Creating a Budget

Here comes everyone's least favorite subject—spending money. You work hard for it, and the last thing you want to do is squander it on equipment that isn't suitable for you or doesn't get the job done. The good news is that there is a studio to be had at almost every price level, and you can get started with a basic studio for around $250—maybe even less, depending on your configuration and what you already own. The bad news is that there's a lot of equipment available, and you can easily get carried away and spend many thousands of dollars on all the various gear out there. Figure out exactly what you can spend at first. Your budget should take into consideration the following:

  • What is the maximum you can spend?

  • Do you want the ability to record more than one track at a time?

  • How many microphones do you need?

  • How many interconnecting cables does your setup require?

  • Do you need computer recording software?

  • Do you need a computer recording interface?

  • Does your computer need to be upgraded to handle the demands of working with large music files?

  • What signal effects do you need?

  • Do you need a separate mixer? (This is becoming less necessary these days.)

  • How do you plan on listening to your work—headphones or speakers?

As you can see, these are important issues. You must take all these points into consideration when planning your budget. Since every studio is different, this book talks about general setups, and you can modify the setup that is closest to your needs.

What You Will Really Spend

You've already learned the three elements necessary for recording sound: something to capture the sound, something to store it and play it back, and something to enable you to hear it played back. First, you need a sound and a device capable of capturing that sound, usually a microphone. Some instruments interface directly via cables; keyboards and amplifier line-out jacks are examples of direct instruments. Next, you need a recorder capable of recording the sound and playing it back later. Last, you need something to hear the recording with—either speakers or headphones. These elements are commonly found in all studios, regardless of price or quality.

Capturing Sound

Microphones are typically used for sound input. Prices of microphones range widely; you can pay around $60 for a starter variety, $200 for a good one, and $500 and above for a top-of-the-line model. Figure out how many you'll need. You will probably need one microphone for each acoustic instrument or vocalist, and two to four for a drum kit, depending on how you set up the kit. If you are recording one instrument at a time, you can get away with fewer microphones. You might pool the money you save by doing this and buy one or two higher quality microphones.

Instruments such as keyboards, drum machines, and guitar effects processors plug directly into an audio interface. Also, many amplifiers feature direct outputs and bypass the need for a microphone; all you need is a cable. Cables are cheap, thank goodness! You might also need a direct box to change the impedance of certain instruments to match the input of the recorder. We'll discuss that more in Chapter 11. Direct boxes range from $20 to $400.

Since the majority of recording systems are based around computers, why would you consider a dedicated hardware recording system?

Dedicated hardware recording systems can be perfect for those who need a simple setup and who rely on portability. Computers are expensive, and only laptops are easily portable. Computers can also be susceptible to viruses and crashes. You won't encounter those issues with a dedicated hardware recording system.

Finding a Recorder

For quick and simple recording, there are many portable digital recorders on the market. Some of these offer features like built-in stereo microphones, onboard digital effects, and overdubbing capabilities. Many are small enough to fit in your hand. Portable digital recorders can run as little as $150 to as much as $900.

You can also record with a computer, though you'll need software, which ranges from free to $1,000. You'll also need a computer interface that accepts audio and possibly MIDI if you plan to use that. Depending on how many sources you need to record at once, computer audio interfaces can range from $100 to more than $1,000. MIDI interfaces are less expensive, and you pay more depending on how many MIDI inputs, or separate instruments, you need to use at the same time. Expect to spend between $30 for a simple one-input/one-output MIDI interface and up to $550 for eight MIDI devices.

Playing the Music Back

In order to play back the recorded sound, most home studio owners start with a pair of decent headphones. Headphones range from $30 to $200. If you choose to use professional speakers, called monitor speakers, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $800 or more for a set. Some monitors are self-powered and don't require additional amplifiers to run; others need an amplifier, which will cost you money as well! Your best bet is to go for self-powered monitors. There are some great ones in the $200–$300 range. A low-tech solution is to monitor through your home stereo. It's not the optimal way to go, but it might tide you over until you can afford dedicated monitors.

Don't Get Carried Away

It's so easy to get carried away in a music store. You go in for one thing and walk out with five things you didn't need. This is known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). This ailment affects many musicians who fall victim to the grandeur of a music store that has “everything.” Out of the three elements of your studio, it's important to balance the quality of each part. The result is only as good as all the equipment you use. Add one weak link and the chain will break. For example, if you blow all your cash on a top-of-the-line audio interface and you plug a cheap, noisy microphone into it, your computer will play back a noisy signal, in perfect digital quality. See the problem? We address the issue of Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO) later in this book. Go into this process with a clear understanding of your needs and your means. Try your best to choose components that work together to deliver a quality result.

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