How to Buy the Best Home Recording Studio Equipment
With an endless amount of gear out there, setting up your first home studio can seem like a daunting task. But it doesn’t have to be.
Images by Drew Litowitz
by Philip Sherburne
OCTOBER 12 2020
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For aspiring artists interested in making music on their own, there has never been a better time to get started. Home recording studio equipment options are plentiful, and prices are a fraction of what they once were: A basic bedroom setup, even when working on a tight budget, can yield the kind of results that would have required booking time in a professional studio not so long ago. Though it can be hard to know where to begin, the good news is that there is no one right answer. Even so, in talking to a number of artists and producers from across the musical spectrum, we’ve narrowed things down to give budget-conscious novices some guidance. While prices can easily start to add up as you build out even the most basic studio, there are ways to economize. Second-hand stores, the online used-gear marketplace Reverb, and eBay are all crucial resources—one good thing about the relentless pace of music tech is that musicians are forever getting rid of gear in order to make room for new toys. Start with what you can afford and trade up further down the line.
“Don’t agonize too much about any particular purchase,” advises JR Seaton, better known as the techno producer Call Super. “What matters is the relationship you build with what you have. Limitations are often useful, because workarounds and hacks will give you a little more identity in your sound.”
Melbourne avant-pop musician Sui Zhen has a similar can-do philosophy. “If you have the desire, drive, and creativity, you can make music from pretty much anything.”
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How to Make a Home Recording Studio
Chances are, you’re going to want to use your computer as the centerpiece of your setup. Maybe you’ll do everything totally “in the box”—that is, on software instruments alone, most likely running inside a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Ableton or Logic Pro X. (More about how to choose the best DAW for you below.) Or maybe you’ll use the computer as a glorified tape recorder to capture and edit the sounds you make with instruments or microphones.
The Mac vs. PC debate is, at this point, a non-issue. If you have a preferred operating system, stick with it, though it’s worth bearing in mind that certain software applications will only run on one platform. Logic Pro X, for instance, is only available for Mac. (On the other hand, FL Studio, for two decades a Windows-only program, finally got released in an OSX version in 2018.) One option is to run an application like Apple’s Boot Camp that lets you install Windows on your Mac, says Fractal Fantasy’s Zora Jones. “It lets me take advantage of both systems, so I can run MacOS for production and boot into Windows for live performance.”
A more difficult decision may be whether to go with a desktop or laptop as your recording hub. If you plan to perform on your computer or like to work on the road, then a laptop will probably be your instrument of choice. “I’ve made some of my favorite music sitting on a bed or at a cafe in an unfamiliar place, so mobility is really helpful,” notes Los Angeles’ Diamondstein. And Montreal’s Patrick Holland, aka Project Pablo, adds, “A laptop helps with collaborating, which is key when starting out.” Desktops offer more bang for your buck, though.
Most of the musicians I polled suggested that at least 8 gigabytes of RAM is ideal, and more is better. “But I’ve done most of my music on an 11″ MacBook Air with 4 GB RAM, and it was totally fine,” admits New York electronic producer Anthony Naples, who suspects that the limited capabilities of his machine helped him develop his distinctive, stripped-down style.
When it comes to optimizing performance, don’t discount the speed of your hard drive, says the Mexicali producer Siete Catorce. “So get an SSD [solid state hard drive]—this affects DAW performance way more than having lots of RAM.”
Of course, what looks poky today might once have been a top-of-the-line machine, so unless you’re planning to run some seriously memory-intensive plug-ins, don’t worry too much about what’s under the hood. “Most of my music I produced on a laptop I found in the trash,” says Swedish experimental club producer Sissel Wincent, who puts more emphasis on peripherals. “An extra screen is handy, because it makes your workflow easier.”
And as with many creative pursuits, sometimes less is more. Los Angeles’ Nick Sylvester, who runs the GODMODE label, says, “My studio machine doesn’t have email or messaging, which cuts down on distractions.”
The audio interface (sometimes called a sound card) is a funny piece of gear. You might spend a couple hundred bucks or more on one, plug it in, set it up, and then never touch it again. But for many it’s an indispensable item, for several reasons.
First, if you’re running any kind of external audio into your computer—hardware synths, voice, guitar, etc.—the inputs on the audio interface are the only way to get those sounds into the machine. And if you’re using monitors—speakers designed for studio applications, more on those later—instead of headphones, the audio interface is what you’ll plug those into. Most importantly, the audio interface is what actually processes all the audio going into and coming out of your computer, via analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is.
Your computer already has audio converters built into it—they’re what allow you to chat on Zoom and listen to Spotify directly through your laptop speakers—but they aren’t designed for professional-grade audio. And while virtually any standalone audio interface is going to have better converters than the ones your computer comes with, you can generally count on them to improve in quality as you go up the price scale.
How much you should shell out for the best converters is up for debate, though.
“Part of me likes to think it’s not that important, because music isn’t the sum of a bunch of technical specs” says Anthony Naples. “The truth is, when I upgraded to a higher quality sound card, I instantly noticed the difference. But what you don’t know definitely won’t hurt you when you’re just starting out.”
Ultimately, the choice will depend on how you make your music. If you plan to have multiple synthesizers and drum machines running in tandem, then you’ll need enough inputs to accommodate each one of those instruments. “If you have no experience with audio equipment, I would start with a small, cheap interface, like four channels max, just to get to know how the routing works,” suggests the deep-house producer Galcher Lustwerk. “Make sure it has MIDI [the protocol that allows electronic music devices to communicate with each other], and make sure there’s low latency”—that is, the time it takes to communicate information to and from the computer. If latency is high, you’ll have more trouble getting the elements of your audio in sync.
The Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 ($230)
With two inputs, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($110) is popular with podcasters, and it works just as well for electronic musicians who plan on starting small. A number of musicians recommend the Scarlett 4i4 ($230) as a slightly more versatile option: With four ins and four outs, it allows you to simultaneously record four mono sources or two stereo sources (like a synthesizer, drum machine, or turntable).
If you plan to use microphones, you’ll need to make sure the interface has inputs with mic preamps, which amplify the low-level microphone signal so it’s suitable for mixing and recording. The Audient ID4 ($187) uses the same mic preamps as the company’s acclaimed higher-end studio equipment, earning rave reviews for a budget-conscious pick for vocalists.
The SSL2+ ($280)
The SSL2+ ($280) “is probably the best sub-$400 interface you can buy,” says Anthony Naples. “And the volume knob literally goes to 11.” Stepping up in price, the Apogee Duet ($649) is widely praised for its simplicity and sterling sound, while Sui Zhen swears by her RME Fireface UCX ($1599). “Learning to record at a higher quality can inspire and encourage you to take more care with your audio,” she recommends. Berlin producer Ziúr likes the UAD Apollo X6 ($2199), despite the daunting price: “The good thing about UAD hardware is that it processes UAD plugins [the company’s acclaimed emulations of classic studio technology] and is even lighter on your computer’s RAM use.”
And if you’re daunted by some of these prices, consider opting for a used model, or even a previous generation of a popular product. Hausu Mountain label co-founder Maxwell Allison, aka Mukqs, uses a decade-old, first-gen Apogee Duet. “I basically inherited this interface from a friend who upgraded to the newer Apogee models, all of which seem fantastic, but even this old model does perfectly for my purposes.”
Of all the choices you make while setting up a home recording studio, this one might be the trickiest. Judging music will always be a subjective activity, and the same goes for judging how it sounds. At the same time, certain generalizations tend to hold true: You want speakers that sound neutral and don’t unduly color or flatter your productions. They should not boost the bass, for example, because that interferes with your ability to adequately hear what’s actually going on in the lower frequencies, nor should they present high frequencies as too bright; the speakers you listen to music on are not necessarily the speakers you want to make music on. “If your monitors aren’t good and you can get your music to sound good on them, you’re in business,” suggests Call Super. GODMODE’s Sylvester goes even further: “You should hate your monitors. Your monitors should make your mixes sound bad. The mix is done when it sounds good despite the monitors.”
Still, everyone will likely have a slightly different idea of what neutral sounds like, and there are other factors that will affect the music coming out of your studio monitors, including the dimensions of your recording space. “The most important thing to consider is the size of your room and the sound treatment in it,” cautions Fergus Jones, aka the Scottish bass producer Perko. “I was using the Yamaha HS8s ($370) in my tiny room with no sound treatment, and it was way too much. All the bass would bounce around and get trapped in this one corner.”
You might consider treating your room, adding acoustic panels or other absorbent materials in the right places to correct for unwanted reflections. “Measure your room and make some DIY bass traps and reflectors,” suggests the Spanish house producer Jose Bernat, aka Pépe. But, he cautions, “Don’t buy them pre-made unless you have money to burn.”
Another important piece of advice that the musicians I surveyed told me: Try out lots and lots of speakers. Go to the music stores around town and bring music to play through them. Do they seem to accurately represent the music as you know it? Do they reveal aspects of the sound you’ve never heard before? Or do they seem like they’re artificially sweetening certain frequencies?
ADAM Audio A7Xs ($750 each)
While certain models of monitor kept turning up, almost every musician I surveyed had a different preference. Berlin’s Ziúr started out, like many fledgling producers, with KRK’s affordable ROKIT line (the 5″ KRK ROKIT 5s are $179 apiece), but found that they colored the sound too much; today she uses a pair of ADAM Audio A7Xs ($750 each) that she found for cheap. Perko favors Genelec 8010As ($350 each), which “don’t go very low but are very clear.” (For what it’s worth, I’ve been using a pair of Genelec 8030s—the current model goes for $695 each—for over a dozen years now, and I still think they’re the best home studio purchase I ever made.)
JBL 308s ($199 each)
A number of people praised the HS8s ($370 each) or the smaller HS5s ($200 each), which Pépe called a good fit for his relatively big, 290-square-foot studio. For a pure bang-for-buck, Siete Catorce puts his money on the larger, cheaper JBL 308s ($199 each). “If you don’t have a treated room and you’re on a budget, I’m convinced these are the best you can get. The bass is loud without being boomy, the highs are just crispy enough. All the mixdowns I’ve done on these translate very well to other sound systems. Most importantly, they are fun.”
That bit about translating well to other systems is important. In fact, Zora Jones turns to a “tiny, really awful Bluetooth speaker” as the “final frontier” of her mixdowns: “If it sounds good on there, the mix is done.” Mukqs’ Allison does the same thing, but with his car stereo. “As much as it’s a cliche, the ‘car listen’ is a trope for a reason.”
“Just get a set of monitors that you can afford, and stick with them,” advises Anthony Naples. “As you listen to lots of other music on them, you’ll learn how things are supposed to sound on them. I use the Presonus Eris E5 XT ($125 each), which are the very definition of ‘OK.’ You’d be surprised how many ‘professional’ producers use the cheapest entry-level monitors. After 10 years, they can make them sound just as good as anything else. Considering most people aren’t hearing music through hi-fi means anyways, it’s sort of giving you a relatable perspective on how people will listen to the music when it’s out.”
Though headphones will fatigue your ears faster than monitors and don’t have the visceral bass response that monitors do, it’s smart to have a set on hand so you can work late at night or test how mixdowns sound outside of speakers. In fact, many city-dwellers may end up working on headphones most of the time anyway. Perko suggests working out your budget, then splitting the cost between monitors and headphones.
Beyerdynamic DT 770 ($179)
Monitoring headphones should be comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time, have a wide frequency response with accurate bass and treble—check the technical specs on retailers’ websites to compare different models—and have as neutral a sound as possible. DJ headphones may not have the flattest response, but many musicians turn to their Sennheiser HD-25s ($150), something of an industry standard in the DJ booth, just because they’re so used to the sound of them. (“Just make sure you don’t blast them for too long or you’ll seriously damage your ears,” cautions Perko.) Another popular pick is the Beyerdynamic DT 770 ($179). “They’re a studio classic for a reason,” says Ziúr. “They’re super comfortable to wear, they’re affordable, and sound absolutely fine.” In a similar price range, Pépe likes Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x ($149), “a wonderful pair at a very reasonable price.” Galcher Lustwerk praises the Sennheiser HD 600 ($400), which, as an open-back headphone, he calls “my most comfortable pair for mixing tracks.” (Open-back headphones, which don’t shield the wearer from outside noise, provide a better soundstage, so you can more accurately place elements in the mix.) In the same price range, Sony’s closed-back MDR-7520 offer a considerably different experience. “They have bumping bass and nice noise canceling, so you feel like you’re deep in the box,” says Mukqs’ Allison.
Swedish house producer DJ Seinfeld recommends Avantone Pro MP1 Mixphones ($199), which he says are “excellent and comfortable enough for detailed mixing, even for beginners. I’m far from a mixing engineer myself, but found these to unlock a significant amount of texture and awareness around frequencies and space.”
I’ve been using a demo pair of AIAIAI’s TMA-2 HD ($350), which are made with studio work in mind. They’re comfortable enough that you can sit beneath them for hours, and they have a rich, reliable response; I’ve used both the TMA-2s and the recently released HD model, and the step up in quality from the previous model is remarkable.
Digital Audio Workstation
In terms of creative work, your choice of a digital audio workstation (DAW) might be the most important choice you make. The name sounds complicated, but a DAW is simply the software environment where all the recording, mixing, and editing of your music will happen. There are a number of different DAWs out there. Image-Line’s FL Studio ($99-$899, depending upon the bundled features) is popular with hip-hop and footwork producers, though it also has fans in EDM artists like Porter Robinson and Madeon. Steinberg’s Cubase ($99-$588) has long represented the gold standard for many drum’n’bass artists. The comparatively inexpensive Reaper ($60-$225) has a passionate user base behind it. Bitwig Studio ($270) is an evolving platform that recently reinvented itself as a fully modular system. And then of course there’s Avid’s Pro Tools ($599, or $30 for a monthly subscription), the veteran workhorse that’s a longtime favorite for recording live instruments and bands. But the big DAW rivalry these days really comes down to Ableton Live ($99-$749) and Apple’s own Logic Pro X ($200). (Disclosure: I was paid to lead two discussion sessions at Ableton’s Loop 2016 conference.)
Apple’s Logic Pro X is a common digital audio workstation for many power users.
Logic Pro X comes loaded with highly regarded software synthesizers and effects. Power users tend to prefer Logic for recording audio from multiple sources, and its MIDI features—that is, the connections that allow the software to communicate with hardware controllers and external devices like synthesizers and drum machines—are solid. It’s also an intuitive step up for anyone who may have fiddled around with GarageBand, the recording program that comes pre-installed when you buy a Mac.
“Logic is exceptionally clean,” says GODMODE’s Sylvester, “[it] doesn’t guide you to working one way or another. I find that a lot of music made in Ableton and FL Studio can accidentally have a ‘sound’—not because of their audio engines, but because they lead you into specific loop- and pattern-based workflows.”
Ableton Live is the favorite DAW among artists polled for this article, though musicians stress that expertise within a program is more important than the program itself.
Ableton Live’s good for a lot more than just looping, though. “If you want to make your music into live performances, I’d recommend Ableton Live,” suggests the UK experimental producer Loraine James. Ableton Live was originally introduced as a tool for performing electronic music—a task that has long presented its share of logistical challenges—but it eventually developed into a full-scale DAW, and many electronic musicians use Live as their principal tool for composing and recording. Virtually every artist I surveyed praised Ableton for its quick, intuitive workflow and flexibility. Its two principal working environments—Session View and Arrangement View—facilitate different modes of working: one loop-based and jam-oriented, and the other more traditionally linear. “Ableton strikes a good balance of music-making potential and an easily understood [interface]” says Anthony Naples. “Plus, the sampling and resampling is the best, which is the reason I got it into it in the first place.” And Ableton’s own on-board instruments and effects are nothing to sneeze at, either—with several new additions to the set with the release of Live 10, in 2018—while Max for Live (included in Live Suite, or available as an additional purchase) opens up access to an ever-expanding library of user-created instruments.
Of course, these aren’t the only options. The VCV Rack is a free, open-source platform that emulates the functionality of modular synthesizers, with an expanding library of modules, both paid and free, to plug into it—though novices might find the format bewildering. At the other extreme of user-friendliness, new apps for smartphones and tablets are constantly being released, many of them free. Finally, while they may not have the cachet of their high-gloss peers, free, open-source programs like Audacity can be a great way to get started with making and processing audio. “It isn’t the same as the professional DAWs, but it basically does the same things, and some of the records people are making at the professional level use it too,” says New York electronic musician Bryce Hackford.
If you’re in doubt, try out the demo versions of various programs and see how each one resonates with you.
Ultimately, says Sylvester of the great DAW debate: “Whichever one doesn’t make music feel like work—go with that one!”
Akai’s MPK 249 ($395)
Mouse, trackpad, keyboard—none of them make for a particularly intuitive music-making tool. Which means that you’ll want some kind of controller interface—whether a piano-style keyboard or an array of pads—in order to trigger and control sounds within your DAW. The range of options is, once again, pretty staggering. If you just want to key in notes on a traditional piano-key layout, you might do just fine with the ultra-portable, foot-long Korg nanoKEY2 25-key controller ($57)—it even comes in a fetching orange and green—or M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 ($59). If you like knobs to twist and pads to hit, something like Akai’s MPK Mini mkII could get you started for $99—though if you want full-sized keys and you’re partial to playing chords, you might want to move up to something like Akai’s MPK 249 ($395), which boasts four octaves, semi-weighted keys, aftertouch (which allows you to control MIDI parameters by pressing harder on the keys), and a mess of assignable knobs, faders, and pads. Anyone interested in the functionality of classic drum machines and hardware sequencers might want to explore the Arturia BeatStep Pro Controller & Sequencer ($259), a remarkably inexpensive MIDI step sequencer for controlling both hardware and software.
All of these controllers more or less seamlessly integrate with whatever DAW you’re using; for an even more seamless plug-and-play experience, there’s a growing market in third-party tools like the Akai Professional Fire ($84), a grid controller for FL Studio, and Novation Launchpad Mini ($110), for Ableton Live. If you want a device that truly functions as a three-dimensional extension of what you see onscreen, try Native Instruments’ Maschine ($649) or Ableton’s Push ($799). The Maschine is a pad-based instrument that integrates with Native Instruments’ software instruments, samplers, and effects to facilitate quick, intuitive writing, editing, and performance techniques like pattern editing, step sequencing, and sample slicing. Push takes a similar approach, with an expansive array of pads designed to mimic Ableton Live’s Clip View, and numerous built-in and freely programmable controls to give hands-on access to Live’s key features.
Here’s where the list of possibilities really becomes unlimited. Though both Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro X come pre-loaded with an extensive range of samplers, effects, and other virtual instruments—sometimes called “soft-synths” or “VSTs” (short for “Virtual Studio Technology,” since many early VST plug-ins were meant to emulate familiar hardware devices)—there are plenty of downloadable a la carte sounds out there. In terms of versatility and quality alike, many inexpensive software instruments today are capable of sounds as rich and substantial as those produced by far more expensive pieces of hardware—and some are designed explicitly to replicate them. Arturia offers an extensive line of software instruments that emulate hardware classics like the Yamaha DX7, Buchla Easel V, and even the semi-modular ARP2600.
For many musicians, Native Instruments will be a good first stop. (Disclosure: I gave a paid lecture at a Native Instruments workshop in early 2016.) The Berlin company, active since 1996, is one of the giants in music software, and their Komplete suite of software instruments ($599) offers an extensive collection of synthesizers, samplers, effects, acoustic emulators, sample-based instruments, drum machines, and more. (For the curious, there’s also the more rudimentary Komplete Start, which is free.) Among Komplete’s instruments are the heavyweight Massive (a favorite synth of dubstep and bass producers), the Battery drum sampler and sequencer, the Guitar Rig amp simulator, and various sample-based instruments that painstakingly recreate different types of acoustic tones. “I hardly use soft synthese these days, but I still really enjoy NI Komplete,” says Project Pablo. “It’s the most diverse set of software you can grab as a beginner.”
Berlin’s U-He began as a one-man operation, but these days the software developer Urs Heckmann has built his boutique virtual-instrument company into a formidable operation with a growing range of products. The Zebra 2 ($199), the current version of a soft-synth that’s been around for more than a decade now, combines a variety of synthesis types with a powerful modulation engine to offer an instrument that’s powerful, surprising, and sounds great. (Composer Hans Zimmer even used it on The Dark Knight soundtrack; you can purchase his sound set and custom update to the instrument for €99.) Any Cable Everywhere ($79) and Bazille ($129) both extend modular-synthesis techniques to the virtual realm, while Diva ($179) leverages classic synthesizer design to offer amazing sound quality. For an alternate approach to modular-style synthesis, you can try the excellent, Buchla-inspired Aalto ($99) from Seattle’s Madrona Labs, which particularly excels in the creation of dynamic, evolving sounds and sequences. If singing is more your thing, try Madrona Labs’ Virta ($89), a voice-controlled synth with truly head-spinning effects.
For more effects, many of the musicians I surveyed swore by Valhalla DSP’s line of plugins like the Valhalla Plate classic plate reverb ($50), Valhalla Shimmer reverb ($50), and the free Valhalla Freq Echo frequency shifter. Anthony Naples recommends Soundtoys plugins, like the Echo Boy delay unit ($199)— manna for dub fanatics—and the MicroShift stereo widener ($129), while Perko likes Unfiltered Audio’s Spec Ops ($99) multi-effect and Dent 2 ($49) distortion unit, and Sui Zhen suggests Unfiltered Audio’s Instant Delay ($29).
Galcher Lustwerk recommends reserving your plugin budget for effects—a good reverb, compressor, EQ—“which are usually cheaper and give your music more character.” Izotope’s Ozone 9 bundle ($129-$499) is a good effects starter kit “for quick, radio-quality sound,” says DJ Seinfeld. “The presets are good, and you can learn a fair amount about basic mastering and mixing through tweaking them.”
Likewise, Siete Catorce stresses the importance of learning the ins and outs of synthesis, no matter how easy-to-use the instrument might appear. “Knowing everything about your soft synth to get the sounds you want is more important than having a million of them.”
The wide world of hardware instruments encompasses decades’ worth of electronic gizmos—synthesizers, drum machines, sequencers, effects—not to mention all those more traditional sound makers like guitars and drums and flugelhorns, to name a select few. But when it comes to electronic gadgets, despite the allure of classics like the Roland TR-808 or Juno-106, their worldwide fame means that prices have skyrocketed in recent years; many eBay sellers are asking upwards of $4,000 for 808s in good condition. Fortunately, for users looking for that classic sound, there’s a robust market in modern replicas.
The TR-08 ($400)
Roland’s Boutique series is a line of miniature versions of the company’s most iconic machines. The TR-08 ($400) is a scaled-down replica of the TR-808 drum machine, one of the building blocks of techno. The TB-03 ($390) is heir to the TB-303, the bass synthesizer that begat acid house. And the JU-06 ($400) module recreates the legendary Juno-106 synthesizer. Korg has also been doing a brisk business in reviving various workhorses of yore. They recently brought back the ARP Odyssey ($650), a versatile duophonic synthesizer originally released in 1972, in an effort overseen by ARP co-founder David Friend; the new model remains faithful to the original’s architecture and analog circuitry, simply using new parts and manufacturing. The MS-20 mini ($530), meanwhile, is a scaled-down version of 1978’s MS-20 that reproduces the original’s analog circuitry. “I have been bonding with my bandmate’s Korg Minilogue,” says Sui Zhen. “It’s a great and affordable synth. For sound design and atmosphere and also hectic dance music, it’s a perfect starting point for happy accidents to get creative with.”
Korg’s Volca series offers an even more back-to-basics sensibility—with even more appealing price tags. “It’s a wonderful gateway drug into the hardware world,” says Pépe, the Spanish producer. Volca Keys ($146) is a polyphonic analog synth with built-in loop sequencer whose simple structure makes a great first synth for novices. Volca Bass ($150) is a simple analog bass synthesizer and step sequencer that features 303-like functions. The Volca Beats ($150) combines both analog and digital synthesis into a powerful, compact drum machine and step sequencer. And further machines—the DX7-inspired Volca FM ($150) digital synthesizer, Volca Sample ($150) digital sample sequencer, and Volca Kick ($150) analog bass-drum generator—offer even more creative possibilities at a nice price.
For those with the extra cash on hand, Moog—whose synths are still manufactured at their headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina—makes investment pieces built to last, and some carry a relatively reasonable price tag, like the Moog Minitaur Analog Bass Synthesizer ($499), or the semi-modular Grandmother ($950). Sequential (formerly known as Dave Smith Instruments), the brainchild of Prophet-5 designer Dave Smith, is another American company doing amazing things, albeit with a hefty pricetag. “The only hardware synth I have is the OB-6 ($2999), and it’s not at all reasonably priced,” says Anthony Naples. “But wow, listen to it.”
A few musicians suggest going with rack-mount gear (that is, synthesizer modules with no built-in keyboard). “No one needs a full keyboard these days,” reasons Project Pablo, who’s a fan of vintage units like the Roland JV-1080, Waldorf Micro, and Yamaha TX81z.
But be honest with yourself, cautious Pépe: “A lot of gear ends up being a glorified paperweight. Be critical with how it’s going to enhance your workflow.”
Nick Sylvester agrees. “With any hardware purchase, I try to articulate why I want it, how I intend to use it, and what I could do with it that I can’t do with what I already have. Which is to say, I don’t buy a lot of new stuff. I like hardware that functions as idea starters—something that takes away my own agency as a composer and forces me to listen and happen upon an idea.”
Even if you’re not planning to sing, consider investing in a decent microphone. For a more detailed look at options, check out our guide to the 11 Best Microphones for Your Home Studio, but the place to start is Shure’s SM57 ($99) for instruments or Shure’s SM58 ($99) for vocals. For not much more money, Zora Jones says, “The Audio-Technica AT2020USB ($149) bangs! I’ve tried so many other mics and I always come back to it.”
AKG C214 ($359) condenser mic
More serious vocalists might step up to something like an AKG C214 ($359) condenser mic. “I recently invested in one, and it’s hugely improved my home vocal recordings, picking up the nuances and dynamic range of the voice,” says ambient composer Lucy Gooch.
“For vocalists, you should invest in something decent that suits your voice,” advisees Sui Zhen, who uses the Peluso P12 ($1881). “It will make you sing better.” But, she says, the really important thing is just to get started. “If you really want to do it, you’ll make do with whatever you have at hand—including your crappy iPhone mic. Gear won’t get you anywhere without having something to express.”
Bryce Hackford echoes that thought: “The most important piece of gear is you. Gear fetish and dogma just get in the way—focus on the sound. You can make interesting art out of garbage.” In fact, he suggests, if it’s not being put to good use, even the most expensive piece of equipment is just that—garbage. Fortunately, between the ever-expanding array of tools, robust secondhand market, and democratization of music-production knowledge, it’s never been easier to record your own music at home, whatever your budget and background. The creative potential of the home studio just keeps growing, which is great news for anyone with a sound in their head that they’re itching to share with the world.