A Guide to Recording Music at Home on a Budget

Learn how to set up a home recording studio within a reasonable budget. Create a cheap studio that doesn’t sound cheap. Make smart choices using these tips and tricks.

A Guide to Recording Music at Home on a Budget

Home recording is a convenient and cost-effective way to create music that is used not only by beginners and independent artists but also by world-renowned musicians signed to major labels. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Ariel Pink, Charli XCX and Billie Eilish repurposed their bedrooms and basements as home studios (at least once) to make great, sometimes even award-winning albums. It’s all about what and how you’re doing it, not where you’re doing it.

However, if you don’t know much about the acoustic requirements and gear specifics, you will need some pointers to build a solid home recording studio. This guide is going to help you find the right space in your place and fill it with proper equipment. You won’t have to break a bank either, all the tips on when to spend and when to skimp are listed below.

How to Set Up a Home Recording Studio

#1. Choose the right room. Homes usually aren’t designed with the prospect of having a recording room. You may not even have the luxury of choosing between several rooms - don’t fret, if there is only one option, you can still make it work. The main goal is to avoid or reduce things that may significantly affect the clarity and overall quality of your future recordings. Here is what’s important to consider:

  • Room size. The bigger the room, the better. Smaller rooms tend to have more flutter echoes and they are harder to treat acoustically. Plus, more room means more space for your ever-growing collection of tools, instruments and equipment.
  • Room dimensions. Avoid rooms with equal width and length dimensions. If the room is square-shaped, it creates a build-up of standing waves which causes interference in the form of reinforcements and cancellations.
  • Room surfaces. Floor-length windows or mirrors, concrete walls, and reflective surfaces (like tile or marble) are the worst when it comes to acoustics. Solid wood floors, a couple of small to medium carpets, very few windows, curtains, wall-coverings, and furnishing (such as bookshelves) on the other hand, help to absorb sound reflections, reduce unwanted echoes and reverberations.
  • Ceiling height. Low ceilings may cause effects that are equally destructive for both recording and mixing. Because of vertical reflections, there is highly likely to be comb filtering, meaning that sounds will add to themselves within short time intervals, causing audible distortions. Higher ceilings are better for home recording than lower ones, by a long shot.
  • Noise level. In everyday life, you may not even notice how much noise comes from your A/C unit, boiler, plumbing, neighbors, passing traffic, insects, birds, etc. But as soon as you start recording, all of these noise sources are magnified 100 times by your microphone. Pick the quietest room or reduce the noise as much as possible for clear recording results.

#2. Treat the room acoustically. When it comes to sound quality, correct room acoustics mean a lot more than expensive studio monitors and condenser microphones. Many beginners mistakenly use the terms “acoustic treatment” and “soundproofing” interchangeably. While both of them are valuable, neither does the job for the other.

Soundproofing helps you record whenever you want without disturbing your neighbors. It allows you to minimize the level of sound by adding dense building materials and sealing up air gaps in doors and windows.

Acoustic treatment helps you create better-sounding recordings by controlling sound reflections within the room. It allows you to reach the frequency balance by using a combination of frequency absorption and diffusion. The right combination has the power to transform virtually any room into a pro-level recording studio.

Here is what you need to treat the room acoustically:

  1. Bass traps. They are a vital element since the low frequencies build-up is the main problem in any home recording studio. The low frequencies are harder to absorb than the high ones, and the build-up causes diluted muddy-sounding recordings. Bass traps are at each of the four corners of the room, that’s where the accumulation tends to happen. Some of the good options are Aurelex LENRD Bass Traps and ATS Acoustics Bass Traps. If you can’t afford them, hit YouTube for instructions on how to make DIY bass traps.
  2. Acoustic panels. They absorb mid and high frequencies, those that reflect from your studio speakers. The panels should be placed directly behind the studio monitors, covering 30% of the wall at the very least. They can also be added to the sides of the room to absorb and reduce refections. You can get Pro Studio Acoustics Wedge Foam Tiles, SoundAssured Wedge Style Acoustic Foam Panels, and IZO Acoustic Eggcrate Tiles or search how to make acoustic panels for a home studio on YouTube.
  3. Diffusers. They are used to scatter the remaining frequencies so that nothing gets trapped. They help to maintain a spacious tone and preserve the natural acoustics of the room by dispersing the sound. Diffusers are placed along the sides and at the rear wall. T’Fusor™ 3D Sound Diffusor, UA Acoustics Wooden Diffuser Acoustic Panel, and BXI Wood Acoustic Diffuser Panel are recommended. If you can’t buy diffusers, you can use bookshelves instead. Hell, you can even place guitars and other instruments on a wall. Anything but a bare wall - it’s a bad friend to good acoustics.

Best Equipment for a Home Recording Studio

Once you’ve chosen the room for your home studio and prepared it for recording, it's time to equip the space with essentials.

Here is what you will need:

1) Computer. As you’re starting, it’s perfectly fine to use the laptop or desktop computer you already have, there is no need to splurge on a new one. As for the Mac vs. PC choice, it doesn’t matter in this case. If you have a preferred operating system, stick with it - at this point, both macOS and Windows support the majority of software applications and plugins needed for mixing and recording.

2) Audio Interface. You need a digital audio interface to turn analog signals into digital files that you can then work with on your computer. That’s where you plug in your microphones, speakers, headphones, hardware synths, guitars, etc. When selecting between options on the market, consider how many inputs you need while recording to accommodate each instrument. Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 has four ins and four outs, allowing for simultaneous recording of four mono sources or two stereo sources. Both Focusrite Clarett 8Pre and Apogee Element 88 have eight preamps, allowing for bigger recording sessions.

3) Digital Work Station. The choice of DAW might be the most important for you as a musician as it’s the place where all the recording, mixing, and editing will be happening. There are tons of different DAWs: FL Studio is popular among hip-hop producers and EDM artists, Cubase is considered to be a drum’n’bass staple, Avid Pro Tools is favored by music bands for live instruments recording. Ableton Live and Logic Pro (macOS only) are pretty big as well. All of the above are pretty pricey, especially the full versions will all plugins and features included. However, they provide free trials that you can test out and select the most suitable software for your needs before you fork over the cash. Free DAWs include GarageBand (Mac only), Sonar Cakewalk (Windows only), and Audacity.

4) Monitors. Despite looking the same, studio monitors and regular consumer monitors are not the same thing. The latter is made for listening to music, not working on music. People generally prefer music with boosted lower frequencies, so consumer speakers are made to please consumer needs. Professional studio monitors, on the other hand, provide a much more real, precise and faithful reproduction of sound. Some of the good ones are Yamaha HS5, KRK Rokit G4,  Presonus Eris E5, and Focal Alpha 65.

5) Headphones. Headphones will fatigue your ears faster than monitors but it’s still good to have a set in your home studio for late-night work and testing the sound outside of speakers. Some of the studio classics are Sennheiser HD-25, Beyerdynamic DT 770, ATH-M50x and AKG K240.

6) Microphones. There are three types of microphones you should know about: dynamic mics (used both in the studio and live), condenser mics (best for vocal recording, require a preamp, have a relatively flat frequency response), and ribbon mics. The third kind is the most fragile of the three, ribbon mics have incredibly natural-sounding frequency responses, making them suitable for capturing the sound of a voice, an instrument, and the ambiance of a room alike. If the budget is tight, pick Shure SM57, it’s good for almost any in-studio recording imaginable. In the long run, it’s best to research the market and invest in something more expensive yet perfect for your specific goals.

7) Cables. They are in constant need in the studio: to connect speakers to power, to connect speakers with monitors (TRS cables), use instrument cables (TS) for recording, (XLR) cables for microphones, and so on. There is no need to spend a lot on them since it was proven that there is no difference in audio quality whether you run it through low-end or high-end cables. Choose whatever fits your needs and budget.

Bonus: As a musician you may not only create original pieces but also use parts of already existing songs by other artists and put your own spin on them. If you want to extract vocal, instrumental, drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano or synthesizer stems from an audio or video track, LALAL.AI is exactly what you need. It’s an online music source separation service that uses artificial intelligence to quickly split any file to stems with unmatched precision. It's so straightforward and easy to use that even a child can utilize it with no problem. Try it!