By now, you've no doubt heard that the Grammy-winning song of 2020 and record of the year was not recorded in some big studio loaded with over-priced, pro-grade gear. Instead, a brother and sister duo recorded them in a bedroom at their parents' house, primarily using tools available to the average hobbyist. (The $2,000-ish audio interface being an obvious exception.) It's not news that the tools of creation or the avenues for distributing art are accessible to more people now than ever before. That was how Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas proved that the cultural institutions that have dominated popular music for so long could no longer ignore the bedroom producer or budding Soundcloud star.
Maybe you've even been inspired to build your home recording studio, or you've always wanted to produce your songs. And maybe, you're not quite sure where to start. In this article, we will reveal the 3 steps to having your own songs produced by you right in the comfort of your own and everything in-between.
Let's dive in.
Here are a few things that you will need to think about when you begin:
- Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) and Equipment
These are just the simple steps to having your own songs produced by your humble self. Now, let's start a step further and explain each of those steps in detail.
DAW AND EQUIPMENT
One of the first things you need to think about when spending money beginning to produce your own music is what equipment you will need to make it happen. Not everyone can afford or have access to studios, so if you are creating from home, and a good computer is essential, it will be your music creation tool.
I’m going to assume you already have a computer. Even though more and more people use their smartphones and tablets for most things, most people still have laptops or a desktop.
If, however, you don’t yet have a computer and you need something more affordable than a $1,500 Apple computer, I’d suggest the Acer Aspire E 15. It’s roughly $600, and it can run pretty much any beginner’s recording software.
Justin DeLay, Director of Product and Category Marketing at Reverb, drives home just how important the computer is: "You can strip away everything else, and as long as you have a computer, you can still create music." He suggests you "spend the money on a good computer and get other gear -- such as audio interfaces, mics, headphones, etc. -- used or at reasonable price points."
But, truthfully, you can do quite a lot with whatever computer you have on hand. Joe Pecora, the engineer and producer at Red Room Studio, says your setup "could be as simple as an iPhone/iPad with Garage band." (I know someone who recorded an entire album this way.) While he agrees that the most important part is your computer, he argues it doesn't have to be super powerful. It doesn't even have to be a desktop. J-Dilla famously created many of his beats on a Roland SP303, and you can recreate that experience with an iPad and the $4 Koala Sampler for iOS. And don't forget that Gorillaz recorded an entire album on an iPad.
If you have an Apple computer, you already have a DAW called GarageBand. It’s probably the best DAW for beginners — it’s super easy to use, it has built-in virtual instruments and pro-sounding effects.
Going further, you'll need to get an Audio Interface. Unless you buy a USB microphone, you’ll need an audio interface. This is the device you plug your mic or instrument into, and then it plugs into your computer via USB, Thunderbolt, or Firewire.
Nowadays, interfaces come with built-in preamps so that you can get an excellent sound from a $150 interface.
Here are a few audio interfaces under $200 that will do the trick:
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
- PreSonus AudioBox
- Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6
- Focusrite Scarlett Solo
The next thing you’ll need is a microphone, assuming you’ll be recording live instruments, like acoustic guitar or vocals. And if you’ll be using a mic, you’ll also need a mic cable (i.e., an XLR cable), a mic stand, and a pop filter. A good microphone is essential to professional-sounding music. And fortunately, you can get yourself a mic that the pros use for about $100.
The Shure SM58 is the most famous go-to mic for onstage performances, but it also does a great job in the studio. If you’re on a tight budget and need a mic, this should be your first option.
But for the sake of fairness to the other great and affordable mics out there, here are some other suggestions:
- Audio Technica AT2035
- Audio Technica AT2020
- MXL 990
Part of what makes Billie Eilish so captivating is her voice. No gear will magically turn you into a breathy pop goddess, but a decent mic and audio interface can at least help you sound your best. Now, you could get a USB microphone, like the $130 Blue Microphones Yeti, and it will undoubtedly get the job done. Heck, that album I mentioned earlier was recorded using the wired headset that came with the iPhone.
But, honestly, your better bet is to get a regular XLR mic and an audio interface. As for the interface, there are tons of great options out there. But bang for your buck. The reason to opt for an audio interface instead of a simple USB mic is that it offers you a lot more flexibility and room to grow. For one, it offloads a lot of the audio processing from the CPU. Second, it will allow you to connect not just mics (and swap in different ones for different purposes) but also instruments, turntables, or anything with an audio-out jack. An audio interface is also necessary if you plan to connect a pair of studio monitors.
Our Sincere Advice:
Have the patience to develop your skills and make the most of the gear you have. It's really easy to catch a bad case of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) when you're first starting -- trust me, I know. But there's no need to shell out thousands of dollars for high-end gear to start making music. You don't even need to buy new gear. Pecora suggests the only thing you absolutely should purchase new is headphones. And, presumably, that's just because you don't want to be wearing years worth of someone else's sweat on your ears. Also, double-check your mixes in the real world. Headphones can overemphasize bass, while smaller studio monitors can have trouble delivering an accurate bass response. So make sure to listen to your track on laptop speakers or in a car to get a sense of how it will sound in the wild.
Once you have your setup sorted, the next step is to create something! You can start to create some tremendous virtual instruments, or use presets to let your ideas have a voice on DAW’s.
Most composers say that starting a song is the most challenging part and everyone has a different instrument method, to begin with. There is no right or wrong way to produce your own music! Writing a bit of music every day is a fast way to build up your composing portfolio, but this can mean you lose track of your written things.
A top tip if you are stuck for inspiration one day is to go through and listen to songs you enjoy listening to. Having a listen of tracks you have discarded is great too for when you hit a songwriting block. That 4 bars of a synth lead you composed two years ago could actually be an inspiration for a whole new song later down the line!
It’s important to do lots of research and to keep learning. There are many videos out there for free on YouTube and other video streaming platforms, teaching you how to modulate keys to creating an amazing synth using Massive. Other websites such as lynda.com can be a great resource for learning the basics of DAW’s as well as the more advanced features.
Remember to keep practicing your songwriting! The first song you ever write will probably not be an instant hit. It can take years of dedication, so don’t become disheartened! Make sure to keep composing, as with anything in life. The more time you spend, the better you will get!
When you listen to the same thing over and over, you begin not to be able to hear things as clear as you might think. One of the best things to do as a producer takes time off from a song and come back and listen to it with ‘fresh ears.’ Some of the main things to think about when mixing your song are “can all the instruments be heard, and are any of the channels clipping/distorting?”
When finalizing your mix, listen to your song against another song that has been produced in the same genre. This will help you to recognize if your song is loud enough and what elements aren’t standing out in the mix as much as they should be. If you are happy with the overall mix, you can then move on to mastering the track. It is possible to master the way yourself roughly, but we always recommend paying for someone else to master the track professionally; you’ll be surprised how much difference this can make.
Once you have bounced/exported the track, listen to it on lots of different speakers. Your song might sound fantastic on the best monitors money can buy, but the general public and your potential fans aren’t going to be listening on these. It’s important to listen to your song on as many different platforms as possible. A few examples include the car, on in-ear headphones and through a phone speaker, etc.
As you have read, it is impossible to set up a basic home studio on a budget and start producing your own songs.