When you want to build a studio, but you don’t know the first thing about recording gear…
It’s kinda tough to get started, isn’t it?
Which is why the #1 request from newbies, has always been that ONE definitive guide…
That gives them a bird’s-eye view of a fully-working, full-featured recording studio…
So they can see the “big-picture” of how it all fits together. Yet surprisingly, not a single online resource currently exists to cover this topic in its entirety.
That is…until now.
Because that’s exactly what I’ve done for today’s post, with my list of the 29 most essential items found in the recording studio.
But before we get to that, let’s start by clear up a common misconception…
The Ideal Way to Get Started
While beginners always have that natural desire to want to learn everything, right away…
The truth is…you really only need a small percentage of the gear on this list to build your first studio and start recording.
And learning more than that will probably just confuse you. So if your goal is to start taking action ASAP, I suggest reading this post instead:
Otherwise, let’s continue with the list…
1. A Computer
These days, recording studios are almost ALL digital.
And to recording digital audio…you obviously need a computer.
And while beginners can usually get away with using any old computer, at-first…
Common wisdom states that you should eventually invest in the best model you can afford.
Because today’s recording software is EXTREMELY hard on processing resources.
And making full-use of its features requires a blazing-fast computer. So when you’re ready to upgrade, here are the top models I recommend:
- Classic Example: Macbook Pro
2. A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
The digital audio workstation is the primary software used to record, edit, and mix music on the computer.
While originally designed to mimic look-and-feel of analog mixing boards from the pre-digital era…
The visual design of these softwares have remained basically the same ever since.
Pro Tools, which has long-been the most famous option, is definitely a great DAW for studios of all levels…but it is by no means the only option.
Depending on your budget and style of music, the best one for you could be any one of around 10 possible options.
To learn more about each one, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Avid Pro Tools
3. An Audio Interface
Once you’ve got the software, the next thing you’ll need is an audio interface…
Which has the primary purpose of providing all the necessary connections to send your music:
- INTO the computer when recording, and…
- OUT the computer during playback.
While originally, this was pretty much all they did…
Today’s modern interfaces have evolved into incorporate many essential tools into a single device. Those include:
- digital conversion
- mic preamps
- DI boxes
- headphone amps
- monitor management
In pro studios, each of these items normally exist as a stand-alone unit, organized within a rack.
But as you might imagine, this much gear can be expensive. This is why for home studios, these “all-in-one” budget interfaces can be a great way save money, and still get exactly what you need.
To see which ones I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Focusrite Scarlett 2i4
As the original instruments of recorded sound…
Microphones have been around since long before recording studios ever even existed.
Yet ironically, in all those years, very little about the basic design of a microphone has actually changed.
And many of the top models from a half-century go are still among the industry standards of today.
That’s not say that microphones are a simple topic, because it’s actually quite the opposite.
Recording studios typically carry several-dozen mics or more…each one designed achieve a different sound, from different instruments, in different situations.
Common categories of studio microphones include:
- dynamic mics
- condenser mics
- ribbon mics
- large/small diaphragm mics
- stereo/matched pair mics
- variable polar pattern mics
- USB mics
As you can see, this one subject alone is HUGE. So to help you understand it, I’ve created the following resource for beginners, which I suggest you explore:
- Classic Example: Shure SM57
5. Microphone Stands
With so many microphones used in a typical studio…
It’s obvious to assume that a decent number of stands are needed as well.
While small project studios often have only 1 or 2, pro studios may require as many as a few dozen or more.
And just like with mics, stands come in all shapes and sizes, each one designed for a specific set of conditions.
To learn more each type, and to see which ones I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: On Stage Stands MS7701B
6. Studio Monitors
Now that you have a way to get sound INTO the computer…
Next you need a way to get it back OUT.
For this piece of the puzzle, you’ll use a pair of stereo speakers, commonly known in the pro audio world as studio monitors.
Compared to consumer speakers, which typically accentuate certain frequency bands in order to improve the listening experience for certain audiences…
Studio monitors are designed with the opposite goal, of providing a perfectly FLAT frequency response, so engineers can hear a mix as it truly is, flaws and all…so they can adjust accordingly.
In pro studios, these monitors can often cost 10 grand or more.
But luckily for the rest of us, there are plenty of great affordable options as well. To see which ones I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: KRK Rokit5 G3
7. Audio Cables
You may have noticed, that up ’til now…
We’ve skipped over the obvious item that every studio needs…cables.
The time will one day come when you own more cables than you can count.
The good news is…that in the beginning all, you need is 3:
- One XLR cable to send sound from the mic to your audio interface.
- And two more to send sound from the interface your studio monitors.
For help finding these, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Hosa Pro REAN
And while XLR mic cables are the most common type of cable used in recording…
There are still dozens more that you eventually need to know as well.
So to learn more about each type, check out this article:
Unlike most studio gear, headphones are one item that we’re all thoroughly familiar with.
At least…that’s what most people assume.
But truth is, while you may own a great pair of “consumer” cans…
For pro audio, there are 2 special types of studio headphones intended for 2 very specific recording tasks.
And in this post, I reveal what they are, what they do, and which ones I recommend:
- Classic Example: Sennheiser HD280
9. Pop Filters
We’re all thoroughly familiar with that “cliche” scene from the movies…
Where a young beautiful pop star is in the studio…
Recording her vocals through some mysterious mesh screen covering her microphone…
- that everyone is instantly recognizes,
- but few people know much about.
This device, commonly known as a pop filter, is used to filter-out an unpleasant vocal artifact known as “popping“…
Which is a low frequency blast of air caused by the pronunciation of “P” and “B” sounds.
They aren’t a “must-have“ item for recording vocals, yet for some reason, most beginners feel they must have one.
- Classic Example: Nady MPF-6
10. Acoustic Treatment
If you’ve made it this far, and added all the previous items on the list to your studio…
Because at this point, you’ve reached an important milestone.
You now have all the pieces of the puzzle for a simple, yet fully-working home studio.
But don’t relax just yet, because there’s still lot’s to be done.
And the next project to tackle is the acoustics of your room.
For this job, we use a mix of acoustic treatment solutions, which typically include 3 items:
- Bass Traps
- Acoustic Panels
Ideally you should buy all 3 at once, and put them up together.
But since complete room packages can be quite expensive… Most people just buy each piece one-at-a-time instead.
And the ideal order to do that is from most-important to least-important.
Bass traps come first, because they offer broadband absorption across the entire frequency spectrum, and are particularly good at absorbing bass frequencies…which cause the majority of problems in any studio.
To learn more about them, and see which ones I recommend, check out this post:
- Classic Example: Auralex LENRD
Next come the acoustic panels, which absorb frequencies more in the low-mid to high range, but more importantly, are responsible for killing standing waves…
Which cause problems especially in rooms with lots of parallel walls, where sound reflections have a tendency to bounce back-and-forth in the same spot.
To see which ones I recommend, and how to put them up, check out this post:
- Classic Example: Auralex Studiofoam
Last come diffusers, which scatter whatever sound energy still remains in the room, allowing all frequencies to disperse randomly, rather than build up unnaturally in certain spots.
- Classic Example: Auralex T’Fusor
In pro studios, with their big budgets and big rooms, diffusion is an important element of their acoustic treatment plan because it allows them to create a nice natural ambience without removing too much of the “liveliness” from the room.
In home studios however, with their small budgets and small rooms, that goal is simply unattainable.
Which is why they instead make the room sound as dead as possible with bass traps and acoustic panels…
Then add the ambience back in during the mix with digital reverb.
And that’s how it all works. Got it? Now let’s continue…
11. Reflection Filters
Often times, small projects studios discover that complete acoustic treatment setups are simply too expensive.
And in this case, they often opt to use a reflection filter instead.
While noticeably less effective than “proper” acoustic treatment, reflection filters still provide a sound 100× better than nothing-at-all…
And they can even be an ideal solution for tiny bedroom studios that only record vocals…which is of course, their primary intended purpose.
To see which models I recommend, check out this post:
- Classic Example: sE Electronics Reflexion Filter PRO
12. Monitor Isolation Pads
Once you’ve improved the sound of your room with acoustic treatment…
You can still take things one step further by improving the sound of your studio monitors with monitor isolation pads.
You see…by placing your monitors directly on the desk, sound vibrations transfer through the surface of the desk…
Which decreases the accuracy of the monitors themselves, and can even create new and unpredictable resonances from any other objects receiving those vibrations.
Monitor isolations pads solve this problem by creating a buffer between your monitors and desk, which prevents vibration from transferring.
And as a side benefit, they also provide more positioning options for your monitors, by allowing you to tilt them at various angles. To see which ones I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Auralex Mopads
13. Studio Monitor Stands
To take monitor positioning even one step further…
Rather than use just monitor isolation pads, the better option using studio monitor stands instead.
Because rather than restricting your monitor positioning to the surfaces of your desk…
With stands…distance, height, and angle are fully adjustable, so you can position them wherever you like.
And in many rooms this is absolutely essential, because to get the most accurate sound from your monitors, they need to be in very specific locations in relation to your ears.
And those positions aren’t always possible using just your desk.
To see a list of the top stands I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Ultimate Support MS90
14. An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
Now unlike every other item on this list, which studios tend-to add in logical sequence…
The uninterruptible power supply are one of those items, that can be added at virtually any time.
Some people get them early-on. Others never get them at all.
But in my opinion, once you’ve got the acoustics of your room in-order, and you’re finally recording some decent work…
You’re probably at a point where you’d be devastated if some (or all) of that work got lost.
Which is exactly what can happen in a power outage when your computer shuts down improperly.
Fortunately for us, a UPS can protect us from such disasters by functioning as a back-up battery, giving you several minutes of power to shut down your computer safely.
To learn more UPS’s, and find out which models I recommend, check out this post:
- Classic Example: APC BR700G
15. Software Plugins
For the first several months when you begin learning about mixing…
Software plugins become the obsession that consumes your thoughts and dreams.
Which makes sense, because these days they’re the primary tools used to mix music in most studios.
- Classic Example: Waves Gold Bundle
The problem is…even though virtually all DAW’s now include their own massive bundles of free plugins…
Beginners often get side-tracked by the delusion that their mixes suck because those “free plugins” somehow aren’t good enough.
Which leads them down the long fruitless path of constantly searching for the latest greatest plugins, wasting thousands of dollars in the process.
Because the truth is…while it is true that premium plugins do have their benefits, those benefits won’t matter unless the fundamental skills are already there.
Which is why for beginners, I DON’T recommend them. Instead, up next…here’s a software upgrade I DO recommend…
16. Virtual Instruments
In a home studio, one of the biggest barriers to making professional quality recordings is a lack of musical instruments.
Because when you’re already pinching pennies to buy recording gear…
Chances are you won’t have access to the spectrum of sounds needed to compose even the most basic song arrangements.
These days you can have access to an almost unlimited collection of virtual instruments for just a few hundred dollars.
And with them, you can create astonishingly realistic imitations of many of the most common instruments.
In most cases, what I recommend for starters is:
- one good drum program, and…
- one good keyboard/synth program.
And using just those two, you can accomplish a hell-of-a-lot. That is of course, once you add this next item as well…
- Classic Example for Drums: Toontrack EZ Drummer
- Classic Example for Keyboards: Spectrasonics Omnisphere
17. A MIDI Controller
The BIG problem with virtual instruments is… It SUCKS to play them with on a computer keyboard and mouse. Not only is it no-fun…
- it takes forever to program even a simple rhythm/melody, and…
- the level of “feel” that you can inject into a passage is severely limited.
Because to truly add your own expressive touch, you need an actual “physical” instrument to control your “virtual” instrument.
And that’s where MIDI controllers come in…
While they aren’t quite as realistic as the real thing, they allow for at least some degree of expression, by giving you something real to touch with your hands.
And for today’s “multi-instrumentalists” who rely heavily on virtual instruments to record their songs…they’re a must-have. To see which ones I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: M-Audio Axiom AIR
18. A DAW Remote
One cool thing you eventually discover when learning about MIDI is…
You can program your MIDI controller to operate any of the basic transport functions of your DAW…
Which allows you to play “engineer” from literally any location in your room.
This is especially useful for home studio musicians who typically work alone.
The problem is…MIDI is a terribly out-dated digital language, and extremely UN-user-friendly.
Luckily for us, in recent years, with the rise of smartphones/tablets, many apps now exist that accomplish the exact same goal of remote DAW control, but with an easy-to-use interface that offers a greater level of control than any MIDI controller ever could.
Currently the most popular app is known simply as “DAW Remote” which you can check out here.
For more information on DAW remotes, and how to use them to set up your room for solo recording, check out this post:
19. A Control Surface
The stereo typical fantasy which initially sucks us all into the world of recording is…
- that vision of you…
- in the control room…
Crafting your latest masterpiece on the massive analog mixing board of your million dollar studio.
Of course, it doesn’t take long to discover that the actual world of home recording is far less glamourous.
Because in this reality, mixing is done on a computer keyboard and mouse. Which to be honest…kinda sucks.
And not only does it look lame… More importantly, it severely slows down your work flow, and makes it much harder to perform some of the more advanced mixing techniques, such as automation.
The solution to this problem is of course, a control surface, which is essentially nothing more than a MIDI controller designed to mimick the look and feel of the analog boards from decades-past.
Only…in a much smaller package.
And while they aren’t a must-have for mixing…once you try one, you’ll never go back. To see which ones I recommend, check out this post:
- Classic Example: Avid Artist Mix
20. Studio Rack Mounts
The final “BIG milestone” in the evolution of any home studio…
Is the inevitable addition of its first rack-mounted setup.
Because prior to this step, the simple desktop gear you’ve been using can only record only a small number of simultaneous tracks.
And if you want to record bands (which most people eventually do) you’ll need several more channels.
The beauty of the “rack system” is…it allows you to mix-n-match your equipment, so you can customize your routing and signal flow however you like.
That way it can always do exactly what you need it to.
Of course, the first step in building any rack to buy the case itself. So check out this article to see which ones I recommend:
- Classic Example: Raxxess Economy Rack
21. A Power Conditioner
While every person’s rack setup will be entirely unique…
The one item common to virtually every-single-rack is a power conditioner.
Because rather having a half-dozen power cables sticking out the back of your rack from each unit…
A power conditioner consolidates power for the entire rack down to a single cable.
And as a HUGE side-benefit, it also filters the power using various technologies such as:
- surge protection
- voltage regulation
- noise filtration
Which extends the life of your gear, and allows it to always perform at its best. To see which ones I recommend, check out this post:
- Classic Example: Furman M-8×2
22. A Microphone Preamp
In most cases, the initial motivation that causes studios to add a rack…is the need for more input channels.
Which is why in most cases as well, the first item they buy is a multi-channel microphone preamp.
While most audio interfaces have at least a few preamp channels built-in, you’ll typically need a separate mic preamp to make full use of all available inputs.
Another reason that some people choose to get a mic preamp is to have one premium channel that they can use to record one-track-at-a-time, such as with studios that record mainly vocals.
To see which models I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Presonus Digimax D8
23. A Headphone Amp
Once you have a bunch of INPUT channels to record multiple musicians at once…
The next thing you’ll need is a bunch of OUTPUT channels…
So that each musician can monitor the mix on their own headphones as they perform.
The problem is…most audio interfaces have only 1-2 headphone outputs. And to add more, you need a headphone amp.
What a basic headphone amp does, is take a single stereo output from your audio interface, and distribute it to as many as 6-8 sets of headphones. Which is more than adequate for most home studios.
Advanced headphone amps however, can actually send multiple tracks of audio to personal mixers for each musician, allowing them to individually control exactly what they want to her, without affecting what gets heard by everyone else.
And in studios that can afford one, the added functionality can make the entire recording process much easier for everyone involved.
To see which ones I recommend, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Presonus HP60
24. A Monitor Management System
Sometimes in more advanced studios, engineers want ways to compare how their mixes sound over a variety of playback devices.
That way, when their work is heard though cheaper “consumer” speakers…
They can be confident that it sounds just as awesome as it does in the studio.
To accomplish this task, a tool known as a monitor management system is used, which allows engineers to switch back and forth between multiple outputs with the simple push of a button.
In the vast majority of home studios, which only have one set of monitors, a monitor management system is mostly considered an unnecessary luxury…
But if you want one anyway, or just want to learn more about them, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Mackie Big Knob
25. Direct Boxes
Due to the nature of electric guitar/bass signals, commonly known as “instrument level“…
They have a tendency to gather lots of interference noise over very short distances.
In the studio, where cables sometimes extend as long as a hundred feet to reach their destinations…this presents an obvious problem.
To solve this problem, direct boxes take an (unbalanced) instrument level signal, and convert it to a (balanced) mic level signal…
Which can then be sent for several hundreds of feet if necessary, while gathering virtually no noise at all…problem solved.
Luckily these days, most audio interfaces and microphone preamps have at least 1 or 2 direct box channels built-in.
So chances are you won’t have to buy one. However, depending on the exact problem that needs solving, it may be necessary to add a couple stand-alone units to your setup as well.
To learn more about those, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Radial J48
26. Snake Cables
At this stage in the game, when you’ve added a number of different peripherals to your setup…
Chances are good that your both your studio floor, and the back of your rack, are covered in a sea of messy cables.
And once this starts becoming a problem, the standard solution is to get a snake cable like the one shown in the picture.
By combining several individual cables into one big one, snake cables allow you dramatically clean up the look of your studio, and more importantly…
They keep your cables permanently organized, so never-again will you need trace-back an entire length of cable through a tangled web just to find out where it leads.
The only problem is…most snakes are designed for much larger rigs than a typical home studio, it can be difficult for beginners to find the right one for their purpose.
So for more information on this topic, check out this article:
- Classic Example: Hosa Little Bro
27. Digital Converters
Hidden within your audio interface, as well as every other device in your studio…
Is a device known as a digital converter, that does 1 of 2 things:
- convert analog audio into digital (A/D), or…
- convert digital audio into analog (D/A).
Any many can even do both.
In 99% of cases, digital converters exist as a side-feature of some other device. Which is why your rarely see or hear about them on the equipment lists of typical home studios.
Pro studios with unlimited budgets, often elect to buy ultra-high-end stand-alone converters, which typically cost several thousand dollars each…
And have no other function than to deliver the absolute best digital conversion that money can buy.
But these days, as budget converters are becoming better and better, many people argue that huge jump in cost for these devices are NOT worth the minimal differences in sound quality.
Which is another reason you only see stand-alone converters used in big-budget studios.
- Classic Example: Lynx Aurora
28. Digital Master Clocks
Just like with digital converters…
Hidden within virtually all digital recording gear are devices known as digital clocks (aka word clocks)…
Which control the exact timing of each sample taken during the conversion process.
Whenever you connect signals from two or more digital devices…
These clocks become especially important because each of the sample must align exactly. And to do that, their clocks must be perfectly in sync.
Normally this is accomplished automatically between the devices, by one clock functioning as the master, and the other as slave.
In simple home studios, it’s usually clock in your audio interface that functions as the master clock for your entire setup.
However in more complex systems, it’s much easier to use a stand-alone digital master clock to lead the entire system.
And while there is much debate on about their impact on sound quality, some sources will tell you that a high-end master clock can provide various sonic benefits as well.
- Classic Example: Apogee Big Ben
29. Analog Hardware
Long before the days when mixing was done with software plugins…
Common tools like EQ and compression existed only as stand-alone hardware…
That would typically costs several thousand dollars for just a single unit with only 1 or 2 channels.
- Classic Example: Universal Audio LA-2A
This meant that to do a mix with only a few tracks, these studios would need giant racks with several dozen units of this hardware.
Luckily for us, we now live in an age where the modeled “digital versions” of these tools make our jobs both cheaper and easier…
Yet the fact remains that most top studios in the world still rely mainly on these ancient tools to get the job done. Because according to many of the best ears in the business…analog gear still sounds better than any plugin.
As such, many of us “normal” guys choose to follow this advice, blowing our entire tax return a single purchase that may (but probably won’t) be that one missing ingredient we’ve long been searching for.