Setting Up A Home Recording Studio On Your Computer - Part 1
This is the first in our "how to set up a home recording studio" series, designed to walk you through how to build a computer-based audio recording studio. You'll also learn how you can get the best possible audio for the lowest possible cost.
Setting Up a Home Studio on Your Computer
What do you think you'd have to do to record professional sounding audio for music, voiceovers, etc? Do you think you need expensive microphones, interfaces and other gear? Most people do.
Maybe you think you have to go into a commercial studio and pay their expensive rates? Well, you're not alone. Most people do.
Is it true?
Here is the truth. With some basic knowledge (and not even "hard" knowledge) you can get professional sounding audio with gear less than $100. That is assuming you already have a computer - a normal, every-day computer.
Before we talk about gear and how to set things up, I want to let you in a bit of a secret. Good audio is NOT guaranteed just because you bought a Neumann microphone (Amazon/ B&H) and the industry standard Pro Tools (Amazon/B&H) recording software.
Knowledge Is More Important Than Expensive Gear
Regardless of your set-up, if you know what you're doing, you can produce decent audio from the cheapest recording gear. But LACK of knowledge causes lots of folks to make crappy recordings even with expensive gear.
I'll give you 4 tips for doing this (the getting decent audio part). First a disclaimer. It is true that better quality/higher priced microphones and other equipment can create better audio than the cheapest gear. But ONLY if you know a bit about what you’re doing!
If you know what you're doing, you can get decent audio from the cheapest gear. But LACK of knowledge causes lots of folks to make crappy recordings even with expensive gear.
On the other hand, if you DO know what you’re doing, you can do something amazing. You can produce better audio with a plastic PC microphone than someone with no experience using recording equipment worth 100 times more!
How can I be so specific?
Because during the first Home Brew Audio podcast, we compared the sound quality of some spoken-word stuff made with gear costing $5.00 against a setup costing $500.
The result was obvious to even the most casual listener. The $5.00 studio was better! If you’d like to hear that for yourself, check out our post where there are two audio samples of what I’m talking about: The $5 Mic Versus the $500 Mic.
If your primary purpose for recording audio is to create voice-overs, podcasts, or video narrations, the news is even better. You'll need a lot less gear compared to a music recording studio. So the path to truly excellent audio quality is much shorter and less expensive.
What Are The Basics of Recording On a Computer-Based Home Studio?
- A microphone captures the sound
- A sound card or audio interface converts the sound to ones and zeros (digital audio).
- A recording program reads the digital audio, allowing you to edit, save, etc.
The most important stuff often happens before the sound even reaches the microphone - such as preventing noise, for which we have a few important tips coming up. But first I'd like to introduce the basic home studio configurations.
The 2 Home Studio Setups
We see computer recording studios as having one of two set-up configurations:
Setup 1: A microphone plugged directly into the computer, either via the sound card or a USB port.
Setup 2: A microphone plugged into an interface box or other 3rd-party device designed to accept a standard 3-pin microphone cable.
So the most basic home studio will be a computer microphone plugged into a computer sound card (configuration #1), along with recording software on the computer. You can do that for $5.00 if you use a common plastic pc mic. But it would be really hard to record pro quality audio from that.
The second setup uses a standard microphone (XLR/3-pin) plugged into an audio interface (preamp plus analog-to-digital converter), which then connects to a computer, usually with a USB cable. This is the same way that even pro studios use.
In both of these setups, you will need at least some way to hear the audio. You CAN start with regular computer speakers and headphones. Though if you will be recording music, you'll eventually need some studio monitors as well. But we'll talk about that in part 5.
In this post - part 1 AND 2 of this series - I talk about maybe the biggest impediment to good audio quality in home studios. And that is noise.
So what is the first step?
OK then, how do you improve audio quality regardless of what configuration you use? The answer is all about the noise. Noise -Noise- Noise!
First, we do as much as possible to prevent noise even getting to the microphone. Then prevent as much of the internal noise as possible, like electronic stuff (buzz and the like) from the computer, cables, interface, etc.
Then we reduce and/or eliminate as much of the noise that inevitably does gets recorded as possible using audio software.
Why The Emphasis on Noise?
The goal of recording, say, a voice is to capture what that voice sounds like as accurately as possible. The more noise there is in the recording, the less of the pure voice you will hear during playback.
So the biggest enemy of good audio is noise. And I don't just mean hiss, lawn mowers, barking dogs, electrical hum and static, etc. "Noise" is anything that is not the thing you are trying to record. That is called the "signal.” And it can also include echos of the signal.
This is usually referred to as "room sound," which turns out to be the most common and oft-offending noise there is. This is the most common problem for any home recording studio.
Prevent The Noise
In a perfect world, you would have a great recording space where the room sound actually complements the signal. These types of spaces are rare, especially for those of us recording at home where we mostly use converted bedrooms and the like.
The second best option is to have a vocal isolation booth, treated with materials designed to absorb echos to dampen room noise, allowing you to record only the signal.
If you can't obtain (buy or build) a properly treated booth, the next best thing is probably to use acoustic treatment products that help block or otherwise interfere with room sound noise.
One excellent option would be to put acoustic foam on your walls. This stuff is specifically designed to reduce room echo and reverb. One good option is Auralex Acoustics Sound Damping Products (Amazon.com link).
In the next installment of this series, we will take a look at some examples of booths and baffles mentioned above.
See you then!
By the way, I created a video of this series. This 2-part video encompasses all 5 parts of this series of articles. Part 1 is below:
In addition to the hardware based noise reduction that you have mentioned, you can also use software tools. For example on Windows platform you can use SoliCall Pro - http://www.solicall.com/products.html#AddOnPro - to filter out noise and/or echo. This software also has the capability of recording. I am not familiar of similar programs for Mac but I am sure there are few.
Ok, so what's your solution to the other biggest background noises - children screaming your name (Mom!), dogs barking, doorbell ringing, etc.? Only kidding. That's what padded cells with locks are for, right?
Absolutely Sharyn:). But I'm not sure I have an affiliate link for "padded cell with lock" just yet.;).
One great way to minimize background noise is by getting a DYNAMIC microphone with a narrow CARDIOID pickup pattern rather than a Condenser mic and/or one with a Omnidirectional pickup pattern. In that case, you need a decent external pre-amp that can hopefully give you some kind of digital output: either USB or SPDIF. Note that "USB Mics" are usually condenser mics. In fact, it's getting hard to find good dynamic mics. My fav is the Sennheiser 441.
Another tip that people are not aware of: Apple's computer products have had low-noise 24-bit / 96kHz A/D-D/A converters built into their laptop and desktop equipment for nearly a decade now. It used to be easy to find these details, but they've made these specs very hard to find.
So if you own any Apple computer that runs OS X V10.x (and certainly any one with an Intel CPU on it), then you do NOT need any kind of external A/D-D/A converter! Just a good low-noise mixer.
WARNING: A lot of low-end mixers with A/D-D/A converters built-in actually have WORSE specs than what Apple builds-in to their hardware.
Thanks David. Yeah, you beat me to the punch;). Part 2 of this series talks about using the cardioid pickup pattern to reduce noise. Having tested other dynamics like the Shure SM58 for recorded voice-over stuff, it just doesn't stand up quality-wise to an LDC. I wouldn't use a dynamic mic for this unless you can afford an EV RE20 (~$385). Then I'd agree. I'll actually add that to my tips. Thanks!
PS - you also beat me to the punch regarding not using mixing boards for home recording studios, for oh-so-many reasons.
im new to all this and the noise from my room drives me crazy i have at least 800 to 1000 dollar worth of gear with no knowladge but im learning and geting only my voice recorded and uderstanding the diffrent software has been my thorn but thanks for your advice.j-40
[…] See the part 1 of the series here: https://www.homebrewaudio.com/how-to-build-a-home-recording-studio-part-1 […]
I would add more details regarding cables. They can add issue and leave you scratching your head. I had issues from a usb cable that didn't have any protection that was going from my sound card to the computer and was picking up a lot of noise in back of the computer where there are tons of other cables. Took a while to figure out but once I replaced it with a cable that had ferrite beads on it and the issue was solved. So, yeah,I think cables matter, even the ones we don't pay much attention to.
Thanks for that tip!
You can use pure crap equipment along and get good quality sounds. The best advice is experimenting and save two copies ad you go along so if you can't undo something you did at least you have a few steps before you fucked it up lol
I agree that you can make crap equipment sound better than it usually does. But there are limitations. The key is to understand how to get the best possible sound from whatever gear - even the crap stuff - first. That way, when you DO level up to better gear, you'll always be able to make it sound as good as possible.