I get asked this question a lot from my students and from people who visit the website. Most of them have never opened a copy of Pro Tools, Logic Pro or even experimented with Garage Band. However, like many musicians, they get drawn towards the idea of starting a simple home studio.
To be honest, this question is ‘music to my ears’. Making music at home is the biggest passion in my life, and I am always willing to share my knowledge and experience.
So, how do you set up a simple home music studio? The easiest way to get started is to use what is already around you. And, in the spirit, of keeping things VERY simple, I recommend a laptop (or desktop), a pair of over-ear headphones, a little bit of tuition (provided by me). That is it. You won’t need ANYTHING else to get started.
You will be surprised how much can be achieved and learned, with just two fundamental pieces of equipment. With access to the internet, you are in a position where you can take advantage of music software, get access to practice material, join like-minded groups, and learn enough from professionals and amateurs to get on track in no time at all. And it won’t cost a penny.
Taking this primary first step is also essential as you will learn ‘is this really for me?’ without wasting a load of time and money.
Figure 1: Minimum Requirements - A laptop and a pair of over-ear headphones
So let’s consider those two items that you probably already own:
As we are keeping things simple for now, don’t rush out and buy a pair of studio quality headphones just yet. Hunt around your home and see what you already have. You are looking for ‘over-ear’ headphones, not ‘in-ear’ ones like earbuds.
Gaming headphones can be used too. Gaming headphones tend to emphasise the bass much more than other regular types but that is ok for now.
What if I don’t have a suitable pair of over-ear headphones to use? Earbuds are going to be ok for now but if you feel like splashing out, and want a budget recommendation check out the Audio-Technica's ATH-M50X here.
Don’t expect that you can create iTunes release quality mixes with these headphones. Although you will be able to make your music sound awesome in these headphones, they will not necessarily translate to other listening environments.
Bear in mind, we chose regular headphones for now, as they were already available at your home. At this stage, we are keeping things simple, without getting out the credit card.
If you are curious why regular home headphones can’t be expected to produce ‘production-release’ level mixes read my article What Is the Difference Between Regular Headphones and Studio Headphones?
The headphone article explains fundamental and technical differences and also provides some advice on choosing studio headphones. You can also read my reviews on Best Home Studio Headphones here.
Can I use earbuds for mixing? Most ‘professionals’ are going answer ‘No!’ to this question, but I think it is fine for short periods, song arrangements, and non-critical editing. By non-critical I mean editing that isn’t ‘sonic’ in nature. For example, quantizing drum tracks, or editing fades. I have used earbuds in the past while sat in an airport, coffee shop, on a train, and even outside at the park in the springtime. Earbuds are also useful for reference listening.
Can I use my PC speakers for mixing? The answer to this is pretty much answered above. Except, I wouldn’t recommend using speakers ina public place!
Your windows laptop, windows desktop, MacBook or iMac are most likely capable of running music software. Provided you have access to the internet you will be able to download any one of several free DAWs to get yourself started. A few that spring to mind are:
Pro Tools First requires Windows 7 (64-bit) Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate Editions or Windows 8/8.1 Standard and Pro Editions. Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2 GB of RAM and 15GB HDD space for installation.
Cakewalk and Traktion require Windows 7, 8/8.1 or 10 (32-bit), Intel i5 or AMD A10 processor, 4 GB of RAM, HDD space for installation.
I use a paid version of Pro Tools in my home studio, but for this guide, I will download and install Cakewalk and take you through some simple music-making steps.
The BandLabAssistant .exe file prompts you to create an account. You will need to provide your name and email or use an SNS account.
With the BandLabAssistant open click in Apps and Click the green install button. The install wizard will begin.
Figure 1: Cakewalk Install
At the second pop up don’t worry about the additional add ons for now, just click install again, and Cakewalk will start downloading.
Select your language, accept the user agreement and keep the default “Basic: (Cakewalk will install recommended components)”, default “VST Folder” location, and click INSTALL.
Figure 2: Cakewalk Open
The Green Install Button now turns to a Light Open Button. Opening Cakewalk will take you to the “Get Started’ routine where you:
Should I accept ‘Use Analytics to Improve Cakewalk’? Yes. These days analytics data is encrypted and anonymous and sent directly to Cakewalk’s servers for analysis. Participating means that you will be helping the community at large by providing data about usage, bugs and running efficiency.
That is pretty much it. You have the essential two pieces of equipment to start making and manipulating your music.
Further down the article, I provide a short recording of an acoustic guitar that we will import and manipulate in Cakewalk. I’ll walk you through that step by step, we'll enhance the audio with some EQ, and you’ll get to hear some very cool stereo effects using the built-in delay.
Scroll down to Step 4 if you can’t wait to have a go at that. If not, read the list of resources below. The budgeting calculator is a great way to do a little more research.
Some of you are maybe thinking that this advice is too simple. And would like to know more about studio monitors, audio interfaces, preamps, microphones and other cool stuff. I get that, so here is a list of articles I have compiled to help you move on and learn more about each area of a home studio.
For this ‘how-to guide,’ we will be using a short piece of audio I recorded at my home studio. A big shout out to my good buddy, Brian, for playing this short piece and letting me record it. Download the wav file and store it somewhere accessible on your hard drive. For this example, you can save the file onto your desktop.
To download the file: Click the three vertical dots on the right.
Each time you open Cakewalk, you will be presented with a ‘Let’s Get Started’ Screen. For our setup today, select Basic.cwt.
Figure 3: Cakewalk New Project
If all is going well, Cakewalk will show you a screen something like this:
Figure 4: Cakewalk Initial Project Screen
Next, click Preferences and check that the “Output Drivers” are routed to your headphones.
Figure 5: Cakewalk Output Drivers
Great. We are all set. The next step is to import the wav file that we downloaded earlier.
Right-click to the right of the button group, where the track shows 'dB-', and click "Import Audio..."
Figure 6: Cakewalk Import Audio
Navigate to the wav and open the file. Cakewalk will import the file, and you should now see something like this:
Figure 7: Cakewalk Audio Imported
Fantastic stuff, eh?? You should now be able to play the audio. Just hit the 'spacebar' to start and stop the audio playback.
When you listen to the audio (in your headphones), notice how the sound is 'centered' in the stereo field. Without getting too technical, this is a mono audio file that Cakewalk is sending equally to the right and left-hand channels.
Also, depending on your headphones, the guitar track will probably sound a little bass-heavy (muddy, or unclear) and needs clearing up a little. Don't worry if you can't hear that yet, as we will address it in the next step where we add some EQ.
Before we dive in and start chopping and changing the EQ of the recorded audio, let’s consider for a moment how we think the guitar sound can be improved.
First, we already established that the guitar has too much bass, so lets cut the frequencies from 80Hz (this cut is ‘normal’ for acoustic guitars, but not for other instruments).
Second, from experience, it will be cool if the guitar sounded a little brighter, and we gave it a little ‘air’. Let’s boost some frequencies above 2KHz.
We will adjust to suit our ears, but this is an excellent starting point. In Cakewalk, let's add the EQ filter.
Figure 8: Cakewalk EQ
Next, let’s cut the low end by adjusting Band 1. First, change the filter type to ‘Highpass’. Then, you can either drag the little yellow circle (with ‘1’ written in it) to adjust the frequency or change the numbers by typing into the boxes directly.
Freq = 80 and Q = 1.0
Figure 9: Cakewalk 80Hz Highpass
Let’s play the audio now and see if we can hear a difference. You can use the spacebar to start and stop audio playback. Play the audio with and without the EQ by selecting and de-selecting Bypass. I found it very difficult to hear any difference with my regular headphones but could hear a big difference using my Sennheiser HD800s. If you find it difficult to hear a difference, slide the frequency up to 200-230Hz – you should definitely be able to hear a difference with that much bass removed. Set the frequency back to 80Hz when you are done.
Great, now that that is taken care of let's brighten the sound up a touch. Dragging the little yellow circle (with ‘5’ written in it), adjust the frequency to where you think the guitar sounds best. Again, start and stop the audio with spacebar and toggle Bypass to listen for differences.
For me, on my regular headphones (1), this was 2449Hz and 11.3dB. Your settings will probably be different, and that is ok. I tested five pairs of my headphones to illustrate the differences (the Sennheiser HD800 Reference pair are ‘Studio Quality’ high-end headphones).
|No.||Headphones||Freq (Hz)||Gain (dB)|
|(1)||Skullcandy Hesh 2||2449||11.3|
Table 1: Highshelf EQ Headphone Comparison
I think it is interesting to see that the Reference headphones are set to half of the dB settings of (1) and (2). The results clearly show why regular headphones are not great for mixing.
Figure 10: Cakewalk 2KHz Highshelf
With the EQ now set you should be able to hear the higher notes of the guitar strings more clearly. In particular, listen to the fret noise at 00:00:06:08 and hear what the EQ is doing.
For the final step of this guide, we are going to add a 'stereo effect' using Cakewalk's stock plugin 'Sonitus Delay'.
Figure 10: Cakewalk Digital Delay
I am going to keep this part very simple but feel free to play around with the settings when you are done. Through the Presets Menu, select Short Rhythmic Delay 1.
Figure 11: Short Rhythmic Delay Preset
And finally! Set the mix to 25%. Play the audio. Toggle Bypass on and off to hear the difference the digital effect makes. Also, compare the original track, without EQ or Delay, and the finished track. And congratulations you have set up your 'simple home studio' and mixed your first piece of audio.
Figure 12: Rhythmic Delay Mix at 25%
Can you hear how adding small amounts of processing to a mono recorded track can enhance the sound and make it much more interesting?
Hopefully, you can hear the difference between the unprocessed audio and the processed audio. Although the digital delay is a little over-the-top for a ‘real’ mix, I hope that it demonstrated the stereo widening influence of a simple dealy. Notice how the delay creates a sense of space in the headphones. The main sound is still ‘centered’, but we can hear ‘echoes’ in the right and left channels.
For reference, here is the finalzed piece of audio (EQ 2449Hz, 11.3dB):
The EQ and Digital Delay effects are great plugins to understand and work with. However, Cakewalk has more stock plugins to explore. I encourage you to play with a few of the plugins, for example, the Dynamics, Modulation and Reverb effects, and figure out what they do and what they sound like. For more information on Home Studio Mixing Effects, read my article here.
There are a multitude of ways to go after this first step. You will quickly figure out where your individual personality, enthusiasm and musical passions will take you. From my own experience:
I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t, or other home studio owners don’t do everything (from songwriting and recording to mastering and publishing on iTunes). However, it will be essential to figure which part of home music you want to begin with, develop your skills, and expand your simple home studio to suit your future needs.
We have come to the end of this ‘how-to-guide’, and I sincerely hope that you enjoyed going through each step. Once more, a big thanks to Brian for the guitar playing. And just remember, the process above was just a taster of what you can achieve with a home studio, and using ‘regular’ headphones is not ideal if you want to get really serious. Read more about headphones in my article here. In the meantime, have fun, stay safe, and enjoy your music!
Back in 2009, I bought myself a copy of Pro Tools and recorded some home made music. It was challenging to start with, as I had no idea what I was doing. I made many mistakes on my journey - some fun, some expensive, and many time-consuming! I find running a Home Music Studio a fascinating and rewarding hobby and still enjoy it every day. This website is where I’d like to share everything that I’ve learned.