Recording your music can be exciting, and with today’s technology, it doesn’t necessarily require going into a professional studio. With a relatively modest budget and a bit of time invested learning the ropes, you can make satisfying recordings at home, whether you want to release them commercially or just share with friends. In this guide, we’ll explore a few steps you can take to start recording yourself on a modest budget.
Identify Your Needs and Budget
Before making any purchases, consider your goals and how you plan to work. Most home recordists tend to keep things simple, using one or two microphones and a two-channel recording interface. The essential components of any recording setup include a microphone or two, a preamp/digital interface to get sound into a computer or other recording device, the recorder itself, and speakers or headphones to listen to the results. You can either opt for self-contained recording devices that provide all of these in a single unit or assemble the individual components yourself.
Leverage What You Have
Many smartphones and tablets support apps that can make surprisingly sophisticated recordings, including capturing multiple tracks, mixing, and adding effects. You can start by using your device’s built-in microphones and later upgrade to an external mic like the Shure MV88+ ($199 street).
Adding an external preamp/interface like the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo ($89.99) allows you to upgrade to higher-quality external microphones, perhaps a pair of small condenser mics like the sE Electronics sE7 ($109) or even a studio staple like the Shure SM81 ($399). Don’t forget that buying used on a website like Reverb or eBay is a great way to make your budget go further.
If you own a laptop or desktop computer, you will just need to add an audio interface and microphones. You may already have recording software—Macs come with GarageBand preinstalled. Alternatively, you can use free recording software like Audacity or shareware like Reaper ($60) for both Macs and PCs. If you’re a performing musician, you likely already have mic stands and microphones that can be used for recording.
Start simple and grow as you learn
Learning to record is an ongoing process—and technique generally matters more than gear. Instead of buying everything you think you need upfront, try gaining hands-on experience with what you have first. You can learn a lot by making simple recordings with your smartphone.
Another option is to get a portable all-in-one recording device, like the Tascam DR-05X ($99) and DR-40X ($199), or Zoom H4n ($199), which even include built-in microphones. Think of these as point-and-shoot cameras: just hit the record button and play. Some of these devices can also function as an audio interface to a computer, allowing you to continue using them as your needs grow.
Beware the penny-wise and pound-foolish trap
It might be tempting to buy the least expensive options available, but it’s important to consider your ultimate goals. Purchasing low-quality gear may lead to a cycle of upgrades that cost more in the long run than investing in a quality piece of equipment from the beginning. When you’re starting out, try to find the sweet spot between low-quality gear that you may outgrow and items that are overkill for your needs.
Leverage expert expertise
Whether you’re trying to learn techniques or deciding what gear to buy, advice from experienced individuals can be immensely helpful. Online forums dedicated to recording, such as HomeRecording.com, GearSpace.com, or the Recording section of AcousticGuitarForum.com, offer good places to ask questions. And of course, AG’s back issues and website include plenty of articles that offer tips on recording, with a focus on acoustic instruments.
Additionally, your local community college might offer recording classes, possibly including access to a well-equipped recording studio. Booking some time in a professional studio can also be a worthwhile investment as a learning experience. While recording a song or two, observe everything and ask questions.
Focus on the basics
While it’s easy to get excited about microphones, recording software, and effects, there are more mundane factors that can make or break your recordings. Room acoustics significantly impact the quality of your recordings and are one of the biggest advantages professional studios have over home recording environments. A well-furnished room can often suffice for amateur recordings, but you won’t know how your room sounds until you try. You can use your phone or one of the portable recorders mentioned above to make test re- cordings in different locations and find the best sound. If you find that you need to invest in room acoustics, GIK and ATS offer reasonably affordable and aesthetically pleasing room treatment options.
Another often overlooked piece of gear is monitors or headphones. Properly evaluating your sound requires the ability to hear your recordings accurately. Get the best monitors your budget allows. If your room acoustics are poor, you may achieve better mixes with a quality pair of headphones.
While microphones definitely play a big role in your sound, the differences become subtle beyond a certain medium price point. A $1,000 mic is not necessarily ten times better than one costing only $100, and in a home recording environment, you might not notice a significant difference.
Similarly, preamps and computer interfaces are often hyped in near-mythical terms in online forums, but beginners in a home recording environment are unlikely to notice the difference between a solid entry-level interface like the Audient iD14 ($299) or the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($189) and a multi-thousand-dollar high-end unit.
When planning your budget, don’t forget about mic cables, stands, and other extras. In most cases, you won’t hear a significant difference between a good basic mic cable from monoprice.com and a high-end option that costs ten times as much. Mic stands can also consume a surprising portion of your budget. On-Stage makes good basic stands at reasonable prices. For recording guitar while seated, a low-profile drum mic stand like the MS7411B ($45) can be a space-efficient solution.
The best thing about recording at home is that you’re in control. You can record whatever you like, whenever you like, without watching the clock. No one needs to hear the bad takes but you, and you are free to follow your creative instincts. Recording is a skill that takes time to learn, just like playing an instrument, so enjoy the learning process and the journey.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.