(Photo taken by David Guezen)

I’ve been recording my own music here and there for at least a few years, all on a shoestring budget with minimal gear. If I’m being honest, I would consider what I do to be on a pretty amateur level. But in the grand scheme of things, you can make some pretty decent sounding music that’s relatively passable on a very small amount of money.

These are my suggestions for a cheap, DIY recording setup (based on what I own), in all of it’s low quality glory.

Let’s start with the nuts and bolts of it all.

Microphones

  • You’re going to need a mic stand. You can get by with a desk mount/mini-stand kind of thing if you’re only doing vocals, but still, it’s going to limit your maneuverability. If you’re doing any drum mic-ing you’ll need at least 2 mic stands minimum. You can get relatively cheap ones for like 30-40 bucks at Long & McQuade.
  • Having at least one decent condenser mic is a great idea to get clear, full sounding vocals. I bought two Apex 435 condenser microphones that cost me only about 80 bucks or so each (from what I remember). I’ve used them for vocals, acoustic guitar, and also dual overhead microphones for a drum set. No joke, they actually sound pretty decent for drums, I was impressed with how full it sounded.
  • Manny Goossen (my good friend and talented musician/DIY recording engineer) says he uses a Sennheiser vocal mic ($100-200) and a RODE NTA mic ($300+) for recording vocals.
  • The SM57 is a very reliable dynamic mic and almost an industry standard microphone to have in your studio. It’s can do a wide range of things: vocals, close mic-ing snares/toms, acoustic guitars, guitar amps. They go for around $100 normally.

Hardware & Gear

  • With all of these microphones you’re going to need an audio interface to turn the input into a digital signal for your computer to record. The main reason you need an interface is so that you can listen to what you’re playing as you record it with zero latency, or else it’s going to be frustrating as hell to record anything.
    • Your options here are going to either be a two input interface or eight-input and higher, which are alot more expensive.  Anything in between is kind of uncommon or too expensive from what I’ve found.
    • I bought a relatively cheap interface called the Tascam US-600. It’s been discontinued unfortunately but it’s pretty solid:
      • 4 inputs
      • Each input is XLR or Line-in
      • 1 guitar pre-amp for DI instruments
      • MIDI capability
      • Phantom power
    • Make sure your interface can provide phantom power to certain microphones that require it, or else those mics are basically useless to you.
  • If you’re really on a tight budget you can just get a USB microphone that plugs directly into your computer. In some cases that does the trick, but you won’t have that zero-latency monitoring that comes with an audio interface.
  • If you’re doing any kind of electronic music a MIDI Controller is definitely a must. It will let you play “virtual instruments” through your recording software and give your sound a more human feel rather than just programming each individual note of a song.
    • If you already have a decent keyboard, some already have a MIDI port in the back, so then all you need is the cable to connect it to your interface.
  • If you want to save a buck and skip the studio monitors, just get a good pair of studio headphones that close around your ear. If you’re like me and you can just be mixing through speakers on full blast in your house then that’s one more reason that studio headphones might be a good idea. I use ATH M20x, Audio Technica headphones that honestly sound pretty decent. They go for around $60 to $70.

Software and Effects

  • For a DAW (Digital Audio Workspace) I’ve been using a program called Reaper for a long time and I would highly recommend it as the cheapest and highest performing software you can buy. For personal use it’s about $60, and $225 for commercial. However, I’ve been using the fully-loaded trial version for like 2 years and I still haven’t hit the time-limit where I have to buy it yet.
  • Manny says he uses Logic Pro X, which goes for about $279. The difference here is that it comes with a whole lot of extra effect plugins that are really easy to use an high-powered. Reaper comes with a lot of really decent effects too. They just don’t look as pretty, and their UI is a little clunky, but with a little bit of time and reading you can figure it out.
  • As far as effects plugins go, you can find quite a variety of good, free downloads online and not have to spend anything. Manny suggests even registering with Focusrite, because they have a free VST you can download every month. Just make sure you don’t dismiss the pre-installed effects to go looking elsewhere before you’ve really given them a fair try.

I realize this is a super bare bones guide to recording but I hope at least it’s given you some ideas about how to get started with very little money available to you.

Depending on the kind of music you’re making you can really play to the strengths of a cheap DIY-recording set up. For electronic music, you can do most of your music digitally and directly through the computer. You hardly even need any microphones. Or if you’re making any sort of basement, indie rock type of music, having a lo-fi sound can work to your advantage. It’s honest, cheap, and the right people will dig it as long as the actual music you’ve written isn’t shit. You just need to find the line between low-fi and lo-quality.

As a bonus here are some great extra tips from Manny:

  • “Definitely make use of sends for any effects or plug-ins while mixing. Umm learn your keyboard shortcuts to save you a bunch of time while recording/mixing/mastering.”
  • “Always read what’s out there online for tips, you can learn so much just by typing in what you’re stumped on.”
  • If recording acoustically, read up on cheap sound proofing techniques.
  • “Always save multiple files of a project. Because corrupted files are the worst and you’ll be super frustrated because you didn’t save up to a certain point.”
  • “Colour coordinate your tracks and group your vocals. It saves time to be organized and it looks good too.”

2 thoughts on “Adventures in DIY Recording

  1. Great piece, Sean! You mentioned some very worthy gear. And as DAWs go, Reaper is a very good, very affordable budget-friendly option. If I may, I’d like to share my own “budget” recording setup:

    A Steinberg UR12 USB interface (two inputs, phantom power, and independent monitoring capability).

    Apple GarageBand and Logic Pro X (my lovely wife bought Logic for my birthday. She kinda’ spoils me rotten, ya might say) for my main DAWs, but I have also used Reaper, Cubase, Ableton Live, and a few other apps. GB and LPX are my workhorses, though, and I recommend them highly.

    My MIDI controllers are an Alesis Q25, and a (believe it or not) Casio LK-165 keyboard, which has more keys than the Alesis, and MIDI capability. I bought it at a garage sale for thirty bucks, I think.

    As for vocal mics, I use a MXL V67, which I bought new for about a hundred bucks, with two different shockmounts and mic stand adaptors. I also use a pop screen to keep the plosives down.

    I also have a few low-wattage amps to get the “moving air” vibe: A Marshall MG10CD and a Fender Something-or-other.

    I am also so “old school,” that I still own a TASCAM 464 cassette tape PortaStudio, a ZOOM MRS-802CD digital multitrack recorder, and two hardware drum machines (Alesis SR-16 and ZOOM RhythmTrak 234..!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very cool! Always cool to use a bit of vintage gear in the recording process cause it really gives a unique and warm sound like not of other kinds of equipment can–from what I hear, at least! I’ll have to check out that vocal microphone you were talking about though, I think I’m due for an upgrade any day now.

      Liked by 1 person

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