A guide for a low-cost electronic music studio.

I’ve been making electronic music for over 30 years, and I’ve rarely worked in any kind of high-end studio. Most of my work has been recorded, mixed, and mastered in my own home studios. So just through a series of hard knocks and other things that give you “experience” I think I am in a good position to help advise people on how to make a good, decent, and useful budget studio.

I’m going to assume that you don’t have a lot of money – I never did. I’m also going to assume that you will do your best to acquire gear at the lowest possible costs. Do not be afraid of buying used gear, especially if it is relatively new. Electronic music studios often take excellent care of their equipment, so if you can find a piece of gear at a low cost with very little usage on it, go for it. Because I can’t assume that you have access to used gear, nor can I possibly anticipate the amount of money you might spend on a given piece of use gear, I am not going to discuss this article in terms of used gear. It’s impossible to anticipate what kind of deals you might come across, and in aggregate such deals could save you an extraordinary amount of money. So what I’m going to assume is that you are going to use this guide which will be priced according to street – retail prices, but will do your best to find them for less if and when you can.

There are a variety of ways to create electronic music. I can’t possibly anticipate all of them, nor can I even accommodate many of them here. However there are some basic things that are common to most electronic music studios. One is the ability to create electronic music out of a box. The other aspect is to record sounds, and then manipulate them inside a box. So I’m going to assume these two basic workflows.

Like anything having to do with ICT (information communication technology) there is a very strict flow to how it all works. This is all discussed by Claude Shannon back in the late 1940s and has since been developed to accommodate ICT. This flow is an algorithm of signal path. It goes like this:

Input > processing > output

to accommodate ICT, processing has been extended to include storage. So, a sound is created (input), it is sent to a processor (processing) where it is then written to ram or a hard drive (storage), and it goes back and forth between processing and storage until a desired outcome is reached and it goes to the output for you to hear. All electronic music studios by necessity follow this algorithm. We will use this algorithm to discuss the things you will need for your studio. Some things will benefit more than one part of the algorithm, but that only serves to underline the accuracy and power of the analysis. Given the importance of computers to the electronic music process in every step of the process, I will treat this first and separately.

You will need a computer. If you are reading this, it is very likely that you own a computer. All things being equal, the computer you are using right now may well be powerful enough to run electronic music audio software. The needs and demands of audio software are not rising as quickly as the capabilities and performance of today’s computers. So any ordinary quad core laptop will likely do just fine. I have two computers I use for making electronic music, one is for low and, less complex, simpler editing, and the other is for more high-end work and performance. The differences are interesting and illustrative.

My low-end “tank” computer is a five-year-old HP laptop. It runs Windows 7, has an i7 processor, eight GB of RAM, and a one TB hard drive. Its battery is shot, and this is the second hard drive I have put into it. I keep with it because it’s not a slow computer, and I bought it used years ago for only $550. This computer also doubles as my online browsing computer, and my writing computer. In fact I am writing this article using the HP laptop. To write this article I am using Dragon voice recognition software, because I sprained my wrist recently. The HP is more than powerful enough to do all of that, and do it well. If they can do that it can do basic audio duties, like allow me to record and edit my radio show, “something completely different” on CJRU – AM and the Internet. There will be links to this at the end of this essay. The HP laptop does a fine job for what I needed it to do. There was a time not that long ago when I did everything on the HP laptop. This meant running Ableton live, audacity, and a pile of VST processors and instruments. It did all of that just fine, it just weighs a ton, and Windows 7, like most versions of Windows, can be cranky with different drivers and devices. But it worked.

My other computer, which is my dedicated music computer, is a MacBook air. It’s an i7 processor with 16 GB RAM, and a 256 GB SSD. It also cost $2000. Well, technically $1986. You get the picture. It is blazingly fast and can do most anything I ask it to. Because it’s an Apple computer, it has a very easy time with all the devices that I plug into it. That’s one of the things I like about the Macintosh, it just works. However, I’m going to assume that you don’t have $2000 for a MacBook air. Which leads us back to what I was discussing earlier, that you should look into high-quality used gear when you can. Like my HP laptop. The selection of the computer is critical, because it will determine the kinds of software that you’ll be able to run on it, and to a certain extent the kinds of hardware peripherals that you will be able to use with it.

As I said if you’ve been reading this on your computer, you probably have a computer that will work well enough to get you started. If you don’t have a computer or you are certain that your computer just won’t be able to handle the rigours of audio production, then let’s make a budget item for a computer.

I went over to BestBuy.ca and saw that they have some computers on sale. One of them is an Asus 15 inch laptop running Windows 10 on an i5 processor, with eight GB of RAM, and a one TB hard drive for $650. With tax, let’s call it $700. Please note: I am not endorsing Best Buy nor am I endorsing Sweetwater even though I am using them for my pricing examples. I’m using Best Buy and Sweetwater simply because I’m lazy, and I hate Guitar Centre/Musician’s Friend.

So now that we have that major bit of the discussion done, let’s go on to more amusing things. Let’s talk about input devices.

INPUT

input devices are dependent on the kinds of input you’re making. One kind of input is audio, and that requires microphones. Another kind of input is MIDI data. And that requires the kinds of gear that generate MIDI data. Another aspect of input is its close relationship with output. And this is best expressed in terms of your interface. Because the interface, like the computer, has so much to do with different parts of the algorithm, we will discuss that first.

Audio Interfaces

starting out, you are not going to need a vast number of input jacks and sophisticated signal routing systems. This is fortunate, because it means that you won’t have to spend as much money. The budget audio interface market is pretty crowded. Most of the gear is also fairly equivalent. A representative, and I believe pretty good, example of a low budget audio interface is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. I went over to Sweetwater.com and found that they are selling it for $150. That’s fine. There are other low-budget interfaces. For example I also saw the Presonus audio box USB 96 for $100. It will work too. The important thing about both of these boxes is that they have the ability to accept standard microphones. That will come in very handy down the line as you record sounds for your music.

MIDI input

MIDI stands for musical information digital interface, and it is the lingua franca of electronic music. It is important to remember that MIDI is not sound. It’s just the data that triggers events in your gear that creates sound. You can think of it as kind of like a computerized piano roll. Because I know you’re on a desperate budget, we won’t go into all the elaborate and truly remarkable gear that you can get to create MIDI input. I have a number of devices that do this for me. The main piece I use is a Novation Impulse 61. It looks like a 61 Key synthesizer, but it only generates MIDI. I got it because I needed a good keyboard, and the ability to immediately access my software, Ableton live. Since you are on a budget, we will assume that you are not using Ableton live, or ProTools, or Logic, or any other really expensive software. We will get to software in the processing section. Suffice to say, I’m assuming you want to go in with as low-budget as possible, because the poverty so common to artists is your present day lot.

So to that end I would recommend looking at something like the Nektar Impact LX25+ Keyboard Controller. The keys on it are full-size, although you only get two octaves. This is fine for a great deal of electronic music sound generation. It also has a number of features that I find rather attractive:

One: drum pads. Having drum pads allows you to pound out a rhythm very quickly, or use them to trigger various electronic events in your software. So that is a thumbs-up for this particular piece of gear.

Two: it has eight knobs which can be used to control a variety of soft synths and processors.

Three: it has buttons that will allow you to control start, stop, play, and record in your software. This is very handy as it will eliminate the need to go clumping around with your mouse to record something. It makes your workflow much faster.

Four: I saw it on sale at Sweetwater for $100. That’s cheap.

So this one little keyboard will allow you to get a lot of things done fairly quickly.

Microphone

microphones range in quality and price. Like anything, the better stuff is more expensive, and the best stuff is simply extortionate. However, there is a lot of inexpensive gear that gives at least adequate recording quality. For example I am recording my voice to dictate this article using a Blue Yeti USB microphone. I bought it on sale at Best Buy for $129. Is it a Neumann U 87? Hell no. There is a plethora of inexpensive mics out there, and finding used mics is fairly easy. So, let’s say you spend $100 on a mic.

 

Now let’s talk about processing.

Processing

Your main software will determine much of what you do, and how you do it in your electronic music. This kind of software known as a DAW (Digital audio workstation) can be very powerful, and different DAWs are built for different purposes. Because you are trying to do things as cheaply as possible, your options are substantially more limited. That’s why I am recommending you use a program called Reaper.

Reaper is a perfectly adequate DAW, and it has one terrific advantage over many others: it’s really, really, cheap. In fact, you can use it for free for a few months. Personally, I would recommend actually buying the software, as it only costs $60. This software will create a framework for you to be able to record your electronic music. It comes with a basic synthesizer, and a number of basic processors. And this will be fine to get started. However you will probably quickly tire of such limited functionality, and this is where VST plug-ins come in.

VST was developed by Steinberg many years ago. It’s basically a simple plug-in architecture that allows a host software, such as Reaper, to talk to various audio softwares. This could be synthesizers, processors, effects, drum machines, all kinds of crazy stuff. And the best part about VST, is that you can download vast numbers of VST instruments, processors, effects etc. for free. And not from piracy, just simply made by people who are enthusiasts for the electronic music genre and have the skills to build VST instruments. Finding them is really very simple, just Google “VST free”. There are many sites that distribute VST plug-ins.

There are other DAWs that are amazing, and they have different purposes. ProTools is excellent, however it is optimized for multitrack recording and is a bit of an industry standard in that regard. Using it for MIDI composition is not its strong suit. Ableton Live is excellent for loop based music and MIDI production. It is not optimized for multichannel production. Apple’s Logic sits in between them. All three are quite expensive – my version of Ableton, Ableton Live Suite v9 cost about $800. A full blown version of ProTools is much the same. Logic is also not cheap. There are low cost versions of Live and ProTools, but their restricted features are not for fun making. Therefore, I recommend Reaper. At $60 it’s hard to go wrong.

So, let’s look at what we’ve got so far:

You bought a computer for $700.
An interface for $100
$100 for a mic
$100 for a MIDI keyboard
$60 for Reaper
You will need a mic stand – that’s another $30

So, we’re basically covered for Input and Processing. Now, Output.

Output

The Interface will have jacks to go out to your monitors. You will need monitors. Mixing down to headphones is not advised. Using headphones to test your music is advised. So is a car stereo and a boom box. However, you need to hear music with some precision and clarity. Getting decent monitors for cheap is not easy – you do get what you pay for up to about $1400. Over that price point, there are returns but they are diminishing compared to the cost. You can spend $14k on monitors, and they will not be 10x better. They will provide you some clarity that is otherwise unavailable, but that’s not the point, nor within our budget. So what are best dirt cheap monitors? It depends – the best thing is to trust your ears.

To my ears, if I was trying to get the most for the least, I would consider the Mackie MR5 mkIII’s or the KRK Rockit 5’s. The Mackies cost about $120 each, the Rockits about $150 each. There are other speakers in this range, JBL makes a nice pair in this range as well, and I would urge you to listen yourself to test them. To do that bring a piece of music you really like and know EVERY detail and test it on every set – see which sounds best.

I use Event PS8 speakers which are very much like the Event 2020bas speaker. They’re very good. I got them on a crazy sale at a music store for $700 back in 1998. They are no longer made. Their cousin, the 2020bas, cost about $580 each these days. Good speakers are important. It’s what you listen to. So, let’s say you go for the Rockits – that’s $300 for your monitors.
You bought a computer for $700.
An interface for $100
$100 for a mic
$100 for a MIDI keyboard
$60 for Reaper
You will need a mic stand – that’s another $30
And the monitors add $300.
Total? About $1400. If you already own a computer, half that.

From there, you can finesse things (like getting your room treated acoustically, paying for some quality synths, collecting instruments and noise makers, etc…) but the above will get you making electronic music right quick. If you keep your eyes on ebay and craigslist you can save even more money. There is no excuse for not being creative.

Advertisements