How to Create a Cheap Home Recording Studio

It's always exciting when students say they want to starting recording music on their own. What a great activity for any musician - novice or pro! When one of my students said he'd like to learn how to record, I (Jeff, the owner of JLA Music) said that I'd create a page on my website to get him started. (I've gotten quite a few students into recording, so creating a web page would make it easier for me to start someone else.) That's what inspired me to write this modest web page.

If you already have a computer, you can get started relatively cheaply. If you don't have a computer, don't lose heart. Computers seem to be getting cheaper and cheaper, so chances are you can get one even on a small budget. A used one will probably cost you hardly anything at all. Of course a new, faster computer would be ideal, but an older, slower one can work just fine to start.

If you decide to go with a fairly old computer, there can be compatibility issues with software and audio hardware that you'll need to watch for. I won't go into that subject on this page, so find someone who can help you if you decide to go with equipment in the "sunset of its life". (Don't you dare say anything to me about being in the sunset of my life! I prefer to think that - when I get worried about my age - I'll just keep up with the world's rotation 24 hours a day so the sun will never set.) ;-)

Here's what you need to get your budget-basement recording studio started. Keep in mind that this page is just an expression of my general opinion, based on a good deal of experience and training. Hardly anything is cut in stone (except letters and stuff). (There are lots of general opinions out there so don't jump all over me because I'm putting yet another general opinion out there on the scrap heap of general opinions.) ;-)

Jeff's Start-the-Ball-Rolling-Start-Recording List

  • Computer
  • Audio Interface (optional)
  • Microphone (or an electronic instrument) (optional - see below)
  • Microphone/Instrument Cable (optional - see below)
  • Software (free?)

That's a pretty small list right? Here are a few more details to get you started. (I'm not going into great detail here because you can get virtually unlimited information on the internet. Here are three words of advice about the internet though: Be reasonably skeptical. There's a lot of misinformation on the internet too.

Audio Interface

Do you really need to buy an audio interface? The audio interface is what you need to let the microphone or instrument talk to your computer. Before you run out and buy one, you might be able to plug the microphone or instrument into the audio input jack (see below) on your computer (assuming it has one). You'll usually need a cheap plug adapter so that you can plug into the smaller input jacks that most computers have. But if you're on an extreme budget, why not give it a try before you spend money on an audio interface? (There are other issues involved here, like audio quality and other things, but if money is an issue, cheap is good, right?)

But, let's assume (lots of assumptions in this article!) that you need an audio interface. The modest audio interface I use is pictured above. It cost about $200.00 five years ago. There are a lot of different models available, with all kinds of bobs and thistles (I hate writing "bells and whistles"). But to start, you just need something relatively simple and cheap. It needs just two things: 1) a jack to plug the microphone or instrument cable into, and, 2) a cable to connect the audio interface to the computer. The latter is usually a USB cable, but other options are available too. Get whatever you know will plug into your computer. Almost all computers that have been built in the last decade or so have USB ports, so a USB cable is probably the most common. As for jack types for instruments and microphones, there are two common ones: 1/4" and XLR. Many audio interfaces now use a combination jack that accepts either one (the two black things in the picture above), but make sure that your audio interface can accept the cable you have. I'll assume that you know how to connect an audio interface to a computer and get the computer to recognize it. (If you don't know how to do this, find someone who does.)

Microphone or Instrument and Cable

I'll also assume (another assumption?!) that you know what a microphone, instrument, and microphone/instrument cable are. (If you don't know what they are, we're in real trouble!) But - cheapskates take note! - you might not need to get a microphone or cable at all! If your computer has a built-in microphone (newer ones do) you could skimp out and record with it. If your computer does not have one, you could buy a cheap computer microphone (about $10) and plug it into the audio input jack. Or, if you have an electronic instrument, you could buy a cheap cable (about $10)and plug it right into the audio input jack. In this case an audio interface isn't needed either! The sound quality may be quite poor, but when beaucoup bucks are nowhere to be found, and your inner audio engineer is unbearably impatient, penny misers unite!

Recording Software

Photo used by permission of and copyright © 2014 Audacity development team

There's only one more thing to get before you can start on the road to your Grammy award for audio engineering: audio recording software. There are lots of different software programs available that do audio recording. (Apple computers often have Garage Band built right in.) The industry standard is Pro Tools, but it's not cheap (over a thousand dollars last time I checked). I use Sonar, which is a little cheaper, but it's still a big chunk out of your pocketbook. (The yearly updates alone cost over $125 for the version I use.) So we're going to go small budget here: zero. Yep - nada, zilch, nothin'! (Cheap is my middle name.) There's a good software program that will cost you nothing and it will get you started. It's called Audacity and it's available here: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/. It works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Download it, install it on your computer, and you're all set to start recording. Plug in your microphone/instrument and get to work.

Conclusion

I've made a lot of assumptions on this page, right? I'm afraid there's one more to make. I'm going to assume you can go from here on your own. Audio recording can be very confusing at first (later too), so take it simple, one step at a time. As a wise old physician said to me once when I was ailing, "We're going to treat you with 'Kiss'". ("OK", I thought, "that's creepy", since no attractive female nurse was around to administer that kind of medicine.) But then he said, "Keep It Simple Stupid - K I S S". ("That's not creepy at all", I thought, and he wasn't calling me stupid either.) So, keep it simple smartie! If you need help, let me know or find someone who knows this stuff. For now, let me wish you the best as you start out on your audio recording journey. May your first takes always be the best! (Do I see a Grammy award with your name on it in the future?)

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