Back in April, Orien, one of our listeners, asked us what kind of starter kit of recording gear we’d recommend for someone without a lot of money who wants to get good results. Fortunately, it’s quite possible, if you already have a computer and some instruments, to get yourself going for $500 USD, or maybe less, as we discuss on IHR #18 today…
Here is Orien’s original email:
I've wanted to start into the world of home recording. The problem is that I don't have a lot of money to start a home recording studio. Can you please talk about what to buy to put together a "starter kit" for home recording, given the following assumptions: 1) The person already has all the instruments they will be using. 2) The person already has a fast enough computer with enough hard drive space and enough RAM. 3) The person has no other recording software than what might have come with their computer. 4) The person will need at least one mic for voice and/or real instrument recording. 5) Besides the mic, the person will want to either be plugging in their electric guitar, or plugging in their MIDI keyboard to the recording system and will need the necessary hardware. 5) The person cannot spend more than $500 on the project.
It’s a great question, but among all the emails Paul and James hadn’t had time to address it. Since I’m more of a “low end” guy (check out the den setup I used to record the entire album I released last year), I thought I’d try to tackle it.
Background and Assumptions
Now, just so you know, you could cobble together some used gear—maybe even some old analog stuff like a four-track Fostex cassette recorder or something else you’ve scrounged up—but I’m going to focus on modern, brand-new digital home recording equipment, since we’ll consider this a starter setup that you might want to build on, and you might also want such niceties as warranties and return policies in case any of the stuff doesn’t work for you.
I’ll also treat it as the kind of home recording setup where you’ll generally be recording one or maybe two tracks at a time and then overdubbing, not trying to get a whole multitrack band mix live off the floor. If you have that many people involved, you can get them to chip in so you can spend more money on a mixer and more microphones!
I’m assuming, as Orien did, that your music production computer computer has enough horsepower, RAM, and disk space to support the gear I mention here. I’m also assuming that you already have either some fairly good computer speakers or some decent headphones. If not, see if you can get some slightly lower prices on the items below and pick up some Sennheiser PX100 headphones (about $50), which are the best low-end headphone value out there today. (I’ll be reviewing headphones and studio monitor speakers in detail in a future IHR episode, by the way.)
Finally, I’ll use U.S. dollars, since that covers most of our listeners and gives more leeway than the slightly lower-valued Canadian or Australian dollars. Finally, I’ll use shipping street prices, not sometimes-inflated list prices, and won’t count taxes or shipping either, because those vary by where you are and whether you buy online. Let’s see how much it costs to build a professional recording studio.
The Starter Kit
If you already have a computer and instruments, I recommend only seven or eight things: a couple of microphones, a mic stand, a pop filter, an audio interface and a mixer (or two in one), some cables, and good recording software:
Microphones: MXL990 and Shure SM57 ($170 total)
Here’s where recent innovations in manufacturing really help you. Even a decade ago, a good condenser microphone, suitable for recording vocals and acoustic instruments, would have broken the $500 price barrier by itself. Now you can pick up both an MXL990 condenser ($70 USD street price) and a Shure SM57 ($100) for less than $200 combined.
I got my MXL990 free with my FireWire audio interface (too pricey for inclusion here), but even at $70 it’s a steal. For both my wife’s voice and my own, whether speaking or singing, it has a nice warm vocal tone, with good frequency response and little of the “graininess” I sometimes find in other mics like the USB Blue Snowball or even the $200 AKG C1000S I used to use. (It’s what I use for my segments on Inside Home Recording, in fact.) I’ve used it as an overhead for drums, and on classical and acoustic guitars—I’m sure it would do well for a variety of other instruments too. The MXL990 is not fancy, with a single polar pattern and no level pad or other adjustments, but it does come with a very nice case and shockmount. A great deal.
And it’s hard to go wrong with the classic Shure SM57 dynamic mic. The design has been around for decades, and for good reason: there’s hardly a better, more economical way to record electric and acoustic guitars, snare drums and tom toms, or even singing in a pinch. As a dynamic mic, it’s also nearly indestructible and requires no phantom power: with the right cable or adapter you can plug it straight into your computer, which is what I did for a surprisingly long time. Its sibling, the SM58 (also $100), is the most popular microphone in the world and is also an option, but it’s designed more directly for vocals and not as much for guitar amps and such.
Mic Stand and Pop Screen: K&M or generic ($100 total)
I’ve learned the hard way that spending a bit of money on a mic stand is worth it: earlier this year I picked up a couple of cheap boom stands for the basement studio, thinking that since I wasn’t schlepping them to gigs, they’d be fine. But one of them broke at the boom joint a few weeks later, dropping my condenser mic to the ground while I wasn’t even in the room. (The mic’s okay.) So I went for a much pricier, but solidly built, German made K&M stand with a boom ($80). I recommend you do the same, or if you’re going to get something less expensive, look for a couple of boom stands (straight stands aren’t nearly as useful) with metals parts at all the joints.
And you’ll need a pop screen for any kind of vocal or speech recording. You can spend $20 or so for a nice commercial one, or try James Devon’s classic technique of wrapping an old nylon stocking over a coat hanger, which he posted to this blog back in January.
Audio Interface + Mixer: M-Audio/Behringer or Alesis ($150 total)
I recommend two approaches here, depending on what kind of computer you have, although either one will work for Windows or Mac, and probably even Linux if you’re so inclined:
- If you have a Windows PC, M-Audio’s Fast Track USB interface comes wwith their new Session software ($100), which is an apparently solid attempt at creating a GarageBand competitor for Windows. (Make sure you get a bundle with Session, though: older packages of the Fast Track USB might not include it since it is no new.) Since the Fast Track doesn’t provide phantom power for your condenser mic, and since you might want a bit more control over your audio chain, adding a low-end mixer like the Behriger UB802 ($50) would be wise too. I have a UB802 and find it a fine little mixer, especially for the price.
- If you have a recent Mac that came with iLife ’05 or ’06, and thus a recent version of GarageBand, you don’t need M-Audio’s software and can go for a different interface (although the Fast Track USB and Behringer would work fine for you too). One very cool option is the Alesis MultiMix 8USB ($150), which is an eight-channel mixer and USB interface in a single unit. That saves space and cabling, and will impress your audio geek friends too. If you use a Windows PC, it comes with Cubase LE software too, or you can choose to use free DAW software for Windows, Mac, or even Linux (see below).
You can also forgo an audio interface entirely if you want to plug directly into your computer’s audio-in jack, either with a mixer or directly from your instruments. (MIDI can go straight into the USB port too.) I don’t necessarily recommend that because the sound quality isn’t usually as good, but it will work, and I did it for a long time myself.
Cables and Adapters ($80 total)
Don’t forget the cables! You’ll need a couple of XLR mic cables (get 20-foot lengths so you have room to run them), likely a couple of 1/4″ standard patch cables (also 20″), and perhaps a MIDI-to-USB adapterif you use a MIDI keyboard that doesn’t have a USB connector built in. Shop around and they should all fit into the $80 limit.
If you’re not following my advice and won’t get yourself an audio interface, either the USB MicPlug (better) or an XLR-to-1/8″ cable (not so great) might do for your dynamic mic. Similarly, for guitars and other patch-cable instruments, the GuitarPlug or a 1/4″-to-1/8″ cable will also work. But buying both a GuitarPlug and a MicPlug ($50 each) costs just as much as the M-Audio interface, which is a much better idea.
Good Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software is worth paying for, but it’s out of our price range here. Fortunately, GarageBand (included with new Macs since 2004) and Session (for Windows, and newly included with the Fast Track USB) are quite serviceable—I used GarageBand, for example, for my entire 2020 instrumental album Penmachine Sessions and all the tunes I’ve recorded since then too. Session is a bit more limited, as GarageBand was in version 1.0, and is likely to improve over time—but it does require the Fast Track USB interface it comes with, and will not work with interfaces from other manufacturers, or (apparently) even other M-Audio interfaces.
Another approach is to try a completely free, open-source audio editor or DAW, such as the very popular Audacity or the more full-featured but more complex Ardour. Both run on Mac OS and Linux, while Audacity also supports Windows. Most popular DAWS can do the job for you if you’re willing to work through their eccentricities. I use Audacity for final stereo mixes, often applying the last steps of leveling, compression, and fade in/out there before I export to AIFF or WAV format. With a plugin, Audacity can also export to MP3 directly.
Grand Total: $500 USD!
See? That wasn’t so bad.
What Should You Save Up For?
Once you’ve spent your $500, what should your first priorities be for upgrades? Or what should you consider saving up for so you can get an even better bang for your buck in the first place?
- A better DAW. The M-Audio interface supports Pro Tools M-Powered, which is compatible with all the other industry-standard Pro Tools setups out there. Other options include Apple’s Logic Express (which I now use) and Logic Pro (which Paul uses and teaches) for Mac, and for both platforms: Cubase, Nuendo, Digital Performer, Samplitude, and Sequoia.
- A better interface. USB interfaces usually have fewer features and more latency than FireWire interfaces or (if you have a Windows PC or Mac tower) interface expansion cards. The options here are myriad, and range from mid-range boxes like M-Audio’s FireWire 410 (which I use) to FireWire-powered mixers and control surfaces from Mackie, Alesis, Tascam, and others. Other brands like Focusrite, Presonus, Edirol, and MOTU are also good.
- An outboard compressor. Avoiding clipping and noise before your signal goes digital is a great benefit, so an outboard compressor-limiter-gate is a worthwhile purchase. I have a stereo dbx 266XL rack unit that also includes a noise gate, and it does well for me. There are many others at moderate prices from many of the same brands above, as well as Samson, Rolls, and ART.
- Those headphones or speakers I mentioned near the beginning. But again, I’ll talk more about those in another episode.
Beware of the Gear Lust
One common saying among the bedroom musician community is “if only I had that piece of equipement, my record would sound like the new (insert favourite album here)”. Sure, equipment does influence the quality of a recording but in a day and age when music recording equipment is financially accessible to most of us, where do you stop?
Before buying any new piece of music recording hardware or software, ask yourself the following questions:
- – what are you buying this new piece of gear for? If you don’t know why you are buying it, then don’t waste any more time considering buying it. With no purpose, a piece of equipment will bring nothing to your music recording.
- – do you know how to use all your exising music recording equipment inside out? Throwing money at a problem doesn’t help solving it. Learning how to use your tools, however, is a great way to find a way around a problem.
- – are you sure that you don’t already own a piece of hardware or software that could do what you want to do? Only trying things out with your existing gear will enable you to prove that nothing you own enables you to get that specific sound you want.
- – is this new piece of gear you want to buy the best way for you to achieve what you want to achieve? Have you considered all your options, from the cheapest to the most expensive ones?
Five Things to Do Before Buying a Guitar
Whether you’ve just cashed in your first paycheck, saved up over the last 24 months or got some cash for Christmas, there is one sure thing: you know what to do with it, and it’s buying a new guitar
So what should you check out before buying a new guitar? I’ve compiled 3 lists of things to check out for, one list is for buying a second-hand guitar, one list is for buying a new guitar in a shop and one list is for buying a new guitar on the internet. What about buying a second hand guitar on the internet? I don’t advise it, unless you are aware of and willing to take the risk.
5 things to do before buying a second-hand guitar:
1. Tune the guitar
Yes, you can have a look at the neck to see if its shape is straight, you can look at the state of the fretboard. However, if you aren’t sure what you are looking at, it won’t tell you much. Tuning the guitar is the best way to check the guitar can actually be tuned properly – which is what matters, isn’t it?
2. Check all the pieces work
Check out that each pickup and each knob does what it’s supposed to be doing.
3. Play on various parts of the fretboard
Does it feel smooth and regular? Or do you feel something is stopping you from playing as fast as you know you can?
4. Check for the weight
A common reason for selling a guitar can be its weight. Even if you don’t play on stage, you want to buy a guitar with weight that doesn’t prevent you from jumping all around your bedroom with it.
5. Ask the seller why he/she is selling
It’s always good to know the background of a guitar, what it was used for, why it didn’t meet the seller’s requirements etc. Of course, they might lie to you but in addition with testing the guitar itself, it can be a good indication of whether you should proceed forward or not. If the seller seem dodgy and untrustworthy to you, don’t buy.
5 things to do before buying a new guitar in a shop:
1. How solid is the built?
Do the volume and tone pots feel loose? How about the mic switch? And the strings machine heads? Do not hesitate to touch and move all the movable parts while trying out the guitar in the shop, even if the shop assistant is looking at you in a weird way. The quality of such parts is usually a good indicator of how much quality control has gone into manufacturing the guitar.
2. Play on various parts of the fretboard
Does it feel smooth and regular? Or do you feel something is stopping you from playing as fast as you know you can?
3. Check for the weight
Even if you don’t play on stage, you want to buy a guitar with weight that doesn’t prevent you from jumping all around your bedroom with it.
4. How does it feel?
Does it feel better or worse than the other guitars you have put your hands on before?
5. Check other guitars within the same price range
If you are like me, one of your criteria will be money, eg you have set a certain amount aside to spend on a new guitar. Make sure to check a few guitars that meet this criteria and get the one that is the best for you.
5 things to do before buying a new guitar on the internet:
1. Read at least 10 reviews of that guitar
Yes, people might want different things from their guitar but things such as poor built and poor manufacturing will show through in reviews.
2. Check out the return conditions
What is the policy in case you are unhappy with the item?
3. Compare the real price of buying online with the real price of going to a guitar shop
Include all the costs, from delivery if you order on the internet to the cost of you actually getting to the shop. Also, do a comparaison in terms of practicality – if you don’t have personal transport and your nearest guitar shop is 2 bus rides + 1 train ride away, it might not be very easy to carry your guitar back that way. However, if the online order doesn’t make it much cheaper or easier, then why not make a trip to the shop? It’s always fun to go to a guitar shop and try a few guitars, and it’s the best way to make sure you get the right one for you.
4. Do a search on the website(s) you are considering buying from
On music forums, people often warn “don’t use such and such company, they delivered the wrong item to me” and so on. Do a quick search on Google to check potential negative feedback on the online company you want to order from. My own experience, for the UK, is not to use Flying Pig Instrument Supply Co (they ripped me off £200) and to use GAK (the Brighton shop, which also has an online shop) and Strings Direct (more for accessories).
5. Check which courier they use
Some couriers are better than ever, there’s no doubt about it. My biggest problem when ordering from GAK is that they use what is probably the worst mainstream courier in the UK, that is CityLink. They are not flexible, their depot is hard to get to and their customer service skills are close to zero. Despite liking GAK, it has stopped me from ordering from them recently, after too many bad experiences with CityLink. On the other hand, I’ve ordered from companies using UPS and the delivery has always been excellent.
Testing an electric guitar should always be done first through an amp with a clean setting, so the amp doesn’t influence the sound that much. If you have a favourite amp, then do it through an amp of the same brand if possible. After testing the guitar with a clean, you can test it through a special effect if this effect is very important to the sound you are looking for. For testing an acoustic guitar, you can pretty much go through the same points, except the one about testing the microphones and pots of course 😉