July 17

The Localist: Introduction to Home Recording (or The $500 Studio)

Even in the indie music and folk music industries, it is still very common for people to do their recording work in a studio, oftentimes with producers and additional musicians. The costs of doing so can be very prohibitive, though some recording studios are certainly more budget friendly than others. Recording at home, however, can be done very cheaply. It can also give you results that are perfectly serviceable for use in the music industry. It won’t have the polish of a good studio, but then again, that level of polish isn’t necessarily needed (or desired) for all genres.

Each of the last three records that I have written have cost only about $500-600 to record – and this included the cost of purchasing hardware and instruments. Each of the records have received fantastic reviews in major music publications. This is to say that there is a lot that you can do with a home recording setup, and it doesn’t need to be a hindrance to your being able to make a great record that you can confidently offer up to the music press and the public.

There will be people who will tell you that in order to have a proper setup you need to have a BLAH, and a BLAH BLAH. And those cost several thousand dollars. Don’t listen to them, unless you have disposable money and want to give it a try. There are many technical sonic qualities that you can get into a record. Not all of them will, however, be musically relevant. And the thing is, if you don’t have a lot of money, you should focus on the qualities that are musically relevant. This basic setup, or some variation thereof, will get you there.

Recording at home, in any case has many basic musical advantages. Because you aren’t on a timeline and don’t have to work with a studio’s schedule, you can record whenever you want, and as many times as you want. It can oftentimes be the best way to get a great performance – and really giving a good performance is more musically important than making sure that you had better frequency response in the 85 thz range or had access to a historically authentic plate reverb.

What does a basic home recording setup look like? I list the basics, provide a picture for important items, and label them accordingly below.

  1. Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone (with pop screen).
  2. Mixer
  3. Digital Field Recorder
  4. Some kind of Multi-Track Recording Software
  5. Headphones

The Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone is your basic workhorse for input of live sounds. I would suggest a condenser vs. a dynamic mic, because I feel condenser microphones are better at picking up detail, which makes them more flexible for a wide variety of live recording applications. The pictured microphone is the Rode NT1 (I think?). It currently costs $269. LINK. The microphone on its side, just below that, which I used for my first two records is the Audio Technica AT-2035. It currently costs $169. LINK.

The Mixer is what you need to get the signal from the microphone to a recording device. It should have phantom power, because a Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone needs phantom power in order to operate. Many people will tell you that you need a high quality preamp separate from a mixer. That is optional. Frankly, I don’t even really know what a preamp is. The mixer that is pictured is no longer for sale, but its modern equivalent is the Yamaha MG-10. It currently costs $169. LINK.

A Digital Field Recorder is what you need to record the live signal. High quality digital field recorders do a perfectly good job with that. Pictured above are the digital field recorders that I used for my last three records. The first is the Tascam DR-07, and the second is a random Sony field recorder, which is not even their premiere field recorder. I got the Sony field recorder because it runs on lithium-ion batteries, and so is more portable. The Tascam DR-07 is no longer for sale, but its updated cousin, the DR-07MKII costs $109. LINK. The Sony does not have a specific name, but costs $249. LINK.

Multi-Track Recording Software can be found anywhere. Apple’s GarageBand software is free I take it? I for reasons that are completely inexcusable, use FruityLoops (now called FL Studio). They have a plugin you can purchase for multi-track recording of live audio. FL Studio works for me, because I incorporate sampling and synthesized instruments into my work, but you definitely don’t have to use it. And many snobs will tell you that you obviously must use some other software.

Headphones. You can find these anywhere, but I use over-the-ear isolation style headphones. I probably use these, from Audio Technica, which cost $50. LINK. I use headphones in recording to play both (1) the recorded track, and (2) the live audio signal coming through the microphone. The live audio signal is also recorded into the Digital Field Recorder, which is then uploaded into the Multi-Track Recording Software for mixing and export. Don’t ask me how I wire things to make that work. It’s not hard, but I also am surely not doing things “properly.” It’s embarrassing.

Anyway, that’s it. I will likely provide a general post about home recording tips at some point. There are a few additional devices that I have acquired which you can see in the pictures that I could explain. But this is literally all you need to make a good, critically acclaimed record.

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The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”