03 May The Ultimate Cheap Home Recording Studio Guide (2017 Version)
I’ve been writing and producing music for about 7 years now. When I first started, I was in college and I took a class that first got me into playing guitar. That’s when my love affair with music started and since then I’ve also learned to play the piano, drums, how to use recording software and produce music, recorded my own albums, and so on.
However, during that time I didn’t always have the money to purchase everything I needed to create music the way I wanted to and produce the best possible tracks I could at the time. So I had to get creative. I had to aggressively search for the best deals on music gear and come up with creative ways to save money.
The point, I know how to build a home studio for cheap.
In this guide, you’ll find everything you need in order to start recording and producing music at home. Whether you’re a solo vocalist, guitarist, drummer, budding mixing engineer, you’ll be able to use this guide to help you identify the gear you need and get it all for cheap.
I’ll list my personal recommendations for gear, as well as, list multiple options so you can choose the best option for you. I’ll cover how to choose an affordable audio interface, list deals on cables, show you what microphones to get, how to DIY your acoustic treatment, what speakers and headphones you need, and more.
Lastly, although I will try to list the lowest price gear I can for each of these categories, don’t think that you won’t be able to get great results. There’s a lot of perceived value when buying expensive gear. Meaning, just because something is priced higher, we automatically assume it’s better based on its price alone, which isn’t always true.
While some more expensive gear can help in certain situations, I’m going to show you what gear to get in order to record great sounding tracks and produce high-quality songs, all while staying on a lower budget.
One last thing, I’ve put together a few packages of recommended gear for different recording situations (guitarists on a budget, vocalists, drummers, etc.). So all you would need to is purchase everything within this package and you’d be set to get started recording. These are featured at the end of this post (or click here to get there).
Finally, without any further delay, let’s get to it…
You can use the buttons below to “jump” to each section:
- Do You Need a New Computer for Home Recording?
- Choosing an Affordable Audio Interface for Your Home Studio
- Home Recording Studio Cables
- The Best Inexpensive Microphones for Home Recording
- Cheap Microphone Stands vs. Expensive Microphone Stands
- Headphones vs. Speakers for Home Recording. Which Do You Need?
- How to Pick a DAW (Recording Program)
- DIY Acoustic Treatment
- Home Recording Studio Packages
One of the biggest expenses of getting into home recording is purchasing a computer. But, most of you reading this guide likely already have a laptop or desktop computer. So you’re probably wondering, will it be suited to create, record, and produce music?
Chances are, the computer you already have is good enough to get started recording. Don’t rush out to buy a new computer because you think you need to or so and so said you need X computer to record music.
In this day and age, almost everyone has a computer that is powerful to start recording. Now, not everyone will have a computer capable of recording 64 tracks, or throwing a ton of plugins on the mix, or using multiple instances of resource intensive plugins like Kontakt or Superior Drummer. But for most people looking to record themselves as a solo musician, record their band, record drums, get started with recording, etc. the computer you have now will do just fine.
As long as you have a relatively new computer (let’s say purchased in the last 5 years or so) and it’s a normal laptop or desktop (so not a tiny netbook or Chromebook), you’ll be fine. Heck, you can even record with an iPad or smartphone these days (in a bit limited capacity).
So to reiterate, stick with the computer you have now. Don’t run out and buy a new computer right away. This will save you time and money. Then, later down the line, if you’ve been getting better at home recording and expanding your use of plugins and number of tracks, and the computer have is limiting you, then go ahead and buy a new computer.
You’ll have a better idea of what you need and if it’s really necessary at that point.
For those of you that need to know specs, here’s a good baseline for minimum requirements:
Home Recording Computer Minimum Requirements:
CPU: Dual Core 1.9 GHZ
RAM: At least 4GB
Hard Drive: 250GB
With that out of the way, let’s cover choosing an audio interface…
An audio interface is used to convert analog signals to digital. You’ll need one if you want to record any kind of audio source (guitar, vocals, drums, bass, horns, strings, etc.). There are USB microphones that can be used as a workaround since you don’t need an interface to use them. However, from personal experience, these typically aren’t the best options.
For one, you’re limited to one microphone per USB input. So if you need to record multiple sources at once (like a drum set, multiple mics on a guitar cabinet, a full band, etc.) this will be tough to do with USB microphones (since you have limited USB ports and having multiple devices plugged in via USB can sometimes cause driver issues).
Two, generally they are harder to use and set a good gain level (it’s not as simple as adjusting a knob on an audio interface). Three, there aren’t as many options for USB microphones. Four, if you want to have studio monitors (speakers) in your studio, you’ll need an audio interface anyways.
I had a USB microphone (the Samson C01U) when I first started recording and that was all I had. It allowed me to get started, record my guitar, and start laying down guitar riffs I was coming up with. It came with a tiny stand (see the picture to the right) but that allowed me to set it on the ground next to the tiny 1×10 amp I had at the time.
However, all my recordings sounded like shit. While a large part of that was not knowing how to set gain and properly record guitar yet, not having the ability to easily set the gain for the microphone (like you would using an audio interface), did not help.
In short, I’d recommend picking up an audio interface. It’ll give you more flexibility going forward and provide more value.
With that said, you don’t need to spend a boatload of money on an expensive interface. There are plenty of affordable interfaces to get you started.
It’s easy to think that a really expensive audio interface is gong to provide you with a much better sound, however, the difference isn’t as big as you’d think. I’d say unless you’re an experienced mixing engineer with a highly trained ear (which probably isn’t most of the people reading this), you won’t notice a large difference in the sound quality of a cheaper audio interface versus a more expensive one.
Personally, I always like to look for deals on used gear to save money (check out this article on places to look for used gear deals) but if you want to go new, I’d recommend Behringer’s U-Phoria series. This series includes interfaces with just one input up to eight XLR inputs (these allow you to plug a microphone cable into each input).
So far, the UMC404HD has worked great for me and I have not experienced any issues with it. Best of all, it was only $100 and has four XLR inputs (all which can be used as instrument and line inputs).
Most audio interfaces these days, even the cheap ones, have really good converters in them (giving you a really great sound).
Here are the rest I would suggest for budget minded peeps (some that I use or have used personally):
*All are USB interfaces. There are other interfaces out there that use Firewire connections but many people don’t have Firewire ports on their computers and these seemed to be being phased out more and more. That’s why all the recommendations below are USB connection (besides the discontinued suggestions further below).
Best USB 1 to 2 Input Audio Interfaces | $40 – $100 Price Range
Best for Solo Musicians, Guitarists, and Vocalists.
This interface runs for $40 and gives you two inputs: one XLR/Line input and one instrument input. So you could record say vocals on one and run a guitar cable into the other to record guitar using a guitar VST. It connects via USB, includes two line outputs, and has a headphone output.
This unit is similar to the Behringer above but instead of one separate XLR input and one separate instrument input, it gives you two XLR/Line/Instrument inputs (meaning an XLR cable, line cable, or instrument cable can plug into the same input). It also has a “pad” button that you can hit if the signal you’re recording is too hot.
I use to use this interface for recording on my laptop and for playing my guitar out live (I used Amplitube to play live for a little while). It’s a solid unit (the case is all metal) and features a simple setup. The interface goes for about $100 new but you can usually find one used on Guitar Center’s website for about $50.
Best USB 4 Input Audio Interfaces | $100 – $240 Price Range
Best for Home Recording Enthusiasts and Drummers.
I recently picked up this audio interface for band practice. I run mine and another singer’s microphone into it and run an output into the mixing board. It works great and I have not had any issues with it. Best of all, it was only $100. It features 4 XLR/Line/Instrument inputs, 6 line outputs (as pairs in stereo), a headphone output, MIDI, and an A/B button on the front to switch the “main” output to the “3+4” outputs. Honestly, in terms of price and quality, this is a great deal and I’d highly recommend it.
Again, this interface has 4 inputs. However, there is a separate XLR input and 1/4″ input (for instrument and line inputs) for each of the 4 channels. I’m not sure I like this approach but I believe this gives you the ability to track say a guitar and vocal on the same channel. Just know, this will be on the same track so you wouldn’t be able to adjust them separately after they were recorded that way. It’s listed for $250 on Sweetwater but marked down to $204 on Amazon.
This unit has a nice layout, comes with 4 XLR/Line/Instrument inputs, two headphone outputs (a nice feature in this range), MIDI, and 6 line outputs. It runs for $250.
Best USB 8 or More Input Audio Interfaces | $250 – $400 Price Range
Best for Drummers, Full Bands, and Mixing Engineers.
This interface has 8 XLR inputs and 2 line inputs on the front of the interface. There are then 6 additional line inputs on the back of the unit along with 8 line outputs. $250.
This is the bigger brother to the UMC404HD with 8 XLR inputs, 10 1/4″ outputs, and MIDI capability. It is also rack mountable. For this many features, the price is great at $300.
This interface has two XLR/Line/Instrument inputs on the front of the unit and 6 on the back. It then has 1/4″ outputs on the back (two to be used as the “main” outs). It has two headphone outputs with individual knobs to adjust the volumes for each. However, there is no MIDI capability on this unit.
Discontinued or older interfaces to look for:
- Presonus Firepod (Firewire interface). While a bit older, these can be found used in the $100 to $150 range and have 8 XLR inputs.
- Motu 8pre (Firewire interface). Can be found for about $200.
- M-Audio Profire 2626 (Firewire interface). Can be found for about $200.
When it comes to cables, there are a ton of options. There’s different lengths, types, quality, etc. With the disparity in price, it’s easy to wonder if a really expensive cable will be a better buy.
In all honesty, though, unless you’re an experienced mixing engineer and/or have a really trained ear when it comes to recording, I highly doubt you’ll notice much of a difference. Some claim there is a slight difference in recording quality but I don’t really buy it. I don’t notice a difference in audio and I’ve been recording for 7 years.
I think the bigger difference when it comes to expensive cables versus cheaper ones is the actual build quality. More expensive cables are typically built tougher and use higher-quality/longer-lasting materials. They’re often thicker and you can usually feel the difference. Some of the more expensive cables have gold plating I think the biggest difference is how they stand up to abuse. Cheaper cables tend to go faulty if put through a lot of abuse (swinging them around, winding them up, etc.).
So in general, more expensive cable are built to last longer and can be put through more abuse without breaking (swinging them around, winding them up, etc.). Cheaper cables tend to go faulty if put through a lot of abuse.
But, that’s not to say there aren’t some good options for quality cables at low prices. And if you’re careful with your cables, and learn how to wrap them up the correct way (see the video further below), you’ll be able to extend the life of even your cheaper cables and negate any difference a more expensive cable would have made in that area.
Now, there are a few good places to pick up cables. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend going into your local Guitar Center to buy a cable if you’re looking to find quality cables at a low price. They often only have a few options in-store and the ones they do have are usually more expensive than if you purchased online. This difference is even bigger when buying small accessories like cable adapters, headphone adapters, patch cables, etc.
Amazon and Ebay are your best bet when it comes to buying cables.
So here are some good deals on cables:
Best Deals on XLR Microphone Cables
Best Deals on Instrument Cables (for Guitar, Keyboard, etc.)
Best Deals on Speaker Cables
*Needed for hooking up speakers to your audio interface.*
Lastly, before I move onto the next section, I want to talk about the right way to wrap up your cables.
When I first started playing guitar and even recording, I would wrap up both my microphone cables and instrument cables by wrapping them around my shoulder and elbow, much like you would do with say a power extension cord. This is quick and convenient to start but this is NOT the right way to wrap up a microphone or instrument cable.
Wrapping up the cable up this way not only leads to a messy and tangled cable (because it will become twisted over time) but can also destroy your cables. Wrapping the cable up like this causes a lot of twisting in the cable, and over time (and repeating of this process), this can cause the wires inside the cable to break. Which means your cable breaks.
A much better approach to wrapping cables that will keep them neater and more organized but best of all, extend their life, is to wrap them up using an over-under approach.
This is hard to explain via text but the video below does a good job explaining this method. I would HIGHLY suggest learning and getting used to this method. It’s award at first if you’ve never wrapped up a cable this way, but it will save you a lot of money and broken cables. It’s especially important when using cheaper cables because they tend to break easier. Using this method will ensure they last much longer.
So check out the video and let’s move on.
There are many different types of microphones. A few of the most popular for recording music include dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones.
Dynamic microphones are generally best for recording instruments that see large spikes in volume (like a snare drum, toms, a guitar cabinet, etc.). Condenser microphones are good for picking up smaller subtleties like the cadences and breathiness of a smooth vocalist. These types of microphones are often used to record vocals, acoustic guitar, and used as overhead mics on a drum set (to catch the sounds of the cymbals).
But, that’s not to say that the opposite can’t be true, and that condenser microphones can’t be used on drumsets and dynamic mics can’t be used on vocals. It’s really all a matter of preference and the tone you’d like to achieve in your recordings.
So be open to experimentation and be sure to test out (or check out YouTube) for the sounds of different mics.
With that said, here are few quality mics for those on a budget that will still give you a great sounding recording:
Often used to record vocals, acoustic guitar, and as overhead microphones on a drumset.
Rode NT1A – $230 New (comes with Pop Filter & Shockmount)
I personally have two of these microphones. At $230 new, they’re more in the mid-range for condenser microphones for home recording. However, you can often pick them up for a bit cheaper used (usually in the $130 to $150 range). Heck, I’ve even got a steal on Craigslist for $80 some years ago when I purchased my first one.
Just note, if you do go used, you may not get everything that comes with it when purchasing new. So be on the lookout for that. If you buy the microphone new, it comes in a package with a pop filter, shockmount, and a little fabric bag to store the microphone when not in use.
This is a nice little beginner’s kit for recording vocals.
Anyways, if you’re unfamiliar, a pop filter is used when recording vocals to block out “pop” noises made from a singer’s voice when recording. These usually happen on words that start with “B” or “P” because of the stress on that syllable. So the pop filter keeps that sound from being picked up in the microphone.
The shockmount is used to absorb shocks like when you or someone bumps into a microphone stand. This helps prevent noise from that shock being picked up by the microphone.
These are definitely two things you want to have when using a condenser microphone and especially when recording vocals.
Again, like I said, I have two of the microphones. I originally picked up my first one to record vocals and I liked it so much, I picked up another when I needed two microphones to be used as overhead mics when recording drums for my old band.
The Rode Nt1a is a great microphone and if you can only get one microphone, I’d choose this one. I highly recommend it, especially for recording vocals.
Here are a few similar style microphones at a bit cheaper price:
All are going to do primarily the same thing, it’s really just a matter of preference.
Often used to record dynamic instruments like a snare or tom drum and used to record guitar cabinets.
Shure SM57 – $100
My number one pick for a dynamic microphone that I would recommend would be the Shure Sm57.
This is one of the most popular and iconic microphones there is. It’s extremely popular for recording electric guitar when mic’ing up a guitar cabinet.
If you’re a guitarist, this is almost always the first microphone you should and will get. It’s that good. It’s essentially the recording standard when it comes to recording guitar.
But, it’s also very popular for recording drums, particularly the top and/or bottom of a snare head.
Probably the best thing about this microphone is its price. It’s $100 new but you can often find it used in the $50 to $60 range.
Again, I’d highly recommend picking up this microphone, especially if you are a guitarist looking to record your guitar cabinet.
Again, all are going to do primarily the same thing, it’s really just a matter of preference.
Good microphones for other recording situations:
- Audix DP4 Mic Kit ($450 New for 4 mics): Best for mic’ing the toms and kick on a drum kit.
Mic stands can be an overlooked aspect of recording. You can buy a cheap mic stand for about $20. However, I can tell you from personal experience, that these mic stands don’t stand up to abuse (or even regular tear down and setup) very well.
I’ve purchased quite a few cheap mic stands over the years and they all seem to break or not function correctly. Most of the time, this is due to the top of microphone stand turning when it shouldn’t. This leads to a lot of microphone stands that look like this:
I have to duct tape the top of the boom arm so the microphone stand doesn’t twist when in position (causing the microphone to be out place).
I have a few microphone stands like that. Another common problem is the knobs break making it so you can’t tighten the stand down into position.
If I had to do it over again, I’d probably spend a bit more money on a more expensive, higher-quality microphone stand to start. A good microphone stand will last a long time and be able to withstand a good amount of abuse.
Cheap stands do not.
My personal recommendation would be to get a microphone stand made by K&M (like this boom stand for $40). The stands are a bit pricier, as you’ll see from the list of cheaper alternatives further below, but they seem to built better.
The rehearsal studio I go to uses these same stands and they are sturdy and lock down as they should. Plus, they’re getting plenty of use, being adjusted for every band or musician that comes through there, and continue to hold up.
The next investment in microphone stands I make will be one of those stands.
Anyways, that’s my two cents on the subject. If you can, invest in a decent microphone stand. Especially if you only need one (like a solo vocalist or guitarist).
But, like myself in the past, I know it’s tough to justify spending a lot of money here, so here are a few good deals on cheap microphone stands:
- AmazonBasics Tripod Boom Microphone Stand for $16
- Samson MK-10 Microphone Boom Stand for $20
- On-Stage Stands Tripod Mic Stand With Boom 2-Pack for $30. These have metal adjusting arms. Which I’ve found to be a bit better for locking down the stand on cheap mic stands as compared to knobs.
- Griffin 4-Pack of Boom Microphone Stands with Microphone Clips for $67
When it comes to recording at home, you’ll obviously need some way to monitor your tracks while recording and to listen to them after.
When tracking, you’ll need a good set of headphones to monitor the mix while recording. Ideally, you’ll want these headphones to block out sound somewhat from the outside and make sure no sound escapes from the headphones themselves. This is especially important as a vocalist since you don’t want sound from the headphones leaking into the microphone while recording your vocals.
So with that said, and as I figure most of you reading this are more concerned with recording, I’m going to focus solely on closed-back headphones in this article and not touch on open-back headphones (which are generally better for mixing).
I’ll then cover speakers for your home studio. But, if you can only get one (speakers or headphones), and your primary goal is recording, invest into a pair of closed-back headphones first.
So, let’s take a look at a few…
Studio Headphones for Tracking
My personal recommendation for solid headphones that meet these requirements and are still quite affordable would be the CAD MH310 Closed-Back Headphones at under $50:
I have used these headphones for a few years now and for the price, they are really great. The sound is neutral/flat meaning they aren’t overhyped in any particular frequency like most consumer headphones (like Beats by Dre or Bose). They also cover the ear well and really lock down to trap sound inside and prevent sound from escaping. All of which make them great for recording.
A few other nice features include a roughly 8 ft. long cord and the headphones come with a 1/4″ adapter (so they can be plugged into a 1/8″ or 1/4″ plug). Also, what’s nice is the adapter actually screws onto the headphone plug.
I’m not sure if you can make it out in the picture below, but there are threads on the plug that allow the adapter to stay on nicely, ensuring it won’t accidently come off or be lost.
I’d say the only downfall to these headphones is that over time, the headphone cups have begun to crack:
I have probably had these headphones for about 4 years now, though. And, I’ve used them a lot while playing drums because they block out noise nicely and are great for keeping my ears protected. So I’d say a lot of that has to do with sweating while playing drums.
Anyways, I’d definitely recommend taking a look at the CAD MH310 Headphones as I believe they’re a great deal at $50. You may also want to check out the CAD MH300 Headphones which are essentially the little sister/brother to these headphones and have the exact same over-the-ear design but are a bit cheaper.
For those that are really cash strapped, I’d recommend checking out the Behringer HPM1000 Headphones at less than $20. These will get you going and recording, I just probably wouldn’t expect superior audio quality at this range. But that’s okay, you just need something to track with.
Finally, if you’re looking for a bit better sound quality and a more comfortable set of headphones for longer periods of listening or recording, I’d take a look at the Audio-Technica ATH-M30X Headphones. These headphones offer a similar fit to the ultra popular, Sennheiser HD280 Headphones, but at a more affordable price ($65 vs. $100).
They don’t clamp down as tightly as the CAD headphones (or similar styles to the CAD headphones) but provide a bit more comfortable fit. They’re a good alternative for all-around mixing, recording, and listening.
Now, let’s talk about speakers…
Best Studio Monitors on a Budget
If you’re just getting started recording, and that’s your primary focus (versus mixing), then studio monitors are not completely essential. Are they helpful? Yes.
But if your main goal is to record yourself (say as a solo musician like a vocalist or guitarist) or even record your band, you’ll want to pick up a solid pair of headphones for recording (like the ones I mentioned above) first.
Then, once you have that, you can gravitate towards buying speakers, commonly referred to as studio monitors.
Studio monitors can be expensive, so I like I said, hold off until you need them. Even then, only if you plan on mixing your own music or mixing professionally, should you spend a lot of money on them.
The speakers I use in my home studio are the JBL LSR305s.
These studio monitors have a 5″ speaker and cost $280 for a new pair. They feature a “flat” frequency response as most studio monitors do. Flat is in quotation marks because while nearly all studio monitors have a flat response they all still emphasize certain frequencies ever so slightly.
These speakers seem to be just slightly boosted in the low-range which to me is great in a 5″ speaker because it provides a good bass response from this size and compared to other similarly sized models.
This is something that if you’re mixing your songs, you’ll have to be aware of and learn your speakers.
Other than that, I think the sound is fairly pure and the JBL LSR305s are a great solution for those looking to get into home mixing.
I’d say that unless you’re in a fairly large space, and you want to create accurate mixes, I’d avoid getting studio monitors that have a speaker larger than 5″. On one end, they’re simply more expensive than smaller speakers but they also provide more bass which can be a problem in small rooms (like a bedroom) where the bass will build up and create a fall sense of increased low end in your mix.
So if you’re in a smaller space, I’d say stick to the 4 to 5″ speaker size.
If all you want is a way to monitor your mixes/songs after recording, or really need something to get your foot in the door, I’d take a look at the M-Audio Av32 Studio Monitors. I don’t believe these will give you as flat/accurate of a sound as the JBL LSR305s when it comes to mixes, but they’ll provide a solid sound at an affordable price of $80.
They only have a 3″ speaker so the bass response will be lower than that of the JBLs.
One final pair I’ll recommend for cash-strapped musicians looking to get into recording are the Mackie MR5 Mk3 5″ Powered Studio Monitors. These studio monitors are sold individually and are priced at $120 per speaker which is a bit less than the JBLs for a similarly sized speaker (the Mackies are 5″).
No matter what you’ve heard or what anyone has told you, no recording program (referred to as a Digitial Audio Workstation, DAW for short) will sound better than the other. Just because Pro Tools has been an industry standard for a long time or your favorite artist uses Logic, that doesn’t mean that program needs to be the go-to DAW for you.
I think one of the biggest differences between different DAWs is the workflow, ease of use, and the learning curve of learning how to use the program. Every DAW can do primarily the same thing. Yes, some have different features but they can all record music.
When choosing a DAW, especially as a beginner, you should consider the workflow of that DAW. How easy is it to use? How easy is it to learn? Can you find plugins easily? etc.
The DAW that I use personally, and I would highly recommend to anyone just getting going (or struggling with the DAW they have now), is Presonus Studio One (currently on its 3rd version).
The program is easy to use, learn, and way more intuitive than any other DAW I’ve used. It’s so simple to get going. Open up a new song and you’ll be presented with the track view. Add a new track, set the input, arm the track by hitting the record button, and you’re ready to lay down your vocals, guitar, bass, drums, etc.
There’s a drag-and-drop browser window for effects, simple keyboard shortcuts (that can even be programmed to whatever you like), tons of presets for mix options (like guitar or vocal EQ settings), and macro buttons (which are buttons you can program to complete a routine action).
I could go on and on about the program. I won’t but it’s just so simple yet extremely powerful. I’d highly recommend it.
Best of all, as someone who wants to stay on a budget, they have a free version called Studio One Prime. It’s not as expansive as the paid versions but it will allow you to start recording. Then, if you need to move up, you can buy the next version up at $99. This is a good approach because you’ll already know the program and you won’t have to spend time learning another when you finally have the money to invest in a DAW.
This is a good approach because you’ll already know the program and you won’t have to spend time learning another when you finally have the money to invest in a DAW.
I’ve tried quite a few DAWs before I landed on Presonus Studio One. I dabbled with Pro Tools and it’s quite an expansive program. It’s also, in my opinion, hard to use, not very intuitive, and it has a steep learning curve. I’ve also used Ableton Live but its workflow is geared more towards electronic musicians rather than someone looking to record guitar, vocals, drums, etc. The same goes for Bitwig and FL Studio.
I also used to use Acoustica Mixcraft before I transitioned Studio One. It’s an easy to use program and powerful enough. I’d say it’s good for beginners too. It’s pretty much like the Garageband for PC (it’s only available on Windows).
But, I’d say Studio One is just as easy to learn and use, is a bit more powerful, and has a much better-looking interface. So, again, that’s the DAW I’d recommend for beginners to even advanced home musicians.
With that said, here are DAW I’d recommend taking a look at…
Free & Affordable DAWs I’d Recommend Checking Out:
- Presonus Studio One 3 (Windows & MAC). Studio One has a free version called Studio One Prime. Paid versions start at $99.
- Cockos Reaper (Windows & MAC). $60 for a discounted license and $225 for commercial use. The discounted version can be purchased by anyone not using the product for commercial use, someone using it for commercial use but has sales of under $20,000 a year, or by a non-profit or educational program.
- Garageband (MAC only). If you have MAC, you likely already have this on your computer.
- Acoustica Mixcraft (Windows only). Mixcraft is like the Garageband for PC. It starts at $50 depending on the version.
- Ardour – Completely free recording program.
- Logic Pro X (MAC only) – Logic is another popular program. It costs $200.
Acoustic treatment always seems to be somewhat of a mystery to many budding musicians or mixing engineers. And, in all honesty, it can still be a bit of mystery to myself at times. While I know many of the basics, there’s a lot that can be done to acoustically to treat a room, there are tons of options out there, and it can even get very technical if going so far as to measure room acoustics.
There’s also the confusion between Soundproofing and Sound Absorption (or dampening).
Soundproofing is the actual process of keeping in and blocking out sound from a space. In most cases, outside investing some serious cash and time, real soundproofing is out of the question for many of us.
One of the most common ways I see home musicians actually create a soundproof space is by essentially building a whole new room inside of an existing room (usually with multiple walls with thick sound absorbing insulation between and/or multiples layer of drywall).
Sound absorption, on the other hand, is very doable for most home musicians and requires a much less financial investment. Sound absorption is basically the process of treating a room to absorb specific frequencies and create a more pleasing, workable sound. It’s often used to reduce/eliminate poor reverb in a room.
Sound absorbing materials come in all shapes and forms, from foam acoustic panels, sound blankets, and even furniture like a couch or bed can be used to soak up sound.
So, with that said, I’m not going to touch on soundproofing but rather offer some ways to absorb sound in your space to create a better recording/listening environment.
One of my personal favorites is to use moving blankets. These are a great alternative to more expensive, “built-for-recording” solutions. For instance, I use 72″ x 80″ moving blankets from Harbor Freight.
One of these blankets cost only about $9 but Harbor Freight often runs sales on them (there’s one at the point of writing this article offering the blankets for $6 a piece).
These blankets are great because they can be hung up permanently or used in mobile situations by just throwing them over a mic stand.
For instance, I used these blankets in my old basement to create a “drum room”. Like most basements, the area is constructed entirely from concrete (concrete walls, floor, etc.). This definitely doesn’t create a pleasing sound when playing drums specifically for cymbals. Untreated, the sound is very washy, rung out, and echoey.
So, to create a drier sound (mainly just to create a more pleasing sound when playing), I decided to hang up moving blankets all around the set, essentially creating a small drum room. To hang the blankets up, I simply nailed them to the floor joists above.
I wish I had a better picture of this but yo can kind of get the idea from the pic below:
I’ve also used the blankets when recording drums in another, more open space to try to reduce the amount of room noise entering the microphone during recording:
While, not a perfect setup, it did help to reduce to the reverb around the kit in a rather large, untreated space.
Finally, when laying down final vocals, I’ll hang these blanket up so I can create a much drier sound when recording. I simply do this by hanging them on a few tall microphone stands I have.
A good method for using these moving blankets when recording vocals is to create a “U” shape behind you (or vocalist) when recording. When you sing, the sound waves from your voice are captured by the microphone but also travel past the microphone, hit the following wall and bounce off it, travel to the wall behind you and bounce off it, then back into the microphone. This usually creates an echoey/reverb sound that is rather unpleasing in most rooms.
Here’s a good video on the subject and how to use the moving blankets to create that “U” shape when recording:
The guy in the video above hangs the blankets from the ceiling but you could also do this using microphone stands by hanging them using a clip or creating a “T” in the microphone stand and just throwing them over it:
That’s just a normal mic stand, so it only goes so high. But, you can get mic stands that go higher and that would be good for this purpose (which is something to think about when buying a stand).
If you need to buy a fair amount of these moving blankets, Amazon has a pretty good deal at $60 for a 12-pack (that’s $5/blanket).
Another fairly inexpensive solution to control room acoustics is studio foam. I’ve used studio foam a bit to create a vocal recording area in the past and have used it to control room reflections:
It comes in a bunch of different shapes, sizes, and styles. Some come as 2′ x 4′ panels, others as 12″ squares, some specifically designed as bass traps to be placed in the corners of a room where bass frequencies can build up. It can all get a bit confusing on what you need.
My recommendation would be to start small and go from there. It’s all really an experimentation, especially as a beginner, to see how it will work in your room. Obviously, every room is different, so finding the perfect solution will take some experimentation.
With that said, consider why you need acoustic treatment. If you’re a mixing engineer, or a home musician just trying to create better mixes, you’ll likely want to address the sides of the room first (since the speakers should be positioned at an angle and the sound coming from them will bounce off the walls to the side of your room first). Then, you can move onto treatment for directly behind you and adding in bass traps if you’re not completely satisfied.
If you’re recording vocals, and want to use studio foam, I’d address the areas directly behind you when recording and behind the microphone first (since these are the areas where your vocals will bounce off and back into the mic)
Mainly, just trust your ears. If you like the sound, go with it. Don’t buy more than you need just because you think you need to, or so and so person said to do so, or some other artist did it. Trust your gut and your ears.
Again, to reiterate, these foam panels will not soundproof a room. They will only help to deaden the reverb, eliminate reflections, and overall create a more pleasing recording/listening environment inside the room. Sound will still escape the room and be heard likely just as loud as before installing these panels. The same goes for any of the other methods I list in this section.
To illustrate the difference these foam panels can make, I’d recommend checking out the video below. While you don’t need to go all out like that guy did, I think hearing the difference between the completely untreated room and fully treated room is pretty interesting. Check it out:
Finally, the last option I’ll suggest are acoustic panels. These panels are similar to the foam panels in that they are a more “permanent” solution (meaning they’re not really “mobile-friendly” like moving blankets). However, rather than using foam to control sound, many of these panels use thick sound absorbing insulation. This insulation is then wrapped usually with some kind of fabric to create a panel that can be hung up on the wall inside your room.
Now, you can buy these panels (Amazon has 4′ long by 2′ wide panels for $55 plus shipping) and they too, come in different styles and sizes. But again, being a budget-friendly guide (and as a DIYer myself), I’d recommend building your own. They’re not hard to build, don’t require many tools to do so, and you can save quite a bit money.
I’d also recommend taking a look at the video below. The construction is nearly identical to those in that link above but instead of using insulation as the absorbing material for the panels, the guy in the video below uses old towels (that are placed inside the panel and covered).
Finally, like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve gone ahead and created a few packages for recommend gear for a few different situations. These are by no means the definitive choices for each, but if you’re feeling confused or are just looking for a bit more convenience, these recommendations will help you to get going right away.
All the prices are listed prior to tax and shipping. If you want to save on shipping, order on Amazon and use Amazon Prime. You can get an extended (6-month) free trial of Prime if you sign up using a college email address.
Cash-Strapped Vocalist Home Recording Package
Total Price: $193
This package is for the solo vocalist looking to record their vocals and start creating their own songs but need to spend as little money as possible. These are the lowest priced recommendations that will still allow you to capture and create a solid recording.
Cash-Strapped Guitarist Home Recording Package
Total Price: $193
This package is for the solo guitarist looking to record their own riffs and start creating their own songs but need to spend as little money as possible. These are the lowest priced recommendations that will still allow you to capture and create a solid recording.
Home Recording Enthusiast Recording Package
Total Price: $1068
This package is for the musician who wants to get fairly in-depth into home recording and has a bit more money to put down right away. This package includes recording capability of up to four channels but I’ve only listed two microphones for now. So if you want to use all four channels, you’ll need two additional microphones.
Drummer or Mixing Engineer Recording Package
Total Price: $1957
This package is for the drummer who wants to mic up nearly every piece of his or her kit. It’s also for the mixing/recording engineer looking to get into recording and will need multiple inputs for recording every aspect of a band. These are all still primarily budget recommendations but obviously, since this setup requires so many pieces, the total price is a quite a bit higher.
- Behringer UMC1820 USB Interface (with 8 XLR inputs) – $300
- 10 Pack of 25 ft. XLR Cables on Amazon – $57
- To mic the snare (top & bottom): 2x Shure SM57 – $200 ($100 each)
- To mic 3 toms & the kick: Audix DP4 Mic Kit – $450 (for 4 microphones)
- To use as overhead mics (to mic the cymbals): 2x Audio-Technica AT2020 – $200 ($100 each)
- 8x K&M Boom Stands $320 ($40 each)
- JBL LSR305 Studio Monitors – $280
- CAD MH310 Closed-Back Headphones – $50
- Studio One Artist – $100
Well, that’s it! If you have any questions about getting started recording, feel free to leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them. Also, be sure to sign up to the email newsletter to receive email updates on content just like this. As always, thanks for reading!