FROM THE GROUND UP: BUILDING A STUDIO ON A BUDGET

I know several musicians and songwriters who are better than I am, but have never recorded a thing in their lives. Sometimes I find that the desire is there, but the barrier to entry from a money and knowledge perspective is intimidating.

I agree. Not everybody can spend 25 years and waste lots of time and money on mistakes. So I’m going to try to do my bit here to help recommend an initial studio setup.

I'm going to be selecting specific pieces of equipment as examples as I go along. This will either be gear that I have used and liked or my favorite choice based on features, reviews and brand name for the price range. However, you can normally find at least a few other options in the same price range that might fit your needs better (or have a better discount, or can find used, etc.). Long story short - my suggestions are just one configuration that will likely be best used as a starting point when looking for the right gear for you.

In order to set a baseline, I will use the following assumptions and rules:

ASSUMPTIONS

  • You already have any instruments you might need to record, including keyboards.
  • You are okay with recording digitally, and you already have a computer that is modern enough to run music software.
  • You already have a room to record in.
  • You don’t have anything else that you might need, even a set of headphones.
  • You will be recording both with microphones and through MIDI, and your MIDI instruments already interface with the computer via USB. 
  • You will be recording vocals as well as instruments.


RULES

  • I will be configuring different setups based on the total price you might wish to spend to get started. When pricing, I will only be looking at new products from a trusted online dealer. I encourage you to investigate buying used when possible, but getting a good used deal is not as predictable. However, I will take into account that many sites have regular sales and adjust accordingly.
  • The prices will be normalized to the time of writing. Prices fluctuate, but should stay in the ballpark even over the course of a few years (if anything, they usually come down).
  • The gear that I recommend should, as much as possible, serve its purpose as a main element at first, but still be relevant in the event that you buy a better flagship item in the future (or keep its value in the event that you want to sell it). In other words, I’m going to try to recommend inexpensive items of quality and use that rise above their price point.

With that out of the way, here is the shopping list of gear we'll need, at three levels - bare minimum, ideal starter set, and down the road.

BARE MINIMUM

  • One USB enabled microphone, or a regular microphone with a cheap interface
  • One microphone stand with a boom arm.
  • A set of headphones.
  • Recording software.
  • Cable for the microphone if it didn't come with one.

 

IDEAL STARTER SET

  • A recording interface with two channels
  • A pair of monitors, and somewhere to set them
  • Two microphones (not USB mics) for recording stereo.
  • Two microphone stands, at least one with a boom arm
  • Room treatment
  • Necessary cables
  • A set of headphones, probably higher quality than the basic set.
  • Recording software


DOWN THE ROAD


Ideal starter set plus the following:

  • Dedicated microphone preamps.
  • Dedicated A/D and D/A converters
  • More (and better) specific microphones
  • A second set of headphones for mixing
  • Effects and VST plugins other than the stock ones in the DAW.

Finally, I’ll be looking at the following maximum budgets:

If you’re looking at less than $350 I will recommend starting with a the bare minimum on the shopping list rather than setting up an ideal starter studio. 

The over $2000 range is less realistic from a beginning studio perspective, but I'll add a few notes at the end about what might come next if the sky's the limit. The problem with recommending anything specific even after the $500 level is that in many cases there is no way of saying a piece of gear is definitively better than another - it becomes personal preference.

All right, I think that’s it. So let’s get started. This article is loquacious at times, so if you’d like to just see the results for each price level, click on the budget links in the list above to take you to the summary for each.


BUILDING A STUDIO FROM THE GROUND UP WITH (JUST OVER) $100.00


$100.00 won’t get you much, but if that’s all you have to dedicate to this right now it will get you started. At this price point we will have to sacrifice several key components, including monitor speakers and a dedicated audio interface. We’ll be looking at a USB-ready microphone, a microphone stand, and headphones.

Again, keep in mind that these are just some suggestions. Before jumping into anything, be sure to look at other options around the same price point.


CHOOSING A MICROPHONE


With the budget we have, we won’t be able to afford a quality interface, so we will limit ourselves to USB ready microphones. These are microphones that can plug directly into the computer without requiring any phantom power. I wouldn’t recommend these for a long term project studio, but there are a fair amount of decent ones out there that can get us started.

Since we need to spread that $100.00 over a stand and a set of headphones, we need to stay in the $50 or less range for a microphone. We also need a microphone that can be mounted to a stand, so it will have to come with a compatible clip. There’s not a lot available at that price point, so this is my recommendation:

Behringer C1-U USB Studio Condenser Mic ($60)

This mic comes bundled with Audacity (also a free download) and a few other pieces of software to get you going.

One big advantage of a USB microphone is that you can get recording in seconds without needing to know much about other pieces of outboard gear like an interface.

There are better USB microphones with better features, but by the time you start spending $150+ on a USB mic, I’d argue that if your main goal is music production it would be better to spend the money on a solid audio interface and then have a much richer choice of microphones. If your main goal is podcasting or for web conferencing, that would be a different story, and there are some very fine USB mics available from the likes of Blue, Rode and Audio Technica, to name a few.

A note on this mic - the USB cable is not long enough to comfortably reach on a boom stand, and you would likely need an extension cable. I cheated and didn’t account for this, but you can get one on Monoprice for a couple of bucks.

 

CHOOSING AN INTERFACE


We don’t have the budget for an interface this time around.

 

CHOOSING MONITORS


Monitors are another thing we’ll have to sacrifice at this level. If you have a pair of computer speakers handy, that will work in a pinch, but for now we’ll have to be satisfied mixing down with headphones.

Just a note if you’ve never mixed before - it is nearly impossible to get an optimal mix without monitors. Even an inexpensive set of monitors will be a better choice than a set of headphones. I will write in depth about this later, but for now just know that until you have a set of monitors you are missing a fundamental piece of the studio.


CHOOSING HEADPHONES


In our budget studio, we’ll need one set of headphones for both mixing and tracking. Here is a set of inexpensive cans with a good brand name.

Sennheiser HD201 (30)

These are definitely not mixing headphones, but for tracking they’ll do. If you upgrade later, you can get a set of open backed headphones for mixing and keep these around for when you’re laying down a track.

 

CHOOSING ACCESSORIES


One microphone stand with a boom. Here is a solid choice:

On-Stage Stands MS7701B Boom Microphone Stand

I have owned a couple of On-Stage stands for a couple of decades now with no issues, and have no problem recommending their products. The only real drawback I can think of is that a lightweight tripod stand like this one is maybe a little more prone to tipping than a heavier stand. But since we’re on a shoestring budget it’s an appropriate choice, and will likely remain useful to you for as long as you need a microphone stand.

 

So how did we do?

Here is the summary of the recommendations from above. These prices were taken from the Musician’s Friend web site in late 2016, and may vary up or down.

GearPrice (USD)
Behringer C-1U USB Studio Condenser Mic 59.99
Sennheiser HD201 23.29
On-Stage Mic Stand with Boom 21.07
TOTAL 104.35

 

We don’t need a cable for the mic since the Behringer comes with one. Also, the DAW is included in the mic package. So you can get started with this.

Everything adds up to $104.35 at today’s prices - so we’re over our mark, but just barely.


Other suggestions

For the mic and the boom stand, there aren’t too many other options at this price range without looking for used gear. If you could push your budget to $150, it would be worth looking at Audio Technica or MXL USB mics, or just saving a few more dollars to get a separate outboard interface.

There are several closed back headphones around the same price as the HD201, for instance:

  • AKG K52
  • Behringer HPS3000
  • Audio Technica ATH M2X

I don’t think it really makes a difference at this point. Each headphone will sound pretty good, will be suitable for tracking, but (like almost any headphone) not a great tool for mixing.

 

Conclusions At the $100 Level

You’ve probably already guessed this, but I wouldn’t recommend this setup as any kind of long term home project studio solution. However, there’s a ton of progress you can make with these simple tools, for instance:

  • Learning the fundamentals of using a DAW to record multiple tracks
  • Learning how to mix tracks, including effects like reverb, EQ and compression
  • Learning how to place a microphone for optimal sound when tracking

Building a Studio from the Ground Up With $350.00

At the $350 level our choices are still quite limited, but we can get started with an expandable studio that will last a little longer than our lower tier setup. Likely if you started with a setup such as this kept with recording for any length of time you would upgrade many of these components.  However, in most cases the pieces of gear below would still be useful.


Choosing a Microphone

We will be looking for a single mic that can handle both vocals and instruments.  I’d recommend a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphone for this purpose. LDCs are actually not my first choice for many instruments but can sound great with the right placement. On the flip side, small diaphragm condenser (SDC) microphones are a better choice for some instruments but rarely a good choice for vocals (although there are exceptions).  

MXL V67G ($109) - at FEA comes with cable

This is a “bang for the buck” budget mic that you would likely keep around as you fill out your mic locker. There are cheaper microphones, but the MXL will keep you happily recording for quite some time before you feel like you need to try another flavor.


Choosing an Interface

Even at a low level we will try to stick with a minimum of 2 channels and 24 bit recording. This little box will do the trick, and if you upgrade it later it will act as a very nice portable interface.

Presonus AudioBox USB 2X2 ($99)

The AudioBox comes with Presonus Studio Artist, which is an entry level DAW. There are other interfaces at around this price point, give or take a few dollars, that are worth investigating. 


Choosing Monitors

Honestly, we can’t do much here, and this is one point where a bare minimum may be the better bet. A good monitoring solution is one of the most important components for the final product, and I feel like any pair of monitors under about $300 / pair you will want to upgrade after recording for a short period of time. So I’m thinking that we should just fill the need for this essential gear for the moment, and start saving up for the next step at a later date.

Therefore, my recommendation is this set

Alesis M1 Active 320 USB (79 per pair). 

There are a couple of benefits to these. One is a volume pot right on the speaker so you don’t need an outboard monitoring solution. Another is that there are multiple ways to connect them - ¼”, RCA and USB. And, of course, the price fits them into our constraints.

If you take to recording and start to do a lot of mixing, these monitors may be the first upgrade. If nothing else, the 3” speakers won’t give you the kind of bass response that you can get in a larger 5-8” nearfield monitor. That said, it never hurts to have more than one pair of monitors for mixing reference, or the old pair could be recommissioned as very nice computer speakers.


Choosing Headphones

Let's spend just a smidgen more on the headphones:

AKG K77 closed back headphones: $36

Again, these are definitely not mixing headphones, but for tracking they’re just fine. If you upgrade later, you can get a set of open backed headphones for mixing and keep these around for when you’re laying down a track.

 

Choosing Accessories

We'll stick with the On-Stage boom stand.

Since the MXL comes with a pop screen, we don't need to procure (or make) a separate one.

 

So how did we do?

Here is the summary of the recommendations from above:

GearPrice (USD)
MXL V67G LDC Microphone 109.99
Presonus AudioBox 99.00
Alesis M1 Active 320 USB Monitors 79.00
AKG K77 Perception Headphones 36.00
On-Stage Mic Stand with Boom 21.07
TOTAL 345.06

We don’t need a cable for the mic since Front End Audio throws one in. Also, the DAW is included in the AudioBox package. So this all should work as an initial setup.

In the event that we can find things used or take advantage of a sale (for instance, Front End Audio often has 15% off sales that include most gear), here are a couple of tweaks we could make:

  • Change the mic to a MXL V67GS - this has a built in low frequency rolloff and a pad for $10 more.
  • Change the headphones to a pair of CAD MH210 for $14 more
  • Change the mic to an Audio Technica 2035 for $40 more.
  • Change the monitors to M-Audio AV42 for $40 more (though you'll then have to pick up some cables and blow your budget).
  • Add in a pop screen

Or, we could just put the extra dough back in our pockets until the next choice becomes clear!

Conclusions at the $350 Level

At the $350 level, we can start building a bare bones studio with all the basic components - mic, interface, headphones and monitors. Even with less expensive gear such as what is listed you can get some high quality recordings (assuming you have good musicianship and instruments :)), and move through the entire workflow from song composition to mixdown.

It's possible that some of these items will be replaced within a short while. Chances are you can get some money back or trade in value to put towards the next component. Although going straight to higher quality components would ultimately be the best money saver, it's likely that if you haven't spent time recording you won't really know what you're looking for and end up spending more money. So one way to look at a $350 studio is a very cheap immersion course into the world of music production.


Building A Studio From The Ground Up With $500

At the $500 level we have a little more wiggle room, but we still are quite limited in what we can accomplish. Since we were able to cover all of the studio basics at the $350 level, I'm going to recommend a better monitoring solution.

 

CHOOSING A MICROPHONE

Let's stick with the MXL V67G for now, and revisit this at the $1000 level. However, let's add another $10 and upgrade to the Heritage Edition for $119. This includes a pop screen and a shock mount along with a flight case (see my review here). One hitch - I couldn't find this on Front End Audio, so we're going to need an XLR cable. I'll add that in the accessories section below.

 


Choosing An Interface

Also the Presonus AudioBox will work for now.

 

Choosing Monitors

Here's where I think we can do a bit of upgrading. Since we're taking $64 more for headphones in the next section, we've got about $170 to work with. These are a little bit more expensive, at $179 a pair:

Behringer MS40 Powered Studio Monitor (pair)

It's quite difficult to find a pair of studio monitors at this price that will give you the performance you need to make good mixing decisions. This set is a decent start, though.

 

Choosing Headphones

Unfortunately, our new monitors will require us to get a pair of XLR cables, so we don't have a budget for upgrading the headphones yet. That said, if you're working the sales and can fly under the mark by enough, I would look at the headphone options presented at the $1000 level below.

 

Choosing Accessories

We will now need a pair of XLR cables for the monitors, and one more for the microphone. For now, lets go with Hotwires 20' microphone cables at 9.95 per cable.

 

So How Did We Do?

Here is the summary of the recommendations from above. We clocked in below 500 this round. Like I mentioned before, if you can get this price lower by taking advantage of frequent online retailer sales, upgrade the headphones next (see the $1000 level).

GearPrice (USD)
MXL V67G LDC Microphone (Heritage Edition) 119.99
Presonus AudioBox 99.00
Behringer MS40 Powered Studio Monitor (pair) 179.00
AKG K77 Perception Headphones 36.00
On-Stage Mic Stand with Boom 21.07
Hotwires 20' Microphone Cables (3) 29.85
TOTAL 484.91

 

Conclusions at the $500 Level

There is a fairly valid argument to be made that it would be better to focus on an upgrade to mics or an interface, because a monitoring solution can be upgraded later and songs can be remixed, whereas you can't change your recording once you've made it. My reasoning is that the AudioBox plus the V67G will actually get you some very nice recordings, and also in my experience you won't normally want to go back and remix anything you did from before because you'll be making new songs. From a final product perspective, monitoring is very important, and therefore even at the $1000 and $2000 level we'll continue to focus there.

As an aside, it may even make sense to consider starting a studio with just headphone mixes and taking a few months to save up around $300 for a monitor pair. Let's see what that looks like at the $1000 studio budget level.


Building A Studio From The Ground Up With $1000

Okay, now we're going to get somewhere really nice. At this point we have several more very good options. Again, my suggestion as a first priority is to upgrade the monitor speakers. Once you get to the $300 range, or $150 a pair, there are several quality nearfield choices. Since we'll still have about $350 to work with once the monitors are upgraded, it might be time to revisit our microphone options.

 

Choosing A Microphone

At this point, we have a couple of options. We could either opt for upgrading the MXL V67G, or add a quality small diaphragm condenser (SDC) for instrument work.

I've decided to keep the MXL in this budget because I think it's a great value. But I think it's time to add the SDC, and I'd like to add a very nice one. Actually there are a ton of excellent options within our range (around $200-300 USD), but my very favorite from experience is this one:

Oktava MK-012-01 Condenser Microphone with Cardioid Capsule

I could sing the praises for pages for this microphone on acoustic guitar (and will likely do so soon in a formal review). I have compared this to several microphones on my guitar, including some that cost insanely more, and I keep going back to them whenever I record.

I don't want to get into too much detail here, but I do have a couple of notes on why this is a great choice (besides the sound), and also a couple of warnings:

  • The MK-012 has an interchangeable capsule system that you won't ordinarily find in this price range. So although the set I recommended comes with a cardioid capsule, you can buy additional capsules for omni, hypercardioid, and figure 8, making it a very flexible option.
  • It can also be modded to improve detail and transient responses if you desire in the future - check out Michael Joly's mod site for more details.
  • This mic has counterfeits floating about, so make sure you get it from a reputable dealer.
  • Also (from my personal experience) - get the silver version, not the black. I have one of each, and had some problems with a fleck of black paint causing connection issues. I got that one through Michael Joly's site and he fixed it up for me, but noted that it was a problem he'd seen before on the black version.
     

 

Choosing An Interface

Let's stick with the AudioBox for now. I think this will change at the $2000 level.

 

Choosing Monitors

For affordable monitor speakers that launch you into professional level gear, KRK is a great choice. I recommend the KRK Rokit 5 G3 at 149.50 per speaker or $299 per pair.

 

Choosing Headphones

Let's also bump up the headphones to a set that you'll be using for many years to come, both for tracking and also for mixing reference. In the $100 range there are several to choose from, and all of them are good quality but have different sonic signatures.

My favorite at this level is the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. These are high quality cans, are sturdy enough for travel, and are closed back to minimize leakage when tracking.

Others to consider are

  • AKG K182
  • KRK KNS 6400
  • Sony MDR 7506

 

Choosing Accessories

Since we're upgrading our monitors, I think it's time to add some isolation pads. I suggest the Auralex MoPADs - not only do they add a nice level of isolation between the monitors and the stands or desktop, they also have wedges so that you can better set the optimum angle of the monitors to your ears.

And we're going to need another microphone cable for the SDC.  Since we're right at the limit, let's just throw in another Hotwires cable for an even 4.

 

So How Did We Do?

Here is the summary of the recommendations from above. Okay, we went a bit over at advertised prices, but I think it's close enough.

GearPrice (USD)
MXL V67G LDC Microphone (Heritage Edition) 119.99
Oktava MK-012-01 SDC Cardioid Microphone 275.00
Presonus AudioBox 99.00
KRK Rokit 5 G3 Monitor Speakers (pair) 299.00
Sennheiser HD280 Pro Headphones 99.00
On-Stage Mic Stand with Boom (2) 42.14
Hotwires 20' Microphone Cables (4) 39.80
Auralex MoPADs 49.99
TOTAL 1023.88

Conclusions At The $1000 Level

With the Oktava mic, the Sennheiser headphones and the KRK speakers, we're starting to get into some serious gear at this point. We are, however, skimping on a few things. The Hotwires cables aren't top of the line, and the AudioBox is going to start feeling kind of limited soon. Also, I haven't mentioned the first thing about room treatment, with the possible exception of the MoPADs. So why not keep moving along and see what another grand gets us?


Building a studio from the ground up with $2000

 

At this point we can start looking at an upgraded interface, more studio standard microphones, another step up for headphones, and some room treatment. We'll also upgrade our accessories and get some professional level cables and sturdier stands.

 

Choosing A Microphone

As much as I think the V67G is a great piece of kit, I think it's time to look at an upgrade for the LDC microphone in the $400-$500 range.

Now we're going to get into the realm of opinion more than anything, where many, many mics are suitable from a build and sonic quality perspective. You can easily find that a $100 mic (say, the MXL) suits your voice better than a $3000 Neumann. So keep in mind that my choice here is mainly because this particular mic is known as a "workhorse" and will give pretty good results on most sources.

I'm thinking an Audio Technica 4033. There aren't very many other $400 mics that get as much praise, although there are some. For instance, especially if you're recording male vocals, you'll want to take a close look at the Shure SM7b. I didn't include it here because it's a dynamic mic and not as suitable for a second stereo mic on acoustic guitar, but at $350 it's a steal.

I've also decided to stick with a single SDC for now to make way for an outboard preamplifier. No reason to upgrade from the Oktava.

 

Choosing An Interface

Let's move at this point to a different interface - the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. This unit is similar to the AudioBox but allows switching to line inputs so we can bypass the microphone preamps in the unit and use outboard pres.

We're not necessarily taking a big leap in interface quality here. My reasoning is that we will be upgrading one big part of the interface by moving to outboard preamps. The other part of the interface, the A/D to D/A conversion, arguably will be the least noticeable upon upgrade until we start springing for expensive names like Apogee, Lynx, RME, Lavry, and so on.

If you're setting up a studio from scratch and not upgrading, you may want to consider spending a little more on a few more channels, but since this exercise is assuming 2 channels I'll stay in the more inexpensive range.

 

Choosing A Preamplifier

We are finally at the point where we can start looking at adding a preamp to the chain. Heretofore we've been using the pres in the AudioBox, which are fine until you start using a dedicated pre, and then you realize what you've been missing all this time.

As with the microphone, preamps can range from clean to very colored, and can alter the flavor of the signal. Therefore, they are also subject to opinion, and my choice here should be considered one option of many that need to be researched before making any decisions.

I will recommend the FMR Audio RNP (Really Nice Preamp). $475 for 2 channels is a great deal. It's a clean preamp, so you won't get a lot of color out of it, but once you start tracking and listening to your mixes you'll hear a difference from the stock pres in the interface.

 

Choosing Monitors

Let's stick with the KRKs for now.

 

Choosing Headphones

Let's keep the Sennheiser HD280s for both tracking and mixing. I really wanted to add an open backed pair for mixing, but didn't have the budget after adding the preamp and the plugins. Since even very good open backed headphones aren't as good as medium quality monitors for mixing, I didn't think there would be as much bang for the buck factor upgrading the cans.

 

Choosing Software

At this point I'm going to recommend upgrading the stock plugins in your free DAW. I know this will be a controversial choice, but I think the Waves Renaissance MAXX plug in bundle is a solid set of professional sounding plugins at a decent price of $149.

Plugins are definitely another topic that will bring out Mac vs PC style arguments. These days Waves is no longer the only professional option - far from it. That said, I like the Renaissance set better than some of the other more expensive Waves offerings, and you'll have all the basics covered - EQ, dynamics, and reverb - all in one set.

 

Choosing Accessories

Let's step back and take stock of the cables we'll need.

  • 2 XLR/TRS microphone cables for the monitor speakers
  • 2 XLR microphone cables for the microphones
  • TRS/TRS cables for the preamp connections

 

So How Did We Do?

Again, we went over a bit, but again, the more you are spending, the more you'll be able to save during frequent sales. For instance, while doing this project I found the KRK RP5's on sale as a bundle that included MoPADs and two cables, but didn't include it in my price list.

GearPrice (USD)
Audio Technica 4033 LDC Microphone 399.00
Oktava MK-012-01 SDC Cardioid Microphone 275.00
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 149.99
KRK Rokit 5 G3 Monitors (pair) 299.00
Sennheiser HD280 Pro Headphones 99.00
On-Stage Mic Stand with Boom (2) 42.14
FMR Audio Really Nice Preamp 475.00
Hotwires XLR 20' (2) 19.90
RapcoHorizon TRS 3' (2) 37.98
RapcoHorizon XLR > TRS 10' (2) 37.98
Waves Renaissance Maxx Plugin Bundle 149.00
Auralex MoPADs 49.95
TOTAL 2037.94

Conclusions at the $2000 Level

This is a project studio you can be proud of, with a solid set of monitors and a couple of really great mics, along with a professional sounding preamp. At this point a skilled producer could do very well.

We're still missing room treatment - however, there are a lot of DIY options here that you can do on the cheap.

We're also not quite there on cable quality, we're still using an entry level DAW, and I'd like to see an upgrade in the monitoring solution for both speakers and headphones.

However, this is just one configuration - at $2000 for gear you have a lot more options than at the lower levels. You could remove the preamp to make way for better monitors. You could keep the MXL mic and add another SDC for better stereo recording.


And that's it!

If there's one final conclusion we can draw, it's that you will never get to the point where you're done upgrading and adding gear to the studio. Or, at least, you'll never get to the point where your done *desiring* new gear - your pocketbook and the rational part of your mind (or your spouse) may think otherwise.