How to Build a Budget Music Studio: Best Guide for the Beginners
Welcome, everyone! I see you all have this one particular question: “Blue Buzz, how to build a budget music studio if I don’t know much about how all this music stuff works?” Well, you are in luck, because I wrote this guide just to help you all make the music industry a better place.
Look, all these big websites telling you how to build a studio on a budget usually get writers and just stamp these articles left and right. And don’t get me wrong, the information there is valuable as well. The only thing is most of them haven’t been through all this themselves…
I had to do my research, been to hundreds of forums, read all the reviews on Amazon, and so much more just to be able to speak on this topic. Coming from the ground up, I realize how overwhelming building a music studio from a scratch can be. More than anything, I want to share this knowledge with you.
The guide is fairly long, with personal examples, but you will learn lots, I promise!
I will also add my personal picks to each point in this post for a reference!
All chit-chat aside, let’s get to the point
How to build a budget music studio: The best guide for beginners
1) Computers: Best Guide for the Beginners
Let’s get the very first thing straight: you can’t use your phone to make music professionally. I know garage band and a few other apps on IOS, for example, do quite a few cool things. I have seen people doing some great beats and even songs on them. But you can tell it’s been recorded on a phone. The quality and variability are lacking.
Therefore, I assume you do have a computer at home. However, is it powerful enough to use your DAW (digital audio workstation)? Yeah, minimum requirements you see are not quite good at representing how much CPU, RAM, or other stuff it will actually use. You see, the DAW itself is nothing but a skeleton.
Once you add your kicks and snares, the load will increase. More synths and generators, the load will increase even more. And don’t even start me going about the mixing and mastering parts that come after you finish the beat.
My laptop, for example, did great in the beginning. I made the beat, I even recorded the vocals. But the second I started EQing, compressing, and adding other plugins, I encountered lots of problems. First, plugins stopped working properly. Secondly, I would hear clipping sounds all over my track. Lastly, it just crashed when I pressed “play”. And kept crashing until I turned most of my plugins off.
That’s when I realized that my laptop just wasn’t powerful enough to make the process all the signals coming in and out. And I started researching on what components you need on your computer to be able to make music and use your DAW to the fullest.
So look, here are 3 MAIN factors you should consider when buying a computer:
I) CPU (Central Processing Unit)
This is the main chip in any computer, which is carrying out all the given tasks at all times. They are present in all responsive electronics such as your phones, tablets, TV units, Alexas and so on. In computers, it’s the most common to see two of them — AMD and Intel.
Both are great and have their own advantages and drawbacks. I will write about the very differences in a later article. For now, I would say Intel works the best with DAWs. AMD lovers can call me out on that, and maybe they can point out the advantages of AMD over Intel. For now, I say go with Intel. Even though a little more pricey, you get the better deal in a long run.
To start, Intel Core I5 is the way to go. You can, in theory, do a lot with I3, but as I found out the hard way, it will save you a couple bucks, but the experience with your DAW is going to be a little more painful. You barely ever see any PCs under a $1000 coming with I7, so if you are on a budget, it’s not the best option.
II) RAM (Random Access Memory)
It plays a role of a data storage for your computer. But don’t get it mixed up with your hard drive. It stores the code and data that are currently being used. Therefore, it’s very useful if you have a lot of plugins on the track, for example.
Let me explain… When you click play, all the plugins such as EQ, compression, and so on, that you put on the track, are enhancing the sound in real time. In order for this to happen, a lot of memory has to be used simultaneously. You can monitor your RAM and how much of it is being used and sometimes it climbs way over 50%. The more you have, THE BETTER.
Most budget preset PCs (Under $1000) come with 8 and 12 GB of RAM these days. 12 GB is enough, although 16 will come handy when you use bigger and more power and memory demanding plugins, such as Syleth or Nexus.
III) Hard Drive
It is simply used to store all your files and pull them out of the system when requested. There are 2 types — HDD and SSD.
HDD (hard disk drive) — electromechanical data device, which utilizes magnetic storage to put in and pull out digital files for you. It’s known as the most popular and the cheapest out of the two. It takes a lot longer to load all the files, to record files on the disk, and so on. Usually comes in all budget pre-built desktops.
SSD (solid-state drive) — storage that uses circuit assemblies to store data. A lot more efficient, a lot more quiet, but quite more expensive too. You get those on more expensive gaming computers. Not necessary at all, just make the process a bit smoother!
Okay, done with looking at what computer characteristics you really need! Yay! I know, for some tech geeks this may not be sufficient. However, most people out there are not crazy about computer specs. Therefore, I hope it helps you pick a computer with parameters the best suitable for music production!
Alright, let’s keep rolling…
2) Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs): Best Guide for the Beginners
Digital audio workstations are the paint set for an artist and a toolset for a mechanic. You can literally create anything in it. Besides my music, I also edit the sound for my YouTube videos in there too! The sky is the limit, and I don’t even overestimate this.
It’s hard to get a hang of in the very beginning, DAWs are just capable of so many things. Even though the interface is user-friendly, it’s not an app where you have to press two buttons and the track it good to go. It takes weeks to get used to the basics and months, if not years, to master every little thing.
Hey, don’t get discouraged, you don’t have to KNOW IT ALL! Baby steps are where it’s at, my friend. Also, another little thing…
There are so many of them in the market right now, it’s hard to pick one. They all look great and you see famous DJs and musicians using different ones. So you feel like you want to jump on this DAW today and that DAW tomorrow… I relate to that.
Hey, listen! Pick one and stick to it, skills and proficiency will come with time.
You don’t want to learn the workflow (it will take a while) on a DAW just to switch because apparently, it’s not the best one out there.
If you go for the top DAWs, they are all similar to an extent. You got the same playlist, channel rack, piano roll, mixer, and so on. The difference is the interface, the workflow, the plugins. I can be biased because I’ve been using Fruity Loops since I was 16, plus I never had a Mac (We all know Mac users love Logic and Pro Tools).
I’ve heard many times that Pro Tools is considered an industry standard. Well, before you all fire up and decide that then you want Pro Tools, let me disappoint you just a little. The Ultimate Edition (which is the so-called standard) comes at an astonishing price of $999.99 A YEAR.
Yeah, you’ve read that right! Are you ready to commit to paying $1000 with no guarantee you will get any money out of it? I am not, not even close. Once you work in an actual studio and have actual artists coming and recording, then go for it! You will probably have other things than money to worry about. For now, let’s stay humble, at least for a bit.
My personal pick is FL Studio.
Don’t think about picking a software too much, because it’s a lot more about how to use it! My advice is to pick one and learn how to use it to its fullest!
Check out the list of the Best DAW Software For The Beginners I’ve written for you. Lots of details, simple language, quality information. And, of course, examples! Pick the one you think will suit your needs the best.
3) Studio Headphones: Best Guide for the Beginners
Okay, next part is picking up good well-balanced headphones to make your music. I start with headphones and not studio monitors because they tend to be more affordable and a lot more compact. Moreover, you can use them on the go, if you have a laptop. I will definitely talk about the best studio monitors later in this post.
So why do you need a new pair if you have your AirPods headphones or Logitech speakers? Well, that’s actually an excellent question, which I used to ask myself. See, when you listen to a song in your average headphones, it equalizes it to sound great. Or sometimes it EQs it to be bassy, or to enhance the vocal’s frequency range.
With headphones designed for music production, the sound tends to be more “real”, without a lot of alternations to it. So let’s say you use your Logitech speaker and subwoofer set, which would’ve cost you $500, and it sounds amazing. You fall in love with the beat and keep working on it for days. Then you send it to a friend, who uses cheap speakers on his laptop. And you know what he tells you? “I don’t know man, it’s alright I guess but I feel like you can do better”.
It’s quite shocking and you get all mad because it sounds just great with your set of speakers! HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
Well, that’s because the sounds you were using were equalized on the playback, so you didn’t listen to the actual track you made! It gets so many beginners it’s crazy! Well, by reading everything to this point you already made sure you won’t fall for this! THIS IS CRUCIAL!
Okay, in this example I kind of tried to picture why you need a pair of headphones specifically designed to do this kind of stuff. They can go way up into thousands, but we are trying to stay on a budget right?
At this step, you are pretty much good to go… If you just wanna make beats in the cheapest way possible and, let’s say, sell them, that’s all you will need. An excellent headstart, let’s put it this way.
My personal pick is Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Monitor Headphones.
If you want to have more control and flexibility when working on the beats and also record vocals and/or instruments, keep reading!
4) Midi Keyboards: Best Guide for the Beginners
Why should you bother buying a midi keyboard? Hmm, interesting… I know you don’t really need to get one in order to make the most fire beats, but wouldn’t you want to make your life a lot easier?
This is not a necessity, but it will save you a lot of time when working on a nice melody or a bass track, for example. It’s so much easier when you have keys in front of you!
Moreover, you will have to learn music theory at some point and having a keyboard in form of you helps a lot. If you install a simple piano synth you can learn how to play the piano! Don’t you tell me this is not exiting…
All jokes aside, it’s not just a keyboard. They usually come with drum pads and knobs. Why do you need pads? Well, people argue that when you record the automation for your kicks, snares, hi-hats, or literally any other percussion, it feels a lot more natural and appealing, than when you just put them on the grid in the piano roll.
Saves you a lot of time with percussion too, trust me on this!
With the knobs, you can literally automate anything. EQ, compression, reverb, delay, filters — literally anything!
When using a mixer, you can automate the on/off buttons on your midi to turn on/off a certain plugin. Let’s say a reverb… You want to record one part with the reverb on, and the other one with the reverb off.
You have two options: either create an automation clip and tweak it, or simply use the button when recording it. It’s a lot easier to use the buttons if you know what you are doing, you feel me? It will take some time to learn how to operate and automate everything, but after this everything will be so much faster and easier to do!
Learn more about best MIDIs for beginners here!
My personal pick is Alesis V49 USB MIDI Keyboard
5) Studio Monitors: Best Guide for the Beginners
If you have a pair of headphones, you don’t technically need studio monitors, right? Well, why does literally every studio you see on YouTube or somewhere else on the Internet has a pair? Or more likely, a few pairs. And all these monitors cost a lot of money…
Do you think they are just balling out of control and buying stuff they don’t need? Of course, some of them do. But most of them know the value of a good pair of studio monitors. Once again, they don’t have to be expensive for now.
So your question is probably “Why?”. Well, that’s something called having two reference points. You see, the distance between your ears and the headphones is a few inches. Your ears get used to THIS distance swift.
Same with the monitors… The distance is a lot more, around a foot or so. Therefore, your ears get used to THAT distance now.
If you make music, people will probably listen to it in different ways: in the car, at home, at the gym. The systems will also be different — you probably have a speaker at home, but you wear headphones at the gym.
Therefore, you want to try to make it sound good on both. And that’s pretty much the purpose of studio monitors in general. You can go for either headphones or monitors, but having both will increase the overall performance dramatically.
My personal pick is Mackie CR4 Creative Reference Multimedia Monitors.
Follow the link so you can also learn more about the best affordable studio monitors!
The best way to connect them to your computer is with dual quarter-inch (1/4) cables through your interface. Speaking of the devil…
6) Audio Interfaces: Best Guide for the Beginners
Audio Interface doesn’t really do anything independently, it’s more of a connect-everything-together kind of device. To start, you just connect it to your computer and download a few drivers. That’s it, it’s good to go!
Feel free to connect your headphones, monitors, microphones, and musical instruments to it. I know, it’s really the simplest device in the studio.
Interfaces usually have a lot of knobs and buttons to increase/decrease the volume and turn on/off certain functions of it. The more you spend on it, the more functionality you get usually. Or you are just paying for the hyped up brand…
Always use common sense and do your own research when picking any electronics, because sometimes they have functions you’ll never ever use.
This is a very short paragraph because I’ve written the entire post dedicated to the best interfaces.
My personal pick is Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen).
7) Studio Microphones: Best Guide for the Beginners
Wow, if you are on this section, you must really want to go all in! Respect and congrats, we are almost done! Just a bit about microphones and accessories, and you will have a solid foundation!
Okay, so let’s talk about mics. Like what’s the difference really? I mean all mics are similar right? Uh oh, you are just a little off here, microphones are actually something to talk and talk about… But I’ll make it as short as possible, deal?
So there are a bunch of microphone types for very and I mean VERY specific tasks, but the main two categories are Condenser and Dynamic mics, read the more detailed and in-depth article here.
I) Condenser microphones
One can argue that these are the mics most commonly used in studios, which is true to an extent. They tend to be more responsive to a higher range of frequencies, and the transient response is a lot greater (simply speaking, it’s kind of microphone’s ability to reproduce the velocity or so-called “speed” of a vocal or an instrument).
They usually require a 48-volt power supply, and that’s when the interfaces come in very handy, as most of them have a switch to provide all this power. Therefore, you can’t simply plug it into your computer and start working right away, you know?
As I said at the very beginning of this chapter, they used in studios more. Why? Because they are fragile as hell! You have to be really careful because some components in the condenser mics, usually the most precious ones, are very easy to break. You pull on the XLR cable by accident and the stand collapses — big trouble.
They are usually divided into 2 fairly broad categories: LDMs and SDMs.
Large diaphragm microphones (LDMs) — are usually picked for a vocal performance. While they don’t reproduce everything as evenly, as SDMs, they warm up the output signal a.k.a. your voice or an instrument a lot better than the small diaphragm mics. The sound ends up sounding more natural.
Small diaphragm microphones (SDMs) — are, as I mentioned before, better with capturing frequencies more evenly. By getting probably the best transient response, they are great for reproducing quicker sounds, such as a guitar or ukulele, especially when you are trying to record a sick fingerpicking pattern you recently learned.
My personal pick is Behringer B-1.
If you want to learn more about condenser mics, check out my list of the best condenser microphones for beginners.
Let’s move to the next type of mics now, the fewer details, the better they will settle in your head, trust me!
II) Dynamic microphones
These guys are typically thought of as performance mics you would usually see on stages. And that’s true, they are a lot more common during live shows due to their durability and moisture resistance. Yes, they rug them so well they can be used even when it’s raining!
Don’t get me wrong though, I generalize to make it simpler, but there is a lot of this kind of microphones in the studios as well. They are just used slightly different.
When using one of them, you will high likely lose some frequencies, usually on the very low and the very high ends. It’s because of the sound quality they deliver is not as accurate, that’s it. Usually suitable for louder guitar and drums, and on-stage vocals of course, as they can manage to handle a lot higher sound pressure levels.
If you want to learn more about dynamic mics, check out my list of the best dynamic microphones for beginners.
My personal pick is Shure SM57-LC Cardioid Dynamic Microphone.
This is the most important stuff you need to know about them, but as I said, people literally go to school and take classes to learn about specific details about different mics. If there is enough demand and you want to know more — let me know — and I will write a very in-depth post about this in the future!
III) Microphone Accessories
Real quick note about mic accessories. Both condenser and dynamic microphones need an XLR cable to connect them to your interface. You get them for cheap on Amazon or at a local store.
Don’t cheap out on a pop filter. It costs very little but is very beneficial, especially when recording vocals. You will get rid of all the popping sounds (here is where the name comes from!) and removes plosives (simply speaking “B” and “P” sound) which can add a lot of unnecessary and bassy frequencies!
Oh yeah, you probably realized already that you need something to mount your mic on! So yeah, get a simple tripod stand or an arm stand. Tripods tend to be more stable and you usually see them in the booths. An arm stand works great if you have limited floor space (like a small room). Both are flexible, adjustable and most of the time shock-absorbent!
I don’t really have any preferences when it comes to pop filters, cables or stands, but here is what I bought:
More about accessories here!
7) Conclusion: How to Build a Budget Music Studio
Let me think… Yeah, that should be everything to start! Don’t worry if it’s a little overwhelming. Usually, everything falls into place very quickly!
As I promised, I am keeping this fairly basic! Some common sense to understand before getting into the jungles of the small details that you probably won’t remember tomorrow, especially if this is fairly new to you. Little by little, you will learn more and more, don’t be too hard on yourself, OKAY?
Let’s wrap up for today…