Recording Studio Equipment List for Beginners and Procrastinators

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Looking for a recording studio equipment list to build your home studio?

Want to make broadcast quality music without spending tens of thousands of your hard earned money?

Well then, this one's for you 😉

This post is all about:

(a) demonstrating that you don't need a lot of expensive recording equipment to produce music that's good enough to land on TV

(b) helping you focus on the essentials to build your own home studio without spending a fortune

Let's get started.

When you're making music, more often than not, less is more.

Less time = no time to second-guess yourself = work done

Less gear = less choices = quicker decision making = work done

Less gear = expert at that gear = great sound

Less gear = need to find solutions outside the box = more creative

Recording studio equipment list

The bottom line is: you don't need fancy equipment to make professional-sounding music.

Don't believe me?

Here's the proof:

This one was recorded in Logic X with a Apogee Duet interface and SM7b mic. Mixed and Mastered in home studio.

More examples coming your way throughout this post….

So, now we've established you can do it yourself, let's look at what you actually need (and don't need).

Here are the only 6 things you need to start making radio-quality music. There's a bonus #7 in case you're really addicted to new gear and have money to spare 😉

Recording Studio Equipment List, the Essentials

1. You need a good computer

I'm an Apple fangirl when it comes to computers but Microsoft is fine as well. Whatever you're comfortable with.

The best computer for music production:

  • has lots of RAM, minimum 8GB. 16 or 32 if you can afford it and you're committed (music softwares are hungry for RAM)
  • the fastest processor you can afford (music softwares need lots of power)

This, by the way, is where you will be spending most of the money. If you've got money burning your pockets, it's also where it make sense to go a little crazy and indulge yourself if you feel like it.

Since I travel a lot and generally like working in a horizontal position from my bed, I've invested in a laptop for recording music but a desktop is a fine choice as well.

In fact, many music producers prefer having a dedicated desktop in their studio. Just make sure you don't purchase a desktop if you're going to be lazy about going to the studio!

2. Own a DAW that you're comfortable with

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. Your DAW is the software on your computer where you make the music.

Choosing a DAW is not unlike choosing a partner:

Best DAW 2017
Just like finding the right partner, choosing the right DAW for you can take some time!

Best DAW Software to Choose From

GarageBand should be your first stop if you're a Mac user because it's pre-installed on your Mac (Yey!) and it's very good (Double Yey!)

If you're comfortable with GarageBand, there may come a time when you'll want to graduate to big sister Logic Pro but GarageBand really is a great start and can get you a radio quality recording.

This track was composed on GarageBand for iPad before being arranged, mixed and mastered in Logic Pro with no third-party plugins or loop.

Ableton Live is another DAW I like because it gives you the option to compose horizontally (from left to right) like any traditional DAW or composer would. BUT it also has the option of composing VERTICALLY. So you can work with loops that you kind of layer in and out (we'll talk about loops a little more later!). It was made for electronic producers but can be used for any type of music really.

Historically, Pro Tools is the industry standard but it's way more expensive than the music production softwares mentioned above and, in my opinion, other top DAWs like Ableton Live and Logic Pro do the job just as well.

Other notable DAWs that you may want to check out: Cakewalk (free!), Cubase, Reaper, Studio One.

Action item: Try a few, pick one and embrace it until you master it.

3. Decent Monitors and/or Headphones

There's a lot of debate around studio monitors. It's a debate that can become real technical real soon. I'm not so sure those arguments add a lot of value in practise.

Myth #1 – You shouldn't mix with headphones.

Wrong. You're music can sound professional even if you mix with headphones.

It's more important that you regularly check your mixes on different audio sources: with lousy Apple earbuds, in your car, on your laptop and, if you can, on a big sound system. If the mix sounds good on all those systems, you're good to go.

This is good practice even if you're mixing on $1,500 studio monitors by the way 😉

One thing's for sure though, if you're going to mix with headphones, you want to be extra careful to mix quietly. Don't crank the volume up, those ears of yours are precious and you should take good care of them.

Another thing to consider with headphones is comfort. You want to be able to work for a couple of hours without feeling the pressure of a heavy set on your head.

Myth #2 – You need expensive monitors to mix and master radio quality music.

That's just not true. It's more important that you know your room.

In order to know your room, you need to listen to lots of other people's music in that room, on those monitors (or headphones).

It doesn't have to be the same style of music you're making. Just get used to what broadcast quality music sounds like in that room with your monitors (or headphones).

That said, if you don't have a pair of monitors and need ideas, here are some great options under $400: M-Audio BX5 D3, Yamaha HS5 and KRK RP5G3 Rokit 5.

Best studio monitors
Knowing your room and trusting your ears is more important than any technical spec.

Action item: Before you purchase new monitors or headphones, listen to one of your mixes on the headphones or speakers you use to listen to other people's music.

4. A MIDI controller

A MIDI keyboard will act as a controller for the virtual instruments that are already included in your DAW or the extra ones you purchase from third-parties (more on that in a little bit).

That means the sound will come from the computer, NOT the keyboard itself.

BUT, by playing on the keyboard, you'll control which notes are played and how they're played (loud, fast, smooth, etc.)

MIDI keyboards come in different sizes.

If you're not that fluent on a piano, 49 keys is fine. When you're traveling, a smaller controller can be great as well.

If you're a keyboard player, especially if you're into jazz or classically trained, I highly recommend getting an 88 keys keyboard because:

  • (a) you can use it when you're performing on stage as well and
  • (b) you'll feel limited otherwise.

Just make sure you can plug and play it in MIDI!

So what keyboard model do you get?

First off, let me tell you that you can get a very good, reliable 49-key controller for $200-300. You can spend more if you'd like of course but there's no reason to really.

Ok, now that we've got that settled, there should be some room for personal taste so I'm just going to recommend a few brands I like and have found reliable down the years.

Korg and Yamaha, trustworthy for 88 key keyboards. Keyboard players, try it before you buy it! Better make sure that touch is right for you.

Korg, Novation and M-Audio, trustworthy for pure controllers. When I'm on the road, I use the MPK Mini which is super solid and good-value. I take it everywhere with me.

Best MIDI controller
Unless you're a piano or keyboard player, don't overthink this.

Action item: Go to a music store near you, play around with the keyboards that can act as MIDI controllers and pick one that's within you budget.

(You can buy online as well of course but it's nice to get a feel for the object before you get it. Online reviews will only take you so far.)

Recording Studio Equipment List, the Very Useful Additions

Items 5 and 6 are actually optional depending on the kind of music you're making but still really useful in most cases.

5. An audio interface

This is a must-have if you're going to be recording real instruments and/or recording with a microphone (more on that in a minute).

A simple audio interface that has a couple of ports to plug in a microphone and an electric guitar or bass is enough for most people.

If you want more, it's going to cost more and, as I mentioned in the intro, when it comes to making music, less is often more.

I've used an old M-Audio Fastrack for years and it's only failed me once. Can't remember what happened it was so long ago but I do remember I was able to fix it myself and I'm NOT a techie!! :))

Vocals, guitar and trumpet recorded using an M-Audio Fastrack interface. Mixing and mastering using Logic Pro X plugins.

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is another audio interface that's great value for money.

For a while I fantasized about the Apogee Duet (it's so pretty!) but the cost was prohibitive compared to other solutions. DAMN! Now that I think about it, my crush is back! But, if I'm honest with myself, I don't need it so I'm not buying it…. until my Fastrack gives up on me at least 😉

Ok so how do you choose a good audio interface?

Audio interface budget
You probably don't need 16 inputs if you're a guitar/voice act or even a 4-part band.

You'll find two types of audio interfaces: desktop and rack-mounted. Unless your ambition is to become a mixing engineer, I highly recommend going for a desktop audio interface in your home studio.

The simpler the better. You can always upgrade later.

I'll keep repeating this until you get it: when you're making music, 9 times out of 10, less is more.

This applies to your studio equipment, to your mix, to the number of hours you spend on a track.

There's just no point in buying fancy equipment if it's going to slow you down so much you never get your music out.

Remember you're the one making the music good, not the equipment. Your gear is your toolbox but YOU'RE THE ONE MAKING THE MUSIC.

6. A microphone.

One is enough!!

Unless you're going to be recording a lot of acoustic guitar and vocals, in which case investing in two mics may be worth it.

If you're going to get just one mic (and there's nothing wrong with that!), I would go with the Shure SM58 or the Shure SM57.

No surprises there: they're solid, reliable and affordable. Pretty much every professional studio around the world has them and they're great for live shows as well (super bonus points!).

Both are good for instruments AND vocals but if you need help choosing between the two, consider the SM58 if the emphasis is on vocals and the SM57 if the emphasis is on instruments like the guitar or violin. Don't overthink this, both are great.

Want a real life example?

The SM58 and SM57 in action.

This is what Jamie had to say about recording The Back Streets:

I recorded it in one take (apart from adding in a couple of background vocal lines) in my living room, with an SM58 for the vocal mic and an SM57 for the instrumental – obviously a bit of bleed between the two – into a Tascam multitracker. Nothing more than a touch of reverb when doing the final mix in the Tascam and that was it.

See?! It's simple this music production lark!! :))

If you want to add another studio microphone to your collection, I'd go with a condenser microphone to add a little bit of warmth to your recording and give yourself more options during the mixing stage. More specifically, I would invest in the Audio-Technica AT2035 or the MXL 770. They're both really good and affordable.

If you're not convinced and want to purchase a super expensive microphone for your home studio, I strongly recommend that you borrow one first.

Good recording microphone
90% of the sound you get will come from your mic's placement and the artist's performance, NOT the mic itself.

So before you splurge $500 or $3,000 on a fancy microphone, you might want to check you've identified the problem correctly 😉

Recording Studio Equipment List, the Non-Essentials

7. Third-party stuff to triple boost your DAW

I've put this at the bottom of the recording studio equipment list because, until you've mastered your DAW and the loops and plugins it includes, you won't really know what you need.

When something doesn't sound quite right, you'll be tempted to think it's the gear that's missing and splash the cash to solve a problem that doesn't exist. (I know, I've been there!)

The thing is, you don't need more music loops, virtual instruments or production plugins. You need LESS of them. But, to make radio quality music, you'll need to absolutely MASTER those!

Music Loops

Music loops, audio samples are a great way to trigger inspiration and add a bit of oomph to otherwise flat and electronic compositions.

They're also a great way to spend lots of money and drown your creativity in endless options.

Ever heard of "analysis paralysis"?

It's when you have so much information to go on that you're not sure what to do anymore. So you end up doing nothing.

Well that tends to happen when you have too many loops to call upon.

Virtual Instruments / Audio Units / Whatever they're called in your DAW

It's the same with virtual instruments.

Before you spend any money on Native Instruments or Arturia or whatever other VST plugins tickle your fancy today, make sure you have mastered the tools you already have at your disposal.

If you can't make ProTools or Logic Pro strings sound good, you'll just be wasting your money on third-party virtual instruments.

Since top-level virtual instruments are VERY expensive and are CONSTANTLY improving, you want to make sure you're ready before you make the investment.

There's no point spending $500 on a library you're not going to use now if you need to spend another $200 to update it in two years time.

Depending on the type of music you're making, you may not even need a top level VST software.

Sure, EastWest Symphonic Orchestra sounds great but do you really need to invest that kind of money on strings if you're just padding a hip-hop or singer-songwriter track?

Probably not.

Something else to consider when you're looking at the latest installment of Komplete with "53 products, more than 25,000 sounds, and over 220 GB of instruments and effects":

How much time do you think you'll waste loading and auditioning dozens of instruments during each studio session?

Is that really how you're going to improve your songwriting and music production skills?

Mixing and Mastering Plugins

Most DAWs come with a host of really good plugins that you can use to mix and master your music.

I've purchased many down the years.

Using Logic Pro X, there are only 2 that I would highly recommend.

One is Magic Sample A/B. It's cheap and super useful to reference your track against other professionally mixed and mastered tracks.

It's not that you ABSOLUTELY need it to reference your track. After all, you could just pause your track and play another for comparison without using any plug-in.

Magic Sample A/B just makes it super easy for you to reference your track at the same loudness level as the reference track. And that's super important because our ears are wired to feel like the louder track sounds better so you want to be comparing tracks at the same loudness level, which is tricky to do manually.

Another third-party mastering plugin that I highly recommend is Ozone 8. It's expensive but worth it in my opinion because it will make it fairly easy for you to master your tracks.

Having said that, you CAN master your tracks yourself without it and there ARE other good and affordable mastering services out there so Ozone 8 should NOT be your priority if you don't have the money.

Oh and even if you do have the money, see if you can wait until Black Friday 😉

Recording Studio Equipment List, Your Checklist

Ok then! That just about covers it 🙂

That was a LOT of information so…. if you've made it all the way down here, you deserve a nice little checklist to keep you on the straight and narrow 🙂

Good luck with this!

Don't hesitate to drop me a comment if there's anything I can help you with.

2018-09-19T00:11:26+00:00

2 Comments

  1. jack horner September 25, 2018 at 10:58 pm - Reply

    You really can’t get broadcast quality with any of the gear listed here, except the apogee and sm7(this just barely cuts it). And then you need to learn how to mix. While the samples of music on here are good for home production they could sound a lot better with a professional recording and or mix/master….. My advice – Spend as much as you can on a good interface, preamp, and mic ( an aston will be far superior to a 57 or sm7 and is cheap), and then find a professional to mix and master it.

    • Joyce Kettering September 27, 2018 at 4:24 pm - Reply

      Hey Jack,

      I completely get where you’re coming from and 100% agree that a professional mix and good mastering can make a huuuuge difference (although sometimes it’s hard to find good professionals!!).

      That said, the list here is for beginners and procrastinators.

      I don’t think it makes sense for a beginner to spend loads on gear until they figure out if they really enjoy recording and producing their own music.

      Also think a lot of composers and producers don’t take enough time to maximize what they already have available and instead use gear as an excuse to postpone the finalization of the music. The goal here is to help them focus on what’s essential and, in my mind, that will always be the music.

      In my experience, even with a basic setup like the one here, you can produce music that’s good enough to pay back the initial investment. Not sure it’s wise to spend more until you’ve proven to yourself you’ll make good use of the more expensive equipment.

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