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A $30,000 Neve Melbourn for $4000? Not quite...
Let's be clear, if you plan on taking a trip to the South Pole, you need to be fully prepared before you set out. Otherwise you will fail and die. There are some projects where the saying 'if you fail to prepare then you are preparing to fail' is surely true.
But recording isn't a life or death situation. I've met plenty of people who keep putting off getting started on serious recording because they still haven't finished building their studio. And they probably never will. There's always some equipment or software that they need to buy and install. And when they've done that, there will be something else.
It is my firm belief that to make progress in recording, all you need is a basic home studio setup, and then you need to start making serious recordings as soon as possible. You'll learn how to record through recording. Recording, recording and recording. I might add that you will benefit from a course with Audio Masterclass, but really the most important thing is to spend as much time as possible actually recording.
My thoughts are prompted by an Audio Masterclass student who asked me what the basics are for a home recording studio. And so here is my response...
Firstly you need a place to record. Of course it would be nice to be able to spend $40,000 or more on a soundproofed and acoustically treated outbuilding. Or somewhere approaching the same sum upgrading an existing part of your home. But I'm speaking to people who don't have $40,000 to spend. Less than $1000 in fact. That's all you need to get started in recording.
The best place to set up your home recording studio will be the quietest place in your house or apartment. So if one room looks out onto a busy road, choose a different room that doesn't. If your studio can only be temporary and has to be set up and taken down each time you record, then that isn't too much trouble in order to get good results. Perhaps another room looks out onto a road that isn't so busy, but the occasional vehicle does go past. That isn't ideal, but it isn't an insuperable problem. If a car spoils your take, go back and record again. It just takes a little more time.
Next you may need some acoustic treatment (which is a separate and different issue to soundproofing). If your walls are bare plaster and the floor is bare wood or laminate, then you certainly will. Again it would be nice to be able to afford to buy a solution, but you don't need to. If you gather soft materials like blankets and cushions from around your house or apartment and spread them around your recording area, then you can make significant improvements in your acoustics for no cost. Of course your acoustics will not be perfect, but you don't need perfect surroundings to get started. Getting started is the most important thing.
What basic equipment do you need to get started in recording? Well fortunately almost any fairly recent computer can record audio, with the right software, so you probably have the heart of your recording system already.
You will need a microphone of basic professional quality. I often cite the Shure SM57 as a good example of a microphone that is capable of professional results at a fairly low price, around $100. If you aspire to something better, then go to the websites of high-end professional recording studios and look at their microphone lists. You will see that certain microphones come up again and again. And if many studios are using these mics, surely this is as good a guide as you could possibly need to advise you what to buy as your first microphone. (Make sure though that the first mic you buy isn't an AKG D112. That's a kick drum mic - very popular, but very specialized.)
You will need an audio interface with a microphone input. The microphone input should have an XLR connector and phantom power should be provided. There should also be outputs for headphones and for loudspeaker monitoring. Note that while it isn't impossible to find a suitable sound card to install inside your computer, nearly all suitable audio interfaces come in a box that connects to your computer by USB or FireWire. You can buy an audio interface that is perfectly good enough to get you started for less than $100. (By the way, you don't need a separate microphone preamplifier. That can come later.)
For your digital audio workstation (DAW) software, my best advice is to choose one that is already popular. Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools and Sonar spring to mind. If you choose a popular DAW, then you will become a member of a large community of users, supported by a diligent team of developers whose livelihood depends on you being satisfied with the quality and reliability of their software.
You will need monitoring. It is possible to get by with just headphones. It is best to use headphones that are sold into the pro audio market, such as you can see here. However it isn't normal professional practice to monitor solely on headphones. Headphones are used for foldback during the recording process, but the engineer will monitor and mix on loudspeakers. Once again, you should choose loudspeakers that are sold into the pro audio market specifically as studio monitors. It is simpler to have so-called 'active monitors' that contain their own amplifiers, but you can use passive monitors and a separate power amplifier if you wish.
At this point you now have a studio setup that is capable of making recordings to a basic professional standard. What you need to do now is - as I said earlier - record, record and record. Record your own music, your own playing and singing. Get other musicians in, as many and as varied as possible in both instruments and musical genres. Try your hand at spoken word, which is harder than you think to do really well. Pack your equipment in the trunk of your car and do some location recording. The more you record, the better you will get at it.
In summary, professional recording does require equipment of basic pro quality. But it's mainly about *you*. Making great recordings is not so much about the equipment and software. It's much more about your own knowledge. skills and experience.
P.S. The photo is of Felix E. Guerrero, used under a Creative Commons licence. Felix has no connection with Audio Masterclass, but the photo is an excellent illustration of someone who is doing what it takes to get started in recording.