Recording Studio on a Budget

A good client of mine messaged me earlier this week about recording and performance equipment, e.g. practicing for singing with a band, or backing tracks, or recording studio on a budget. I’ve spent quite some time figuring out my own vocal studio gear over the years, so I thought it was worth putting down my recommendations here as well, for others who may well be interested.

Before we get started, we need to point out that the order you should buy these in will differ if you’re looking to record versus if you are wanting to practice with backing tracks etc. If you just want to practice with backing tracks then monitors/speakers would be the first port of call. If you are wanting to record vocals and mix songs etc then I’d say audio interface, headphones, and a decent microphone is your first port of call. As you add more equipment (like all of the following) you’ll find the setups start to converge.

Monitors/Speakers
You’ll need these to listen back to your music, and certainly if you want to practice singing along with a track with decent volume (without headphones) then these are a good call. Hi-fi speakers will also do in pinch, but if you’re reading this you are probably looking to start making headway into kitting out your own little studio.

I would very much recommend the Presonus Eris E4.5 monitors. They are small, decent and balanced sound output, and very affordable for a pair. Other options are Yamaha HS series, Adam Audio, etc, however these are around the same price as the Presonus but for just ONE speaker, so for a cost effective option I’d steer you towards the Presonus to begin with. You can then upgrade or go deeper as time wears on.


You can purchase these monitors from Amazon via this link

 

Headphones
If you don’t want to have speakers cluttering up your area, or maybe all your mixing/recording needs to be done on headphones, then I highly recommend these Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros. Great quality sound and extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods. These are closed back which makes them ideal for monitoring your vocals when doing vocal takes, recording, re-recording, etc. If I had to pick between these and monitors, I’d pick these for these versatility, portability, and excellent sound.


You can purchase these headphones from Amazon via this link

 

Audio Interface
For recording, a good audio interface is the nexus for your whole setup. What you’re recording (whether instruments, mics, etc) will all run into this and be the highway along which your sound travels. The higher the quality of interface, the more options you’ll have, and the fewer issues you are likely to run into… at least from your equipment!

I would highly recommend the Focusrite range of audio interfaces, especially the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, and ESPECIALLY the generation 3 variant. I upgraded to a Focusrite Clarett this year which was substantially more expensive (it’s their midrange option). This was because it has various high-tech and sound features over the Scarlett (lower end range)… and Focusrite have literally just announced (at time of writing) that they’ve put most of these very same features into even their lowest priced £99 interface. Amazing value to be had here. I’d recommend the 2i2 over the barebones solo for MOST people, just because the options you gain from the one level up gives you room to grow in the future.

The Scarlett 2i2 (3rd gen) is excellent, and only a little more costly than the cheapest interface, but is brimming with features and high quality sound.


You can purchase this interface from Amazon via this link

BONUS: All Focusrite interfaces come with starter versions of Ableton Live and Protools, which are two highly regarded digital audio workstations.

Digital audio workstations (DAWs) are essentially bits of software that enable you to capture audio you record, even create music using virtual instruments, and turn it into a song that you can post, share, stream, or even make a CD of. Getting good results from a DAW does require work to get good at (like anything) but is an essential part of your home setup. It also gets you discount on upgrading to a full version of each DAW in the future.

I personally use Ableton Live, but this is because it was the first DAW I ever started with. At this stage in the development of DAWs, they are all extremely good, and functionally identical for most things. Each does some things better than the others, but fundamentally for recording almost any pro DAW will work well, ergo getting free copies of Ableton and Protools via your audio interface is a great way to start.
 

Microphone (Dynamic)
If you’re wanting to practice singing along with backing tracks or singing with a band, or you want to record your voice but have an imperfect sounding room that affects the quality of your recording, a dynamic microphone is a good place to start. This is a kind of microphone that uses a transducer (i.e. what picks up the sound from your voice and turns it into an electrical signal to go into your audio interface) made up of a coil of wire and a diaphragm with a magnet attached. Your voice moves the diaphragm and the magnet, this moves through the coil of wire, induces a current, and hey presto – electrical current representative of the sound you made. Because it’s a fairly robust construction, they are reliable live microphones and hard to break or damage.

Many opt for the classic Shure SM58 (or even the SM58 Beta). This is a true classic, used on countless records, but like anything with an established brand, it relies on it’s name to sell at a higher price for not necessarily a better product. As such, I personally enjoy using the Rode M1. It’s very similar in design and sound to the SM58, but I find the top end to be far more flattering than the SM58, and the midrange to be more refined. It’s also about 30-40% cheaper than an SM58, which doesn’t hurt!


You can purchase this microphone from Amazon via this link

 

Microphone (Condenser)
If you are wanting to primarily record your voice, and especially if you are a female singer or someone who has a lot of detail in their voice, maybe singing pop, jazz, RnB, etc, you’re likely to want a condenser microphone. These are far less robust than dynamic microphones and are used almost exclusively in the recording studio. They utilise a different means of capturing sound, and use two wafer thin gold foil diaphragms, each having a small charge on them. Sound moves at least one side of the diaphragm and means it moves slightly relative to the other diaphragm. This causes a change in charge on the diaphragms, which is representative of the sound you made and translates to a current in the microphone cable connecting to your interface. There are HUGE numbers of condenser microphones out there, and many are very, very good, but many are very, very bad.

I’m torn on recommendations for this category because I recently upgraded my microphone and am blown away by the quality of the new one, but the old one is still within spitting distance of it.

BUDGET: SE X1 S condenser microphone –

You can purchase this microphone from Amazon via this link

BUDGET-PLUS: AKG C214 condenser microphone –

You can purchase this microphone from Amazon via this link

As you can see, both microphones are on a similar order of magnitude price-wise. If you have literally no mic stand, cables, etc, you may find the SE X1 a more cost-effective way to start. The top end is nice enough but a little brittle from time to time, you may need to treat the sound a little bit more in your digital audio workstation (which requires more effort to learn).

The AKG C214 on the other hand is a derivative of one of the most classic microphones of all time, the AKG C414. If you are interested, both use the same capsules (the little disc shaped thing inside it that picks up sound), but where the C414 has TWO capsules, the C214 just has one, hence the lower cost. The clarity and detail on this thing is exceptional, as is the warmth, but the top end on this thing is truly incredible.

There has NEVER been a better time to buy recording gear

Recording gear these days is exceptional quality for remarkably little money. What you see above is more or less the setup I’ve ended up using for at least 2-3 years of recording and I’ve had great results with.

Since then, some things have been upgraded a little (e.g. audio interface, microphone, monitors), but you really can get exceptional quality recordings out of the above equipment. The great news is you should be able to set up a decent recording AND performance practice studio for under £500 (monitors, headphones, dynamic or condenser microphone and my recommended audio interface).

If you want to get really budget you could opt for the Rode M1 (~£60), the Focusrite Scarlett Solo (the cheapest of the recommended range of interfaces, ~£99) and just go for the Beyerdynamic headphones (~£99), and you’ve got a killer live AND performance practice studio for close to £250. Obviously the sky is the limit on what you COULD spend, but I’d strongly recommend the above equipment as a great and affordable starting point.

Good luck!

Learn More: Related Articles

If you want to learn more about recording, you can find out more by visiting these related articles:
Recorded vs Live Performance: Which is harder?
How to Sing When Recording
Vocal Comping to Get the Best Vocal Take
Live vs Recorded Vocals: Our own double standards
Five Common Vocal Misconceptions (check number 5)

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