If you’re thinking of getting started on production, here are a few recommendations. Below I describe my setup, but will also offer alternatives that you might consider based on your budget/needs. This post is intended for beginners: musicians who are new to recording and would like to know what the most efficient setup would be for their needs. No bells and whistles. Here’s a quick overview of what we’ll need.
- A microphone (if you sing/play acoustic instruments)
- A MIDI keyboard (for keys, and other production)
- An audio interface (to plug in your microphone/instrument)
- Your computer with a DAW installed (software which will store the recorded files)
- A mic stand
- Relavant cables
- A pair of closed-back headphones (to minimize sound leaking into your recordings)
- A pair of studio monitors
Worth noting: Since you are a beginner, I urge you not to get too deep into the minutia of technical specs and the pros and cons of various features. Just get the basics and get started. Spending hours on GearSlutz will not get you any closer to recording your first song in your home studio!
If you just want to go straight to the list, here is the link: https://amzn.to/2Ldp84W. Total would be $1200 new, but you could get a cheaper microphone or buy them used and make the total around $700. At the bottom of the post I have the link to the used items on eBay.
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While you can buy USB microphones that connect directly to your computer, I recommend getting an audio interface, which allows you broader choices of microphones and also allows you to record instruments such as guitar/bass.
I have two: M-Audio 2X2M: ($129.99 new, 2 inputs) and FocusRite Scarlett 18i8 ($399 new, 4 inputs)
Option 1: M-Audio 2X2M – 2 inputs, 1 headphone
This little interface gives you great bang for your buck. If you are completely new to recording and you’re not ready to invest a ton, this is a great option. I originally bought it for using while traveling, but find that the sound quality is better than the FocusRite, so I still use it at home.
It has two inputs, one of which can take either XLR or 1/4″. The recording quality is very good for the price. The newer ones come with USB-C connectors, so make sure to get one of those if your computer has USB-C.
Option 2: FocusRite Scarlett 18i8 – 4 inputs, 2 headphones
Although the quality is slightly inferior to the M-Audio in my opinion, we have used this interface to record our entire holiday EP and I can’t complain. Very decent for the price.
The 4 inputs can use either XLR or 1/4″, which makes it very versatile.
It’s also helpful to have 2 headphone jacks when I’m recording someone else so we can both monitor through headphones, with different levels if necessary.
To be honest though, I rarely ever use more than 2 inputs. If you don’t need the extra inputs or extra headphone jack, go for the M-Audio, you’ll get more for your money.
My two mics of choice lately have been the Shure SM27 and Shure SM7-B.
Setup 1: Shure SM27 Condenser Mic ($299) + Kaotica Eyeball ($198)
Setup 2: Shure SM7B ($399) + CloudFiltr ($149)
Mic Setup 1: Condenser mic + isolation foam ($318-$497 new)
The Shure SM27 is very versatile and we’ve used it to record our entire holiday EP from acoustic guitar to vocals, to triangles. It is a condenser mic, so it will require phantom power to operate. Thankfully, your audio interface already comes with that functionality.
If $299 is a stretch for your budget, there are plenty of options on Amazon for cheap condenser mics, as low as $34 for the ZingYou. Realistically though, the AudioTechnica 2020 might be a decent option at only $110. I have not personally tried it but I’ve heard good things. The Rode NT1 is pretty good too at $203. We used to have one but we sold it when we were downsizing.
Condenser microphones are very sensitive and will pick up a lot of ambient noise and reflections from your walls. However, you no longer need to spend a lot of money treating your room. I got the Kaotica Eyeball, which is compatible with a wide range of microphones, including the SM27, AT2020 and Rode NT1. The isolation is amazing. If I record with the eyeball facing my guitar while I sing and play, I can’t hear my voice in the recording. It’s that good. On the surface, it looks like a pricey piece of foam but it is well worth every penny given the alternative is to treat your room.
USED GEAR: You can find a used SM27 for $180 and used Kaotica Eyeball for $160 on eBay
Mic Setup 2: Dynamic mic + mic activator ($548)
I sometimes like to use the SM7B for my vocals. My voice is clear and sometimes a little thin. This mic seems to give a little more warmth and richness to it. I have mic-tested this one against the much more expensive mics at a couple of studios and it often wins the shoot-out. That said, if you’re recording in an untreated environment, you’ll still want to go in a closet or something.
The only thing with this mic is that it needs a lot of juice. If you plug it directly into your interface, you’ll notice that the recording volume is very low and you’ll have to crank the gain up, introducing undesirable white noise. The solution is to use something like the Cloud Lifter. Connect the Cloud Lifter to your interface and turn the phantom power on. The Cloud Lifter will use that phantom power to boost the audio signal from your dynamic mic by up to 25dB.
I really like this setup, however if I was on a budget, I’d definitely go with setup 1. I realize that setup 1 is not cheap, but believe me, you will be able to get a LOT out of it.
XLR Cables run from $7.95 to $50 for 10 feet. The higher end cables will result in better audio quality, but it’s ok to start with more modest ones if you’re on a tight budget. I always advocate for trying it out first, and then only upgrade when you feel you’ve outgrown your existing gear. No point in adding pressure on yourself to learn to produce just because you’ve spent $100 on cables alone.
You want to set your mic on a stand so as to avoid hand/movement noises and variances. You can go as cheap or expensive as you wish. Amazon has many options, starting under $20.
(for recording guitar/bass/any other plugged instrument)
There’s plenty of options out there, but we prefer these yellow GLS ones because they don’t tangle as much.
The sheer number of MIDI keyboards out there is enough to give me a headache. All I wanted was a really simple keyboard that is lightweight (I travel a lot). If you’re into making beats, you might want a fancier one. For the average singer-songwriter starting to record, I recommend the iRig 37 Pro. The size is such that it fits easily on my desk behind my typing keyboard and is easy to use for creating MIDI arrangements. The only downside is that the keys aren’t weighted.
If you’re recording piano pieces, this will definitely not be enough for you. In that case, I would recommend using the Privia PX-160. The 88 weighted keys have a nice feel and yet, unlike many competitors, the keyboard doesn’t weigh as much as a small bear.
The MIDI keyboard will usually come with a USB or USB-C cable to plug into your computer directly, so no extra purchases there.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Ask anybody and they will have a different opinion as to which DAW to use. Personally I use Logic Pro X. It comes with an extensive loop library, sound libraries, an intuitive drummer feature in addition to all of the standard tools in other DAWs. If you’re on MacOS, then you can start with GarageBand (which you already have for free on your Mac) to get your feet wet. Logic is just the grown up version of GarageBand.
SAVINGS TIP: Many of the audio interfaces you buy will come with a free DAW, including the M-Audio. You can certainly take advantage of that if you’re on a budget. They would usually be “lite” versions of the DAW in question, but not a bad way to get started.
Logic is $199. ProTools is $30/month or $2000. Reaper is $60 but I don’t recommend it for beginners. Ableton is popular among EDM producers. StudioOne is also increasingly popular. Whichever DAW you pick, it can pretty much do the same thing. I just find Logic to be most intuitive of all the professional ones.
Optional Gear that I have in my current setup:
I use a PreSonus BlueTube pre-amp that feeds into my Scarlett. That said, it’s not a necessary component. You’d be fine without it too.
You’ll need some studio monitors to listen to your recordings and mix. If you’re wondering whether you can use your Hi-Fi system or other existing speakers, the answer is… probably not. Consumer speakers are meant to enhance (color) the sound in certain ways that appeal to their particular audiences. When mixing your music, you want to hear as accurate a representation as possible, so that it’s easier to create a mix that will translate on other (colored) systems. I use a pair of the M-Audio BX8 which goes for $249, but we used to have the M-Audio BX5, which is more budget-friendly, at $149 and will take up less real estate.
While recording with a microphone, you’ll want to wear headphones that are closed-back, so as to minimize sound leakage from the backing track bleeding into your vocal/instrument track being recorded. I have two: ATH-M50x ($149) and a Sennheiser HD380 ($163).
When mixing, you’d ideally want open-back headphones, but I have just used these two above in conjunction with my BX8 monitors to mix our last EP. I do plan on getting better mixing headphones since I am getting a lot more comfortable with mixing now. However, I do not have any to recommend at this point. As a beginner, I think it’s best to stick with multi-purpose tools that get the job done until you outgrow them.
Summary of recommendations for a beginner
I’ve made a list so that it’s easy for you to find those items on Amazon. The only exception is Kaotica Eyeball, which has to be bought on their website.
- ATH-M50X headphones ($149 new on Amazon) ($80 used on eBay)
- M-Audio BX5 monitors ($149 x 2 new on Amazon) ($70 used on eBay)
- M-Audio 2X2M audio interface ($129 new on Amazon) (same price on eBay)
- iRig 37 Pro MIDI keyboard ($99 new on Amazon) ($45 used on eBay)
- Shure SM27 condenser microphone ($299 new on Amazon) ( $180 used on eBay)
- Kaotica Eyeball ($198 new on their website) ($160 used on eBay)
- 1/4″ cable for instruments ($12.99 new on Amazon)
- XLR cable for microphone ($8 new on Amazon)
- Mic stand ($20 new on Amazon)
- GarageBand or whichever DAW came with your audio interface ($0)
TOTAL: $1212.99 new, or $705 if buying some of the items used on eBay!!!
For Cyber Monday, you can definitely get some of these items on discount and possibly fit everything under $1000 even if you buy everything brand new.
For example, Kaotica Eyeball is $169 instead of $198. It is the only item that isn’t sold on Amazon. See ALL the other items on Amazon: https://amzn.to/32H8lzM
If you’re ready to graduate to Logic from GarageBand, that’s another $200 but it will expand your abilities considerably. Do so when you start feeling limited by GarageBand.
What does that sound like?
Below are a few tracks that I produced entirely using only the items described in the first picture. You can achieve the same thing with the list I outline in the final recommendation. You might need Logic Pro X and additional plugins for mixing, but the recording was all done with these basic hardware items.
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