Any passionate musician knows how awesome it is to have their own home recording studio. Whether you’re a producer, or a professional recording engineer, the actual process of setting up your studio can be a daunting task.
We’re talking about an extended period of time spent researching, laying out a plan, and execution. While you surely can take that route if you have the time, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that hard.
What if I told you that it’s better to start off small with only a few key essentials as your foundation? Would that make the whole process seem easier to tackle?
Well, you’re in luck. I’ve created this guide to help you achieve your goal of creating the perfect home studio for your immediate needs without the headache.
My mission here is to break this whole process down into 9 steps. My hope is that this structure will give you some easily digestible information that you can easily come back to.
On top of the 9-step breakdown, I’ve laid out a 3-tier system for building a home studio. Let me explain how this will work. Tier 1 is the most basic setup you can have while still having the means of creating music. Tier 2 adds some recording elements to the mix. Lastly, Tier 3 maximizes the acoustics, functionality, and aesthetics of your studio.
The Tier system will give you the freedom to build upon your studio over time without biting off more than you can chew early on.
You can always refer to the infographic above for a simplified version of this article.
So, without further ado, let’s get into the 9-step home recording studio setup guide!
1. Studio Desk – Tier 1
The desk is the foundation of all aspects of your studio.
Of course, it goes without saying that you won’t get far in your music-making journey without having a solid base to hold all of your equipment. With that, it’s important to know the intricacies of picking the right desk for a home studio.
In my opinion, the amount of space a desk has is the most important factor in terms of home studio use. There are a couple of different variables here that determine if a desk has adequate space for all of that equipment you use.
Firstly, plenty of tabletop space is obviously key. You’re gonna need a comfortable amount of room for your instruments, MIDI controllers, an audio interface, the list goes on. Plus, it’s just nice to have some extra room to work without feeling confined.
Secondly, a desk with some space-saving features is huge. Some examples of these features are CPU stands, keyboard trays, and monitor shelves. A desk with more of these additions will certainly make life a whole heck of a lot easier for you in the studio. At the end of the day, you just want to let your creations flow with ease, right?
Similar to the above section, certain features can add some functionality to your workflow. These features include, but are not limited to: onboard racks, swivel trays, and studio monitor stands.
While it is true that you can find some of these components separately, it’s cool to have an ultra-functional desk from the get-go. It’s fair to say that these types of features aren’t of the utmost importance, but if you can find one within your budget, it’s totally worth it.
The importance of good ergonomics is substantial. I can’t stress this enough. The amount of time you’re going to spend sitting in front of that computer is no joke. This can certainly have an affect on your health over time.
A desk that sits even just slightly too high can cause neck pains, back pains and even carpal tunnel.
That being said, it’s a pretty simple issue to avoid. Essentially, you want your computer monitor to be level with your eyes as much as possible. Also, your mouse and keyboard (as well as instruments) should be at a level where you’re not reaching up to use them. Practicing good posture will go a long way too.
This is another obvious factor, but it’s one that is rife with controversy. If you’re planning on getting a desk online, then you run the risk of getting a defective unit. I know it’s rare, but that desk will be holding some very expensive gear and you want to make sure it’s safe.
At a certain level, this issue is unavoidable. You can take steps to avoid this by making sure you’re buying from a reputable distributor, as well as making sure the manufacturer is well-known.
2. Computer – Tier 1
It’s funny that I decided to start this guide with the desk, but a reliable computer is probably the most essential piece of the studio puzzle. Again, you won’t get far without a computer.
It’s not as easy as going out and picking up any old computer though. There are some minimum recommended specifications to keep in mind. You want to make sure that you’re investing your hard-earned money on a powerful computer that you know will get the job done with no issues.
Below is a list of minimum recommended PC/laptop specs for music production:
- A minimum of 2.4Ghz quad-core processor power (i5, i7)
- AMD processors will do a fine job as well
- At least 8GB of RAM
- A 64-bit operating system
- A minimum of 500GB of internal storage (preferably SSD)
- Around 1TB extra storage for samples, plugins, etc. (HDD or external is fine)
- A 15″ screen
I know, finding a computer with those specs sounds expensive.
There is a reason behind that list though, and that is because of the strain that Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) can put on a CPU. On top of that, you’ll likely be working with numerous software plugins, instruments connected via MIDI, and a slew of other studio components.
It’s important to have a powerful computer for studio use. Trust me, you won’t regret the investment once you get your creations started.
One last thing worth mentioning is the issue of PC vs. Mac, and my answer is: either will work fine. Of course, if you plan on using Logic, then you’ll need a Mac. Otherwise, most DAWs work very well on a PC. In fact, you might find that using a PC will add some freedom in terms of what plugins you can use.
Overall, this is a subjective matter, and it’s completely dependent on what you think you’ll like best.
3. DAW – Tier 1
The workhorse of your studio, the Digital Audio Workstation.
We’ve come a long way over the years in terms of how we record and create music. Like me, you might be too young to remember the days of tape recorders and insanely expensive hardware being the only methods.
Luckily for us, we have these modern modern marvels of software to rely on for all of our creative needs.
I always say that the DAW is where the magic happens in the studio. It is where all of your recording, editing, and production of audio files takes place; all packed into one convenient
package. On top of that, the DAW is where all of your plugins are stored and processed. This amazing software is also where you run your MIDI controllers for tracking and tweaking. You get the idea. DAWs are just awesome.
That being said, there are quite a few DAWs out there to choose from, and each of them are as different as the last.
Here are some of the most popular DAWs on the market:
Developed by the German company Ableton for macOS and Windows. Known for its intuitive user interface, as well as it’s high-quality stock plugins. Although it’s one of the newest DAWs, it’s arguably become the most popular one on the market today. Ableton hits all the marks, but it really shines in live performances.
Originally developed by the German company C-Lab (Emagic). Acquired by Apple later on. It’s only compatible with macOS. Popular for its quality software instruments and distributed processing abilities. Mac users are usually thrilled to use Logic as their main DAW. Also, many well-known producers who use it to make a large swath of mainstream songs.
Developed by the American company Avid Technology for macOS and Windows. Popular for it’s recording, audio manipulation, and final-stage production capabilities. Pro Tools seamlessly interfaces with almost any piece of professional audio equipment. This fact has made it a mainstay in the industry for quite a while now.
Developed by the Belgian company Image-Line for macOS and Windows. Popular for its graphical user interface, and it’s 20 year library of software plugins. FL Studio has always been the perfect DAW for beginners and professionals alike. Basically, it’s just a great DAW to dive right into and start making music.
Developed by the German company Steinberg for macOS and Windows. Interestingly enough, Cubase is one of the first DAWs in its modern iteration that we see today. Steinberg has been in the game for a long time, so they certainly have a good handle on the VST and MIDI market.
Developed by the American company PreSonus for macOS and Windows. Popular for its unique, time-saving features. Studio One is a great DAW for those who have a mind that requires structure and organization, especially in live performances. PreSonus is a well known company in the industry, specifically for their audio interfaces.
Developed by the Swedish company Reason Studios (formally Popellerhead) for macOS and Windows. Reason is uniquely known for its user interface, which looks like a virtual studio rack. In recent years, Reason has gravitated more toward their software plugins. Their plugins are seriously top-notch, and they fully integrate with any DAW you’re using. Essentially, with Reason’s virtual studio rack, you can have two DAWs in one. Cool right?
Developed by the American company Apple for macOS. It’s a free, pre-installed DAW. There’s not much to say about GarageBand that you don’t already know. I’m sure you remember, as I do, being introduced to this DAW back in grade-school as a computer class lesson. It’s a simple DAW meant for beginners and those folks who just want to make music purely as a hobby.
Cakewalk (formally Sonar)
Developed by the Singaporean company BandLab for Windows. Cakewalk is somewhat of a baby in the DAW industry, but it’s gained a respectable reputation thus far. It’s the most affordable DAW on this list (besides GarageBand, which is free). It’s popular for its modest CPU consumption and it’s overall reliability-to-affordability ratio. Also, Cakewalk’s MIDI editing is very solid.
How Do I Pick the Right DAW?
There are even more DAWs in existence than what’s on that list, if you can believe it. Digital Performer, Bitwig Studio, REAPER, Mixcraft, and more would only partially round-out the list.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “how the heck am I supposed to pick the right DAW?”
Just by looking at that list, choosing the right DAW seems like a daunting task; however, after a little research you’ll just know which one you like best.
You’ll feel it in your soul.
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. In all seriousness, you’ll know what will fit perfectly for you after spending a little time weighing the pros and cons of each one.
Personally, I’ve used Ableton Live as my main DAW for a while now. I couldn’t be happier with that decision. Many years ago, I used an ancient version of FL Studio as my first DAW. Even then I knew that one day I wanted to get my hands on Ableton. Nothing against FL Studio, but I just wanted a more straightforward UI due to how my mind works.
All in all, this is a completely individual matter, but it’s a very important one. Once you pick the DAW that perfectly suits your taste, then you’re off to the races!
4. Headphones – Tier 1
Some people out there might find it strange that I’m placing headphones this high on the list, but I do have my reasons.
This is the last step included in the Tier 1 section of this home studio setup system. This means that with a nice pair of studio headphones, on top of the rest of the Tier 1 components, you could have a functional home studio.
You would be wise to have multiple sets of headphones in your arsenal though. If you need to save this recommendation for later down the road, then do so, but it would be a huge benefit to keep it in mind.
The reason I advise investing in multiple headphones is because you’re gonna need multiple reference points when creating a song. For instance, you could have a pair of studio headphones purely for tracking, and another pair for mixing and mastering.
Frequency Response and Sonic Reference points
Certain headphones are better suited for specific jobs. This is where the subject of frequency response has a huge part to play.
Studio headphones or DJ headphones with more emphasized low-end frequencies might be more suitable for combing through samples and tracking your song.
Conversely, a pair of open-back headphones with a very flat frequency response will be better for those surgical mixing tasks.
Again, you can use that one pair of studio headphones that you’re really comfortable with for multiple jobs if you want. That being said, you might be narrowing your sonic reference horizon.
We all know how frustrating it can be when you’re mixing your song and it sounds great on one of your reference points. You then go and listen to your song in your car and it sounds awful. That’s why I always say it’s best to have a slew of different avenues to compare your sounds through.
The next thing to consider when it comes to studio headphones is whether or not you need a DAC or amplifier for them.
Many studio headphones on the market don’t necessarily need an amp to properly power them. In fact, the more “high-end” you go, the higher the chance you’ll need an amp. This is all due to the impedance of any particular pair of headphones.
Impedance is a very technical term that’s hard to fully explain without bringing complex equations and scientific jargon into the mix. In regards to headphones, impedance is an electrical quantity that measures the resistance of the audio signal passing through them. This is displayed in Ohms (Ω).
The main thing to know here is the higher the impedance, the greater the chance you’ll need an amplifier. This does lend itself to some unique benefits though. Typically speaking, high impedance headphones powered by an amp will have a very clean and crisp sound to them.
None of this is to say that you absolutely need an ultra-expensive pair of headphones. Most good studio headphones hover around 30-70Ω. Roughly speaking, anything between 80-100Ω will start getting into amp-worthy territory. If you start getting into 100Ω or more, you’ll definitely need an amp.
Choosing the right headphones for you
As I mentioned before, investing in multiple headphones will certainly give you a good head start. Spending a good amount of time researching all of the studio headphones on the market would be a good idea.
Companies like Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamics, Sennheiser, Sony, and Pioneer are all good places to start. Remember, each set of headphones will have their own frequency response and other traits to them. Therefore, it’d be smart to find exactly what stands out to you the most.
5. Audio Interface – Tier 2
The first among the Tier 2 section of this guide. Audio interfaces are the technical hub of your studio. Tier 2 is where you start adding the components necessary for recording vocals and instruments in your studio.
This device is where almost all of your equipment and hardware connects to. You can then tweak the volume levels of each input, and fine-tune a few other things as well. All of your recording gear is processed here as well.
Input and Output (I/O) count
A good rule of thumb is to have more inputs than you initially need. This gives you room to breathe as you add more gear down the road.
Let’s break this down a bit.
Say you want to record some vocals, a guitar, and a full drum kit. Well in that regard, you’d do well to invest in a more capable mixer, but that’s beside the point. You need an input for your vocal mic, as well as the smaller mics for the guitar and drums. On top of that, certain pieces of equipment will only connect with specific extensions and input types.
My point here is that you never know where your productions will take you. Therefore, do yourself a favor and choose an interface that gives you the freedom to expand.
Now, I’m not saying that you should go crazy and drop a small fortune on a particular device. If you’re planning on running a podcast, or just recording your own vocals, you should only need about 8 inputs. If you’re a full on recording engineer, then you’ll need quite a few more than that.
6. MIDI Controller – Tier 2
This is where the fun comes in. All of your creativity flows through these devices. That’s how I see it at least. If you want a world of possibilities at your fingertips, then a MIDI controller of any type will be your favorite sidekick.
First, we need to learn the different types of MIDI controllers you can get, and which one’s will be better for your studio.
Pad Controller (Sampler, Drum Pad, etc.)
Samplers and drum pads have seen numerous iterations over the years. It would blow your mind the types of MIDI controllers that exist out there. Anything from a “crystal ball” controller to a spherical drum pad that’s fully customizable.
While there are seemingly endless MIDI controller options out there, the important thing to ask yourself is, “what will this device do for me?” Moreover, how will a certain device help you in what you want to accomplish in your studio.
At the end of the day, choosing a MIDI controller should be fun! Dive into all of the devices on the market and pick the one that attracts you the most.
These devices are a mixture of a digital piano with a pad controller or sampler. They also fully integrate with your DAW for additional digital tweaking. These devices feature most of the same control options as any other MIDI controller. The benefit of a MIDI keyboard is how they streamline your workflow.
If you’re really caught in a creative train of thought, the last thing you want to do is ruin that by switching over to your drum pad. With a MIDI controller, everything is at your disposal within a finger-length reach.
Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a separate sampler or pad controller too. After all, having multiple outlets for your musical ideas is never a bad thing.
I highly suggest you check out my Ultimate MIDI Controller Keyboard guide! That guide will show you what features to look for in these devices such as: control options, key weight, I/O connectivity, and more! If you’re in the market for a MIDI controller that article should definitely be your next step.
7. Microphone – Tier 2
Choosing a microphone for your studio might seem like an easy decision initially. I can promise you that there’s a lot more to consider here than you might think.
If you’re planning on keeping it simple, then I’d recommend starting out small and working your way up from there. First and foremost, seek out a classic cardioid large diaphragm condenser mic. The “cardioid” part is most important because those types of mics are ideal for rooms with less-than-perfect acoustics.
If you’re looking to go a little deeper into this topic, then we need to break down the more technical aspects of the varying types of microphones out there.
USB vs. XLR
Obviously, a USB microphone simply connects right to your computer. USB mics are common among podcasters and producers who have a more basic setup. If you’re just looking to record your own vocals (or someone else’s) then this is the route I’d go. USB connectivity is easy and hassle-free.
Alternatively, XLR mics typically require an audio interface with phantom power. These types of microphones will have a higher price-tag attached to them, but they’re not without some perks. XLR adds more flexibility when recording vocals or instruments. Additionally, XLR has an improved recording resolution. Basically, this option is for those who want to up their recording game to a new level.
Condenser vs. Dynamic
Understanding the difference between a condenser mic and a dynamic mic is key to finding the one that’s right for you.
I’ll try to keep this from becoming a science lesson.
Condenser mics have more sensitivity as well as an improved high-frequency detail to them. If you want to catch all of the fine details of a vocalist, then this is your best bet. You’re going to need to have a soundproofed area with some good acoustics to avoid capturing background noises though.
Dynamic mics will have better isolation. These types of mics have a more “intimate” sound, and are perfect for broadcasting or podcasting.
That’s a very simple way of describing those differences, but it gives you an idea. This can be a confusing topic when you get into the finer details. Again, spend some time researching the sea of microphone options, and I have no doubt you’ll find the one that’s right for you.
Keep in mind that you’re going to need a few XLR cables that are decent quality, a pop filter, and possibly a mic stand as well.
8. Studio Monitors – Tier 2
Probably the most iconic piece of equipment in any studio. When you picture your dream studio, it’s hard not to imagine a set of studio monitors sitting there. These particular types of speakers are tailored to mixing and are a wonderful sonic reference point. They have been used by many producers and sound engineers for a very long time for a reason.
Studio monitors differ from your typical pair of consumer speakers in one major way: they have a flat frequency response. That’s right, just like I mentioned earlier in the headphones section. These speakers are ideal for those jobs that require an honest representation of whatever sound you want to tweak. No overly embellished lows, no ear-piercing highs.
The unfortunate thing about studio monitors is their hefty price-points. These are a component that might require some time to save up for. That being said, your studio wouldn’t be fully complete without them.
Another very important thing here is the acoustics of the room your studio will be located in. Studio monitors require an optimal environment to truly get the best out of them. The manner in which they’re positioned, the material of your walls, and even where you’re sitting can alter their effectiveness.
Alas, this is why I placed studio monitors so low on the list. We start delving into the more advanced aspects of setting up your home studio. Learning how to properly soundproof your room and treating your acoustics will be a topic for another day.
I’m in no way trying to deter you from investing in a pair of studio monitors though. Just keep in mind that there’s a lot more to it than you might think. This is actually a perfect segway into the last step in your home studio setup.
9. Perfecting your studio – Tier 3
The one and only Tier 3 topic. This step is a bit broad, but I’ll break it down into a few sections to help you get an idea of what I’m getting at.
Adding more and more functionality to your studio is key. The more gear you acquire overtime can certainly make your whole space feel cluttered. Having a designated area for your MIDI keyboard. Tucking your audio interface under your computer monitor shelf, or buying a rack for it. How about upgrading your studio desk to one that has built-in racks and more shelving?
All those examples outline just a handful of things you can do to improve the overall quality of life in your studio.
Acoustic Treatment and Soundproofing
I mentioned in the studio monitor section that you should have an optimal acoustic profile in your studio for them to truly shine. Well, that’s where the advanced topic of acoustic treatment and soundproofing comes in.
Essentially, your goal is to create a “neutral” environment for your sounds to flow through. Adding soundproofing elements like bass traps, foam panels, and mass loaded vinyl are just a few ways to accomplish this.
I will be writing in-depth articles on this topic in the near future, and will update this page with those links as soon as they’re ready.
Upgrading your gear
As you grow over time, you’re going to want to add more advanced gear to your arsenal. Creating a “dedicated” professional home studio is no small feat.
Components you’re going to need include an uninterruptible power supply, analog hardware, a rack-mounted DAC, a master clock, snake cables, a microphone preamp, and a whole lot more!
I’m not trying to overwhelm you here. I’m also not saying you should go to this level if you’re not ready. My point is that the opportunities to expand your studio are vast. Becoming a “studiophile” is a fun-filled rabbit hole. Enjoy it!
This is where you can let loose and have fun with your studio setup. Although this isn’t an “essential” part of the process, it can still be beneficial in a number of ways.
We all know how important it is to love the space you spend a large amount of time in. Get a little creative by adding some 3D wall panels, or stringing some LED lights around your studio desk. It isn’t going to hurt anyone.
Spend some time browsing the web for ideas. You wouldn’t believe how many awesome home studios there are out there.
Conclusion – Home Recording Studio Setup
Okay then! I think I’ll do us both a favor and sum it all up as briefly as I can.
One could easily write a book about setting up a proper home studio (I’m sure someone already has), but my goal here is to simply give you an outline.
Starting your home studio journey is exciting. It’s truly a task meant for folks who are obsessed with sound and music.
I wish you all the best down this path, and I hope this guide has provided you with some useful information!
Also, If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out!