One of the first questions recording newbies always ask is, “What gear do I need?”
Yet surprisingly, so few resources exist online to answer this question FULLY.
So in this article…that’s my goal.
I have compiled a list of every piece of recording equipment imaginable, explaining what each one is, and why you need it.
We’ll get to the list in a moment, but first:
Do Beginners Really Need ALL this Stuff?
The truth is, if you’re a beginner working on your first studio, you don’t need much to get started.
And the last thing you want to do is confuse yourself with stuff that doesn’t apply to you yet.
So if the ESSENTIAL gear is what you want, read this instead:
For the rest of you, here’s the FULL list:
1. The Computer
These days, home recording is virtually ALL digital. And to use digital audio…you need a computer.
But not just any computer will do.
Audio recording software is EXTREMELY demanding on a computer’s processing resources, so you want the best one you can afford.
Next it’s time choose your software…
2. The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
The DAW is the software used to record, edit, and mix music on your computer.
Think of it as a “virtual” version of the analog mixing boards from the pre-digital era.
Among the many DAW’s available, there are really only a few that are actually GOOD.
And there is one in particular that I recommend above all others. You can learn more about it here.
But don’t buy one just yet…
Because you’ll save some money by purchasing it as a combo with this next item…
3. The Audio Interface
Now you might be wondering at this point…
“How do you actually get your music IN and OUT of the computer?”
Well, the audio interface is a tool that does both that, and much more…
Today’s interfaces have evolved into an “ALL-IN-ONE” box that connects your computer to everything else in your studio.
Other features commonly included are:
- mic preamps
- DI boxes
- digital conversion
- headphone outputs
- monitor management
Next up is…
Now microphones are a HUGE subject that can be talked about for days on end.
And that’s because…
For recording, there are so many different types, for so many different jobs.
A few common examples include:
- dynamic mics
- large diaphragm condenser mics
- small diaphragm condenser mics
- matched pair mics
- variable polar pattern mics
- USB mics
Each type looks different, sounds different, and is used to record different instruments. To learn more about your options, click here.
Otherwise, the next item is…
So exactly what role do headphones play in the recording studio?
You might be wondering:
- What tasks do they perform?
- Will ANY kind work? Or do you need a specific type?
- How many do need?
Next on the list, we have…
6. Studio Monitors
So every studio has speakers, right?
Well, yes…except that in recording jargon, we don’t call them speakers.
We call them studio monitors. Or sometimes more precisely, nearfield monitors.
Here’s the difference:
Consumer speakers are often designed with a custom “frequency response” that makes them sound subjectively better to certain audiences. For example, a speaker tailored for house music might carry a slight bass boost.
The problem with these kinds of speakers is…if every model has a different frequency response, when you create a mix on one, you’re never quite sure how it will sound on another.
To solve this problem, studio monitors are designed with perfectly FLAT frequency response. That way, your mixes have the best chance of sounding good on virtually any speaker.
Now with what we’ve covered so far, you’ve almost got yourself a working studio. ALMOST.
The only thing left to add is…
The time will one day come when you own more cables than you can count.
The good news is that for starters, you only need 3:
- One XLR cable for the mic
- And two more for the studio monitors
If “XLR cables” are not in your vocabulary yet, and you would like to learn more about audio cables in general…
Next let’s work on improving your room. The first thing I recommend here is…
8. Acoustic Panels
Have you ever noticed how recording studios always have that foam padding on the walls?
Well those are called acoustic panels. And here’s why they exist:
For recordings to sound good, they need good reverb. The problem is…most rooms have terrible reverb.
Large rooms like theaters and cathedrals have a beautiful natural reverb to them. But smaller rooms normally don’t.
Acoustic panels solve this problem by absorbing sound reflections, effectively removing the natural reverb of the room.
Later on, artificial or “digital reverb” is added to the track, creating the illusion that the recording took place in a much larger room.
Now that you know what they’re for, click here to find out which ones I recommend.
Now…a major drawback of acoustic panels is that they aren’t good at absorbing bass frequencies.
For that job, we have…
9. Bass Traps
Bass traps work exactly the same as acoustic panels, except…
They’re thicker, and WAY better at absorbing high-energy bass frequencies.
Their triangular shape makes them easy to mount in the corners of a room, where bass frequencies normally collect.
And since the goal of acoustic treatment is to absorb ALL frequencies EVENLY, bass traps are must-haves for any studio.
Now…while SOME absorption is in your room is good, TOO MUCH can be bad. Too much absorption leaves the room sounding dull and lifeless.
The better plan is to leave a few reflective surfaces, and handle the remaining reflections with the next item on the list…
Normally in rooms with parallel walls, sound reflections get trapped and bounce back and forth in the same spot.
The result is a boost at some frequencies, and a dip at others.
Diffusors solve this problem by scattering reflections randomly throughout the room.
The NEW result is a nice even frequency response, and a beautiful room sound.
Now that your room sounds good, let’s move on to some UPGRADES…
11. A DAW Remote
It’s never takes long for anyone to realize…
Recording BY YOURSELF is tough job.
And in most home studios…working alone is the norm.
So here’s something you’ll like: a DAW remote.
With this simple app for your iPhone or iPad, you can control your DAW from anywhere in your studio.
Mount it to your mic stand, and you can record and play at the same time, from one spot, all by yourself. Cool, huh?
Now let’s move on…
12. A Control Surface
You know those massive mixing boards you always see in pro studios?
Besides looking cool…they’re also WAY better for mixing than a computer keyboard and mouse.
But their size and cost makes them impractical for home studios.
The good news is, a control surface makes for a great alternative.
And to accompany your new mixing toy, here’s something else you’ll like…
13. Software Plugins
If you’ve used free plugins before…
You probably agree that while some are OK, most of them suck. Right?
The problem is, upgrading to paid plugins usually means committing yourself to weeks of boring online product research.
So here’s what I recommend instead: Buy a plugin bundle. It not only saves you time…but money as well.
14. An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
By this point, I’m sure you’ve made at least a few decent recordings…
And I bet you’d be devastated if you lost them.
The thing is…when you lose power in a black-out and your computer fails to shut down properly, two things can happen:
- It can get damaged
- It can lose data (i.e. your recording sessions)
Now here’s how a UPS protects you:
In the event of a black-out, the UPS works as your back-up battery, giving you several minutes of power to shut down your computer safely. That way, all your recordings will be just as you left them when the power returns.
See how that might come in handy one day? Good.
On to the next item…
15. Monitor Isolation Pads
Ever cranked up your monitors SO HIGH that your desk started vibrating?
If so, then it’s happening ALL the time.
You just don’t notice it at low volumes.
The problem is, vibrations create sound. And when sound is created from somewhere OTHER than your monitors, you really can’t trust what you’re hearing…can you?
Luckily, monitor isolation pads solve this problem by creating a sound buffer between your monitors and desk. As a side benefit, they also provide more positioning options, by allowing you to tilt the monitors on an angle.
Now that might give you SOME control over positioning, but if you need MORE, here’s a better option:
16. Studio Monitor Stands
For your monitors to sound their best…
They need to be located in VERY specific spots in relation to your ears.
And those positions aren’t always possible using just your desk.
With studio monitors stands…distance, height, and angle are fully adjustable, so your positioning options are virtually unlimited.
Now onto the final monitor upgrade:
17. Secondary Monitors
Here’s a question for you…
How often do you listen to music on speakers as good as your studio monitors? Almost never I bet.
Most of the time you’re listening on crappy speakers…in the car, on your phone, or on TV.
The problem is…a mix that sounds GREAT on your monitors, can often sound shockingly BAD on anything else.
With a pair of secondary monitors designed to simulate these “less-than-ideal” listening conditions, you can always check to see if things REALLY sound as good as you think.
Next item up is…
18. Snake Cables
If your studio floor is covered in a sea of messy cables…
And it’s starting to piss you off…
Get a snake cable. Here’s why:
Instead of using separate cables for each connection, snake cables use a single cable for MANY connections, with the connectors fanned out on each end.
Not only does it clean up the look of your studio, it also keeps your cables permanently organized, labeled, and easy to access.
For simple home studios, here’s the one I recommend you get first.
Next item up is…
19. Direct Boxes
Since audio interfaces today normally come with DI inputs included…
Direct boxes aren’t as common as the once were. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still useful.
And here’s why:
Guitar cables gather LOTS of noise once they exceed 10 or 15 feet. And it’s awkward for guitar players to plug in to your interface with a short cable, and have to stand over your shoulder as they play.
But with a direct box, you can each have your own space.
The direct box converts guitar signals into mic signals, which can run long distances without gathering noise. Longer cables mean your guitar player can stand wherever the hell he pleases. Simple, right?
Now let’s move on…
20. Virtual Instruments
Don’t you often wish that you owned more instruments?
I know I do.
But a lack of money, a lack of storage space, limit most of us to nothing more than a keyboard and a few guitars.
But with virtual instruments, a few hundred dollars buys you access to dozens of unique instruments you could never record in real life.
And while they may not sound QUITE as good the real thing…they’re damn close.
Once you’ve got a few of them, here’s what you need next…
21. A MIDI Controller
The problem with virtual instruments is…
It SUCKS to play them with your computer keyboard and mouse.
Even the simplest drum beat seems impossible to play using just the software alone.
But a MIDI controller solves this problem by giving you something REAL to play with your hands.
For home studios, these are the ones I recommend.
Now at this point your studio is damn near complete. But I’m willing to bet there’s one BIG problem that’s still bugging you:
With your current setup, you can really only record ONE track at a time. And you would love it if you could record MANY. But fixing this problem is no easy task.
The first step is upgrading to a professional interface (such as Pro Tools HD) that allows for 8-16 channels of simultaneous audio.
Next comes the project of assembling your rack. And with these next 5 items on the list, that’s exactly what will do.
Starting with, of course…
22. A Rack Case
It makes sense that before you start buying gear, you’ll need a place to put it.
If you play electric guitar or bass, you probably already have an extra rack lying around somewhere.
Once you’ve got that, the next item to add is…
23. A Power Conditioner
To supply power to ALL the other gear in you rack…
The first item you’ll need is a power conditioner. Here’s what it does:
With a single cable, it draws power from the wall outlet, and distributes it to multiple outlets on the back of the unit. Those outlets provide power to the rest of your gear, while keeping any cables neatly concealed.
By all outward appearances, a single power cable is used to run your entire rack.
The next item to add is…
24. A Microphone Preamp
Your brand new audio interface might have 8-16 OUTPUTS…
But to use them all, your mic preamp will need just as many.
That’s why, for your next purchase, I recommend a good multi-channel mic preamp.
Next let’s get you some stuff to make use of those 8-16 OUTPUTS.
25. A Headphone Amp
When you start recording multiple musicians at once…
You need WAY more than just a bunch of mic channels.
For starters, you also need a bunch of headphones. And to send music to that many headphones at once, you need a headphone amp.
A basic headphone amps allows you to take a single stereo output from your interface, and distribute it to as many as 6-8 sets of headphones.
But a GOOD headphone amp can do SO much more. For example, the one in this picture sends 8 channels of audio to 4 separate mixers, allowing each musician to control the volume of each instrument independently.
The next item to add to your rack is…
26. A Monitor Management System
Another smart way to use the many outputs on your interface is…
sending multiple mixes to multiple monitors.
But doing this type of routing can be complex. So it requires a sophisticated tool known as a monitor management system.
If you don’t quite understand why you need one, then you probably don’t need one yet. But if you do…
Now at this point, you’ve basically working in a semi-pro studio. The only gear that separates your studio from the pros is a few ULTRA hi-end items that usually only they can afford.
I don’t really recommend them for the average studio, but I’ve included them on the list anyway if you’re curious.
The first one is…
27. Digital Converters
Not many folks know this, but…
Any piece of equipment that uses both analog and digital audio has a converter somewhere inside it.
But THOSE aren’t the converters I’m talking about right now.
I’m talking about the stand-alone converters like the one in this picture that cost several thousand dollars a piece. Their supposed benefit is that they deliver higher quality sound during the conversion process.
You rarely see them in home studios because of the cost, but in pro studios, they’re fairly common.
The next up is….
28. Digital Master Clocks
Just as with digital converters…
Digital clocks exist in all digital recording equipment, no matter how cheap.
But as a stand-alone device, they can cost several thousand dollars a piece.
Now here’s what it does:
Whenever you connect two or more digital devices together, their conversion times must sync. To do this, one of the devices acts as the master, and the others as the slaves.
The quality of the clock can have a big impact on the conversions, so you always want your best one as the master. Normally it’s the one in your audio interface.
But no other clock in your studio comes close to matching the precision of a high-end stand-alone clock.
Now…on to the last item.
29. Analog Hardware
Long before the days of digital audio…
Sound was molded in the studio with racks upon racks of analog hardware.
EQ’s, compressors, etc, existed not as plugins on a virtual track, but as an actual piece of hardware, like the one in this picture.
And while they aren’t as common today, they’re FAR from obsolete. According to many of the best ears in the business…analog gear still sounds much better than any plugin. And that is why many studios still use them, despite the added complexity and insanely high price tags.
On the list of things you MUST buy for a home recording studio, analog hardware is near the bottom.
But hey, if you’ve got the money, go for it. I promise no one will judge you.
Well…that’s the list.
Now you’re probably asking yourself at this point:
“Ok, what should I do next?”
Well now that you’re familiar with the GEAR, let’s see how all that gear connects to form an actual STUDIO.
I explain all that and more in this post: