Gone are the days when having a decent music recording and editing setup would require the budget of a small nation and a fleet of highly trained engineers. Today’s computing and electronics technology makes it easier than ever before to get started – and more importantly, cheaper than a collectable synthesizer from days long gone.
While there’s still plenty of high-end professional gear with high-end price tags to match, it’s entirely possible to get pro-quality results with just a modest amount of money. So how can you tell what’s truly necessary to get started in the world of music production? In this guide we’ll take you through the essential components of a project studio, and the non-essential additions that you might want to consider, depending on the type of music you’ll be working with. For under (USD) $500, you can get your studio up and running immediately.
By identifying your own priorities, you can pick and mix between the suggested hardware and software, and quite easily come out without too much of a dent in your bank balance.
Naturally, you can expect to find a few products by Native Instruments, but we’ve also listed options made by other brands, so the ecosystem you make is tailored to exactly what you need. Needless to say in today’s modern environment that everything is compatible, with the options listed below selected due to their ease of functionality, and quickness of plug-in-and-play-ability.
ESSENTIAL: YOUR COMPUTER
The hub of your music studio will do most of the legwork
Nowadays, the computer is the hub of almost all music production activities. We’re going to assume that already you have a Windows/Mac machine for the purposes of this guide.
Computing audio isn’t the issue it once was, and most decent home computers from the last five years will be able to cope very well with the majority of audio processing tasks. It’s also possible to build your music setup around an iPad or even iPhone (like Steve Lacey for instance), although a computer offers a more comprehensive and controllable workflow. If you’re rocking a tablet- or phone-based software studio, check out iMASCHINE, Steinberg’s Cubasis, Auria Pro, and apps from Klevgrand, Sugar Bytes and PPG. There are also a number of iOS-specific peripherals from IK Multimedia to help you get started in touchscreen music production.
ESSENTIAL: CONTROL SURFACE
For controlling software and playing music via MIDI input
While it’s possible to create music on a computer using just a mouse and keyboard, a dedicated input device and control surface will hugely expand your creativity, taking your music into the physical world, and leaving your computer as a reliable part of the background. Put simply, music feels less like work when you’re actually playing it.
With easy connection via USB and integration with the world’s most popular pieces of music software, the KOMPLETE KONTROL A-Series keyboards provide the basics and much more. These 25-, 49- and 61-note keyboards offer performance functions to help you play in key or lock to arpeggios, and to control your on-screen projects, removing the need to go back to your computer to play, pause, record, change tempo, and adjust loops.
To take things further, all KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards come with a selection of virtual instruments and workstations, integrate with a huge number of NKS-enabled third-party instruments and effects, and also ship with the MASCHINE Essentials and Ableton Live Lite software packages, so strictly speaking, you already have everything you need in one box.
Recommended Control Surfaces
NI KOMPLETE KONTROL A25 ($149)
ESSENTIAL: DAW SOFTWARE
For recording, arranging, running virtual instruments, and much more
If your computer is the hub of your hardware studio, the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is the hub of your software studio. This program lets you record, play back and edit your music, giving you a platform to arrange and store projects, while hosting instruments, effects and sounds, and connecting to your controller hardware.
Practically every DAW does the same thing – recording, editing and playing back MIDI and audio signals – but each does so in a slightly different way.
MASCHINE Essentials while not a fully fledged DAW, comes with the A-Series and is a great way to start programming your music, and is fully integrated with the KOMPLETE KONTROL range. There’s Ableton Live, which is known for pioneering Session View – a way of arranging and playing loops in different combinations, which is especially good for live performance. Apple’s Logic and GarageBand, and other programs like Cubase and Studio One, use only the traditional ‘timeline’ view to play projects back.
Each DAW comes with a few built-in instruments and effects, and often there are different tiers to choose, each offering a number of features.
Recommended DAW Software
For playing back your creations with higher quality
To confidently create and mix music, you need to be able to hear the whole sonic spectrum, from low-down bass frequencies to the tiny details in the high-end of the mix. Getting this from a laptop or phone’s in-built speakers isn’t possible, so a dedicated playback system is absolutely necessary.
It’s true that a pair of speakers – professional studio monitors, as opposed to commercial hi-fi speakers – offer better sound quality and better stereo perception, but with a minimum price tag of $200 for a modest pair, they’re not within the scope of this budget.
Speakers are also heavily influenced by the room you’re in, often adding costs of basic acoustic treatment. For these reasons, we’re recommending headphones only for a low-budget starter setup.
For recording vocals, acoustic instruments
In electronic genres, it’s entirely possible to put together a career’s worth of albums without ever recording any sound into your DAW. But if you’re recording vocals or acoustic instruments, a microphone will be an essential purchase.
The standard setup will be an XLR-connected microphone, run into a dedicated professional audio interface that’s connected to your computer… but with a limit of $500 for a whole studio, a more appropriate option is a USB Microphone, which connects directly to your computer.
While the quality of USB microphones can vary wildly, the results will still be superior to your computer’s in-built microphone. If you’re serious about recording quality, the extra money spent on an XLR-connected microphone and an audio interface to match it is very worthwhile, but the below USB microphones can get you most of the way there for basic applications.
Recommended USB Microphones
Depending on your microphone, you might be without certain accessories. A stand will allow the microphone to be positioned more appropriately; a shockmount is a cradle designed to hold the microphone while reducing vibrations from the stand and through the floor; a pop shield is attached to the stand and placed in front of the microphone to cut down on plosives from “P” sounds.
These accessories can also been found sold in combination.
Recommended Microphone Accessories
OPTIONAL: SOUND CONTENT
Stock your sonic larder with inspirational, high-quality and royalty-free sounds and expansions
It’s never been easier to conjure up loops, drums, licks, atmospheres and many more from the world’s top sound designers and artists. And with almost all soundware being royalty-free, there’s no need to sweat about copyrights, clearing audio and making additional payments.
Sounds.com is our huge collection of royalty-free loops and one-shots. With a huge collection of samples and still growing, you’ll be sure to find the inspiration and instrumentation to start, progress, and finish your work. With artists like Diplo, Junkie XL, Catnapp, and Robert Koch; and labels like The Loop Loft and Surge Sounds providing the fodder for your tracks.
You can browse and audition the library for free, start your free trial and find out more at Sounds.com.
Each sound, regardless of length or type, costs a single credit. Start your 14 day free trial to get 75 credits, and check out the higher-level plans for lifetime inspiration. $9.99 per month for 150 credits per month; $19.99 for 500 credits; $29.99 for 1000 credits.
Get studio magic on tap with virtual instruments and effects processors
Musicians have always needed a varied set of tools. Whether it’s guitarists building boards of pedals, or producers working with racks of compressors and EQs, the unique sonic identity of an artist comes (partly) from the breadth of their palette. In the digital world, these tools are the third-party plug-in instruments and effects which run in your DAW.
From classic EQ emulations to virtual beat-slicers and space-age reverbs, almost anything imaginable is available in VST (PC/Mac) and AU (Mac only) formats. If a plug-in is NKS compatible, it will integrate with KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards and MASCHINE hardware. Find a list of participating developers here.
Recommended Plug-in Bundles