What is the best basic studio equipment?
If you’re a returning student reading this, whether you’re back on campus or studying remotely, I have some advice for you: Welcome back to the classroom. With the start of the school year in the United States, now is the ideal time to discuss the best gear and music production accessories for turning your bedroom or dorm room into a small music studio.
This list is for any student who wants to record and produce music effectively in a small room or shared living space.
It will assist you in constructing a pint-sized powerhouse workstation that goes beyond a computer and a digital audio workstation (DAW) such as Ableton Live, FL Studio, Logic Pro, GarageBand, or others.
So what kind of basic studio equipment do you need?
All of the gear listed below meets a variety of requirements: It’s (relatively) cheap, compact, and future-proof enough that you can use it long after you’ve graduated from a cramped dorm room or bedroom to a larger or better space.
This is a great selection of budget- and space-conscious gear that will fit right into any small music studio setup, even if you aren’t a college student. There’s something here for everyone, whether you need to do homework on the same desk you use to make music or you have to share your space with roommates. Let’s get started!
Pros: Tons of functionality, 3.5mm footswitch input, Bitwig Studio 8-Track included
Cons: Micro-USB connection rather than USB-C
With their latest offering in the mini MIDI keyboard space, Nektar is hoping to make an impression (pun intended). The Impact GX Mini 25-key controller has more features and is less expensive than comparable KORG and Arturia controllers.
The “Part 2” button panel is the keyboard’s coolest feature, in addition to two full octaves of playability. You can temporarily transpose the keyboard range up or down an octave by pressing a button, giving you a new level of flexibility while playing.
Other features include a customizable X-Y joystick (in place of the traditional pitch and modulation wheels) and transport buttons that allow you to control your DAW directly from the Impact GX Mini. Its small size allows you to throw it in your backpack and use it to make heat on the go. (Check out our list of favorite MIDI keyboards under $300 if you’re looking for a full-sized controller at a reasonable price.)
Pros: USB-powered, high-quality preamp circuit and converters, dual headphone outputs, and audio loop-back for streaming and content creation
Cons: For proper operation, USB 3.0 is required.
There are many entry-level audio interfaces available, but the Audient iD4 MkII stands out. With one microphone/line input and one instrument-level DI input for guitar and bass, the iD4 is a sleek 2-input/2-output interface. The preamp and converters are top-of-the-line, so the iD4 can serve as a backup or secondary interface even if you upgrade later.
The iD4 also has modern features that set it apart from the competition. With the “audio loop-back” feature, you can record all of your computer’s audio output, which is essential for streaming and creating video content. At the touch of a button, the volume control knob can be reassigned to control any MIDI parameter in your DAW. This is the ideal hub for a small studio setup for beginners.
Do you require more inputs or outputs? In our list of the best USB audio interfaces for home studios in 2021, you’ll find your next interface.
Pros: Aux input and Bluetooth connectivity, only one power cable is required, and frequency adjustment knobs
Cons: There are no XLR inputs.
When it comes to monitors, a smaller screen or a lower price tag don’t have to mean a poor mix. For example, Presonus’ Eris E3.5 speakers are marketed as “media monitors” for content creators, but at $100 a pair, they can also be used as budget studio speakers. These are small but powerful, with Bluetooth and a 3.5mm aux input on the front panel for connecting phones and other devices.
Given their form factor, the Eris E3.5s’ frequency response ranges from 80 Hz to 20 kHz, so don’t expect any sub-bass. (Compare this to Output Frontier monitors, which have a frequency response of 45 Hz to 25 kHz.) Even so, the Presonus speakers are likely to surprise you with how low they can go. These will suffice if you’re making music solely with headphones and want an inexpensive way to see how a pair of monitors can improve your workflow.
Do you want more low-end? In 2021, we’ve compiled a list of the best studio monitors (including our own Output Frontier monitors).
Pros: Reduces “smearing” in your sound and eliminates unwanted vibrations right away.
Cons: You might be enticed to use two shoeboxes instead.
If you want an accurate mix in a typical bedroom or dorm room studio, you’ll need to isolate your studio monitors. This is because listening to music at high volumes can cause internal reflections (vibrations within the speaker) and unwanted vibrations on your desk, muddying the sound. The most common method is to place them on individual stands, but speaker stands aren’t always practical in small spaces. So, what are your options?
This is where tabletop isolation methods such as the ISO-130 stands from IsoAcoustics come in handy. These fully customizable metal rods and rubber frames sit on either side of your computer screen. With 14 degrees of tilt flexibility, no matter how tall you (or your desk) are, you can easily position your speakers at the ideal angle. Don’t overlook the impact that a good set of stands can have on your mixes. Treat yourself to something even more rock-solid, like our handcrafted Output Stands, if you have the space for floor stands.
Are you looking for more stand options? In 2021, take a look at our list of the best affordable speaker stand options.
Pros: No power supply required, 3.5mm aux input, and useful “Mono” and “Dim” switches
Cons: There are no notches to keep track of the position of the volume dial.
Mackie’s Big Knob Passive is a simple monitor controller with two inputs and two outputs, allowing you to quickly switch from playing music through your audio interface to playing music through the aux input. The big knob itself — a buttery smooth volume control — and the three buttons beneath it labeled “Mono,” “Mute,” and “Dim” are the best features.
“Mono” sums whatever audio is playing to mono immediately, which is useful for checking mixes. (If a mix sounds bad in mono, it may sound worse in stereo; if a mix sounds great in mono, it can only sound better in stereo.) The “Mute” switch instantly mutes the sound, while the “Dim” switch reduces the signal by 20 dB. When you want to check your mixes at a lower volume or talk to collaborators without interrupting the session, the “Dim” switch comes in handy.
Pros: Use a “realistic” system to reference your mixes, 3.5mm aux input for connecting your computer or phone
Cons: Micro-USB charging port, not ideal for fine detail work.
Producers and engineers spend a lot of time discussing different headphones and speakers for mixing, but keep in mind that 99.9% of people who listen to your music will never hear it on studio equipment. Most likely, they’re listening to music through in-ear headphones like Apple’s AirPods, consumer-grade Bluetooth speakers, or in the car. As a result, your music must sound good there as well.
The Bose Soundlink Color II is a less than $150 portable Bluetooth mono speaker with an aux-in port. It’s fantastic because it’s “inaccurate,” giving you a sense of how your music might sound in real life. You don’t need this exact speaker; you just need one that’s in the same ballpark: not too nice, not too bad.
Listening to your music on a simple mono speaker with limited frequency response and detail can help you figure out if it’ll sound good on multiple systems. It can also help you determine whether your track is any good from a songwriting standpoint: if it doesn’t slap on small speakers, it won’t slap anywhere else.
Pros: One of the most highly recommended studio headphones, excellent for both listening and mixing, and a long-lasting design
Cons: After prolonged use, stock earpads can cause some soreness.
Artists, mix engineers, and audiophiles alike rave about Audio-ATH-M50x Technica’s closed-back studio headphones. The headphones’ relatively neutral frequency response, study design and build quality, and versatility have all been lauded by ATH-M50x users. These headphones have just enough bass to keep you engaged with whatever you’re working on without sounding boosted, and they have enough balance and range (15 Hz to 28 kHz) for mixing any genre of music you like.
Unlike some other headphones, the ATH-M50xs are also extremely long-lasting. Because the cable and ear pads are detachable and non-proprietary, you can easily replace them for a long time. There are no walled gardens here. If you’re looking for wireless headphones, there’s also a Bluetooth-enabled version that maintains the original headphones’ sonic signature.
Pros: One of the most recognizable microphones in music history, versatile in vocal and instrument applications, and ideal for home recording due to off-axis noise rejection.
Cons: Expensive investment; best results require a high-gain preamp or mic activator.
The Shure SM57 is a well-known, low-cost workhorse microphone that can be found in home studios and professional recording studios all over the world. The SM7B, the microphone’s older sibling, has the same reputation. For the money, this is one of the best and most widely available dynamic microphones on the market.
Singers and engineers love the SM7B for its clarity, flat response, and utility, and it’s been used by everyone from Michael Jackson to Sheryl Crow to Metallica. (The built-in pop filter is extremely useful!)
The SM7B’s ability to reject background noise is one of its most underappreciated features. Even if you’re recording in a small studio space that isn’t acoustically treated, careful mic placement can yield professional-quality results. This is also why the SM7B is such a popular podcasting microphone.
Do you want to learn more about the SM7B’s magic? Listen to this episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz, which delves into the history of the SM7 microphone model.