Learn which equipment will help you produce better music at home on a budget.
It’s possible to produce radio-quality songs in your bedroom with nothing more than a laptop and some free music production software. Although, there’s some essential music production equipment that will make producing much easier and expand your creative options. The gear we’ll be taking a look at includes a digital audio workstation, headphones, a MIDI keyboard, an audio interface, and studio microphones.
1. A Digital Audio Workstation
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is the type of software that you need to produce music. It allows you to record, edit, and process audio on your computer.
There are plenty of different DAWs available on the market but some are more popular than others. Most DAWs provide comparable features and layouts.
Most commercial recording studios and post-production facilities use a DAW called Pro Tools. It provides a wide range of recording, editing, and audio routing features that have allowed it to establish itself as the industry-standard DAW for recording facilities.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best DAW for people who want to produce music at home. Pro Tools provides a clunky MIDI and automation workflow. Hip-hop, EDM, and pop artists who primarily work with synthesized sounds, and downloaded audio samples, typically prefer to use a different DAW.
My recommendation is to use Ableton Live. You can trial the most advanced version of Ableton Live for free for 90 days. Based on surveys that I’ve run, an overwhelming majority of Black Ghost Audio’s readers use Ableton. This DAW has a somewhat steep learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it lets you produce songs extremely fast.
This video is a preview from my Music Production for Beginners course. Click here to learn more about the course and produce your first song today.
Most people have a pretty good sense for what sounds “good” or “bad”. The problem is that many beginners have an inaccurate perception of the music that they write… but it’s not their fault!
Laptop speakers, earbuds, and poor-quality consumer headphones usually color the sound that you hear. For example, they might hype midrange frequency content to accentuate the level of vocals. Another common issue is that they do a poor job of producing low-end frequency content, and tend to hide details that are apparent on high-end playback systems.
New producers will write a song, hear that it sounds okay on their cheap listening system, and then wonder why it doesn’t translate well to other playback systems—like the sound system in their car, club systems, or festival sound systems. Producing music using headphones with a wide frequency response and high level of detail can help you overcome this issue.
I recommend picking up a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M50X headphones. These wildly popular studio headphones provide amazing clarity. They aren’t the cheapest headphones out there but they also aren’t the most expensive.
The ATH-M50Xs made the list because the value they deliver is tremendous. Upgrading to a pair of quality studio headphones will have a huge impact on the quality of the songs that you’re capable of producing.
3. A MIDI Keyboard
A MIDI keyboard allows you to send MIDI signals to your DAW. MIDI signals are primarily used to trigger software instruments like virtual drums, guitars, and software synthesizers. You can also use a MIDI controller to take command of your DAW’s playback functions (start/stop/record) and track functions (solo/mute/record-arm). For this reason, it still makes sense to get a MIDI keyboard, even if you don’t know how to play the piano yet.
Most beginners find that it’s easier to come up with musical ideas when plucking away at a keyboard, as opposed to programming notes using the pen tool in their DAW. Again, you don’t have to be familiar with playing piano to justify buying a MIDI keyboard—it will still help you produce better music.
When I first started producing music a decade ago, I remember walking into Guitar Center looking for a MIDI keyboard. I felt like an imposter because I had no idea how to play the piano at the time. Funny enough, the MIDI keyboard that I bought helped me learn music theory and has lasted me until now. It was one of the best music production gear investments I ever made.
MIDI keyboards come in different sizes, ranging from 25 to 88 keys. Over the years, I’ve owned MIDI controllers with tons of sliders, knobs, and beat pads but found that I never used them.
A simple MIDI keyboard like the M-Audio Keystation 49 is my top recommendation. It includes a few buttons to control your DAW’s playback function, a volume slider, octave +/- buttons, a modulation wheel, a pitch wheel, and 49 keys.
49 keys should be enough for most people but if you’re a piano virtuoso, you may want to consider the larger 61-key or 88-key version.
4. An Audio Interface
An audio interface converts the analog electrical signal produced by microphones into a digital signal that your computer can comprehend; this process is called analog to digital (A/D) conversion. If you want to record with high-quality studio microphones, you’ll need an audio interface.
To record with multiple microphones at the same time, your audio interface will need to provide multiple mic inputs. Microphones produce a mic-level signal and can be recorded using an audio interface’s mic inputs.
Electric guitars and basses produce an instrument-level signal and can be recording using an audio interface’s high impedance (Hi-Z) inputs.
Synthesizers, digital pianos, and hardware processing units typically produce a line-level signal and can be recorded using an audio interface’s line inputs.
In some situations, an audio interface will provide combo inputs jacks that allow you to record mic, instrument, or line-level signals.
If you don’t plan to record audio, you’ll still need an audio interface if you decide to purchase studio monitors; these are the big speakers you see in professional studios. An audio interface also performs digital to analog (D/A) conversion, converting the digital signal produced by your computer into an analog signal that gets sent to your monitors.
You’re not going to find studio monitors on this list because you’re better off producing music with headphones, unless you sound-treat your room properly. Sound-treating a room can cost anywhere from $500 if you build your own acoustic panels to upwards of $3,000+ if you purchase acoustic treatment. In addition to the cost of the monitors themselves, this is likely outside the budget of most new producers.
Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 is a good choice for most beginners with minimal recording needs. It allows you to record with two microphones at once, two guitars at once, or capture the sound of two line signals simultaneously. For example, you could use it to record the sound of a synthesizer that produces a stereo output signal.
If you require more inputs, or want to process signal within your DAW using external hardware, you could consider another interface a part of the Scarlett series. The Scarlett 18i20 delivers 18 inputs and 20 outputs and can be used to record an entire band.
Check out my audio interface buyer’s guide for more information about what an audio interface is capable of.
5. Studio Microphones
To record audio, you’ll need to use a microphone… shocker. There are tons of different microphones available with various levels of sensitivity, different frequency responses, and polar patterns.
The two primary categories of microphones include dynamic microphones that use a moving coil diaphragm design, and condenser microphones that rely on charged metal plates to generate a signal. Condenser microphones tend to be quite sensitive and provide detailed recordings. You’ll often use a condenser microphone to record vocals or acoustic guitar.
Dynamic microphones capture a less detailed signal than condenser microphones but they can withstand higher sound pressure levels without distorting. A dynamic microphone is usually a good choice when recording aggressive vocals (metal, rap, etc.), guitar amps, and snare drums.
A microphone’s polar pattern plays a massive role in the way that you’ll be able to use it. For example, a microphone with a cardioid polar pattern will pick up the sound in front of its capsule and some sound out to the sides, while rejecting sound behind the capsule.
In comparison, a microphone with a bi-directional pattern will pick up sound in front of the capsule and behind the capsule, while rejecting sound coming from the sides. Take a look at the following chart to view some other common polar patterns.
In the majority of studio situations, you’ll want to use a microphone with a cardioid polar pattern. Most people start off with a single microphone so choose between a condenser mic (for sensitive material) or a dynamic mic (for aggressive material).
Some budget-friendly microphone recommendations include Audio-Technica’s AT2020 condenser microphone and Shure’s SM58 dynamic microphone. If you plan to record more instruments than vocals, you can swap the SM58 for Shure’s SM57 which is essentially the same microphone but without the mesh ball grill and built in pop filter—making it a more practical option when recording instruments.
All of these microphones are capable of providing professional-quality results, given that you use the right recording techniques. If you’re interested in learning how to record vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and bass at a pro level, consider checking out my Music Production for Beginners video course. I walk you through the process of producing three songs from start to finish, and you learn how to write record, mix, and master music at home. No experience required. Click this link to learn more and produce your first song in under an hour.