I wish I had this guide when I built my first home studio setup. Just knowing the right gear to buy can mean the difference of years of frustration or instant gratification. There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to record your music at your house. For an aspiring artist interested in making music at home, there has never been a better time to get started. Competition is at a high, prices are low, and the options are plentiful. Now, a basic bedroom setup can yield the same kind of results that would have required booking a professional studio and engineer.
Whether it’s recording an LP, EP or just laying down scratch tracks of song ideas, you’ll need a few pieces of equipment to be able to record. In this guide we’ll examine the best equipment choices to turn your bedroom or office into a fully-fledged recording studio capable of handling your heaviest Rock and Metal tracks. This guide was built by countless hours of experimenting, testing, researching and trial and error. Through all that I discovered the best gear available for your first home studio. Some of this list is well-known, and some it are industry secrets.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
What you’ll be spending most of your time in is your DAW. This might be the most important choice you make. A DAW is basically a piece of software that provides a UI for recording, mixing, editing, producing, and mastering audio. Depending on whether or not you are on a Mac or PC could influence your choice of software. For example if you have a PC you don’t have the option of running Logic, as that is Apple’s proprietary audio software. You do have other great choices though such as Pro Tools and Cubase – for more information on picking a DAW see our write up Cage Match: Pro Tools vs. Logic vs. Cubase
The next step is the audio interface, which serves as the central point between you, the recordings, and the audio. While your computer has an audio interface built-in, it is no where near the quality that we’ll need for recording audio. Your interface will handle everything from recording microphone audio, processing direct-in instruments, MIDI instruments and controlling your speaker monitors. There are many options here, ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands. For a starter looking to record rock and metal, there are a few audio interfaces that stand out and won’t break the bank.
The first is the M-Audio M-Track 2X2 C-Series USB Audio Interface starting at $99. This audio interface is a good bet for the beginner looking to get up and running. My first audio interface was an M-Audio and I loved it – durable, portable and great sounding.
Next up is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which runs at $149.99. A little pricier than the M-Audio but Focusrite is known for creating solid equipment at affordable prices. This audio interface has versatile mic-pres, low latency, and comes with a bonus: an exclusive version of Pro Tools. Not bad.
Finally – if you’re looking to do some serious recording such as recording drums or live sound, look no further than the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Professional 20 In/20 Out Firewire Audio Interface with Eight Pre-Amps. Yes, that mouthful of a name is one of the best-kept secrets in audio interfaces. This guy will only set you back $279.99 and will sit by your side for years to come as you grow into an audio engineer. All those channels means you have plenty of options for recording real drums or live music and the FireWire setup means lower latency.
The monitoring system can be a tricky one for the bedroom warrior looking to record in their home, simply because your room itself is going to be no where near the quality of a professionally treated room in a recording studio. This means that it can be very difficult to mix and master songs through speakers when the audio is reverberating all over the room. Because of this, I recommend mixing with headphones – but you will still need to hear your song through speakers for reference, so here’s a few that will do the trick.
The KRK Rokit 5 monitoring speakers are fairly well known among the bedroom studios. That’s because they get the job done and on a budget. Setting you back only $149, the KRK Rokits will produce a neutral balance and will serve as a great set of monitors until you are ready to spend the big bucks.
Another great option that also won’t break the bank is the M-Audio BX5a Deluxe Studio Reference Monitors. Carrying the trusted M-Audio brand, these studio monitors are durable, efficient, and are manufactured with Kevlar cones so you don’t have to worry about blowing them out like paper ones.
Though headphones can fatigue your ear faster than speaker monitors, they will be your best friend when it comes to home recording. This is because you can isolate your mix within the speakers of the headphones without it being distorted by reverberating off your walls. I’ve found that I can get a more accurate mix using headphones with my studio set up than mixing solely through my monitors. However, the most important rule of thumb when purchasing headphones for your home studio is to avoid any consumer or “DJ” headphones, which tend to increase the low end.
Let’s also discuss the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones and the pros and cons. Basically, the small speakers in headphones emit sound in both directions: toward your ears and away from your ears. Closed-back headphones mostly block the sound going towards the outside world while open-back headphones allow this sound to go free.
The downside to open-back headphones is that everyone can hear what you’re listening to and any ambient sound is allowed in and mixes with the music. The benefit, however is that the headphone sounds significantly larger and more open.
With closed-back headphones, it’s just you and the music – outside sounds are largely blocked. You are isolated in the music and can gain pinpoint accuracy. The downside is that the music can sometimes sound small or a lot more “in your head” sounding.
Grado is a trusted brand in the audio world – and their open-back SR80e Prestige Series Headphones ($99) are a great bet for your home studio. I’ve noticed significantly less ear fatigue when mixing for over 8 hours straight using these. Also the cushions and design of the headphones make for a really comfortable fit.
Another great option is Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro Studio Headphones. While being a little pricier than the Grado’s ($166), these headphones feature a closed-back, which is great for referencing because it means you can hear each track exactly how it sounds without influence from the outside world.
For a home studio, especially one that is looking to record Rock and Metal, the microphone options are basically already decided for you. This is because the industry standard for these genres are affordable dynamic microphones made by Shure. These mics have been around since the 1960s and will be found in every professional studio. Trust me, you won’t ever need a mic outside this brand unless you are playing around with different sounds or have some cash to drop on an expensive condenser vocal mic. So, without further-ado, here’s what you’ll need (if at all)
If you plan on recording vocals there’s no better option for a home studio than the Shure SM58. For $99 you get a legendary microphone that has been used on countless records and sits in countless recording studios. These mics are also very well known to be indestructible, taking multiple blows and drops and still producing a great sound.
For recording guitars you can’t go wrong with the Shure SM57. This is a great mic for getting that gritty, raw tone in Rock and Metal. Put this in front of a Marshall 1960 cab and you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad tone.
Honorable mention goes to the Shure SM7B. This one is a bit pricier than the SM58, listing at $399 ($379 on Amazon), but is an absolute work-horse when it comes to Rock and Metal vocals. You’ll also find this mic in every major studio no matter the size due it’s ability to produce an excellent natural sounding vocal take – perfect for screaming vocalalists, plus it comes with a built-in pop-filter too!
This is where the real magic is going to happen. We’re in an extremely exciting time where digital has matched analog. For a home studio this is great news because it means you can get professional sounding gear at a fraction of the cost. A lot of software these days very accurately emulates analog gear which allows you to get an analog sound using digital software. Most of your time is going to be spent adjusting the parameters of these plugins so, read the manuals, watch some YouTube videos and have fun.
Mixing and Mastering (Compressors, EQs, Reverbs, Emulators, Limiters, etc.)
For mixing and mastering I highly recommend the Everything Bundle from Slate Digital. This mixing suite conveniently priced at just $14.99 a month contains everything from compressors to delays to mic-pres. Steven Slate, founder of Slate Digital, is well known for revolutionizing the home studio industry with his premium plugins. Seriously, I don’t known many home studio setups that don’t have a Slate plugin of some kind.
When it comes to recording guitars direct-in, I’ve tried most amp simulators on the market today. And most of them… suck. While digital compressors and EQs have found success in emulating and replacing their analog counterparts, amp sims have had difficulties. Mostly, I’ve found that no matter which simulator I used – I just couldn’t get it to sound “real.” But now there’s hope. Produced by Joey Sturgis Tones comes Toneforge Menace. At just $79 it’s the best amp simulator that I have found for both Rock and Metal. Finally I can dial in a tone with an amp sim and actually have it sound real.
For a bass simulator I highly recommend Pod Farm 2.5 by Line 6. At $99.99 this is a great piece of software and a very versatile amp simulator. It’ll take some time to get used to dialing in tones, but there are great resources out there online to get you started, here’s one to get you started:
Drums are my favorite instrument to experiment and dial-in different sounds. There’s so much you can do these days to completely change the sound and dynamic of a mix in a short amount of time. One of my favorite exercises for this is layering different snare and kick sounds; and to do this I use Steven Slate Drums Platinum.
These drum sounds have become so popular that they have found their way onto major record breaking releases. For just $149 you get a full drum simulator with a suite of samples and sounds from some of the best drumkits I’ve heard. And I’m not the only one who recommends it, SSD4 has really become an industry standard in today’s recording world in both drum programming and replacement sampling.