What to buy if you want to start producing music at home

Terrence O'Brien
Managing Editor

By now, you've no doubt heard that the Grammy-winning song of the year and record of the year were not recorded in some giant 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 than ever. But this weekend, Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas proved that the cultural institutions that have dominated popular music for so long can no longer ignore the bedroom producer or budding Soundcloud star.

Maybe you've even been inspired to build your own home recording studio. And maybe, you're not quite sure where to start. Well, an audio interface, a good mic and a decent set of headphones will get you pretty far. But the first thing you'll need is probably staring you right in the face: a computer.

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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 told me. 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 set up "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. JDilla famously created many of his beats on a Roland SP303, and you can basically 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.

Which leads us to the next thing you'll need: a DAW, or digital audio workstation. If you're a Mac user, then you're lucky enough to have access to Garage Band, a surprisingly capable free option. And upgrading to Logic Pro X, the same DAW used to record When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is only a $200 investment. If you're on Windows (or just don't like Logic), I often recommend Ableton Live (starting at $99). But honestly there are plenty of great options out there, like FL Studio, BitWig and Cubase all of which start at $99. And often, stripped down versions come free as part of a software bundle when you buy music-making hardware like MIDI controllers and audio interfaces.

What to buy

Assuming you already have a computer and you just need the accessories to get recording here's a list of surprisingly capable gear at beginner-friendly price points. While picking up everything here new will set you back about $400, you could find it all for as little as $250 used if you're patient.

Focusrite Scarlett Solo - $109

Sony MDR-7506 - $90

Arturia Minilab - $109

Audio-Technica AT2020 - $99

Speaking of which, one of the first additions to your studio should be a MIDI controller. DeLay says this is a piece of gear often overlooked by beginners. "It's not just for playing keyboard sounds," he explained, "it can be used to write drums and percussion, to control mixes and more. It's the creative interface of music production, and you don't have to play the piano in order to harness its power."

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We've covered plenty of affordable and portable options before. But if you don't plan to make music on the go, I can't recommend the Arturia Minilab enough. It's just $109, punches well above its weight, and even the pros love this thing. And if you have the space, it's not much more to upgrade to something like the Keylab Essential 49 ($209) or Novation Launchkey 49 ($199), which will give you a lot more controls to play with.

Obviously part of what makes Billie Eilish so captivating is her voice. There's no gear that 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 certainly 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. This is a place where Eilish and her brother really splurged, but that doesn't mean you have to. In fact, Pecora specifically warns against this. "People will look at their favorite artist and see that they use a certain mic or preamp or plugin and want to use the same thing thinking it will get them the same sound." And, in fact, on early singles like "Ocean Eyes" Eilish was using an Audio-Technica AT2020 condenser mic, which costs just $100. But if you fancy yourself a future pop sensation and want to make sure your vocals are the star of the show, consider using a significant chunk of your budget on something like the Rode NT1-A ($200) or Shure SM7B ($399).

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

As for the interface, there are tons of great options out there. But bang for your buck, it's hard to beat the Scarlett series from Focusrite (just make sure to get the second- or third-gen models). You can get the Scarlett 2i2 for under $100 used, but it's just $160 new (and includes a huge bundle of very useful software).

The reason to opt for an audio interface instead of a simple USB mic is because 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.

This is an area that DeLay advises caution. While a good set of studio monitors will obviously be better than the speakers on your laptop and will result in a better mix, it's too easy to get caught up in what he calls monitor envy. "The reality is that monitors at a $300 price point are going to work just fine in most spaces," he says. Plus, your bedroom probably doesn't have the space to really make the most of large, powerful monitors. So, save your money.

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And if you're just starting out, you're probably better off getting a decent set of headphones. There're tons of amazing and affordable studio quality headphones out there for under $200, like the $179 Beyerdynamic DT990PRO (currently down to just $132 on Amazon). But one of our favorites is an old workhorse from Sony, the MDR-7506. They're well under $100 and actual pros have used them for decades to mix music.

One tip DeLay offers for novices: Double check your mixes in the real world. Headphones can over emphasize bass, while smaller studio monitors can have trouble delivering 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.

And that's really the key -- 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 out -- 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 buy 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.

Images: Getty Creative (home studio); Ableton (Ableton Live running on laptop); Focusrite (Scarlett Solo); Will Lipman / Engadget (Arturia KeyStep, Sony MDR-7506)