Your Home Studio For Only $500 - Part 1

2009 Oct 05, 2009

Note: The below Pro Tools rig no longer exists. For different options of studios for only $350, check this out.


The number one question I get as a music producer from bands, songwriters, and worship leaders is this: “How much do I really need to spend on home studio equipment to get a professional sounding recording?” In this simple 2 part post, I am going to cut through the hype and tell you exactly what you need (and don’t need) to not only get started with home recording, but to excel at it and create quality recordings. (I’ll give you a ain’t much).

Computer - $0
I’m going to be honest with you. I am assuming you already have a computer (mac or PC, laptop or desktop) that is relatively new (within 2 years or so). If you don’t have a computer already then I don’t know how you’re reading this blog to begin with, and I don’t know how you’ll get much more out of this post. So make sure you have a decent computer to start with (not the cheapest processor, 1 to 2 gigs of RAM, a hard drive with plenty of space on it to record to). Each type of recording software will have certain requirements but that should get you started no problem.

Recording Software - $0
Since computers have become so powerful, they have replaced the mixing console, recording tape (DAT, 2 inch, etc), as well as all the outboard gear (compressors, EQs, reverbs, etc). What you need is recording software, specifically known to recording geeks as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). There are many to choose from these days, and I have used a whole slew of them. But at the end of the day, the program I keep coming back to is Digidesign’s (Avid's) Pro Tools...and here’s why:

  • It’s both mac and PC compatible. This means you don’t HAVE to get a different kind of computer to use it. Run it on your PC or mac, or both!
  • It’s easy to learn and use. Of all the DAWs I’ve used, Pro Tools is by far the easiest to get up and running in, while at the same time offering so much depth. Plus, since it’s so widely used and loved, there is an abundance of free resources online to help get you started!
  • It’s a complete package. You don’t need any other plugins, virtual instruments, or software to make amazing recordings. It’s ready to go out of the box!
  • It’s the ‘Industry Standard’. Despite the controversy surrounding this, Pro Tools is far and away the most used recording software in the industry. You’ll find it in practically all major studios for music, film, and TV. The great thing about making your studio a Pro Tools studio is that you can take your sessions with you to almost any other studio in the world and your files will open up flawlessly on their system, ready for you to keep working!

Now, that sounds great and all Graham, but how is this wonderful Pro Tools software FREE? Simple, just purchase on of their audio interfaces (see below) and it comes free! You can’t get a better deal than that.

Audio Interface - $295
Since you don’t have a $500,000 mixing console in your bedroom you’ll need some way to get your sounds (guitars, vocals, keyboards, etc) into your computer and into the recording software. This is where an audio interface comes in. They come in many shapes and forms (and brands of course), but I’ll give you my simple recommendation... Get the Mbox 2 Mini from Avid.

It is a simple device that plugs into your computer via USB. It doesn’t even need a separate power cable. It is a 2 channel interface which means you can record up to 2 channels at a time (guitar and vocals let’s say). It comes with a great microphone preamp, guitar and bass input, and stereo keyboards inputs. You can plug in speakers and studio headphones to it to listen to your tracks. It of course comes with a free copy of the latest version of Pro Tools LE (version 8 as of this writing), which as I mentioned contains everything you need to make top notch recordings.

I don’t think people realize just how good of a deal this is and just how powerful Pro Tools 8 with an Mbox 2 Mini can be. With the exception of being able to multi track drums with more than 2 mics (more on this later) you can do EVERYTHING with this box!

Studio Microphone - $99
With the exception of recording virtual instruments or guitars/bass/keyboards direct, you will need at least one quality microphone to handle all “acoustic” recording. And by that I mean your vocals, acoustic guitars, guitar amps, drums, percussion, salt shakers, or anything else you can find in the physical world that makes a cool sound! Again, you could spend thousands of dollars on one mic alone, but why...when you can get a top notch studio mic for less than $100. Here are my recommendations in no particular order. Pick one and be done.

Audio-Technica AT2020

Studio Projects B1

Samson C01

M-Audio Nova

Behringer B1

These are all studio condenser microphones which means they are sensitive enough to capture the crisp air on your vocals and acoustic guitar as well as the fat tones from your rocking tube amp and your kick drum. If you grab one of those five mics above you will have a swiss army knife type mic that will get the job done for you every time!

Basic Accessories - $99
The remaining items you’ll need (and you do need these) can be had for under $100 easy. These aren’t very exciting accessories, but believe me you will use them every time you make music and will come to depend on them. Not much detail here so just trust me on these. Here we go...

Mic stand ($29) - It holds your microphone in any position you need. Grab this one from Samson and be glad you didn’t get a cheaper one that will break on you in a month.

Mic cable ($25) - You obviously need a quality mic cable to hook your microphone up to your Mbox’s preamp. Nothing fancy here.

Pop filter ($20) - This keeps your vocals sounding nice by blocking the loud plosives (“P” and “B” sounds). Again, not interesting at all, but trust me you will need this.

Studio headphones ($17) - You will need these while you are recording. It allows you to listen to previously recorded tracks so you can sing or play along without the sound “bleeding” into your microphone. Plus these are great for editing and even mixing your songs in Pro Tools. Can’t beat the price on these puppies.

Summing It Up
Whew! If you’ve made it this far in the post than you truly must care about getting a home studio up and running. Good for you. Too many people think it’s either too expensive to do it right OR it’s not worth their time or money to make a small investment in their music. Both ideas would be dead wrong. There has never been a better time in the short history of recorded music to get your hands on some basic gear that will allow you to create pro sounding recordings for this cheap!

So summing it up. If you follow my advice you will have a simple, portable, powerful, and professional Pro Tools studio with a versatile microphone and accessories to help you capture your ideas as demos and as studio quality recordings. And you will have done it all for exactly $485 before tax! If you don’t have an extra $500 or so laying around then sell some junk, work some overtime, or eat nothing but ramen noodles for a month so you can get the cash you need to make a sound investment (no pun intended) in your music career.

Still To Come...
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post where I’ll talk about how to get the most out of your $500 home studio setup!

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