Setting Up an Audio Production Kit on a Shoestring Budget

There is no way around it: setting up a home audio recording studio costs money. For the beginners on a budget, the choices are confusing and deciding on the “right” home recording studio equipment for one’s needs, plans and resources is challenging and time-consuming. For many, it means learning by trial and error, and the “error” part usually inflates the overall cost. This article is for beginners who want a low-cost way to get started in building a home audio recording studio with the intent of gradually refining and upgrading their capabilities to a highly professional level. This article also might be of interest to those who already produce audio, but are open to thinking about what they do in new ways.

High-quality audio production is now possible with very limited means. Contrary to what many musicians and audio content producers believe, it does not take thousands of dollars of investment in gear and software to create exciting music tracks or evocative sound design. High school students and people with modest incomes often express the desire to create music but are hindered by the startup costs. Also, any income derived from the sale of content can be quickly consumed by investment in gear.

In this article, I would like to share a few suggestions for low-cost home recording studio equipment alternatives as well as name brand solutions that might add up to thousands of dollars in savings when building a home recording studio. I will largely confine my presentation to “in the box” production, but much of what is said here can address production with live performers as well. This article targets the bedroom producers who are setting up their home audio recording studios, but the principles actually apply to artists and sound designers at all levels of amateur and professional engagement. The one modest investment that can make a positive difference is the purchase of informative how-to books. I will share some titles of books that I use.

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Step One: Pick the Right Platform for Building Your Home Audio Recording Studio

Let’s start with the platform as the first piece of audio recording equipment needed for your home studio. Almost any type of computer, desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone can now be used for audio production. There are many fascinating audio apps and digital audio workstations (DAW) available on each of those platforms. A good resource for iPad/iPhone owners is “Drone, Glitch and Noise: Making Experimental Music on iPads or iPhone by Clif Johnston, which describes many (mostly) low-cost apps for sound production in your home audio recording studio. It also is a good introduction to innovative audio production techniques.

For those with a little more technical skill, there is “Making Music Apps” by Peter Brinkman. This rather detailed book includes both iOS and Android solutions. Assuming that most consumers of nearly all age groups own a mobile device of one sort or another, one can begin audio production using what one already has with very little additional investment.

For those using laptops or desktop machines for their home audio recording studio, a low-cost, high-quality commercial DAW is Reaper (Windows and Mac). The discounted price is $60, and it permits unlimited non-commercial production, but also commercial activity up to $20,000 in revenues.

Step Two: Select a Good Audio Interface for Building Your Home Audio Recording Studio

Laptops and desktop computers become more powerful home audio recording equipment when coupled with a good audio interface, which is a piece of hardware that expands and improves the sonic capabilities of the computer. A good low-cost, high-quality, two-channel interface is the Focusrite Solo ($100) which comes bundled with limited versions of Ableton Live and Pro Tools. Don’t feel ashamed by the fact that these versions are “limited.” The audio quality is great and the basic audio production features are intact. The focus should be on the finished product and not the gear. One can create excellent tracks — sound design or music — even on less than the best home recording equipment through the application of skill.

If $100 is still too much, it is possible to purchase a workable audio interface for your home recording studio for as little as $29. The audio quality of these small devices is amazingly good at that price, and it is also handy for audio production on-the-go.

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Step Three: Choose the Right Reference Monitors and Speakers for Building Your Home Audio Recording Studio

For monitoring, it is considered best practice to use studio reference monitors. As the name suggests, reference speakers are loudspeakers specifically designed for accurate, professional reproduction of an audio signal. Consumer speaker systems are often designed with other features in mind, such as styling or acoustic characteristics like a thumping bass or shimmery highs. But if one really wants to start out modestly, consider that Dayton Audio has a consumer bookshelf speaker that sells for $40 a pair and that was actually reviewed by Stereophile magazine. They sound better than the price might suggest and possibly have a more accurate response than some cheap reference monitors.

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Step Four: Consider a Room Acoustics Treatment for Building Your Home Audio Recording Studio

And while we are on the topic of monitors for your home recording studio, consider modestly investing in room acoustics treatment, which can audibly improve the quality of monitoring. Acoustic treatment materials can be collected and fashioned from scrap, from thrift store articles or even from recycling matter. Room acoustics is a deep topic and most people need a good resource such as the “Master Handbook of Acoustics” by F. Alton Everest and Ken C. Pohlmann. It is worth saying that the purchase of monitors and the treatment of room acoustics tend to be the most durable home recording studio equipment and investments. Monitors properly used can last many years, whereas software and electronic devices tend to become obsolescent in as little time as 18 months.

In a short blog we can only touch on a few of the low-cost and high-quality pieces of equipment needed for audio production in your home audio recording studio, but we have managed to discuss computing platforms, software, audio interfaces, monitors and room acoustics. These are home recording studio essentials. Missing from this list are microphones, controllers such as keyboards, effects boxes and many other tools. Needless to say, there are economical choices for such recording studio gear as well.

Far more important than any home recording studio equipment or software, though, is the actual experience of audio production. Great sound comes about as the result of diligent and thoughtful effort and the building of practical skills. So if you are motivated to create and produce, but have limited means, there are ways for you to get started now. Use the resources that are available to you and let go of any preconceptions that you might have about the “proper” recording studio gear or software required to achieve impressive results. In the end, your own ears and imagination are far more effective than any tools, and working within limitations can sometimes be a powerful spur to creativity.

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