We were recently asked by a computer magazine for details of our top ten essential computer hardware items for musicians. Straight away I sent them back a list of my favourite kit and posted all the items on this page. But then it occurred to me this might not be the most helpful most for you. What you really want to know is what are the most important TYPES of gear to consider, are they appropriate and/or necessary for YOUR setup, and then how to go about picking the best one for your home recording studio – though at the same time you can see my current top pick.
So let’s look at each kind of item you might consider, and how to go about choosing the one that suits you …. This is just my take on the best music making hardware, so if you want some absolute crowd pleasers, then at the bottom of the page you can see the which are THE top ten most wished for recording gear items right now, as it gets updated daily. Interestingly, there are more than a few overlaps.
1. The Audio Interface
Looking at starting up a small home recording studio? The Audio Interface really is the key purchase that will be at the heart of your recording chain. This is the box that you connect your mics and instruments to and that converts the lovely sounds you are making into a digital signal to get it in to your computer. What to look for? Read my whole post on how to choose the best audio interface for YOUR recording studio (everyone is different). My top pick at the moment is the hugely popular, best selling and top reviewed Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. It just works. It looks good. And it comes with a great package of software too. If this really is your first home recording studio purchase, then you should also look at the Focusrite Scarlett Studio. It contains the BRILLIANT Scarlett 2i2 but comes in a package with headphones and condenser mic included. This really is the perfect “studio in a box”. And check out that gorgeous colour co-ordination too. Even the XLR lead matches… fab!
2. The Microphone
Choosing the right microphone is one of the most crucial decisions you will make for your home recording studio. If you are not sure where to start then I have a lengthy post on different types of microphones. Hopefully this will help you decide what kind of mic you should consider, and will help you compare all the technical terms on the spec sheets. There is a lot of jargon out there that needs demystifying. Most musicians and home recording studio veterans will own at least one large diaphragm condenser microphone. This is the most versatile choice. So you might want to peruse my 3-part post on how to pick the best large diaphragm condenser microphone for your home recording setup. Whatever your budget you will find a suitable microphone. Top Tip: If you pick one of these condenser mics, then make sure you get an audio interface with phantom power switch or you won’t be able to power it. The microphone I use the most? The AKG C1000S multi-purpose condenser mic. I have had it for years … and it isn’t a large diaphragm condenser. But I have found it to be the most reliable and versatile microphone. PLUS it can take a battery, so the phantom power issue is a non-issue. You can take it anywhere, and use it anywhere! It is very easy to use because you can get away with holding it (many studio condensers are just too sensitive and not designed for this). You can also adjust the presence peak and the polar pattern. (If you are not sure what these terms are… then you can read about microphone specs here)
3. The USB Microphone
On a budget? Buying a separate audio interface and microphone, plus all the additional cables needed can be a bit pricy. The USB mic might be a good option for you. If you want to get decent recordings without having to upgrade your soundcard, buy pre-amps etc, then a USB microphone is a great choice. No need to install anything complicated, just plug and play. There is a USB Microphone to suit pretty much every budget and simple recording situation. Perfect for video voiceovers, vocalists, for recording acoustic instruments, for podcasting, quality vocal recordings, the list is endless. If you want to buy today and record tomorrow, the USB Mic will do the job. And here’s the thing. Even if you also have a full-blown setup with separate audio interface, mics etc then the USB mic is a no brainer for portability, quick recordings, and cross platform including iPad. So buying a USB mic will not be a wasted purchase even if you upgrade later. If you want to compare the most popular, then head over to my page on how to choose the best USB microphone where I have thoroughly tested 12 best sellers, including recordings, video reviews etc. I own two – the Samson Go Mic (perfect little pocket sized mic with a whole bunch of features including headphone port and switchable pickup pattern) and the Audio Technica AT2020USB Plus which gives pro quality recordings with very little noise, and nice and directional so easy to use in a home recording studio. Both of these mics allow you to direct monitor through headphones, which I think is an almost essential feature if you want to make vocal tracks etc.
4. The USB MIDI Keyboard Controller
Even if you do not play keyboard as such, a USB MIDI Keyboard is almost an essential purchase for a home recording studio. Perfect for inputting base lines, drum beats, controlling the faders on virtual instruments …. and a no brainer if you want to learn to read music, or you already can but want to create your own sheet music with score writing software. Not to mention that having a MIDI keyboard is the easiest way to improve your keyboard skills too. The keyboard I own is the Samson Graphite 25 (for space reasons and I also own a full sized digital piano) but if you are making your first purchase you could also think of upscaling to the Graphite 49 (pictured). Why this keyboard? Well the Samson Graphite 49 is a simple and robust USB MIDI keyboard controller with full-sized keys at a very sensible price. Perfect for anyone wanting to practise their piano skills, hook up to software like Mixcraft or Cakewalk and start laying down tracks, or use with any other music software. But what makes this particular keyboard particularly special is the software it comes with. Samson’s Graphite 49 makes musical performance and production accessible to everyone. For seasoned musicians and young creators alike, the Graphite 49 offers versatile, easy-to-use features in a compact, lightweight controller with semi-weighted keys that’s well-suited for the stage and studio. But is also comes with Native Instruments’ Komplete Elements software which offers a comprehensive selection of studio-quality sounds, effects and tools for modern music production, composition and sound design. With over 3GB of samples, Komplete Elements provides you with more than 1,000 premium sounds and three mighty player engines – all carefully compiled to provide a strong toolkit for both stage and studio. And all in the box for a really great price!! If you are a guitarist then you will love the software with this keyboard, the virtual amps are amazing. And I like the fact it has all those extra faders and pads.
5. The Headphone Moment
Although the ideal way to listen to your mix is with a set of studio monitors, more realistically in a home recording situation you are going to be relying on headphones for monitoring and mixing. It is the reality of setting up a home studio that you don’t want to bother the neighbours. In any case, if you are recording vocal tracks and want to direct monitor (or listen to yourself while recording) you will need headphones for that part of the recording process. The issue is that the best headphones for recording are not necessarily the best for mixing. All is explained in more detail in my article on how to choose the best studio headphones. And there is a compromise if you can afford only one pair. My current headphones for mixing are my trusty AKG K702’s. But they would be hopeless for recording as there is far too much ‘bleed’ to achieve the lovely ambient sound. So my top pick for closed-back headphones for monitoring would be the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Headphones. Absolutely minimal leakage, very comfortable and great sound.
6. The FX Processor
Although there are plenty of software fx plugins, don’t you just love the tactile response of a hardware effects processor? It can be great to simply play around without having to fire up the computer for a change. Plus if you buy a nice portable one you can use it anywhere, any time. So my top pick here is the Korg Mini KP-2 KAOSS PAD 2. The Korg MiniKP2 has become the must-have effect units on in every musician’s rig – especially on the DJ scene. The original mini KAOSS PAD earned enormous popularity for packing full-fledged effects into its compact body, but the second edition has even more features. In addition to inheriting powerful effect programs from the larger Kaoss Pad KP3 and the Kaoss Pad Quad, it provides an MP3 player with adjustable pitch, making the mini Kaoss Pad 2 unit ideal for creating DJ-Style performances. Use it as a DJ playback device, or use it to process the entire output of your DJ rig with Korg’s famous KAOSS effects. Instrumentalists, guitarists, sound designers and even just music fans will all enjoy using this little baby. The Organic Electroluminescent (OEL) display provides superb visibility. Add to that a touch slider for ease of use, microSD card data saving, plus a built-in speaker and mic. It really is a fab little toy.
7. The Synthesizer
Again, plenty of soft synths around, but same argument applies as above. Lovely to get your hands on a proper bit of kit. One that makes fantastic sounds – so you could choose to record them onto your computer if you wanted, or just play live. My pick here is one that is great to play on its own, but also integrates really well with your DAW software. The Korg Volca Keys Portable Synth a portable little box of tricks you can play around with anywhere, but you can also hook it up to a sequencer or keyboard controller over MIDI and use it as a sound module, so it’s nice and versatile. Between the 6 different modes (including unison, poly, and unison ring) and the 7 octave range, you can get loads of different sounds out of this synth. You also get knobs to play with which is amazing (especially given the size of the box) that you can use to get the tone you’re looking for, and almost all of them can be saved as motion sequences in the 8 pattern memories or controlled over MIDI.
8. The USB Guitar
If you already own a guitar, then there are several ways you can go about recording it on your computer. However, if you are looking to make a guitar purchase, then the USB guitar is a genius idea. You don’t need any other equipment to record it, other than a USB lead, and it is also a fabulous instrument in its own right. In particular the Dean Acoustic-Electric USB Guitar is well liked because it is easy to play and there is no annoying fret buzz. It has a very playable action for an acoustic guitar. This one is great to play for fun, and the acoustic sound is good. The body is thin and easy to hold and play, and it is lighter than many other guitars. All in all, a lot to like for a reasonably priced guitar. And it looks nice too. But the USB functionality is what makes it really stand out from the rest of the guitar crowd. What’s more, the USB connectivity on this guitar works on mac, pc, iPad and smart phone … straight up. So apart from the playability, that’s why it makes my top 10 list here!
9. The USB Mixer
The USB Mixer is another good example of one great bit of starter kit. Now if you already have an analog mixer you are happy with, and you are looking to connect it to your computer, then you might just be better looking for a suitable audio interface. However, if you have neither, then a USB Mixer can be a great option. What you get is a full blown mixing desk with built-in USB audio interface to connect it right up to your computer. The company that makes more USB mixing desks than anyone else is Behringer, and the one to go for is the Behringer Q1202USB 12-Channel Mixer. It is a whopping 12-channel mixer with FOUR mic pre-amps and really good3-band EQ. One word of caution … although you can record multiple tracks at once, the output is stereo, so all the instruments will be dumped in one stereo track. Still, look at the price! This is a great way of quickly recording several musicians at once.
10. The Electronic Drum Kit
Was there ever more fun to be had than with an electronic drum kit? Now the entry level ones are so cheap, and so good, then you start to think every musician should have one. The fact that you can have a set of drums in your house, put on your headphones and be playing without annoying the whole street is one great plus. Then the connectivity with your computer is another. But in my book, the electronic drum kit is the perfect stress buster. My fave set is the Roland V-Drums TD-4KP, because Roland really have put so much time and effort into developing the perfect electronic drums, and they are a great brand to buy from for their technical support. But Alesis are also a big player, and they tend to come cheaper if you are strapped for cash.
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