Whether it’s a $100 porta-studio or a million-dollar commercial facility, all recording studios contain the same basic components.. To take the mystery out of recording gear, here are the essentials that you need to know:

  • Sound source: The sound source is your voice, your guitar, your ukulele, or any other of the many sound makers in existence. As a musician, you probably have at least one of these at your disposal right now.

  • Input device: Input devices are what you use to convert your sound into an electrical impulse that can then be recorded. Here are the three basic types of input devices:

    • Instruments: Your electric guitar, bass, synthesizer, and drum machines are typical instruments that you plug into the mixer. These instruments constitute most of the input devices that you use in your studio.

      The synthesizer and drum machine can plug directly into your mixer or recorder, whereas your electric guitar and bass need a direct box (or its equivalent, such as a Hi-Z input in your mixer) to plug into first. A direct box is an intermediary device that allows you to plug your guitar directly into the mixer.

    • Microphone: A microphone (mic) enables you to record the sound of a voice or an acoustic instrument that you can’t plug directly into the recorder. A microphone converts sound waves into electrical energy that can be understood by the recorder.

    • Sound module: Sound modules are special kinds of synthesizers and/or drum machines. What makes a sound module different from a regular synthesizer or drum machine is that a sound module contains no triggers or keys that you can play. Instead, sound modules are controlled externally by another synthesizer’s keyboard or by a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) controller (a specialized box designed to control MIDI instruments)

  • Mixer: You use a mixer to send the electrical signal of your input device into your recorder and to route signals in a variety of ways. Traditionally, a mixer serves the following two purposes:

    • To route your signals into your recorder: This allows you to set the proper level for each input device so that it’s recorded with the best possible sound.

    • To blend (mix) your individual tracks into a stereo pair (the left and right tracks of your stereo mix): This role of the mixer is where your vision as a music producer takes center stage and where you can turn raw tracks into a polished piece of music.

  • Recorder: The recorder stores your audio data. For most home recordists, the recorder is digital.

  • Signal processors: Most of the time, you have to tweak your recorded tracks. Signal processors give you the power to do this. Signal processors can be divided into the following three basic categories:

    • Equalizers: Equalizers let you adjust the frequency balance of your tracks. This is important for making your instruments sound as clear as possible and for getting all your tracks to blend well.

    • Dynamics processors: Dynamics processors are used to control the balance between the softest and loudest parts of your tracks. They have many uses in the studio to help you make your tracks sit well together and to keep from overloading your system.

    • Effects processors: Effects processors allow you to change your tracks in a variety of ways, to create either a more realistic sound or unusual effects. Typical effects processors include reverb, delay, chorus, and pitch shifting

  • Monitors: Monitors, such as quality headphones or speakers, enable you to hear the quality of your recording and mixing. Monitors come in two basic designs:

    • Passive: Passive monitors are like your stereo speakers in that you also need some sort of amplifier to run them. A ton of options are available with prices from around $100. Just remember that if you go this route, you need to budget money for an amp. This can run a few hundred or more dollars.

    • Active: Active monitors have an integrated amplifier in each speaker cabinet. Having a built-in amp has its advantages, including just the right amount of power for the speakers and short runs of wire from the amp itself to the speakers (this is kind of a tweaky area that some people claim produces a better sound). You can find quite a few active monitors on the market starting at just a couple hundred dollars.