My $3000 Home Recording Studio

My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Many of you know, I am an amateur musician and home recording enthusiast. Over the years, I have bought and sold many guitars, keyboards, recording interfaces, speakers, effects, amplifiers, and other music gear. Through trail and error, I have assembled a home studio that works really well.

Though I probably spent several thousand dollars buying, selling, and swapping gear, I realized my current setup totals only $3000. This is a surprisingly small amount considering how much a similar setup would have cost a decade ago. I decide to share my findings, so others can learn from them. I hope this article helps other music geeks in their own studio building endeavors.

When building a studio, the most important thing is to ask yourself what you actually want to achieve. These requirements will be different for everybody, and your needs will have a great impact on which gear you choose. In my case, here were my needs:

  • Low latency recording
  • Multi-track recording (up to 8 channels) with mic, line, instrument levels
  • Fader-based control surface for tactile mixing (up to 8 channels)
  • High quality reference monitors and headphones for mixing
  • Ability to easily mute speakers while mixing with headphones (and vice-versa)
  • A compact MIDI keyboard controller (one that does not take up much desk space)
  • Software instruments for use with the MIDI keyboard controller
  • Ability to record a direct signal for electric instruments (e.g. bass guitar)
  • Digital amp modeling for guitar/bass recording
  • Ability to record vocals and acoustic instruments
  • Ability to record instrument amplifiers
  • Ability to add (or program) drum loops
  • Digital effects processor for compression, reverb, delay, etc.

Additionally, these requirements were “nice to have” but not essential:

  • S/PDIF input on recording interface
  • Ability to chain interfaces for later expansion to 16 or 24 track
  • Ability to create multiple output mixes for later expansion
  • Ability to bypass/mute subwoofer while mixing

Again, these requirements will vary from person to person, but I think mine are pretty typical for most musicians. Keep in mind, I also bough some of these things used, and I shopped around on the Internet, so my investment may be less than what’s listed. If you shop around, you may be able to build this same studio for closer to $2200. I used major online music retailers (like Musician’s Fried, Guitar Center, and Sweetwater) to compile these prices.

So, with no further ado, here is the gear I chose…

Apple iMac 21.5″ ($1300): This is the heart of it all. My iMac is actually a couple of years old (it’s the 2.5 GHz Core i5 model), but the new ones will work just as well. Every iMac ships with GarageBand pre-installed and that is what I use for my Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). It is important to ensure your iMac has a Firewire port. Unfortunately, Apple removed this feature on the latest revision of iMacs, so you may need a FireWire to Thunderbolt converter (not factored into this price of the iMac). I upgraded my iMac to 16 GB RAM, but the newer models come with 8 GB stock. This should be sufficient.

imac My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Apple GarageBand (FREE): The best thing about GarageBand is its FREE with every Mac. However, there a lot of other good things about GarageBand. The included loops and samples are great for adding drums to your tracks. The included software instruments make it easy to add piano, organ, strings, brass, and even drums to your tracks using a MIDI keyboard. The digital effects are also very impressive. It’s true that GarageBand has some limitations, but for the price you cannot beat it. I have used this program since version 1.0 and I’ve seen it mature a lot. The current version is on par with several commercial DAWs on the market.

GarageBand My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Presonus FireStudio Project ($400): Next to the iMac and DAW, this is the most important piece of gear in the studio. The Presonus FireStudio Project provides 24-bit digital audio input and output. It has 8 input XLR/ .25″ ports on the front. The first two are Mic/Instrument level while the remaining six are Mic/Line level. There are additional inputs and outputs on the rear of the unit, including S/PDIF. The FireStudio Project connects to the iMac via FireWire 400 providing less latency than USB interfaces. Depending on which iMac you have, you may need a FireWire 400 to 800 cable, or a Firewire to Thunderbolt converter (not factored into the price of the interface).

firestudio project My $3000 Home Recording Studio

KRK Rokit 5 Monitors ($300/pair): I spent a lot of time listening to different monitors before I ended up with the KRK Rokit 5s. There are many good monitors on the market, but I really liked the sound of the KRKs. I find them to be very transparent and accurate. This makes mixing easier. I went back and forth between the Rokit 5 and Rokit 6 several times, but in the end I went with the 5’s. The smaller footprint gives more desk space and the difference is virtually undetectable once you add the KRK 10S subwoofer.These monitors accept RCA, 1/4″ TRS. and XLR inputs.

rokit5 My $3000 Home Recording Studio

KRK 10S Subwoofer ($400): This is another key piece of mix monitoring. The KRK Rokit 5 monitors do a great job of reproducing kick drum and bass guitar frequencies, but they do strain a little when doing really deep keyboard pads or overdriven bass drum sounds. This is where the KRK 10S comes in. The crossover point is adjustable, as is the output level. Getting these tuned to your room will take a bit of trail and error.  However, once you get it dailed-in, the sound is amazing. What’s more… the 10S has a footswitch bypass if you want to hear the mix without the sub. This is an expensive piece of gear, but worth every penny. Trust me!

10s My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Roland A-300Pro MIDI controller ($300): I think the only thing is the studio that took more time to select than the monitors was the MIDI controller. I wanted something that didn’t take up a lot of desk space, but allowed for tactile mixing and had more than 25 keys. I found that all the 25 key controllers had a lack of faders, and the 49 key controller were just too big for my desk. Eventually, I came across the A300-Pro from Roland. With 32 keys, it’s the perfect size, but still allows for full fader/knob/button tactile controls.  Using the GarageBand control surface plug in, I do almost everything from the A300-Pro without having to ever touch the iMac’s keyboard. This is one of the coolest pieces of gear in the studio!

a300pro My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Shure SM57 Microphone ($100): I once heard somebody say, “if you have a recording studio and you don’t have a Shure SM57 laying around, it’s not a real studio.” While this may not be 100% true, it is a fact that the SM57 is one of the most popular dynamic microphone in the world. It does a great job on instrument amplifiers and acoustic instruments. It also does a fair job on vocals. Granted, there are better instrument mics on the market, but you have to spend a lot more than $100 to get something significantly better. This mic is pure bang for the buck.

SM57 My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Audio Technica AT2020 Microphone ($100): Everyone’s first recording microphone should be an SM57, but a close second is the Audio Technica AT-2020. This large diaphragm condenser microphone is versatile like the SM57, but has superior vocal response. There are many people who swear by using both an SM57 and an AT2020 for acoustic guitar. The combination is spectacular! There are many condenser mics on the market with better quality sound than the AT2020, but they cost far more than $100. For the price, you won’t find a better vocal microphone! Period.

at2020 My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Audio Technica ATH-M45 White Headphones ($60): Headphones are critical for tracking acoustic instruments and vocals. I did a lot of research here too. I found that the Audio Technica ATH-M45 (black) headphones were some of my favorites in the $100 price range. Again, you can spend a lot more, but I thought this model offered a good mix of features, quality, and price. When I was about ready to buy a pair, I realized they had a limited edition white version that was only $60. As far as I can tell, the white model is identical, except for the finish (and the lower price). Pick up a pair before they’re gone!

ath m45s My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Cables (approximately $40): Now that you have all your hardware, you’re ready to hook everything up. Be smart when you buy cables. Shop around. Often times, merchants will throw in free cables with monitors or microphones to get you to buy from them. Take advantage of this. Check the included accessories on each item. For instance, the Presonus FireStudio Project includes a 6′ FireWire cable in the box. Likewise, the Roland A-300Pro includes a 6′ USB cable. Always measure the distances in your workspace. Don’t pay for a 15′ XLR cable if you only need 3′. Always buy cables online or from a store that specializes in cables. Do not buy them from the major merchants if you can help it. The big stores tend to mark up the small items like cables and picks. Check all your jacks. The FireStudio Project only has 1/4″ TRS outputs. The KRK 10S has both 1/4″ TRS and XLR inputs. However, the output from the 10S is XLR only. So, you’ll need two 1/4″ TRS cables and two XLR cables for this setup. You can also find cables with TRS on one end and XLR on the other. These may be useful. In addition to the speaker cables, you’ll need an XLR cable to hook up your microphone(s). Again, shop around. Many merchants throw this in for free. If you follow all these guidelines, you should be able to get all the cables you need for $40 or so.

xlr My $3000 Home Recording Studio

If you add all of these items together ($1300 + FREE + $400 + $300 + $400 + $300 + $100 + $100 + $60 + $40), it comes out to $3000 exactly. While your actual investment may change based on the gear you choose, it’s clear that anyone can assemble an impressive home studio for a few thousand dollars. My how the times have changed. icon wink My $3000 Home Recording Studio

Do you have a similar home studio you created with a similar investment? I’d love to hear about it. Post a comment below.

About the Author

avatar KALE: A geek who works in the IT Security field and lives in Dallas, TX. He is also a music geek who has played in several local bands. Previous to his IT career, Kale worked as a photojournalist. He brings technical advice and artistic counterpoint to the podcast.