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Learn Music and Audio Production | iZotope Tips and Tutorials

The Ultimate Guide to a Budget-Friendly Home Studio

by Griffin Brown, iZotope Content Team September 18, 2019
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When you build a home studio, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.Between the different software, equipment, and eye-opening prices, it can be tough to know where to start.  However, the essentials of a home studio are rather basic. With a bit of strategy and a clear vision of what you need your studio to do, it’s possible to create a functional and effective home studio on a budget.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to go about building a cost-efficient home studio. We’ll cover the priority pieces of equipment, some great cheap options, and considerations when you set up your new studio.

Naturally, higher quality software and equipment tends to cost more. However, it pays to know your system well, because if you spend wisely your budget home studio can compete more expensive ones.

What is a “studio?”

The craft of music production has changed a lot in the past twenty years. When all the work was done in analog, producing a song generally required very specific spaces and hardware equipment. As a result, building a proper music “studio” could be pretty expensive.

In the modern era of music production, you really don’t need much to make music. Digital audio allows producers to work “inside the box”, or entirely in software. Many music producers can often get away with nothing more than their laptop, a DAW, and some headphones—spawning the term “bedroom producer”.

As a result, great music is created every day in this type of environment. While a laptop in a bedroom isn’t what you’d regularly think of as a “studio”, it undeniably is. The “studio” is nothing more than a space (physical and digital) in which you’re able to work quickly and effectively.

Naturally, a dedicated music studio is the ideal place to work on music. There’s a reason why the setup has worked for decades. To create a home studio on a budget, you can take the standard pieces of a professional studio and prioritize based on your personal needs. It’s unnecessary to spend money on equipment you don’t need––each purchase should actively make music production easier for you.

In this article, we’ll go over each piece of the studio in order of general importance. The order may change for your needs, but certain central pieces of software and hardware should be prioritized. Let’s begin!

Spend your money wisely

As we’ve already mentioned, better quality equipment tends to be more expensive. But by spending well, it’s still possible to get great equipment on a budget.

Many music technology companies have regular sales on products. By signing up for newsletters offered by these companies and retail stores, you’ll be able to keep an eye out for price drops.

Pay special attention around holidays and try to take advantage of bundled products to save some money (FocusRite, for example, has a bundle with many of the following pieces of equipment).

The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

The most important aspect of the classic music studio is the room, or the environment. In digital audio, the DAW (digital audio workstation) is your digital environment. This should be the centerpiece to your home studio––you’re likely already using one if you’re reading this article.

A DAW provides all the tools you need to start creating a song, but they all work differently. So it's important to choose the right one for your needs

The DAW should be your first priority when building your home studio. If you haven’t used a DAW before, or if you’re unsatisfied with your current DAW, this is a great chance to settle on one and master it.

No one DAW is the “best”. More or less, they all have the same basic functions, with the major differences being where each function is located and the keyboard commands to engage them. 

Each DAW has its own workflow, so try to find the one that mirrors your workflow. It might take a little while to find your favorite, but the speed that you gain in the end is well worth the search.

Take advantage of free trials and online resources to speed up the learning process, eventually you’ll find the DAW for you. The process of learning a new DAW feels a bit like wandering in the dark, but with a bit of time, it’s easy to build up your muscle memory.

Considering its importance in music production process (and the mileage you’ll get out of one) a DAW is worth the investment. Here are some popular DAW options:

Ableton Live

Equally capable of composition / arrangement and live performance. Popular for MIDI sequencing, sample manipulation, and more.

Ableton Live

Logic Pro (Mac OSX only)

Powerful and affordable workstation, versatile sequencer across all genres. Popular for MIDI sequencing and sample manipulation.

Logic Pro

Pro Tools

Equally capable of composition / arrangement and live performance. Popular for MIDI sequencing, sample manipulation, and more.

Pro Tools

FL Studio

Equally capable of composition / arrangement and live performance. Popular for MIDI sequencing, sample manipulation, and more.

FL Studio

Cubase

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Reason

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Bitwig

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Reaper

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Magix SOUND FORGE Audio Studio 13

If you’re especially focused on working with recorded audio, you may just be looking for an affordable, easy to use stereo audio editing software. Magix SOUND FORGE Audio Studio 13 has everything you need to record, affect, restore, and master audio.

It also comes with Ozone Elements, giving you further audio processing potential.

Choosing headphones for your studio

With the DAW out of the way, we need a way to listen to our work. Your monitoring system is key to your studio’s success, as it’ll determine how your audio sounds to you while you’re working. Having a consistent system and getting to know its specific character will give you a better idea of how your audio “really” sounds, and what needs to be done to improve it.

While it’s tempting to immediately check out studio monitors (and subwoofers of course), you should probably consider headphones next.

With their portability and the fact that they aren’t affected by room noise and acoustics in the way that monitors are, a good pair of headphones will serve you well. Headphones are also usually cheaper than their monitor counterparts, so this route should be friendlier to your budget.

Headphones allow you to work without disturbing anyone, which is especially important if you’re setting up a home studio in a shared house or apartment building. If you’re looking to improve, you’ll need to work on music a lot, so being able to work without getting a noise complaint is crucial.

We’ve covered a bunch of the pro’s and con’s of headphones and studio monitors here, but a solid pair of headphones makes a great addition to any home studio. 

The following are good options, just be sure you get to know your pair. For mixing, it’s essential to have an accurate understanding of how your monitoring system sounds. Listen to music that you know well and check your headphones’ frequency response for any boosts or dips.

Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro

KRN KNS Series

Audio-Technica ATH Series

Choosing an audio interface for your studio

The next important piece of equipment is the audio interface. This converts analog signal to digital data and vice versa. Raw audio, like a guitar or microphone, can now be recorded into the DAW.

We can also convert digital data from the DAW to audio, allowing us to use studio monitors. This is why the headphones route is generally cheaper than getting monitors first.

Higher quality interfaces have higher quality converters. Better converters convey higher fidelity audio recordings, but the differences are small enough that cheaper audio interfaces are still viable. Some interfaces offer helpful features like mono monitoring and independent DSP, but all you really need is something to help the analog and digital worlds speak to each other, which is what an interface does.

Here are great affordable options for audio interfaces: 

Focusrite Scarlett Series

PreSonus AudioBox USB 96

Audient iD4

Korg plugKEY

Deciding on studio monitors for your home studio

The average music listener hears your work through some sort of speaker. Whether it’s through speakers on a phone, a bluetooth speaker, or even massive speakers at a concert, music is mostly consumed while it’s played into a space.

For this reason, studio monitors are an important part of any home studio. Being able to hear your work filling the room more accurately recreates the average listener’s experience, because it provides a more accurate stereo image and frequency response. With this perspective in mind, your work can translate to more people. Plus, it can just be fun to hear your music a bit louder!

If you have a pair of headphones and some studio monitors, your overall monitoring system is capable of both detailed and broad listening. With these perspectives, you can form a holistic impression of your work to approach the track from all angles.

Keep in mind, to get the most out of your speakers, you’ll want either speaker stands or isolation pads to minimize desk vibrations. Stands or pads also need to slot into your budget. Going without stands or pads won’t necessarily ruin your production experience, but vibrations from speakers can cause a desk to resonate and make mixing more difficult. 

Be sure to check out the monitoring options article for more info on different types of speakers.

How to approach acoustic treatment 

Professional music studios are constructed to avoid acoustical problems. However, this usually isn’t an option if you’re building a home studio. Unfortunately, most rooms will introduce some noise due to their acoustics, so taming this noise can be very helpful.

While it’s not necessary for a home studio, some cheap acoustic treatment in the room’s problem spots can help you get the most out of your studio. This can be especially helpful if you have cheaper speakers, as minimizing room noise can help to maximize their effectiveness.

Check this article out for acoustics tips, and more thoughts on types of treatments to consider for your room. 

Keep in mind, if proper acoustic treatment is outside of your budget, fabric and dense objects (like curtains or couches) can provide some of the same benefits and are likely available nearby.

How to decide on a toolkit of plug-ins

Like the DAW, plug-ins are an important software component of your home studio. Plug-ins could very well be higher on this list, especially if you intend on working inside-the-box a lot. If studio monitors aren’t necessary for the purposes of your home studio, plug-ins could be a higher priority. Some plug-ins can even simulate the frequency response of specific rooms like presets found in Exponential Audio Reverbs, or attempt to compensate for the frequency response of different speakers or headphones.

Most DAWs come with stock plug-ins, many of which are perfectly viable for professional tracks. While they can potentially look or sound a bit basic, stock plug-ins are quite versatile and allow you to spend your money on other pieces of equipment.

If you’re after third-party plug-ins, there are plenty of free ones to add to your production toolkit. Here at iZotope, we offer Vocal Doubler, Ozone Imager, and Vinyl for free. You can also find free trials to help you decide whether a paid plug-in is a good addition to your studio or not.

To stretch your money as far as possible, look into plug-ins that contain several processors (e.g. Neutron Elements, which has an EQ, compressor, exciter, and transient shaper). Bundles that contain multiple plug-ins (like the iZotope Elements Suite, which contains the Elements versions of Neutron, Nectar, Ozone, and RX) are also great options for saving some money.

Regardless of which route you choose for plug-ins, it’s best to find a few and master them. You don’t need 15 different kinds of compressors, EQs, etc. You can always expand your toolkit, but becoming really comfortable with a few plug-ins will help you get the most out of them.

Buying a MIDI controller for your home studio

Like plug-ins, a MIDI controller could be higher on this list, potentially before the audio interface as well. If the music you want to make requires a lot of composition and arranging, a MIDI controller can be a huge timesaver.

Manually entering MIDI notes in a DAW can be extremely tedious and sound sterile. It’s much quicker (and sounds much more organic) to input notes with a controller. Many MIDI controllers also have assignable knobs and faders, which can be used to perform organic automation movements.

With a DAW, some native plug-ins, a MIDI controller, and some headphones, you could have a cheap and highly effective makeshift studio. Here are some high-performance, low-cost MIDI controller options:

AKAI MPK Series

M-AUDIO Oxygen 49

Novation Launchkey

Korg nanoKEY 2

Novation Launchpad

AKAI MPD218

PreSonus ATOM

AKAI LPD8

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