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Soundware Guides: How to Set up a Home Studio
Whether you're a DJ, a solo songwriter or a member of a band, it's easy to start making music using your home computer. In this guide we'll introduce the basic equipment you need to start recording music at home...
Computer technology has made it easier and cheaper that ever before to start recording music at home.
It's possible to set up a basic home studio for only a very small outlay, which can later be upgraded and expanded as your skills and requirements increase. Before buying home studio equipment or software, think carefully about what you'd like to record - which instruments and in which style - and this will help you decide which areas of your setup you need to concentrate on the most.
For example, if you'll be recording a lot of acoustic guitar and vocals, it's worth investing in a good quality microphone and preamp, but if you're more interested in making electronic music, it might be worth spending money on software and samples instead.
Practically all modern computers can be used to record music, so the chances are you can use your existing home PC or Mac.
However, it's always best to check the system requirements on any equipment or software you buy beforehand to make sure that it will run correctly.
It's also a good idea to make sure that your system is running as efficiently as possible.
View our tutorial
"How to configure your
computer to minimise latency" for ways to get the best out of your computer
A good sound card is an important element of any home studio.
Your computer's sound card transfers sound from microphones or keyboards in, so it can have a big effect on the sound quality of your recordings.
The standard sound cards fitted in home computers are fine for normal use, but often they're not designed to cope with complex recording jobs:
- You may get glitches or a delay (called latency) when recording.
- Usually you can only record from one sound source at a time.
- You could need to buy special adapter cables and preamps to connect guitars or microphones.
To avoid this, it's best to choose a sound card that's specially designed for recording. Specialist recording sound cards (also called audio interfaces) have a number of advantages:
- They use special ASIO drivers to help them run quickly and smoothly.
- They are available with a range of inputs that will allow you to connect guitars, microphones, keyboards etc. directly.
- Often you can record multiple instruments at the same time.
- Many include bundled recording software, so you can get everything you need in one package.
Sound cards can be fitted internally, or you can connect external cards to your computer via USB or Firewire. Before you buy, think carefully about what you want to record, and what inputs you'll need. A good sound card doesn't necessarily need loads of inputs unless you want to record a lot of instruments at the same time, but a good range of different types of inputs is always useful.
If you're a DJ inputs won't be as important, but there are sound cards available with more than one output, so you can use one output for your main mix and one for cueing through a pair of headphones.
Examples of Sound Cards:
|Novation nio 2|4|
2 In / 4 Out mobile USB interface for the modern music maker. Ideal interface solution for home recording, live performing and DJ’ing
|Numark Stereo IO USB Interface|
USB audio interface for DJ's and musicians to easily connect audio equipment to a computer. Built in phono preamp.
|Focusrite Saffire 6 USB|
Professional audio interface with two award winning Focusrite microphone preamps designed for studio recording.
The range of music software available can be confusing, but it's easy to narrow down the selection based on the style of music you're interested in making and the budget you're working to.
Once you have a way of getting sound in and out of your computer, you're going to need some music software. This will allow you to record, edit and mix your music. There are many different types of music software ranging from basic programs for beginners to top-of-the-range applications used by professional studios.
Professional recording software has a lot of features, and it can be quite daunting at first. If you're just starting out, it's usually best to begin with something quite simple.
Many major software manufacturers make cut-down versions of their professional software, taking out some of the advanced features that beginners are unlikely to need. This is a great way to get to grips with a recording package gradually, and if you find you need more features later on you can often upgrade your software to the full version at a reduced price.
Different software is also geared towards different types of music. Some software is designed for working with audio and is great for recording bands, while others are designed for working with synthesized sounds or for creating DJ remixes. Every piece of software has its strengths and weaknesses, so it's important to do your research first to fiind out what would be best for you.
Examples of Music Software:
Audio and MIDI recording and editing, available in professional and Studio (lite) versions.
Audio and MIDI recording and editing, includes remixing features useful for DJs. Available in pro and LE versions.
Rack-based soft studio – very user friendly. Also available – Reason Refills: sound library expansion packs for Reason.
Audio and MIDI recording, integrated WAV editor, samplers and synths. Avalable in Fruity, Producer and Signature Bundle editions.
View our Guide to Music Software for more information...
A hardware controller like a MIDI keyboard or a USB mixer can make it easier and quicker to record and mix music.
A disadvantage of computer recording compared to analogue is the lack of a "hands-on" approach to recording - having to work with a screen, keyboard and mouse can sometimes make simple tasks more time-consuming than they need to be.
By creating a physical link between you and your software, hardware controllers can make computer recording faster, easier and more intuitive. A MIDI keyboard can be used to 'play in' instrument lines, or a pad controller can be used to trigger drum sounds or samples.
Hardware controllers usually connect to your computer via USB or Firewire, and many include presets to allow them to work automatically with major music software applications.
Examples of Hardware Controllers:
|ESI KeyControl 25 XT |
25-Key mobile USB MIDI controller keyboard with solid feeling aluminium chasis.
|Novation SL25 MKII|
High quality semi-weighted keyboard with additional MIDI controls. Comes with Automap Pro MIDI mapping software.
|Akai APC40 MIDI Control Surface|
Designed in partnership with Ableton, the Akai APC40 is the most advanced Live controller for the most advanced performers.
|Akai MPD26 Pad Controller|
MIDI pad controller with genuine MPC style pads, sliders and knobs.
View our Guide to MIDI for more information...
If you're going to be recording vocals or acoustic instruments, it's worth investing in a good quality microphone.
Dynamic microphones are standard karaoke-type microphones. They're very versatile, cheap and make a great starting point for recording guitars, vocals and more.
Condenser microphones are more expensive, but they provide clearer, crisper sound quality than dynamic microphones, so they're good for detailed sounds like vocals. However, you need to make sure that your sound card has an input with '+48V Phantom Power' - condenser microphones need power supplied to them through the input that they're connected to, or they won't work.
Alternatively, you can choose a USB condenser microphone with a built-in preamp - this plugs directly into a USB port on your computer with no need for any extra equipment, and it's great for making simple recordings like spoken word or podcasts.
Examples of Microphones:
|Rode NT1-A Recording Pack|
The award winning Rode NT1-A condenser microphone with shockmount, studio pop shield and XLR cable.
USB Dynamic Microphone. Includes recording software, desk tripod & carry pouch.
Widely classed as the industry standard, this professional dynamic microphone is designed for professional vocal use in live performance, sound reinforcement, and studio recording.
|SE Electronics SE2200a and Reflexion Filter Bundle|
Professional quality studio microphone with Reflexion filter and free dual pro pop shield worth £79
View our Guide to Microphones for more information...
A good pair of headphones should be light and comfortable to wear for long periods of time, as well as providing good sound quality.
If you're dubbing another instrument or a vocal line over a backing track, you'll need headphones so that you can monitor the backing track silently while you record. Headphones are also essential for setting up cues for DJ mixes.
Closed-back headphones help to reduce the amount of noise that spills out into the outside world, which makes them useful for recording as this reduces the chance of sound from the headphones being picked up in a microphone.
Examples of Headphones:
Light, highly comfortable headphones perfect for studio use.
|Sennheiser HD280 Pro|
Professional closed-back headphones designed for professional monitoring applications and studio use.
|AKG K240 MKII|
Semi-open professional studio & home headphones .
A good set of speakers can improve the quality of your mixes considerably - if you can hear an accurate representation of what you've recorded, you can choose the right effects and set levels correctly.
It's well worth upgrading your computer speakers - there's a wide range of compact speakers designed for desktop use as well as larger, professional grade monitors on the market.
Monitor speakers can either be passive, which means that they need to be connected to a separate amplifier, or active, which means that each speaker has its own amplifier built in so it can be connected directly to your sound card's output. The majority of monitor speakers tend to be active.
Good monitor speakers give a flat frequency response - if a set of speakers over- or under-emphasise a part of your mix this can lead you to mix it wrongly, so the mix will sound uneven on other speakers. If your mix sounds good on a good quality set of monitors it's likely to transfer well to other speaker systems. Monitors also give a more detailed sound than a lot of standard hi-fi or computer speakers, which allows you to mix more accurately.
Examples of Monitor Speakers:
|Cakewalk MA-7A Micro Monitors|
Compact desktop monitors providing excellent audio quality in limited space.
|Alesis M1 Active 520|
2-Way, 75 Watt active near-field reference monitors perfect for studio use.
|KRK Rokit Powered RP5 G2|
Professional quality studio monitors designed for studio use. KRK monitors can be seen in many professional recording studios around the world!
|Samson Resolv A5 Monitors|
High quality active studio reference monitor with ported tuned enclosure.
For recording on location or for simple recording tasks, it's often easier to go for an all-in-one solution like a digital recorder.
Digital recorders vary from pocket-sized models to larger multitrackers with built in mixers, effects and editing facilities.
A small digital recorder is great for recording samples on location or for capturing a live performance, while larger multitrackers can be used to create an entire mix.
Multitrack recorders are useful if you want an all-in-one solution for recording. Most digital recorders also allow you to transfer files to a computer for further editing.
Examples of Digital Recorders:
|Roland R-05 Digital Pocket Recorder|
Portable Professional WAV/MP3 Recorder
High quality 24bit stereo digital recorder with built-in X/Y stereo condenser microphones.
|Korg SOS SR1|
High quality digital recorder which allows for allows an unlimited number of overdubs, all saved individually.
It's always useful to have a couple of good reference guides to help with software or production theory.
|ASKVideo Cubase 5 Tutorial DVD Level 1|
earn everything from basic setup and tools to audio and MIDI recording, editing and mixing. This video tutorial is a must for every Cubase user, whether you are just starting out or a seasoned pro.
|Basic Rhythm Programming|
This handy pocket-sized guide will help you use today’s hardware and software sequencers to lay down professional-sounding grooves and produce music at home.
If you're unsure about any of the above, or if you're not sure which products would be best for you, please contact us and we'll be happy to offer friendly, impartial advice and recommendations.