Choosing Your Home Studio Recording Gear
Choosing your gear is a long journey, but part of the fun.
1. Recording Interface
Step One: Get a digital recording interface. This converts an analog signal (microphone, instrument analog out) to digital. The price depends on the quality of the preamps, the latency (speed) of the interface, and the number of simultaneous channels you can capture.
If you have Thunderbolt 3 ports on your Mac, the newer Presonus Quantum Series interfaces reduce round trip latency to near zero ($600-$1,500). I really like the Presonus Quantum 2626 (8 channels, expandable to 24 with two ADAT preamps).
If you are recording vocals only you will need one channel and one mic.
If you are recording a horn, acoustic bass, or mic'd PA cabinet you may want two channels and two mics - one channel for the instrument mic and one (with an on/off switch like the Shure M58 switchable) for a vocal microphone. Even if you are not recording vocals, you probably want to have a second mic and a second channel for a talkback mic for online collaboration - set up each mic for optimal positioning and output gain.
If you are recording a direct one channel instrument like electric bass, you can plug your 1/4 inch instrument cable into channel one (almost all of the interfaces above have a dual input for channels 1 and 2 that will accept 1/4 inch instrument level or XLR) and your vocal mic into channel 2. Or you can mic your cabinet and plug that mic cable into your interface.
If you are recording a two channel direct instrument such as a keyboard with internal sounds you can send 1/4 inch direct outs to channels 1 and 2 (if the interface takes line level 1/4 inch on channels 1 and 2). But if you also want a vocal mic for online collaboration, you will need a 4 channel or greater interface so you can plug a vocal mic into channel 3.
For drums you really need at least 4 channels, and generally 8 or more. Start with two overheads, one mic on kick, and one mic on snare and grow from there. If you get a 4 channel unit you can use the overheads for your vocal mic for collaboration, but it is easier and better to have a dedicated vocal mic with a switch if you have the channels.
2. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Your DAW is the software that captures the signal from your interface and lets you process, record, mix and master your recordings. It also allows you to connect a MIDI keyboard to your computer and then use voices from your DAW for that instrument.
All of the major DAWs are hardware agnostic, so you can use either a Mac or a Windows PC. (Note that Windows users will need to install and use an Asio sound driver such as the free Asio4All instead of the standard Windows sound driver.)
That said, the audio technology and plug and play is superior on a Mac. My recommendation is that you start with the hardware you already own (including Windows), and then decide if you need to upgrade as you go along. I currently use Mac Minis for tracking and mixing, but I have used also use a Macbook Pro. A Macbook Air will work for smaller sessions. Apple's Mac Studio is the gold standard for digital creators, but it is overkill for most home studios.
The most commonly used DAW in the professional world is Pro Tools from Avid. It has been around the longest, and many engineers find it easy to use because they learned the keyboard shortcuts long ago. It also makes it easy to pass a session from one engineer to another. That said, I don't like Pro Tools, and I am not alone in that camp. It is old technology, and has a steep learning curve. Apple's Logic Pro (Mac only) is very popular amongst the Mac based solo singer/songwriter set for its power and flexibility.
I prefer Presonus' Studio One DAW and have used it since its first version was released many years ago. It is intuitive, extremely powerful, and also has a fully integrated mastering suite. I find its workflows to be super efficient. You can ease into the Studio One world by starting with the free Prime version, and later upgrading to the Artist or Pro version. As an alternative to purchasing a license, I subscribe to Presonus Sphere, which gives you access to the latest version of Studio One Pro and all of the plug-ins and software that Presonus makes. It is a great deal at 15 bucks a month
There are lots of online resources to help you learn how to use Studio One including the free resources on Presonus' YouTube Channels. Presonus' Joe Gilder's channel focuses on recording and mixing live instruments, while his colleague Gregor's channel approaches many of the same objectives from the virtual instrument side.
Joe Gilder additionally offers free videos on mixing and mastering in Studio One in his Home Studio Corner, and also offers three excellent paid courses on recording, mixing, and mastering that are not limited to Studio One, but use Studio One in the videos.
The array of microphone types and choices is huge, and personal taste as well as the situation plays a huge role. Most home studios have some dynamic mics (generally moving coil) and some condenser mics.
Dynamic mics: Sturdy, reliable, and often affordable, moving coil dynamic mics convert sound into an electronic signal using electromagnetism. In many live settings and home studios the Shure SM-58 is a workhorse for vocals. It comes in a switchable model which is useful for on-stage work as well as convenience when using it as a talkback mic when collaborating virtually. The Shure SM-57 is similar, but is tailored for use with live instruments, especially recording an amp cabinet. There are countless other choices as well.
Large diaphragm condenser mics are used in the studio for mid to low frequency applications such as vocals, acoustic bass and horns. Many modern large diaphragm condensers such as the Warm Audio or the Roswell Pro Audio mics attempt to emulate the classic Neumann mics at a more affordable price point.
Small diaphragm condenser mics are used for higher frequency capture such as drum overheads (cymbals) or orchestral woodwinds.
4. Amp Modeling Plug-Ins
Amp modeling plug-ins allow an electric guitar or electric bass player to plug directly into the recording interface using an instrument cable and then add a myriad of software and sample based sounds to that dry (no effects) signal inside the DAW. The recorded signal is dry and the mixing engineer adds effects during the mixing sessions later either by adjusting the amp simulator to taste, or by re-amping the track - playing the dry signal out from a monitor channel of the interface through a re-amp box which is connected to the amp head and cabinet of choice (as well as a physical pedal board if desired), and then recording that live with a mic.
During the tracking session the player hears the amp modeler output in the monitor mix, but then the mix engineer can take more time making creative choices later. Aside from the convenience of a player walking into a session (or gig) with only their guitar/bass and no amp head or cabinet it can alleviate some of the anxiety of a time pressured tracking session.
5. Studio Monitors
Studio (or near-field) monitors are speakers which have been optimized for flat response and placement in close proximity of the listener. That makes them ideal for mixing, or previewing takes in the tracking studio. Monitors aren't required - you can certainly preview takes and mix using headphones - but using monitors to mix will prevent ear fatigue and will be more comfortable during long mix sessions. I use the Presonus Eris E8-XT monitors at my mixing station, and their much smaller and more affordable cousins, the Presonus Eris E3.5 monitors for quick checks of takes in my tracking space.
There is an extremely wide array of excellent choices for studio monitors including JBL, Yamaha, and many others.
6. Headphones and Headphone Amp
You'll need at least one pair of headphones for tracking. The classic choice (which I use) are the Sony MDR-7506 headphones. I have also had a good experience with the slightly more affordable Presonus HD7 headphones.
Most interfaces have two headphone jacks, so if you are recording one artist and using one audio engineer, you are set. But if you are recording the whole band at once, you will need a way of sending each person a headphone mix. I use the Presonus HP60 headphone amp, with six nicely amplified headphone channels, but there are plenty of similar alternatives. In its simplest configuration you route the main outs (or the first pair of line outs if you have connected your studio monitors to the main outs) from your interface to the main in of the HP60. In that configuration you can share the main stereo mix with 6 musicians/engineers on the HP60 and 2 more on the interface.
The next step above that is to route busses in your DAW that capture each musician, and send either a mono or stereo mix of that bus to an Aux Out on the interface, and wire that Aux Out to the second input for each channel of the HP60. Then you can give each of the 6 musicians "more me" on top of their main mix. Each interface has its own number of mono Aux Outs which limits the number of channels you can send. With six Aux Outs, for example, you can send up to two stereo busses (e.g. piano and drums) and two mono busses to the "more me" on the HP60.
One step above that is to set up separate monitor mixes for each musician in your DAW and send those to each headphone input instead of the "more me." The drawback there is that as in the "more me" case, many interfaces have a limited number of Aux Outs. With six Aux Outs you can send up to three custom stereo mixes (and send duplicates to some musicians if you have more than three) or send up to six musicians mono monitor mixes. One of the cool things about Presonus is the QMix app which lets each musician control their own monitor mix from their iPhone or iPad once properly setup.
In my case I generally have four musicians tracking simultaneously, and my interface only has six Aux Outs, so I send the single stereo main mix and a "more me" Aux Out to each headphone channel (two stereo and two mono), and I manually control the overall volume level and "more me" level for each musician as requested.