As a follow-up to my blog post titled Making Music With What You've Got, I figure I should discuss the gear that makes up the foundation of a studio. Everyone's workflow is a bit different, but these 5 essential hardware pieces for the bedroom studio are what I believe to be the fundamentals of a good home music studio.
Essential may be a strong word. As I've mentioned before, we should strive to make the best music we can with the tools at our disposal. At the same time though, there are tools we should strive to add to our disposal ;). Here I will discuss what I believe to be the 5 essential hardware pieces for the bedroom studio.
the 5 essential hardware pieces for the bedroom studio:
- MIDI Keyboard
- Audio Interface
- Studio Monitors
They are numbered in the order that I would buy them in if I was to start all over.
With these 5 pieces of hardware, we can compose, record, produce and mix to our heart's desire. We have the digital audio workstation inside our computer, a MIDI keyboard to record our ideas with, multiple monitoring systems to listen critically to our work, and an interface to give clean audio and the option to record with microphones if we want to.
Note that a DAW inside a computer is not the only way to make music. Analog consoles, MPCs, and other recording devices are still used. But even they are often times being fed into a DAW for finalizing the production. For the sake of the times we live in, I think it's safe to say that most of us are making music on our computers.
With that being said, let's dive into each of these essentials individually!
This is the most important piece of hardware for the modern “computer musician.” The computer is the machine that will run a digital audio workstation and make it possible to record, playback, produce, mix, and export music to be listened to. If you're reading this blog, you probably already know the importance of this! It may seem silly to include this, but ultimately, it all starts with a workstation, and thus most often a computer!
Headphones are the second most important in my opinion. Good quality headphones allow us to really hear the subtleties of a mix. Every little tweak we make in a mix becomes much more obvious when listening through headphones. They offer a great panoramic view of the mix and provide a great sense of depth.
They also make it easier to work on your laptop from virtually anywhere. Most headphones can plug right into your computer with an 1/8″ or aux port. And make it possible to work discreetly on your music. People around you won't be bothered by what you're listening to and, depending on how loud/how noise-cancelling your headphones are, you won't be bothered by them.
Because headphones can typically be plugged directly into a computer, they surpass the need for an audio interface (although AIs are number 4 on this list of essentials).
I should mention that when I talk about headphones, I don't mean earbuds. I mean studio headphones. These are circumaural (they surround the entire ear), and they have as flat a frequency response as you can find.
I believe that the keyboard is the most important instrument for a composer/producer to learn. A MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) Keyboard will allow you to play virtually any instrument. With the technology we have now, virtual instruments don't even sound “virtual” anymore. People are fooled every day by MIDI, thinking that musicians actually played the instruments they're hearing in film/television scores, and in music albums. Virtual instruments are here to stay and they're only getting better!
Of course, we could “draw” or program all our MIDI data in our digital audio workstation (shout out to Deadmau5), and I did that for years. But the practicality and “humanness” of actually playing a velocity sensitive MIDI keyboard far outweigh the tedium of programming in my opinion.
MIDI Keyboards help with writing as well. We can write any instrument we want by simply “playing the piano.”
You can always quantize your MIDI inside your DAW if your performance was not played perfectly to the grid.
Most audio interfaces are attached to a computer via USB. That's great news since the trend seems to be that most new computers are being built with less and less ports.
An audio interface is basically an exterior soundcard. Your computer will have a soundcard built-in (most likely controlling the built-in speakers, built-in microphone, and headphone out). An audio interface is a soundcard with improved quality and also a bigger hub of potential inputs and outputs (depending on which you use).
For example, my audio interface is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2.
- 2 line/mic/instrument combination inputs – XLR & 1/4” TRS Jack Combo
Line/Instrument switch, gain control and 48V Phantom Power switch
- 2 balanced monitor outputs – 1/4” TRS Jack
Monitor level dial
- 1 headphone output – 1/4” TRS Jack
Headphone level dial
So with this particular interface, I can have two instruments or microphones recorded at the same time with a mix going to headphones and another going to monitors.
There are many more routing options and freedom to record once you add an audio interface to your studio!
Last on the “top 5” are studio monitors. They provide a second, and arguably better, way to listen to mixes and monitor the sound.
I put studio monitors after audio interface because typically you'll want to send an audio signal from the interface to the monitors. Audio interfaces are made with monitor outputs, whereas many computers are not.
With studio monitors, we want to look for a flat frequency response, but often times the sub-bass frequencies will be rolled off. That's where a sub-woofer comes into play. These sub-bass frequencies require a lot of power to be heard and bigger speakers to reproduce their long wavelengths. For this reason, studio monitors often won't go too low on the frequency spectrum.
Studio monitors, as opposed to sound systems and other general speakers, will have a more exact reproduction of the actual audio. They are more expensive and are made for ‘critical listening.' Their general loudspeaker counterparts will be cheaper and less precise.
Studio monitors, as opposed to headphones, give a better sense of a real listening environment. With a stereo mix in headphones, we hear the left channel only in the left ear and the right channel only in the right ear (unless you have the headphones on the wrong way 😉 ). With Monitors, we hear both channels in each ear, with the right channel perhaps louder in the right ear and left channel perhaps louder in the left ear.
Using studio monitors in a studio space
The big thing to keep in mind with stereo monitors is that it matters where your ears are relative to the speakers. By the same token, it matters where the speakers are placed in the room, and how acoustically treated the room is.
This complicated game of sound waves and acoustics yields really cool designs for professional studios. For the average music producer at home, we may not have the resources to build a room like this or to properly treat our cubic apartment bedroom.
With that being said, studio monitors are a great investment to get a clean reference for critical listening. Even if your space is not properly treated.
So there are my top 5 essential pieces of hardware for the bedroom studio
I believe these 5 pieces will benefit any producer, regardless of the genres of music they produce.
For the sake of trying to add extra value, I'll include some more hardware ideas that didn't quite make the “essential” list but can still be important parts of a studio.
These additional “fundamentals” include:
- Additional Visual Monitors
- Consoles/Beat Machines/Other Controllers
- External Hard Drives
- Real Instruments
If you are to record anything in the “real world,” microphones are a must.
I would recommend getting a microphone or two to plug into your audio interface in order to record in your studio. Alternatively, a USB microphone could work (they have their own “audio interface” built-in). Or perhaps a Zoom Recorder would be ideal for your circumstance (or if you want to record outside of the studio and later bring the audio back to your DAW).
I wouldn't suggest recording audio with built-in microphones in computers or smartphones, but as I say, use what you've got!
Additional Visual Monitors
Although I don't currently use two monitors in my home studio, I enjoy the opportunities when I can (at work). The increased screen real estate can allow us to see more of what's going on inside the DAW. Whether that's more mixing plug-ins, multiple virtual instruments, input levels and audio tracking, or anything else.
My favourite part of using 2 monitors, for example, is having the mixer window on one screen and the arrangement window on the other screen.
But it could be as simple as hooking up a small laptop to a bigger monitor so you can see the same thing just on a bigger screen.
Consoles/Beat Machines/Other Controllers
Much like MIDI Keyboards, these are other controllers for your digital audio workstation.
Consoles can control your mixer with hardware sliders and pots. This can give a more tactile approach to mixing but accomplishes the same thing that a few mouse clicks could do within a DAW.
Beat Machines, like the Native Instruments' Maschine line and Akai's MPC line, can act as controllers as well. Whether that's triggering MIDI samples within a drum rack or sampler, or launching clips in Ableton Live, beat machines can play a big role in your music production!
External Hard drives
I believe external hard drives are important for any endeavour that includes digital files. As composers/producers, we will build up a library of songs. That includes full bounces, stems, samples, DAW session files, MIDI information, and plenty more.
What if your computer hard drive died all of a sudden?
Backing up your information is critical. Especially if you're doing anything professionally.
Some of you may backup using the cloud and keep things online. Which is great. But since we're speaking about hardware, I'll talk about external hard drives.
Admittedly, my backing up procedure is pretty relaxed at home. Every now and again I'll back my files up, but there's no strict schedule.
At work, however, we go as far as working off external hard drives. That means from the very beginning of a session, the information is all being written to an external hard drive. This keeps the computer itself pretty clean and keeps all the information on an external hard drive. On top of that, we'll back up to the cloud on a regular basis.
Depending on the genre, real instruments could play a major role in your studio.
Personally, I keep my Orange Amplifier miked up with my Stratocaster nearby to record real guitar in my music. I also keep a mic nearby for any vocals or percussion I'd like to record.
If you were producing, say, Dubstep, perhaps you wouldn't need real instruments around. But say you were making a Country record at home, it would be important to have a wide array of instruments around the studio.
For these reasons, real instruments didn't show up in the top 5, but have an honourable mention!
I probably could have ended this article without mentioning Country 😉 Ah well!
So, this is my take on the 5 essential hardware pieces for the bedroom studio (with some extra goodies thrown in there). I hope this all made sense to you, and if there's anything you feel I missed, please reach out in the comments section below. I'd love to hear what you feel are the essentials for your studio.
As always, I'd like to thank you for reading and for your support,