Engadine Music's Guide To Setting Up A Home Studio

Engadine Music's Guide To Setting Up A Home Studio

There are two things to consider before all else:

  1. Determine Your Needs
  2. Determine Your Budget

Both will influence one another and may lead you to rethink your bold plans to record the London Symphony Orchestra in your spare room.

In determining your needs, be realistic. The questions of who, what, when, where and why will come in handy as you decide what you need to start recording. And then consider your budget. How much do you wish to spend? How much do you have to spend? They are not always the same!

What will you be recording and how will you record? Will you be recording one instrument at a time or several? How many tracks will you need for each instrument as you record? 

What Will You Record To?
The Mac vs PC debate is no longer the issue it once was (I’m writing this on a Mac laptop and my studio is built around a Mac desktop, so we can safely say that Macs’ won!). But recording to computer is not the only option. There are many handheld devices that do a pretty good job as well, and offer greater flexibility in location-based recording, but possibly lose out in editing functionality and more complex recording tasks. You may also be just wishing to make a video to go straight to Youtube…a camera with great audio such as the Zoom Q8 might be all you need. Great results can be achieved on a number of devices and it is always worth remembering that some of the greatest recordings in history were done on equipment nowhere near as good as what is available to us now at a fraction of the cost.

At the heart of most setups are cables. Potentially a great number of cables! Buy the best cables you can afford (to a point) and you will be thankful in the long run. Cheap $5 guitar leads may seem like a good idea at the time, but they don’t last that long, are subject to noise and won’t sound as good as better cables. HOWEVER, this is only one factor in the signal chain (albeit an important one). A quality cable won’t transform a cheap plastic mic into a Shure, RØDE or other brand name mic, but it will make for a better and happier experience all round.

Now the caveat. At some point you will reach the law of diminishing returns. Monster cable at $150 per metre is fantastic and yes it does make a difference (I have used it in studios before) but for most people it is overkill to the extreme! 

There are many different types of microphones available and the cost can range from a few dollars to many thousands. It can be confusing to understand why one mic looks a certain way, or is used in one setting and not in another, or the different sounds a mic type will produce.

Pickup Patterns

An important aspect of mic design is the pickup pattern. The pickup pattern determines what the mic ‘hears’. A cardioid mic focuses on sounds coming from the front; figure-8 equally from the front and back; omnidirectional, which pickups up sound equally from all directions. There are variations  on these patterns and some mics allow you to blend two types together or select one over the other.

The main types of microphones include dynamic, condenser and ribbon. A dynamic mic is generally fairly robust (my Shure SM58 mic was run over just before a gig. Not only was I still able to use it that night for my vocals, it is still working many years later). This design tends to not have the same frequency response as other mic types and can also be less sensitive than most condenser mics.

A condenser mic comes in two variations; a small diaphragm and large diaphragm microphone. Condenser mics typically have good frequency response, but due to their sensitivity can be susceptible to wind and vibrations. Most require phantom power to operate, so keep that in mind if using one ‘on location’ (some condensers, such as the RODE NT3, can run from a battery so recording anywhere is possible). 



Small Diaphragm Condenser

Large Diaphragm Condenser


What You Can Expect To Pay

From $20 to a few hundred dollars

From $100 to $2000

Anywhere from $150 to $10 000

Generally starting from $500 and up to $5000.

Pickup Pattern

Cardioid, hyper-cardioid

Omni, cardioid, hyper-cardioid, figure-8

Cardioid, multi-pattern

Figure-8, cardioid


Can be midrange focussed, can lack  bass or high frequencies

Great for capturing high-end shimmer and lots of detail

Warm, round, natural, full

Very smooth, can be lacking in high-end detail

Recommended Uses

Live vocals, guitar amps, bass amps, drums

Stereo sources, strings, acoustic guitar,

Vocals, guitar amps, drum overheads, feature instruments

Vocals, guitar amps, acoustic guitar, taming complex high frequencies

Not Good For

Quiet instruments that require a lot of attention to detail, such as string or woodwind.

Require phantom power, therefore may not work in all locations

Require phantom power, may miss some of the detail required that a small-diaphragm mic would capture

Delicate so prone to wind and plosives.


When recording and mixing, you must be able to hear yourself as well as possible. When working with mics for acoustic instruments, headphones become an essential part of the recording process. I have had people try to tell me they do overdubs by playing along with their computer speakers or singing from a separate room while the backing track is played loudly in the adjacent room to try and ‘muffle’ the track bleeding into the vocal mic a little.

Neither way of recording an acoustic instrument (and I include the voice in there) is going to give a result that is even half-decent. 

If you are not recoding with an acoustic instrument (such as MIDI keyboards), taking the instrument straight in via a cable, or able to setup up something like a guitar amp in another room and record in the ‘control room’, then you might be able to get away without headphones. But you will still need to listen to the tracks and playback on something. Computer speakers generally do not allow for a full range of frequencies to be heard (the bass normally disappears from these altogether). Monitors for the studio are designed to allow the musicians to hear a playback of their music without the ‘colouring’ inherent in typical speakers, that try to optimise the sound of whatever they are playing. That has its place, but when recording it is best to hear it for what it is before adding effects and the like to polish it up a bit. 

Acoustic Treatment
This can be as simple as moving some furniture around the room to going all-out and fitting out the room with something like Auralex. Assuming you are not about to glue acoustic panels on your wall and ceiling (and hey, nothing wrong with that at all, but it is a little beyond this post), but hope to get the best recording possible in a typical home, you might consider a portable reflection filter such as the Mini MIC THING. These small acoustic shields can minimise or remove unwanted reflections of sound in your room where you are recording, making for a much better and more ‘pro’ result.

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is required when recording to a computer. These range in price from being free (Audacity) to more pro end lines such as Steinberg’s Cubase or Avid’s Pro Tools packages. Both Avid and Steinberg offer lighter versions, which are both also more than powerful enough for a lot of home recordists.

When buying software, consider your needs. How many tracks do you really need to record at once? Theoretically unlimited tracks in Cubase might sound like a great concept, but most of the time I do not use more than 15-20 tracks and that is one more complex and layered recordings. I often only use a few at a time. 

Audio Interface
The audio interface is an essential component of your computer-based recording system. While it is possible to record into the mic input on a computer and use onboard sound it really doesn’t sound any good at all! And as for multi-tracking with that - forget it!

Most interfaces now use USB connections, though Firewire connections are still available (for example, the Steinberg MR816, which is what I have in my studio). 

Typical features include XLR and jack inserts, MIDI ports and headphone sockets. The number of inputs can range from a single XLR to multiple inputs with both XLR and jack sockets. Once again, consider what you will be recording. A guitarist/singer might only ever need two XLR inputs if recording with two mics, or one XLR and one jack input if using a pickup from the guitar. Some interfaces will also feature a dedicated Hi-Z input for a guitar pickup, which can be very useful if recording direct with either an electric or acoustic guitar (or something similar).

So this is just the start! If you feel a little overwhelmed by it all, that is understandable. If you need help or advice, please ask. Also make sure you follow this blog for future tips and advice, reviews and new product releases.




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