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Q. What should I buy to equip my studio?

Published April 2009

I'm planning to start some writing and recording in my basement home studio — only there's no equipment in it! I have an Ensoniq ESQ1 from back in 1987 (when I used to play in a band) and I know virtually nothing about current music technology. My basic plan is to get a Macbook or Macbook Pro and possibly Logic Express 8, and use my ESQ1, via a USB/MIDI link, to play into it.

What else do I need? I might try to add some vocals and I definitely want to be able to make my own CDs. If you could make a few suggestions regarding different setups it would be extremely useful. My maximum budget for everything will be £3000.

I'm lucky enough to have a 'proper', soundproofed studio, complete with separate vocal booth, as (I'm told) my house used to belong to Simon Gallup, bass player with The Cure.

Andrew Ward

Laptops are deservedly popular, but if you're equipping a fixed studio installation, think twice: it's possible that a desktop machine, with its generally better price/performance ratio, is a better bet.

SOS Features Editor Sam Inglis replies: You are in a relatively lucky position, as most of the hard work and expense involved in setting up a home studio often goes into the building of the rooms themselves! The idea of buying a computer and a DAW program such as Logic is a sound one, and should enable you to take care of all your synth and sampling needs without buying any other hardware instruments. Any modern computer will also let you burn CDs. Is there a specific reason why you're looking to buy a laptop computer? In general, desktop machines have better price/performance ratio and expandability, so unless you need the portability it might be worth looking at a Mac Pro or iMac rather than a Macbook.

Assuming you're happy to use your ESQ1 as a controller keyboard, you'll need some way of getting MIDI and audio in and out of the computer. There are many, many combined audio and MIDI interfaces on the market, and choosing one is a matter of deciding which features you are likely to need. It sounds as though you are likely to want to record vocals, so you will need one or more inputs with mic preamps, unless you plan to buy a separate mixer or preamp, and make sure these preamps can supply phantom power for condenser mics.

If there's any chance you'll want to record drums, or other sources that will require more than two audio signals to be recorded at once, you'll need a multi‑channel interface. Focusrite's new Saffire Pro 40, Presonus' Firestudio and M‑Audio's ProFire 2626 all give you eight inputs with mic preamps at an affordable price (under £500 on the street). If you're only ever likely to record, say, vocals and guitars, you may well get away with a smaller interface, such as the basic Focusrite Saffire, M‑Audio Firewire 410 or Edirol FA66. The interfaces I've listed above connect via Firewire, but there are also many interface options that connect via USB if that suits your computer better.

On top of that you should budget for some monitor speakers, a decent pair of headphones, one or more microphones, and those sundries like cables and mic stands that always cost more than you think! It's worth spending as much as you can afford in each of these areas, and especially getting the best monitors you can. You can buy either active or passive monitors: the latter require a separate power amp, the former are complete within themselves. In both cases, there's a huge range on the market: names to look out for include Genelec, ADAM, Dynaudio, Yamaha and KRK.

For vocals, a decent large‑diaphragm condenser probably makes the best first microphone. There are lots on the market at the moment from the likes of Audio‑Technica, Rode, SE Electronics, Audix, Sennheiser, AKG, Sontronics and many others. With both monitors and microphones it's helpful to try before you buy, and worth making a special trip to a music shop that will let you do so (Digital Village, for instance, have listening rooms set up so that you can run music you know through different sets of monitors). For other sources, you'll probably want to add to your mic collection. A pair of 'pencil' small‑diaphragm condenser mics can be handy as drum overheads or for recording acoustic guitars, while dynamic mics such as the classic Shure SM57 are widely used for close‑miking loud sources such as guitar amps and snare drums.