How to Build a $100 Home Studio

How to Build a $100 Home Studio

You've got the arrangement, you've got the chops, and you've spent countless hours (or at least minutes) making the songs absolutely perfect. Unfortunately, Ocean Way is just a bit out of your budget and no store on earth carries a house brand 128-channel Pro Tools console. So what's an artist on the cheap to do?

Lacking unlimited resources and access, your job at this point should be to focus only on capturing your performance and transforming it into a form that is at least remotely listenable. Lucky for you, ambitious artist and budget-conscious shopper that you are, it's entirely possible to turn your ideas into a listenable recording for $100 – or less, depending on how much you're willing to give up and how hard you're willing to look.

Before laying out a few equipment combinations, we're going to make a few assumptions about where you already stand. If you're reading this, chances are you or someone you know own a computer; if you're at the point where you're weighing your recording options, the instruments are presumably already at your disposal as well. Likewise, we're only going to look at capturing the basic home instruments: vocals, guitar, bass, and keyboards, as well as a very shaky approach to recording drums (assuming you're using live ones).

You're also going to need at least a rudimentary audio tracking software program, such as the open-source (and totally free) Audacity recording and editing package.

It's also important to keep in mind that you'll want to reach as many people as possible; considering how many more people own computers than own cassette players these days, computer-friendly form would be the logical place to start. Some may clamor for the warmth of vinyl or the loving hiss of tape, but for now our focus is on portability.

Now, $100 won't get you much in the way of audiophile acclaim, nor will it leave much room for radical progressive console experimentation. What it will do is get your babies into the hands of those who need it. And believe it or not, you've got options, even with a rock-bottom budget.

OPTION 1: Garage Days Recreated (And Basement Days, Too)

This approach is not recommended for the faint of heart, but bears mentioning. Do you see that little input jack on your computer's sound card? It's the one right next to the headphone jack. Now, that little guy is too small for any heavy-duty equipment, but it's just perfect for a trip to the shoestring audio paradise. For as little as $29.99USD, you can purchase a full-powered condenser mic that will plug directly into your computer's jack (which means no need for a preamp and no unnecessary signal noise introduced through adapters!). Rig, prop or hang the mic in the center of the room. Rock out. Repeat as necessary.

OPTION 2: You, Too, Can Be a Techno Wizard

If you're more interested in going the full electronic route, your options are in some ways limitless and in other, more important ways, totally stunted. While a few simple cables can connect your keyboard or synth directly to your computer, you're also going to have to throw out the idea of working with the pricey software suites – Reason, AbSynth, and the like – that the pros are all employing.

On the plus side, a simple preamp like an M-Audio Audio Buddy ($80USD) will go a long way in warming up and amplifying your keyboard's sound without distorting it. You'll need a pair of instrument cables to get the sound to the preamp, and then a stereo 1/4" to mono 1/8" cable, but both can be had for less than a combined $20 online. Mind you, you'll be operating without the benefits of a MIDI clock, quantizing, soft-synth banks and the like, but anything you can actually play live can now become anything you play back, which can in turn become your multi-track masterpiece.

OPTION 3: Acoustic A Go-Go

When dealing with non-amplified instruments, the choice of gear becomes a lot simpler. Things like stereo fields and panning don't really exist when a note is generated through manual manipulation of an instrument (rather than through manipulation of an electrical signal) so a clean single-channel route is all you'll need to assemble. A used, versatile mic such as a Shure SM-57 typically runs $35-$50USD, while a complementary preamp like the PreSonus TubePRE (around $45USD used) or M-Audio ($40-$50USD used). Add your bargain-bin cables, and voila! Studio magic is yours for the exploitation.

You might be asking how your $100 studio is going to sound, and the answer is just that: like $100. There's really no room to work with room treatments or elaborate microphone arsenals, but right now your focus should be on experimenting with the gear you have rather than pining for the gear you want. Record a take. Then another. Then another. Then another. Capture your best performances forever, and in the process take notes on what works for your songs and your style.

Then start planning for the second album. Start saving up for better gear while you're at it.


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