Home Music Studio Essentials – 16 Things You Need to Know About

When I first started my home studio many years ago, DAWs were not that reliable. I often had problems with the interface device, recording, and mixing due to the technology that was available at the time. I finally opted for a Tascam Neo 24 track as that was the only device available within my budget to record a full drum kit. The Tascam was great for recording but was very cumbersome when it came to mixing.

Thankfully, things have moved on a lot since I started out, and it is now easier than ever to get started with your own home studio setup. Depending on what your goals are for your home studio, be it just mixing and mastering, or recording too, there are a host of options available to get you started.

As far as equipment goes, in essence, you are going to need a decent desktop computer, or laptop, an audio interface, a good pair of studio-quality speakers, some quality cables, and if budget allows high-end pair of studio-quality headphones. If you’re thinking of recording too, you’re going to need some essential microphones, and probably a couple of mic stands.

Other resources on the Internet provide plenty of information about the best equipment for beginners, but nobody really gets into the “real” essentials there are needed to put together and run a home studio.

One post lists the essential 33 items that are required! Thirty-three! Not one of the 33 things mentions the importance of developing your own “essential” know-how and skill to run your own home studio - which in my view is more essential than a chair or an electronic drum kit!

That is why this post is going to focus on what is really “essential” when it comes to running a home studio. I’m not saying that equipment is not essential, but from my own experience, tools and equipment are easy to research and get a hold of. Just set your budget and get the best deal around.

Having the best gear is not going to make you the best home recording, mixing, or mastering engineer. But having access to information, practice resource, a like-minded community, and understanding the skills required to take on a new venture are.

The Essentials of Acquiring New Skills

The area of music recording and production is as broad as it is deep. To the beginner, a home studio is an exciting prospect but can seem very mysterious and unfathomable in the early days. Audio production involves a great deal of technical know-how as well as background knowledge and requires novices to practice and perfect productions step by step.


Essentials of Acquiring New Skills

To attain professional results takes time and effort and is a steep learning curve for most people. The truth, however, is that for those who persevere acquiring the new skills needed to produce commercial quality audio is a huge reward. If developed correctly, progress can be made step-by-step, and rewards collected along the way.

I would advise you to develop new skills by reading material for experts, joining an online forum or discussion group, and getting hold of material with which to practice.

The Written Word

While YouTube videos are phenomenal resources to learn new skills, the traditional, proven learning form of the written word is, in my opinion, still the best way to study anything. And this is probably more true for any technology-based subject like audio production. The beauty of books and web articles are that time can be taken to understand, digest, and refer back to quickly while working in your home studio.

Essential Reading Material in a Home Studio

The benefit of published books is that they have been written and edited by professionals in the field of audio engineering. The information on the books is difficult to dispute or ignore. While YouTube videos can provide useful tips to the masses, they are not necessarily always correct, and sometimes offer advice which is simply wrong.

It is no secret that I am a fan of the following books:

  • Mixing Audio by Roey Izhaki (read the for review here)
  • Mixing Secrets by Mike Senior
  • Mastering Audio, The Art and the Science by Bob Katz
  • The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski
  • The Studio Builders Handbook by Bobby Owsinski and Dennis Moody

My own dog eared copy of “Mixing Audio” was read cover to cover more than one time while I got to grips with my own home studio. This book, in particular, lays out a roadmap to follow and develop your mixing skills. It is written in a clear, concise, and digestible style. If you have a limited budget for reading material, I highly recommend spending your money on this one first.

In fact, all of the books above have been read more than once, and not only do they provide excellent learning material, but they also offer fantastic reference material. “Mixing Secrets” is another superb book on mixing, while “Mastering Audio” is perfect for understanding the more in-depth science of audio and its place in the realm of mastering. Mike Senior, Bob Katz, and Bobby Owsinski all provide excellent learning and reference material.

Community-based Learning

Essentials of Acquiring New Skills

You may be lucky enough to have a friend or acquaintance who also shares your passion for home studio productions. This is not uncommon as many musicians like to dabble in audio production. These friends and acquaintances can provide a great source of practical knowledge and inspiration, and you would be well advised to share ideas, problems, and triumphs.

The biggest communities, however, can be found online in such places as gearsluts.com, reddit.com, kvraudio.com, and soundonsound.com. The forums themselves provide a great deal of information on just about every topic imaginable. The members are typically accommodating, but do expect new members to scour and search for answers before posting. They are very encouraging to those who make an effort.

Just remember while reviewing and receiving help and advice from a forum that, a lot of the time, the answers are often opinion-based, and will not always directly answer your question. A standard answer when asking questions about mixing on gearsluts.com, for example, is “just use your ears!” - something which is not particularly helpful when you’re first starting out.

Getting Hold of Practice Material

Probably the best way to learn anything is with good old-fashioned hands-on experience. You may have already tried recording and mixing your own material, but you have little idea how it compares to the professionals or other home studio owners.

It can take months to understand that your setup, recording equipment, studio monitors, studio headphones can yield more than adequate results, but it is your technical know-how and expertise the make your productions fall short when compared to a reference track.

Using practice material recorded elsewhere can provide a unique opportunity to benchmark your own skills. My favorite place to do this is at Mike Senior’s Cambridge Music Technology Forum (http://discussion.cambridge-mt.com). This forum provides sample tracks for download which can be loaded into your DAW, worked on, and uploaded back to the forum thread for review by the community.
The forum provides an excellent way to get hold of new practice material and receive feedback about your work - the community always offer polite, encouraging evaluations. The forum also allows you to hear other members work and compare it to your own - something which is highly useful as all finished work comes from the same raw downloaded tracks.
There are also paid communities available where practice material is made available along with detailed explanations of how they are mixed by professionals. These communities are highly informative but do come with a price tag.

Essential Ideas to Learn about and Understand

There are things the professional recording, mixing and mastering engineers do they can easily be duplicated to a home studio. Imitating the ideas will cost you nothing except for a little time, but will have a significant impact on your time in the studio and the quality of the work you produce.

In the next few sections of the article, we are going to discuss the workspace, work practices, and planning and organization. We will also look at the essential techniques and processes required to get your productions moving in the right direction from the get-go.

There are several items in my article “59 Home Music Studio Tips That Will Save You Time and Money” that are related to the following essential ideas. I will summarise them here check out that article for more detailed information.

Workflow

Planning and understanding your workflow will definitely help you when working on existing and new projects. Try to take a simple approach to everything that you do in your home studio and stay objective as you work. Try to prioritize your time and processes We all work in different ways, so set up your workflow to suit your own needs. For example, when mixing, many engineers start with the drums, then the bass guitar, then the vocals, and so on.


Home Music Studio Workflow Organization

Organizing the Workspace

The benefits of organizing your workspace are too many to mention here. However, it is easy to understand how knowing where everything is stored and located will help to smooth out the processes of recording and mixing. Do not allow anything to hinder your creative journey!

Organize your session too, by placing tracks in the order that you will work on them and by color coding each one. Think about creating your own template to use as a starting point for a new project.

Essential Work Practices

  1. Fix performance issues early on
  2. Clean up the low end
  3. Backup work regularly
  4. Avoid ear fatigue
  5. Use a good pair of headphones for listening to the low end
  6. Use reference mixes to compare your work to others
  7. Listen to the finished mix or master different volume levels
  8. Listen using multiple environments
  9. Planning and Organizing Work

As a seasoned global project manager from the automotive industry, I find this part of managing a home studio one of my favorites. I understand this activity is not for everyone, but I highly recommend putting energy into this area as the rewards far outweigh the initial effort. Planning and organizing work can be summarised as follows:

  • Working to a daily plan
  • Working to a deadline
  • Making a hit list (action item list)
  • Planning how much time you will spend on a high volume environment

The last item on this list is essential so that you do not suffer from ear fatigue (for more information on ear fatigue read the article here).

Comparing Changes at Equal Volume (A/B-Ing)

When we listen to music at low levels we are not as sensitive to the low frequencies and high frequencies as we are with high levels (for more information on this read the article about the Fletcher Munson curve here). Therefore, we generally prefer music when it is played louder.

During mixing or mastering, regardless of the processing we make to the audio while comparing (A/B-ing), the louder one will usually sound better than the quieter one. And so, as a result, the decision-making is biased towards the louder option, which we believe is “better.”

To overcome this problem, it is essential to compare changes at equal volume levels. Some plug-ins have an equal volume compensation built-in, but many require that the user manually adjusts the make-up gain. It can be challenging to judge equal volume between two options, but this is something which can be improved over time. In the meantime, help is at hand with a simple visual meter - simply ensure that the A/B audios register the same amount on the meter.

DAW Shortcuts

Home Music Studio Workflow Organization

Make a point of learning at least 10 keyboard shortcuts that you can utilize while working. For example, use keyboard shortcuts to:

  • Insert a new track
  • Switch between windows
  • Start and stop audio
  • Save your session
  • Set your session to record

Set up keyboard shortcuts to perform the actions that you find yourself doing most of the time. In the long run this will increase your speed of working, and therefore, your work efficiency. A keyboard shortcut will typically save four or five mouse moves.

Using Groups and Buses

It is essential to learn how to master the use of groups and share buses in your DAW. These two simple features added to a session will save you time, computer processing power, as well as help to keep things simple and easy to trace audio routings.

Essential Plug-Ins

The home studio market has exploded in recent times, and as a result, the market is now saturated (no pun intended) with plug-ins made by individuals, boutique companies, and large commercial companies. A myriad of effects and processes are available for free, or at budgets suitable for all customers.

With the vast choice available, it is easy to be sucked into owning more plug-ins than is probably healthy for a beginner to own. From my own experience, I was so passionate about getting my mixes to sound great that I invested (probably too much!) cash into plug-ins that were very cool, but very unnecessary!

There are only a few essential audio processors that you need in your mixing arsenal, they all come free with your DAW, and they should all be studied and understood to the nth degree. As a beginner, don’t be misled that your mix will suddenly sound great just because of one new plug-in. Mixing it is not that simple.

The essential plug-ins are EQ, compression, delay, reverb, and panning. Become proficient with these five processes alone will get you to 80% of where you want to go. These are so essential that I am going to list them one more time:

  • EQ
  • Compression
  • Delay
  • Reverb
  • Panning

Becoming skilled at these five plug-ins should be your primary goal when mixing. Consider them as five essential skills. If you want to learn more about these effects, please check out the article “Top 17 Audio Mixing Effects for a Home Studio” here.

Maximizing a Mix

If you’re ready to release your music into the big world, you may be thinking of platforms like iTunes or Spotify. You could take the route of sending your mix to a professional mastering engineer who will produce your “radio-ready” final product. However, as these services can be expensive, most home studio owners opt for “Mastering” their own productions.

Real Mastering requires a different set of skills and equipment (see the article “What Is the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?” here.) Even though home studio owners talk about mastering their own mixes, the truth is that their mixes (often produced a very high level) are simply “maximized” to a target loudness level.

This is an essential distinction to make and an important step to understand. For example, when submitting audio to Spotify, to prevent distortion during playback, the mix should be maximized to a target loudness level of -14 dB LUFS (integrated) and True Peak below -1 dB. For iTunes, target loudness level is -16 dB LUFS, and YouTube -13 dB LUFS.

The Essential Summary

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that sources on the Internet advise that the essentials for a home studio should only be concerned with equipment. While I wholeheartedly disagree that equipment is the primary “essential” consideration for someone looking to set up a studio, I do resign to the fact that equipment and the setup of equipment plays a big enough part in the setup process to warrant some final comments.

As I have mentioned earlier, a good computer, USB audio interface, and monitors are necessary to get started. Other areas that merit discussion includes a great pair of headphones, room acoustic treatments, monitor isolation pads, understanding correct placement of studio monitors, the use of an Aurotone mono speaker, how to get good vocal sounds, why XLR cables are necessary, and the use of a pop filter.

I would, therefore, recommend that it is essential that you take a look at the list of articles written for this website, as they include all of the above, plus more on what I consider to be the most important things to learn and understand while setting up and running your own home studio.