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Budget home studio setups

Everything you need to start recording music with our guide to cheap home studio recording gear – from laptops and headphones, to audio interfaces and monitors



So, you want to put a home studio together in your spare room, but you’re not sure what hardware and software you need in order to realise your lofty musical ambitions. The first bit of good news is that you’ve come to the right place, and the second is that locking down the essentials is probably a good deal cheaper than you think. Indeed, you may well already own the single most expensive item on the shopping list we’re about to help you formulate: the PC or Mac laptop that will be central to all your sonic endeavours. The next big win is the fact that loading said laptop with any current digital audio workstation (DAW) gives you absolutely everything you need on the software front, with endless scope for expansion via the vast catalogue of mind-blowing free and commercial virtual instruments and effects that await you online. Things start to get a little more tricky when it comes to navigating the complicated prosumer music production market, as the sky-high quality of even the cheapest audio interfaces, studio monitors, MIDI controllers and microphones available today makes separating the wheat from the, er, other wheat harder than it’s ever been. But that’s what we’re here for, of course! Yes, we’ve done the sifting for you, narrowing the field down to those candidates in five product categories - plus laptops and DAWs - that we think are the best options for the aspiring home-based producer. Organise your recording space with the best studio desks



"BUDGET" LAPTOPS


If you’re looking to maximise the number of plugin instruments and effects you can run simultaneously (which, needless to say, you are), you’ll want to invest in the most high-spec computer you can afford. The big decision that has to be made here is between Mac and PC, but ultimately, unless you’re intent on making Logic Pro your DAW, that should really only boil down to your preference of operating system and aesthetics.


Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 | from £899/$999.99 With its multitouch display, slim profile and nippy quad-core CPU, Microsoft’s 13.5” laptop is a solid workhorse for Windows-based production. If you can afford to spend more, though, the 15” Surface Pro 2 is a serious upgrade. Apple MacBook Pro | from £1,299/$1,299 The Mac is still the computing platform of choice for most pro producers, and the current MacBook Pro line-up comprises a 13” model with a quad-core processor and the glorious new 16” model, with up to eight processor cores delivering desktop-class performance. Dell XPS 15 | from £1,499/$999.99 “The world’s smallest 15.6” performance laptop” can be specced up to an 8-core Intel i9 CPU and 32GB RAM, but provides plenty of production grunt even in its cheapest configuration.



BUDGET DAWS


To all intents and purposes, your Digital Audio Workstation is your home studio – the virtual creative space in which build your musical projects. From multitrack recording and hosting of virtual synths, drum machines and super-realistic sample-based instruments, to editing audio and MIDI clips, mixing with powerful plugin effects and even mastering your finished tracks, there’s nothing today’s DAWs can’t do. Almost all of them offer demo versions, too, so try a few before you nail your colours to any one mast. Cockos Reaper | $60 Cross-platform DAW with a unique workflow and feature set, and a pricetag that greatly belies its professional specifications and capabilities. Indeed, if you can put up with the nag screen, you can use it for free for as long as you like. Ableton Live | from £69/$99 If you’re going to be making dance or primarily electronic music, Ableton’s all-conquering DAW should be your first port of call. Its combination of freeform loop arrangement and traditional timeline-based operation is creatively liberating. Apple Logic Pro | £199.99/$199.99 If you’re on Mac, Logic Pro deserves your full attention. A couple of hundred quid gets you one of the most revered virtual studios ever committed to code, as well as a ton of plugins, loops and much more.



BUDGET AUDIO INTERFACES


Although it is possible to hook your speakers up to your computer’s built-in headphone output, a proper audio interface is a must-have for any producer – not only for getting the best signal possible to your monitors, but also to enable the recording of instruments and vocals. For the singer-songwriter, a couple of inputs will suffice, while for a band setup, you might need eight or more; and happily, these days the quality of the preamps and circuitry in even the cheapest interfaces is truly astounding. Audient iD4 | £99/$199 This dinky USB bus-powered box features a high-end Audient preamp with phantom power, an instrument input, two monitor outs, two headphone outputs and an assignable control knob. A stone-cold bargain! Steinberg UR22C | £131/$189.99 Offering audio quality up to 32-bit/192kHz, Yamaha D-PRE mic preamps, MIDI I/O and USB-C connectivity, Steinberg’s 2-in/2-out interface is compact and solidly built for life on the road. Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 3rd gen | £199.99/$229.99 The revered British manufacturer’s 4-in/4-out USB boasts excellent mic preamps with up to 56dB gain, MIDI I/O, and the useful Air mode, which adds top-end sparkle and sheen that’s particularly effective on vocals.



BUDGET MIDI CONTROLLER KEYBOARD


Even if you’ve played piano in your life, a USB MIDI controller keyboard is essential for playing and recording virtual instruments – which you’ll be doing a lot. Beyond the all-important keys, you should be aiming to get as much in the way of assignable knobs, sliders and drum pads as you can for your money; and portability might be a factor, too, if the idea of getting out and about with your laptop-based studio appeals. Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3 | £99.99/$109.99 Built for use with Ableton Live specifically, but a winner with any DAW, this comprehensive controller brings together a 25-note keyboard, 16 RGB-backlit drum pads, plenty of assignable knobs and faders, transport buttons and a tasty software bundle. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol A-Series and M32 | from £99/$139 NI’s affordable A-Series of three keyboards incorporate the best features of their posher S-Series and hook in fully to the company’s Komplete Kontrol software for effortless hands-on manipulation of plugin instruments and effects. The sibling M32, meanwhile, is small enough to fit in your laptop bag. Nektar Impact LX88+ | £249/$289 A full-sized, semi-weighted 88-key USB controller keyboard with eight velocity-sensitive drum pads, and an expansive array of knobs, faders and buttons for DAW and plugin control. Impressive value for money!



BUDGET STUDIO MONITORS


As the physical point at which the signals from your DAW are turned into real-world soundwaves, your monitors are hugely influential over every mixing decision you make. It’s important that they colour the sound as little as possible for reference purposes, but, perversely, they also need to be comfortable to listen to continuously for long periods of time.

Yamaha HS5 | £252/$400 (pair) Building on the legacy of the iconic NS10, the HS5 is as clinical and brutally ‘honest’ a reference monitor as you’ll find in its price range. Can your mixes handle the truth? Adam Audio T5V | £270/$340 (pair) This (relatively) cheap-as-chips nearfield is headlined by Adam’s acclaimed U-ART ribbon tweeter, for stellar high-frequency response, but also features superb imaging and a surprisingly small footprint for a 5” monitor. Genelec 8010A | £469/$700 (pair) Genelec’s smallest bi-amped monitor exudes quality and sounds far bigger and better than its diminutive frame suggests. It also has an Iso-Pod desktop stand built in, for angling and isolation.



BUDGET HEADPHONES


Obviously, a good pair of headphones is a necessity for monitoring while recording vocals and other miked-up sources, but it also makes a useful adjunct to your studio monitors at the mixing stage, enabling you to ‘zoom in’ on those subtle details in a track that might not be fully audible through speakers. We wouldn’t, however, recommend mixing exclusively on headphones unless you have no choice – ie, you’re on a train, it’s late at night, etc. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x | £115/$149 One of the most popular ‘serious’ headphones on the market, the ATH-M50x is versatile, supremely comfortable to wear and excels in the mids and lows. It’s a touch less cohesive in the high frequencies, mind. Focal Listen Professional | £219/$299 With its smooth, unfatiguing sound, this closed-back model is a stalwart performer in the studio, handling tracking and mixing duties with equal composure. It’s also hugely enjoyable for ‘leisure’ usage. Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro | £429.99/$599 If you’ve got a bit of cash to splash on your cans, look no further than Beyerdynamic’s mid-range set. A lucid soundstage and dazzling detail make them ideally suited to mixing and mastering.



BUDGET MICROPHONES


Just as the quality of your studio monitors determines the literal authenticity of the sounds coming out of the DAW, so your choice of microphone governs the representational accuracy with which external signals are brought in. If you can only spring for one mic, make it a condenser, as they’re generally more versatile in the studio than dynamics, if also more expensive by and large. Oh, and don’t forget to budget for a stand to mount it on, too. Find your voice with the best vocal mics Shure SM58 | £92/$99 A durable cardioid dynamic mic built for the live arena first and foremost, the SM58 is well suited to recording drums and guitar amps, as well as vocals of the more aggressively delivered kind. IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio | £129/$149.99 Connecting directly to your computer via USB, IK’s large diaphragm (1”) condenser is small but perfectly formed, recording at up to 24-bit/48kHz quality, and including a minijack headphone output for convenient monitoring. Rode NT1 | £239/$269 Found in countless home studios around the world, the reimagined NT1 is a large-diaphragm (1”) cardioid condenser, renowned for its very low noise floor and warm, accurate sound. An outstanding option for vocals and acoustic guitar.


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