It’s a Friday night, and your band has a killer song that you’ve rehearsed to a T. You want to make a home studio recording, but you don’t know where to begin. Don’t worry, we’ll tell you everything you need to know before you hit that red button, including what equipment you need, what equipment you can bypass, and what to expect during the process.
Pick a DAW that you can work with
A DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is a computer software program for mixing and editing audio. Excellent industry standard DAWs include Pro Tools and Adobe Audition, but these can get pricey depending on your subscription. You can get a free version of Pro Tools, called Pro Tools First, and amateur recording artists will find this good enough—unless more than 128 tracks are needed for a single song. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface comes with Pro Tools First and additional plugins such as sound effects and an instrument tuner.
There are plenty of completely free DAWs out there, the most popular of which is Audacity for Windows and Garageband for MacOS. These work well enough, but are missing comprehensive features that professional DAWs provide. With Garageband, it’s a little more difficult to keep your tracks organized than with a pro DAW, because Garageband lacks a mixer window. A mixer window displays your tracks along with their plugins and controls in a vertical view and allows you to monitor their levels. The same functions are displayed in Garageband’s track window, but this window can get crowded when you have more than a few tracks. In addition, where professional DAWs have intelligent software such as pitch correction, Garageband’s pitch correction software is rudimentary. There are third-party plugins and applications that you can download to for greater control over your music in Garageband.
Audacity has its drawbacks too: when you apply a plugin to a track, it alters the original recorded file. With professional DAWs, however, effects are overlaid on top of the original file and can be removed later on. Some professional DAWs even offer plugins such as autotune, intelligent noise reduction, and other sophisticated audio processors that free DAWs like Audacity don’t include.
I don't recommend dropping hundreds of dollars on a professional DAW before you've made yourself familiar with the ins and outs of mixing.
It takes time to get past the learning curve of any DAW, but ultimately, you should choose one that affords the functions you need and maybe a few extras you could want down the line. A free DAW like Pro Tools First, Garageband, or Audacity is a great place to start, and I don’t recommend dropping hundreds of dollars on a professional DAW before you’ve familiarized yourself with the ins and outs of mixing. If you’re open to paying for a professional DAW, spend some time and master Pro Tools First. That way, you can easily upgrade to Pro Tools later on.
You need to treat your room for home studio recording
When making a home studio recording, there are often unwanted noises picked up by your mics. Recording in an untreated room means the sound of outside road noise or air conditioning units could affect your raw recording. In addition, an untreated room will produce room resonances from sounds bouncing off flat surfaces and corners. These are easy things to combat ahead of time so you’re not wasting away with menial post-production tasks.
Fortunately, you don’t need to buy expensive equipment to mitigate these unwanted effects. If you’re not willing to spend any money on acoustic treatment, that’s fine. It’s best to record in a carpeted room with soft furniture and as few flat surfaces as possible, because these are what produce echos. At the very least, just tent a blanket over your head when recording vocals.
Record in a room in the middle of your house
The easiest way to reduce unwanted noise is to record in a room as far away from windows as possible, and to turn off all fans and air conditioners. Once you’ve selected the room you’re going to record in, try clapping loudly several times from various spots within the room and assess if the sound produced is more of a harsh ringing or a nice reverb. As you continue to treat your room, you can use this clapping test again until the room resonances sound more like what you desire.
Bass traps are the most important tool for acoustic treatment
If you’re going to invest in one specialized piece of room treatment equipment, it should be a porous bass trap. Bass frequencies tend to bounce off the corners of an untreated room and sound much louder than they should, particularly in a small home studio, so it’s best to place bass traps in every corner. If you don’t want to invest in bass traps, a similar effect can be produced by placing soft pillows in the corners of your room.
Wall panels absorb unwanted echoes in the mid and high frequencies
Placing foam on flat surfaces can help reduce unwanted echos in your room, and yield better audio clarity. Some budget alternatives to purchasing acoustic panels are to encase your microphone with a foam shield or something made of soft material (like a blanket fort), or to prop your mattress up against the wall.
Diffusers are nice, but not necessary
Diffusers, or acoustic panels, prevent absorptive materials from sucking all the life out of your recording, because they scatter reflections off of flat surfaces that vary in height. This creates a more even dispersion of sound throughout the room, but they aren’t necessary for home studio recording, especially if your home studio is small.
What you need to know about microphones
Before we get into the nitty gritty of recording different instruments, there are a few things you need to know when you’re looking to buy a microphone.
When shopping around for microphones, you’ll likely come across the acronyms XLR and USB. An XLR microphone uses a balanced signal and is more effective at rejecting unwanted electronic noise than a USB microphone, which has an unbalanced signal. Generally, XLR microphones are better quality than USB microphones, though they are a bit more expensive and require an audio interface.
There are two main types of microphones—dynamic and condenser. Each is suited to its own set of use cases, and neither is inherently worse or better.
If you’ve ever seen someone sing live, they were probably using a dynamic microphone. Dynamic mics are excellent for noisy environments, because they can withstand loud volume inputs before distorting the sound. Most dynamic mics have internal shock mounts to reduce handling noise. Their ability to withstand loud inputs also makes them great for recording loud instruments such as drums or electric guitars. Another reason to consider dynamic microphones: they don’t require phantom power, so you don’t need to worry about investing in a phantom power source (though most audio interfaces have them built-in anyways).
Condenser microphones are much more sensitive than dynamic microphones, and are great for picking up very melodic instruments, such as the voice or acoustic guitars. Condenser microphones are not the best for recording very loud audio, because their sensitivity makes your recording prone to distortion. They require phantom power to operate, and this can be achieved through an audio interface or a pre-amp like the CL-1 Cloudlifter.
Polar patterns and placement
A polar pattern is the spatial field from which a microphone picks up audio. The most common polar pattern is the cardioid, meaning “heart-shaped” in Latin. Cardioid microphones record sound from what’s directly in front of them and slightly to the sides. These are excellent for recording vocals, because they reject distracting off-axis sound yet are allow for flexible placement.
Another fairly common polar pattern is omnidirectional which picks up sound from all sides of the microphone. This polar pattern is great for when you’re making a recording of an acoustic guitar, because it registers room resonances and makes the guitar sound more natural. Bidirectional pickup patterns record sound from the front and back of the microphone capsule, and stereo pickup patterns record sound from the left and right sides of the microphone capsule.
A microphone’s frequency response refers to how accurately the microphone can record different frequencies. In general, a more neutral frequency response (closer to the red dotted line) is better, because your audio will be reproduced as it sounds in the real world. However, many microphones have certain non-neutral characteristics in their frequency responses, such as bass attenuation to reduce the proximity effect (the over-amplification of bass frequencies due to close proximity to the capsule), or a slight treble boost to highlight the harmonic resonances of vocals and instruments.
Learn more: Why does my microphone sound bad?
You need an audio interface to make a studio recording
XLR microphones are better quality than USB microphones, and you should definitely invest in one if you’re going to be recording music. If you’re recording from an XLR microphone into your computer, you’ll need an audio interface to digitize the analog signal from the mic into something your computer can understand. I recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2: it offers 48V phantom power, which you’ll need if you’re using a condenser microphone, and comes bundled with software such as Pro Tools First plugins and Ableton Live Lite.
The Scarlett 2i2 allows for two simultaneous inputs, whether they are direct inputs from instruments or XLR from microphones. If you plan to record many instruments at once, or want to record acoustic drums, you should look into a larger interface such as the Focusrite Clarett 8Pre. Focusrite isn’t the only brand for interfaces out there, and you can browse our list of the best USB interfaces for studio recording to select the right one for you.
How many microphones you need is not a one size fits all solution
In an ideal world, you would have the funds to get a specialized microphone for every instrument, but anyone looking to make a home studio recording probably isn’t willing to spend thousands of dollars on microphones. You can make a good home studio recording with a variety of mix-and-match techniques that save you some money. I’ll go over the most commonly recorded instruments—vocals, guitars, drums, and keyboards—and the various combinations of microphones you can use to record them.
However, if you know you’re only going to purchase one microphone, I recommend the Shure SM58. It’s affordable and sounds pretty darn good on a variety of instruments.
Shure SM58 speaking sample:
Shure SM58 singing sample:
Shure SM58 acoustic guitar sample:
Shure SM58 electric guitar with amp sample:
Vocal microphones should almost always have a cardioid pickup pattern, because they need to focus on the singer while giving them the freedom to move a bit. A neutral-leaning frequency response is also ideal, since you want to accurately reproduce the vocal sound. However, many great voice-specific microphones have bass attenuation and treble boost to limit the proximity effect and to increase perceived vocal clarity.
When making a vocal recording in your home recording studio, it’s usually best to use a condenser microphone, like the Rode NT1-A, because its sensitivity allows it to register harmonic resonances. However, plenty of vocalists use dynamic microphones such as the Shure SM58 or the Shure SM7b, and we have a list of the best microphones for recording vocals here.
As for placement, your mic stand should be away from the walls of your room, but this matters less if you have premium acoustic treatment. You want to make sure you’re not singing with your mouth right on top of the microphone, because this will likely cause it to pick up plosives (-p, -t, -k sounds), fricatives (-f, -th sounds), create sibilant sounds (-s, -sh, -ch), and fall victim to the proximity effect.
Depending on the genre of your song and how loud you’re going to sing, putting about 6 to 12 inches between your mouth and the microphone is ideal. You also should invest in an external pop filter to further reduce these unwanted sounds and save yourself editing time in the future. The mic should be angled directly at your mouth to ensure it picks up all your vocal detail.
There are many methods of recording guitars
You can buy direct boxes that use amp simulators and acoustic DIs, but the most common (and nicest-sounding) methods of recording guitars typically involve at least one microphone.
If you’re recording an acoustic guitar, a go-to way to get a nice sound is to place a condenser microphone directly in front of the sound hole of your guitar, and angle it towards the twelfth fret. A condenser microphone is better than a dynamic mic for the acoustic guitar because of its greater sensitivity; the twelfth fret placement allows your mic to record a good blend of low, mid, and high frequencies from your instrument. If you already have a condenser microphone for recording vocals, you can certainly use it for recording your acoustic guitar.
If you want to kick up the quality a few notches, you can make an X/Y stereo recording by touching two small-diaphragm condenser microphones’ capsules together at a 90-120° angle and mixing one as the left and one as the right channel. While this isn’t necessary to make a decent acoustic guitar recording, it is especially helpful in creating an engaging mix if your song doesn’t have a lot else going on besides guitar and vocals.
When recording an electric guitar, you should use a dynamic microphone pointed at your guitar amp. The Shure SM57 is an excellent choice because it is affordable and sounds great. Point your amp away from any flat surfaces or walls to avoid echos and phase cancellation. If you can place your amp on a platform it will help reduce acoustic coupling with the floor.
A mic placed halfway between the center and edge of the speaker cone, angled towards the center, is the most common practice.
When recording from your guitar amp, the capsule of the microphone should be facing the cabinet of your amp at some point on the speaker cone. The most common mic placement is halfway between the center of the cone and the edge of the cone, because this picks up a good mix of low, mid, and high frequencies. The distance you want between your amp and your microphone depends on the type of microphone you have. If you’re using the Shure SM57, about an inch of distance should be good. There are countless techniques for positioning your microphone, so try out many different placements to find the one you like best.
To make the mixing process easier on yourself, it’s best not to record your electric guitar with reverb enabled on the amp, and to instead add reverb later in mixing.
Recording drums is a lot more complicated than you think
Recording drums in a home studio recording is very difficult, especially if you’re recording on a budget. This is chiefly because each individual drum needs to be miked separately, some with two mics, and the kit at large needs to be miked as well. This is why unfortunately for most home studio recordings, an acoustic drum kit cannot be used. I recommend either using a virtual drum software or an electronic drum kit.
Some DAWs have virtual drum software embedded within them. For example, Garageband allows you to select a smart “drummer” and adjust its level of complexity and the time signature of your song. DAWs like Garageband and Pro Tools also have MIDI drum plugins that give you more control and freedom to create, but you may want to invest in a physical MIDI drum pad or MIDI keyboard for ease of use.
If you don’t like the idea of playing drums with your fingers, an electronic drum kit may be the way to go. The one I have is the Alesis Drums Nitro Mesh Kit, and for an electronic drum kit on the low end of the price spectrum, it is very good. Unfortunately with an electronic drum kit of this price range, you cannot record each drum into its own individual track, but the Nitro Mesh Kit enables stereo output. The very best electronic drum kits can run over $8,000, for example the Roland TD-50KVX, which has multichannel output amongst a slew of other incredible features.
If you do record acoustic drums, you’ll need a separate mic for each individual drum, and some mics do better for certain drums than others. For example, you need a designated dynamic kick drum mic with a large diaphragm that can handle the booming sound of your largest drum.
One great thing about digital keyboards is that they have analog outputs that can be plugged directly into your USB interface via a 1/4″ cable. Some digital keyboards also have MIDI outputs, USB outputs, and stereo outputs, which can either be plugged into your audio interface or sometimes directly into your computer.
It’s best to have studio monitors or studio headphones
While you will need closed-back headphones to monitor your recording as its happening, it’s always best to do your mixing with a set of studio monitors rather than headphones. Studio monitors produce a more accurate representation of your mix’s stereo image, and they prevent tiny echoes from being produced, which often happens with closed-back headphones.
If you are going to use headphones to mix, studio headphones with a neutral-leaning frequency response will help you monitor, mix, and edit your music more accurately because the sound reproduced is true to what’s been recorded. Open-backed headphones reproduce a more accurate sound stage than closed-back, but an affordable set of headphones like the Sony MDR-7506 are an industry standard, and are more than fine. The AKG K371 and Sennheiser HD 280 Pro are additional budget options that sound great despite their low price.
As a reminder, it’s always a good idea to listen to your mix with a variety of outputs. Take your mix into the car, try it out with your noise cancelling headphones, take a listen with your Bluetooth speaker. Doing so will help you get a better idea of what other listeners will hear when they play your song.
Making the actual recording
Now that you’ve got your room treated, microphones set up, and headphones on, it’s time to record some music. First thing’s first: tune your instrument! It may even be worth replacing the strings on your guitar a few days before making a recording to ensure you get the best possible sound out of your instrument.
You will want to use overdubbing
Overdubbing is the practice of recording tracks on top of pre-recorded tracks. Recording a whole band at once can be very expensive and challenging because it requires a lot of microphones and perfectly in-sync musicians. Additionally, audio may bleed from an instrument into the wrong microphone, so you could have the sound of the snare drum on your acoustic guitar track.
Once audio has bled, it severely limits the amount of post-processing that can be done to your mix and prevents your song from having a studio-quality sound. In pro studios, this problem is usually fixed by placing miked amps in separate rooms from the drum kit, but because you’re working with a budget home studio, overdubbing is going to be your friend.
You should begin by recording the least melodic component of your song and gradually move up to the most melodic component.
When you start recording from scratch, begin with the least melodic component of your song, such as drums, and gradually move up to the most melodic component, such as vocals. Building a mix this way allows an in-sync outcome and makes it much easier for you to edit the song.
Whether you’re using a drum loop, playing an electronic drum kit, or recording acoustic drums, you’ll want to keep time with a click track; a click track serves a similar role as a metronome. Even if your song is going to be entirely without percussion, it’s a good idea to keep time with a click track so you don’t accidentally speed up or slow down halfway through the song.
Gain levels are very important
Once you position your microphone in front of your instrument or in front of your face, you should test the volume of input, also known as the gain. Your USB interface and your DAW will likely both have gain meters, which indicate through green, yellow, and red lights if the volume is good. Green indicates that the input volume is safe and you are not at risk of clipping, or distorting, the sound. Yellow indicates that your audio will clip if your recording gets louder, and red indicates that you are clipping. Test your gain levels by playing or singing the loudest part of your song—it should be in the green, or just touching the yellow, at 50-75% up the meter.
If you record too loud and your audio distorts, there isn't really a way to fix that later on.
This is a very important step because if you record too loud and your audio distorts, there isn’t really a way to fix that later on and you’ll have to start over. Similarly, if you record too quiet, you’ll have to boost the volume a lot later, and that can add unwanted noise that can sound like static.
You will need multiple takes
When making any recording, it’s nearly impossible to get it right on the very first try, and patience is a virtue with this art form. To reduce the number of takes you have to record, make sure you rehearse your song a lot. The magic actually happens in the recording stage, rather than in the post processing. Of course, post processing allows you to add effects and adjust levels and panning, but if your original recording is bad, there isn’t an easy fix.
The magic actually happens in the recording stage, rather than in the post processing.
Make sure you leave about five seconds of dead air before and after your recording. This will make it easier to trim your recording, adjust the EQ of your tracks, and to hear the approximate level of unwanted ambient noise that needs to be removed in the mixing phase.
Related: Everything you need to record people
The bare minimum of what you need shouldn’t cost you much more than $300
Making a home studio recording can be a complicated process if you’re just starting out, and it can get really expensive, too. Depending on your budget, you may choose to bypass certain pieces of equipment I’ve outlined in this article, which is totally fine. The bare minimum for making a home studio recording is treating your room to some extent and making a good initial recording that doesn’t require magic in the mixing phase.
To achieve this, the only things you really need are blankets and pillows, one good XLR microphone with a pop filter, and an audio interface. Many microphones are more versatile than they seem, and while you’re not going to get a Capitol Records-level recording out of a single mic, it’ll do the job for someone starting out.
If you're only going to purchase one microphone, I recommend the Shure SM58.
You can get a USB microphone if you’re trying to avoid having to pay for an audio interface, but, trust me, investing in an audio interface will come in handy if you make a habit out of recording music. And an XLR microphone sounds way better.
Now that your song is recorded, it’s onto the mixing process!