out to record others? Your answer to this question may help you decide how elaborate a system you need. For example, if you eventually want to hire yourself and your studio out to record other people, you need to think about the compatibility of your system with other commercial studios. Your clients need to be able to take the music that they record at your studio and mix or master it somewhere else. You also may have buy specific gear that clients want to use, which often means spending more money for equipment from certain sought-after manufacturers that may sound the same as lesser-name stuff. If you're interested in going the commercial studio route, check out other commercial studios in your area and find out what they use and what type of equipment their clients ask for.
    On the other hand, if this studio is just for you, you can focus on getting the best bang for the buck on gear without worrying about compatibility or marketability issues.
  • Will I be recording everything directly into the mixing board or will I be miking most of the instruments? Your answer to this question is going to dictate your choice in how much of your budget goes toward equipment and acoustical treatments for your room. If you intend to plug your instruments directly into the mixer and the only thing you need a microphone for is the occasional vocal, then you have more money to spend on synthesizers or plug-ins for your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) — or you won't have to spend as much at all.
    Conversely, if you plan on recording a band live, you need to make sure that you allocate enough money for those pieces of gear to allow you to do that effectively, such as enough mics and inputs, sound isolation, and available tracks of simultaneous recording.
  • How many tracks do I need? Recorders come with 4, 8, 16, 24, and sometimes more available tracks. The answer to this question has more importance if you find yourself considering a stand-alone recorder or a studio-in-a-box (SIAB) system because they aren't as easily expandable.
    Having more tracks is not necessarily a better thing. The more tracks you have, the more you think that you need to fill them for every song. This can make for very cluttered arrangements and hard-to-mix songs. No matter how many tracks you end up with, use only those that you need to make your recording the best that it can be.
    With digital recorders, you can create submixes and bounce several tracks into one or two without losing sound quality, making the need for more tracks less important. Remember that some great albums were made using just 4 or 8 tracks.
  • Will I be sequencing the parts or playing the instruments live? If you plan on sequencing all your music (programming your part into a computer or sequencer and having it play your part for you), then you want to make sure that you get a good MIDI controller. You can also consider having less capability for audio tracks. But if you plan to play and record all the instruments live, then you need to make sure that your recorder has enough tracks for you to put each instrument on its own track.
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