home recording studio essentials

Recording music at a professional level from the comfort of your own home is more possible now than ever before. Over the past 20 years, the improving affordability of home recording studio equipment completely changed the way artists produce and release their music. With the right gear, you can quickly get on your way to turning the music in your head into real songs.

But if you’re a newbie, the big question is…where do you begin?

For some, furnishing your bedroom studio or home recording space is a never-ending process of gear acquisition and replacement. For others, it’s about future-proofing by investing in the tools, furniture, and equipment you need to make your art for the long haul. Regardless of genre or budget, all music producers should know how to build out their space to be as effective as possible.

We get it — creating the perfect home studio can feel like a daunting task. With so many options for furniture and equipment, it’s hard to know where to start (and also where to end!). Take a deep breath. We’re here to help.

It’s fun to look at perfect and beautiful home studios on Instagram, but don’t think your home recording studio needs to look like your favorite producer’s home recording studio. In reality, you only need a few essential things to get started. You can always add more over time.

To figure out how to put together your perfect bedroom studio, you should:

  • Assess the gear you already own and use the most
  • Make two lists: Items you don’t yet own but want, and items you want to replace
  • Determine which investments are most important to your next stage of growth and development as an artist, producer, or engineer

Last, take note of the size and layout of the room you want to turn into a studio. This can help inform what goodies you decide to buy. If you use a lot of outboard gear and have space, a rack cart might be important. If the acoustics of your room are wonky (weird angles, reflective surfaces like tile), you may opt to forego monitors altogether in favor of great headphones. There’s no one right way — it depends on your room and how you make music.

To help you put together your perfect space, we’ve compiled a list of the 13 things you need to build a home recording studio. There are 11 essentials and a couple of bonus items that are great to add if you have the need or budget:

  1. Computer
  2. DAW (digital audio workstation)
  3. Desk
  4. Audio interface
  5. Studio monitors
  6. Monitor stands
  7. Headphones
  8. Microphone
  9. Chair
  10. Cables
  11. Acoustic treatment
  12. MIDI keyboard
  13. Rack case

1. Computer (Mac or PC)

Your computer is the beating heart of your home recording studio. We can’t stress this enough: When you’re starting out, it’s perfectly okay to use the laptop or desktop you already own. Chances are it’s already powerful enough to run most commercial music-making software and plugins.

For those who want to step it up and buy a separate computer for music production purposes, it can be a dramatically different purchasing process from what you’re normally accustomed to.

Whether you pick a Mac or PC depends on your needs, OS comfort, and budget constraints. Macs have been the go-to choice for audio and other creative applications for a long time, but these days, desktop and laptop PCs can make for fantastic studio machines as long as you seek out the right specs.

Then, you need to decide on a desktop or laptop computer. Opting for a desktop can save you money if you build the machine yourself. But if mobility is important…buy a laptop so you can make music wherever you go.

The most important things to consider when choosing a good studio computer are its CPU, RAM, storage, I/O (inputs and outputs), and fan volume. Without getting in the weeds, CPU, RAM, and storage all play a role in how many audio tracks, sample libraries, plugins, and more you can run in a session at one time. You can learn more about CPUs in this Digital Trends guide and about RAM over at Intel. And, check out storage options in our guide to music hard drives.

When it comes to I/O, it’s up to you and how many/what kinds of ports you think you’ll need. And fan volume sounds like a tiny matter but can be distracting and add unwanted noise to recordings if it’s whirring all the time.

In 2021, the best macOS music production machine for beginners is the latest M1-equipped, 13-inch MacBook Pro. The blazing-fast M1 chip receives native support from more audio developers every day, including Avid, which recently added its industry-standard software Pro Tools. It has backward compatibility with previous macOS music software, so you don’t have to wait to start benefiting from the powerful processor. (For a budget-minded but comparable experience, the M1 Mac Mini offers similar performance at the cost of portability.)

In 2021, the best Windows music production machine for beginners is…it’s complicated. Unlike Macs, you can build your own PC, which means it’s possible to put together a rig that fits your exact needs at a lower price. We recommend keeping an eye on product announcements from manufacturers like Dell, Microsoft, HP, and Asus that might drop prices on products that would make excellent studio computers.

2. DAW (digital audio workstation)

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is the primary software you use to record and produce music on your computer. There are many different DAWs on the market, such as Pro Tools, FL Studio, Ableton Live, Cubase, Logic Pro, Reaper, and Bitwig. Some thrive at tracking and editing audio, like Pro Tools, while others are geared towards beat production and arrangement, like FL Studio or Ableton Live.

If you’re new to production in general, there are plugins you can add to your DAW workflow to streamline and enhance the music-making process. For example, Output’s plugin ARCADE is a cloud-based sample player that lets you manipulate sounds on the fly. ARCADE gives you instant access to thousands of samples that are recorded by professional musicians in studios around the world. And, more are added every week. It’s a great tool for producers of all skill levels to jump-start a track.

What DAW you use is a personal preference. Generally, they all offer the same basic functionality and are packaged with stock software instruments and FX plugins that you can use to make and manipulate sounds in your productions. But, each one has its unique quirks, workflows, creative approaches, and price points.

You can read about features all day long but ultimately, spending time using a DAW is the best way to learn which one suits you best. Luckily, many DAWs and even some plugins offer free trial periods (like Ableton Live, Logic Pro, and ARCADE). So, you can give them a run before you fork over the cash.

3. Desk

Having the right desk is an often overlooked aspect of building a home studio. If you’re starting out in production, whatever desk you’ve been placing your laptop on works just fine. But as you slowly begin to acquire new equipment — speakers, MIDI controllers, modular units — you may realize that your desk is too small to fit your gear, or maybe not sturdy enough to support your new speakers.

Many studio desks have special features that you won’t find in a “regular” home desk. These can include cable management solutions, holes to route and hide wires, a MIDI keyboard tray, space for rack gear, or a second shelf for speakers. Even if you don’t have any outboard preamps or processing units yet, it’s worth considering a desk that can grow with your music career.

Output’s signature studio desk Platform has all of the features mentioned above, plus a modern all-wood aesthetic, to boot. Designed with musicians in mind, Platform is handmade from birch for a sturdy, made-to-last construction that will last a lifetime. If you want a functional, affordable studio desk that’s also a beautiful piece of furniture, then Platform ticks all the boxes.

(It doesn’t hurt that artists like Sacha Robotti, Gravez, Serge Santiago, and more all use Platform in their own home studios.)

4. Studio monitors

Studio monitors are very different from normal consumer speakers. They might look the same, but most home speakers are built for listening to music, not working on music.

Many consumer speakers are tuned to boost or minimize certain frequency bands to deliver a fuller bass and mid-range. This is because people generally perceive music with boosted lower frequencies to sound more pleasing. (Seriously, a NASA scientist explained this in 2016!) But, this can cover up flaws in a mix.

Studio monitors, on the other hand, are built to deliver a more faithful reproduction of sound. Every speaker has its own sonic characteristics, but on the whole, studio monitors are more accurate and don’t have built-in enhancements. They can be tweakable — some studio monitors let you adjust the low, mid, and high-frequency ranges, while others come with a measurement microphone to calibrate the monitors to your room.

As an example, Output’s Frontier monitors have lots of technical features to recreate clean and flat audio. They sport a coaxial design that time aligns the low-frequency and high-frequency drivers for a more accurate sound. There’s also a front-facing bass reflex port that serves both as a cooling mechanism for the unit and as a way to reduce undue bass build-up behind the speaker, should it be placed near a wall.

When you’re working on music, you ideally want to be using studio monitors, in an acoustically treated environment, in order to achieve a sound that ideally translates well across all listening devices.

As with any other item on this list, the ideal studio monitors for you differ based on budget, room size, and other factors.

5. Monitor stands

Studio monitors are most effective when they’re either pointed ear-level and perpendicular to the floor or below ear-level and facing upwards towards your head. Regardless of which approach you take, you’ll want to invest in a pair of floor or desktop monitor stands.

Good monitor stands absorb unnecessary vibrations from your speakers, which can cloud how you perceive what’s going on in a mix. Stands also give you the flexibility to set up your speakers further away from walls, which improves the clarity of your low-end.

Stands can be squat and sit on your desk or taller to be on your floor. They also come in a variety of materials. Sturdiness is paramount, and so are sound absorption pads.

When it comes to floor stands, Output’s signature Stands are the cream of the crop. They feature a tripod design to avoid wobble and have pedestals made out of solid wood. Each can support speakers that weigh over 200 pounds (!), and there are built-in cable management clips for tucking wires out of the way. Plus, they’re ethically produced in the United States.

6. Audio interface

An audio interface is the primary hardware device that lets your gear communicate with your computer. You plug the gear into the interface and the interface into the computer. It effectively replaces your computer’s built-in soundcard. While this is the basic function of an audio interface, many have other features. Depending on the model, audio interfaces can also act as mic or headphone preamps, DI units, digital converters, etc.

There is an incredible range of audio interfaces on the market. Some are small enough to throw in the front pocket of a backpack and are USB-powered; others are big enough to be rack-mountable and require external power supplies.

Professional-grade audio interfaces and hobbyist interfaces can have vastly differing capabilities, and thus, vastly differing price points. However, the growing “prosumer” category of interfaces offers increasingly more I/O, better preamps, and more in an all-in-one form factor. Expensive doesn’t always mean better. There are a lot of budget audio interfaces out there that are great for home studios.

7. Microphone

Studio microphones come in all shapes and sizes. Some excel in multiple situations, making them handy jack-of-all-trades mics. Others are specifically designed to record certain instruments, like drums or acoustic guitars.

The three broad categories of microphone you need to know are: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon.

Dynamic mics have a sturdy build and can be used both in the studio and in live performance. Condenser mics generally excel at vocal recording and require 48 volts of phantom power (supplied by the preamp) to operate. Ribbon mics are the most fragile of the three and typically have a darker tone, which can net interesting results on high-frequency material. (Warning: Don’t run phantom power to a ribbon microphone, or you could permanently break it.)

If you want to get into recording on a budget, the best $100 microphone to buy is the Shure SM57. It’s a total workhorse mic that you can use on everything from vocals to drums to brass to electric guitar. Even if you end up adding more mics down the line, having an SM57 around is a must.

8. Headphones

Like studio monitors, studio headphones are designed for accuracy over listenability. This means that the treble and bass curves typically applied to everyday listening headphones are reduced in favor of a flat frequency response.

The two main categories of headphones you need to know are closed-back and open-back. There are also on-ear and over-ear headphones.

Closed-back headphones are sealed in the back, meaning that the sound is more isolated and won’t spill out of the headphones. This makes closed-back headphones a great choice for recording since the sound in your headphones is less likely to leak into your microphone.

Open-back headphones allow air to flow. This means more sound will escape, but at the benefit of a more natural-sounding listening experience. Open-back headphones are a fantastic choice for mixing and mastering.

A pair of headphones meant to be used for recording can come as inexpensive as $20 but expect to pay more if you want to use your headphones to mix. (This is why open-back headphones tend to be more expensive as well.)

One of the best closed-back options for both recording and mixing are Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x headphones, which are praised and beloved by audio professionals. The AKG K240 is a popular and relatively inexpensive semi-open option, but if bass is a concern, go with the ATH-M50x.

9. Chair

A big part of music production involves sitting in a chair for hours on end. Whether you’re finishing a record, making new beats, or just sitting there auditioning different kick drums, a great studio chair is an excellent investment for any producer looking to make their space a more comfortable creative zone.

As anyone who’s spent any time in a Herman Miller Aeron will attest: Over time, you can feel the difference between budget chairs and expensive chairs in your shoulders, your neck, and your lower back. You might want to opt for something with a headrest if you see long mixing sessions in your future. And if you dart between the different instruments in your studio, you’ll want something with wheels, with no armrests to get in the way of your playing.

10. Acoustic treatment

Speakers exist in the real world, and in the real world, rooms have sound — which means that if you listen to a song on studio monitors, no matter how accurately the music is being reproduced, you’re also listening to the sound of the room, and its reverberations.

In order to cut down on those reverberations, you can use different acoustic treatment tools like foam panels or even rubber feet underneath your speakers. Even the most rudimentary bedroom setup can benefit from some acoustic treatment. Sound absorption treatment improves the sound quality you experience by cutting back on the reflections that are combining with the signal from your speakers.

Acoustic treatment is also important when recording vocals. Once you get into the mixing stage and start compressing and adding other effects, you may find that the room noise from your untreated room can render a great take unusable.

In addition to the packs of foam squares you can find widely available online on sites like Amazon, Sam Ash, or Sweetwater, there are also other vendors and DIY options for great, larger form-factor absorption panels. In the US, ATS Acoustics offers acoustic panels in various sizes at extremely reasonable prices.

11. Cables

Home recording sessions run on pure inspiration — and also cables. You need cables for everything: speaker cables (TRS) to connect your monitors, power cables to turn those speakers on, instrument cables (TS) for recording guitar, XLR cables for microphones…the list goes on.

There’s a lot of discussion over how much to spend on cables. There are budget options on marketplaces like Amazon and Monoprice, and on the other side, audiophile options from companies like Mogami. When it comes to audio quality, cables make much less of a difference than say, speakers. In fact, SoundGuys ran a blind test to see if people could tell the difference between audio run through a premium cable versus a coat hanger…and very few picked the premium cable.

Essentially, for almost all people starting out, especially when wear and tear isn’t a concern, basic cables are fine.

12. MIDI keyboard

MIDI keyboards aren’t necessarily critical for the home recording setup, but they’re good to have around regardless of your chosen genre or style of music. Even if you are not a beatmaker or planning to play software instruments, having access to hardware controls to control your transport and manipulate your DAW can be critical to establishing your production workflow.

MIDI keyboards range from light and compact controllers to heavier keybeds with full-sized piano keys, faders, and other features. Depending on the manufacturer, some keyboards also come bundled with pre-made mappings for certain DAWs like Ableton Live or Logic Pro.

13. Rack case

If you’re a musician looking to expand the amount of rack gear you use in your productions, you need to keep your signal chain organized with a rack case. There are floor and tabletop rack cases on the market, with different sizes and quirks (for example: wheel casters, adjustable angle, heavy build quality).

One fantastic and functional rack option is the Output Sidecar. A perfect companion piece to the Platform desk, the Sidecar is a standalone 12U gear rack with an inner compartment sliding arm you can use for cable and headphone storage. There’s also an optional shelf and sliding tray to make your MIDI controller, drum machine, or turntable accessible at an arm’s reach.

Check out the Sidecar in action at Hudson Mohawke’s Healthfarm studio in Los Angeles, where he uses it to store his turntable and other outboard gear, like his summing mixer.