With both project studio owners and professionals using pretty much the same recording software and computer systems you might reasonably wonder how great the difference between the professional and home studio really is. The expertise and experience of a top professional engineer who spends all day, every day working in the studio is a given of course, though that doesn't mean there aren't incredibly talented people producing music who do something entirely different for their day jobs. There's also the physical space of the professional studio, although what difference that makes depends very much on the type of music you tend to record. If you're recording a string quartet, a choir or a drum kit, then a large professional facility clearly has the edge on the back bedroom at 39 Larchdale Close, Neasden, but when the music is sample-based or features mainly synths, DI'd guitars, vocals and so on, the back bedroom can cope very nicely as long as a little attention has been paid to appropriate acoustic treatment.
Gear-wise, the main difference between the pro studio and the home studio comes down to what you stick at either end of the computer. While budget audio interfaces can produce surprisingly good sound quality given their cost, there's no doubt that spending a little more on a quality product will produce cleaner results. The same is true of microphones: the cheaper models might produce great results for the money, but a little more cash will buy you something better, with the caveat that finding a vocal mic that suits the singer is usually more important than searching out the best technical specification. In isolation, the differences between converters, mic preamplifiers and microphones can seem very small, but they're cumulative and they all affect the signal quality before it even hits the computer.
Likewise, the output end of the system makes a difference insomuch as inaccurate monitoring can mislead you into making inappropriate mix decisions. The technical quality of the mix won't be compromised by your monitors, but it will suffer artistically if your monitors lie to you. And monitoring doesn't just mean good speakers; the monitoring chain also includes the speaker stands or platforms on which they sit, the position of the speakers relative to the listener and room boundaries, and, of course, the acoustics of the space in which you mix. Double checking on headphones is always a good idea too, but that brings up another area in which quality is important: you need headphones designed for accurate monitoring, not for flattering your MP3 collection.
The good news is that most of the items that affect quality also have a very long life. A good mic or mic preamp will never become obsolete and can have a working life measured in decades. The same is true of studio monitors and headphones. The trick is to identify the weakest link in your recording chain and to upgrade that first. All those small quality upgrades can add up to a big difference in the end result.
Paul White Editor In Chief