How to Set Up a Home Recording Studio: A Guide for Songwriters

home recording studio

Are you thinking about setting up your own home recording studio?

After all, it doesn’t cost much to write a song. The creative process is nearly free.

All you need is a bit of inspiration, some time, an instrument, and a notebook or phone to record your ideas.

But if you’re serious about making money songwriting, you’ll need to produce demos, and that can get expensive.

A demo is a professional recording of your song that you and/or your publisher use to generate interest in your music to get cuts or licensing deals.

Regardless which songwriting career path you choose, you’ll need good demos. Indie songwriters need them to pitch to artists, music supervisors, and publishing companies.

And if you’re fortunate enough to land a publishing deal, you’ll be expected to fully demo every song you write.

The process can seem overwhelming and intimidating—but it doesn’t have to be.

This post will break down the process and give you everything you need to get started, including my best recording equipment recommendations, and advice for setting up your home studio.

Click here to download a PDF version of this guide (and get a list of Jordan’s recommended equipment).

Table of Contents

How to Showcase Your Songs With Great Demos
Why a Home Recording Studio For Songwriters?
Who Should Not Have A Home Studio
Choosing the Right Home Studio Space
Home Recording Equipment Costs and Other Considerations
11 Home Studio Equipment Essentials
Getting the Right Home Recording Studio Setup
Getting Ready to Record Your Demo
Start Where You Are

How to Showcase Your Songs With Great Demos

A song that has “legs” is one that’s strong enough, not just to stand on its own, but to go out into the world and attract opportunities to you. Who wouldn’t want that?

After writing a great song, the next step in giving your song legs is creating a strong demo.

These days, you have two main choices:

Recording at Home

Setting up your own home studio requires an initial cash outlay, but it can potentially save you a great deal of money in the long run.

Just be prepared to go through a technology learning curve and be willing to embrace experimentation while you get your setup the way you want it.

Recording in Professional Recording Studio

This can be the more expensive route, but there are advantages.

It can save you time (as long as you’re well prepared) and, if you’re not comfortable recording on your own or you don’t have the right recording equipment or space, you may get better performances and a higher quality recording in a professional studio.

While a quality demo is definitely worth the investment whichever way you go, the cost of recording every demo at a professional recording studio can be prohibitive, especially if you’re a prolific writer.

Fortunately, today’s technology makes setting up a home studio accessible for most songwriters.

You may find it worthwhile to set up your own home studio—not just in terms of affordability, but also in growing your musical knowledge and chops, and for the personal and creative satisfaction.

The good news is, you don’t need an expensive or fancy setup.

My first home recording setup was an old iMac with an Mbox (an audio interface) and a cheap mic.

I couldn’t run any plugins out of Pro Tools because my computer was slow. So I recorded everything first and added the plugins later — praying all the while that my Mac wouldn’t die on me.

My studio was in a bedroom in our first house. It was about a 10′ x 10′ room, right next to the living room.

If my wife Taylor was watching TV, she’d have to turn it off and sit perfectly quietly, because my mic would pick up anything happening in our small-but-charming 850 sq. ft. house.

That first studio was good enough to give me my start in professional songwriting.

So let’s dig into the home recording setup and process, including everything you’ll need to begin recording your own great demos at home.

Why a Home Recording Studio for Songwriters?

The purpose of a demo is to sell your song. It should be nearly radio-ready, and have enough growth potential that an artist can imagine taking it to the next level. Ideally, you want them to think, “Great song… but I can make it better!”

Your demo recordings don’t need to be perfect, but they do need to sound professional.

And if you want your music to attract the attention of music supervisors, your demo recordings need to sound finished, nearly good enough to be played on radio. (even if they never are)

Learning how to create your own demos will help you grow as a musician. You’ll learn how to write various parts, arrange and mix a song, and you may even decide to learn more instruments.

You’ll also become better at expressing your creative vision to a producer or engineer when you do have the opportunity to record in a professional studio.

And, as mentioned earlier, with a home studio, you can save time and money by recording your own demos, because you won’t need to pay someone else for studio time for every song you write.

Finally, even if you don’t make full demos at home, with a basic home studio you’ll be able to create solid scratch tracks that will make it easier for your engineer, producer, other musicians, and vocalists to get on board.

Despite all these advantages, not everyone can or should have their own home studio setup.

Who Should Not Have a Home Studio

You might want to skip setting up your own home studio if:

  • You’re not at all technical and don’t have at least a basic interest in learning the software, equipment, and related engineering skills.
  • You don’t play any instruments, sing, and aren’t proficient enough to do a good job.
  • You absolutely don’t have a good space available.
  • You’re doing it only to save money and you have little interest in refining your craft as an engineer.

If you said “yes” to one of these points, does this limit you as a songwriter?

Not at all!

It just means your best bet is to book a professional studio and musicians to get the best result possible.

Professional quality is well worth the cost and not every song needs a full band treatment. Piano plus vocal or guitar and vocal may be fine.

If you’re pitching a full band version of your songs to film and TV, that’s a little different. Just be sure to consider your end result.

And remember: no version of a song ever really has to be “final.” You can always add more instruments to a well-recorded demo, if necessary.

Choosing the Right Home Studio Space

home recording studio

You don’t need a large, dedicated space to set up a home studio. It’s not uncommon to use a bedroom, basement, attic, or even a closet.

If you have more than one possibility, here are some things to consider:

In general, the larger the room, the better.

Bigger rooms tend to sound better, allow space for more people, and more room for your equipment.

Larger rooms (think cathedrals or concert venues) usually have better acoustics. They often have higher ceilings, asymmetrical walls, and lots of irregular surfaces, but it’s hard to find these features in most homes. Do your best.

That said, these are the things you absolutely want to avoid:

  • Outside noise—including traffic, neighbors, barking dogs, lawn mowers, and more.
  • Inside noise—heating, A/C, plumbing, electrical appliances, and vents (don’t forget what’s on the other side of your walls!)

Rooms with hard floors made of concrete, tile, or hardwood are best.

Carpet absorbs high frequencies but not low ones, so it can cause poor acoustics. Also, upstairs rooms may be more sensitive to foot traffic noise than those downstairs.

If you only have one option, don’t sweat it. Just use that.

The most important consideration isn’t having the perfect room, or the fanciest or best equipment. Instead, it’s your sound quality.

You can improve your sound quality by being aware of the possible downfalls and the best ways to deal with those.

I’ll show you how a little later in the post.

Home Recording Equipment Costs and Other Considerations

There’s always a tradeoff between cost and quality, and home recording equipment is no exception.

Just like with instruments, you can easily spend thousands of dollars on home studio equipment, but it’s definitely not necessary. You can get great recordings with many middle-of-the-road options.

At the same time, don’t be tempted to go too cheap if you’re truly serious. You’ll find yourself frustrated and unable to do a good job — and you may even find yourself spending more money in the long run, replacing the cheap gear.

Whatever you do, start simply.

Otherwise, you may feel overwhelmed, frustrated, discouraged, or even be tempted to quit. (We want to avoid that at all costs!)

Instead, begin with the basics. Get the hang of your equipment, and build your studio as you gain confidence and experience.

Here are my recommendations for the best equipment to start with.

11 Home Studio Equipment Essentials

For an affordable entry-level studio that gives you pro-quality sound, you can’t go wrong with the following software and gear.

Your Bare-Bones Studio Equipment Checklist

✅Computer
✅ Digital Audio Workstation
✅ AT2020 Microphone
✅ UA Apollo Twin
✅ ATH-M20X Headphones
✅ Novation Launchkey 49 MK3 Midi Keyboard
✅ Mic stands
✅ 10’ Mogami Coreplus XLR cable
✅ (2) 6’ Mogami Coreplus XLR to TRS Speaker Cables
✅ Pop filter
✅ KRK ROKIT 5 G4 5-Inch Monitors
✅ Glyph 1TB Hard Drive

1. Computer

A computer is a must—I’m a Mac person, I think their iOS is really intuitive, but Windows works just as well. The platform you use is really a matter of personal preference—there’s no difference in the quality of your end product.

Just understand that your hardware will partly determine which software you can use, because not all recording software runs on any platform.

I do recommend you go with a Mac if you’re on the fence. Either a laptop or desktop is fine. I like my laptop because it’s mobile.

You’ll need at least 8 GB of RAM (although 16GB is becoming standard, and 32GB more common) and at least 500GB of internal storage. WAV files and sound libraries use a lot of memory.

2. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

A Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, is the software that will allow you to edit and mix your songs, as well as apply plugins for effects and virtual instruments.

You can use plug-ins to enhance your raw audio files with effects like chorus, distortion, delay, compression, reverb, and EQ.

I use Logic now because I think it’s the most creative DAW, especially if you’re not super technical, but it’s a good choice even if you’re a pro audio engineer.

If you’re using a PC, Pro Tools is great, and you can use it on any platform. FL Studio, formerly known as Fruity Loops, is another popular and affordable option, especially if you’re into EDM, creating beats, etc.

If you’re using a Mac, you can’t go wrong with either Logic or GarageBand.

3. Microphone

No discussion of a home studio setup would be complete without at least a quick overview of microphones.

Microphones are transducers, meaning they transform one type of energy into another—in this case, sound waves are translated into audio signals. How they do that differs depending on the type of microphone.

There are different types of microphones, and certain ones will be your home studio workhorses.

  • Condenser microphones are indispensable to recording studios. Highly sensitive, they respond quickly and capture a wide range of dynamics. Condenser mics come with large or small diaphragms, with larger diaphragms being more sensitive. They are typically used on vocals and acoustic guitars and as room mics. Small diaphragm mics, sometimes called pencil condensers or pencil mics, are used for close miking of amplifiers, acoustic instruments, and drum overheads.
  • Dynamic mics work like reverse loudspeakers, translating louder sounds into usable files for recording. They’re durable and can handle high volumes, like guitar and bass cabinets. They are usually used in live performance or for miking drums or guitar amplifiers in the studio.

When you’re starting out, you need a good large diaphragm condenser. I like the AT2020 by Audio-Technica. It’s a popular, affordable, highly-rated cardioid condenser and an ideal microphone for home studios.

It reduces sound pickup from the sides and rear (including outside and inside noise.) Since you will be using an audio interface, you will most likely use the XLR version, however there is also a USB model available.

4. Audio Interface

An audio interface converts your analog instrument or vocal signals into digital ones, and vice versa, so that you can record and playback on a computer. They also include pre-amps, which cleanly boost microphone signal volumes up to operating levels.

For an excellent audio interface, start with the Universal Audio UA Apollo Twin. It’s portable and has 2 inputs—in a home studio you’ll rarely need more than that.

You can use one channel for your microphone plus an acoustic guitar with another input for vocals. You can use your AT2020 to record both.

5. Headphones

The next home studio non-negotiable is a good set of headphones for mixing.

This is another area where you don’t want to skimp. You want your songs to sound great, but if skimp on headphones, you’ll find that when you listen in your car or on different speakers, your mix will sound completely different.

Avoid that, it just creates more work. Make sure you get a good over-the-ear model that minimizes outside noise. It will make a big difference when it comes to hearing accurately.

I recommend Audio-Technica ATH-M20X headphones. They offer great quality for the price, around $150.

6. MIDI Keyboard

A MIDI keyboard allows you to “play” just about any instrument you can imagine, and create many other unique sounds.

I love the Novation Launchkey 49 [MK3] MIDI Keyboard Controller. It’s got a velocity-sensitive keyboard that feels very natural and is super simple to use.

Note: it doesn’t play any sounds unless it’s plugged into your computer. It’s just a controller. If you make beats or EDM, this one’s essential.

7. Mic Stands

You must have good mic stands. They need to be sturdy enough to support a heavier microphone and keep it in the position you need without slipping or dropping it.

For your home studio, you might want to consider getting a desk-mounted boom stand like podcasters use.

You can pull it down and use it but still keep your hands free to edit your vocal or press record and stop. You can keep that stand right in front of you and use another regular freestanding boom stand for your acoustic guitar, off to the side.

8. Cables

For cables, I can’t say enough good things about Mogami. They make the best cables at a reasonable price. Whatever cable you buy from them, you can’t go wrong—and cable quality matters when it comes to making pro-sounding recordings.

You’ll need XLR cables for your microphone, two TRS to XLR cables for your speakers (if you have them, see the next section) and 1/4″ cables for your guitar.

9. Pop Filter

Pop filters are used when recording vocals.

They’re inexpensive devices that protect your vocal recordings from distracting noises called plosives (hard air stops, as in the sounds “p” in “pop” and “d” in “dog”) from ruining your tracks. Any filter is fine, just be sure to get one because it will greatly improve your sound quality.

Highly Recommended Equipment

You can make a good start on your home studio with just the equipment listed above. However, you’ll want to consider adding these items as soon as you’re able.

10. Studio Monitors

Studio monitors are designed specifically for pro audio applications like music production, filmmaking, television studios, and more—wherever you need accurate sound reproduction.

They let you clearly hear everything you’ve got going in your mix, unlike typical home or car stereo speakers.

Consumer-grade speakers often distort or filter undesirable frequencies. They can hide problems that might be more apparent if you listen on a good home surround-sound theater stereo, transmit it over the radio (in a commercial), or use it on TV, or in a film.

You want a mix that sounds good anywhere, including in your car or on headphones. You don’t need anything extravagant, but you do need the flatter EQ that studio monitors will give you.

KRK ROKIT 5 G4 5-Inch Monitors are great. They’re portable and work well in home studios. While you can start mixing with headphones alone, you’ll want to pick up a pair as soon as you can afford them.

You’ll also notice a nice improvement in sound quality with monitor stands.

11. Hard drives

I do recommend that in addition to your computer’s hard drive, you have backups and portable drives. Personally, I love the 1 TB Glyph professional external hard drive.

The Studio version is made especially for content creators. It’s a highly rated, fast, and extremely reliable drive so you don’t ever have to worry about losing your work due to a system or power failure.

I have a couple of these drives now and I keep them backed up to another bigger drive on my desk in my studio. They’re amazing. They’re also portable, so you can easily take them anywhere you need to.

Once you’ve got your equipment, it’s time to get it set up and start creating!

Getting the Right Home Recording Studio Setup

Thinking about what you’ll need to do in your studio will help you determine the best setup for you. Most studios will need these at a bare minimum:

  • Workstation. You’ll need at least enough room for a desk, table, and chair. Make sure they’re comfortable, you’ll be spending a lot of time here! This is your mixing area.
  • Recording station. This is where you’ll capture the musician(s). In a home studio, it’s likely to be the same room as your workstation, and that’s okay. In a solo station, where you’re acting as both engineer and artist, you run the risk of picking up noise from your computer fan, so try to put as much distance as you can between your computer and mic.

Vocal booths, a drum area, etc. are optional. In a small home studio, it’s not likely you’re able to have separate rooms for vocals or other instruments—but as you gain experience and if your studio grows, you might add these later.

How to Get the Best Sound Quality in Your Home Studio

home recording studio

Most people understand the need for a good microphone and monitors. They assume that good equipment will give them great sound.

But what many beginners fail to consider is the acoustics in the room, which is actually the most important consideration.

Without getting too technical, sound is made up of waves. These waves travel out in all directions from the source, whether that’s your instrument, a vocalist, or your monitors. Some of these waves travel straight to your microphone or ears (which is known as direct sound.)

Other sound waves bounce off your walls, ceiling, and other room surfaces before they hit your microphone (or ears) randomly as reflected sound.

That reflected sound is called room sound. Reflected sounds can affect your recordings negatively, so you want to minimize them. You don’t need to deaden all the sound in the room, just manage the undesirable ones.

People often confuse soundproofing and acoustic treatment. True soundproofing blocks out all external noise. It’s a labor-intensive and expensive process. It’s also much more than you need to worry about for a home studio.

To be clear, you do want to minimize outside noises as much as possible. But you don’t need a room that is completely soundproof.

Acoustic treatment, on the other hand, is essential. Untreated rooms won’t give a balanced sound, so your mixes will sound different when played back on other systems. Unchecked sound waves cause problems with echoes, reflections, and reverberations.

These are the common fixes:

  • Bass traps—These absorb not just low frequencies, but mids and highs as well. Always start here. Bass traps in the corners of your room may be all the room treatment you need.
  • Acoustic panels—Hung on the walls and ceiling, these aren’t good at absorbing low frequencies, but they are helpful for highs and mids.
  • Diffusers—Diffusers scatter the remaining frequencies. They can be helpful in larger rooms, but home studio owners usually skip them because they can be expensive (and that’s fine.)

If you don’t have the time, budget, space, or inclination to treat your room, or if you decide to wait until later, a good set of headphones will allow you to mix well in untreated rooms.

You can use mic shields or reflection filters, portable vocal booths, mattresses, pillows, or blankets, or many other creative solutions to make sure that the sound quality in your particular room is the best it can be.

Acoustic treatment is a big topic. Getting into all the details of this goes far beyond the scope of this post, but now you have the basics. With a little research and experimentation, you can find the home studio setup that works best for you.

Be patient and have fun with it!

Getting Ready to Record Your Demo

Finally, you’re ready to record. Here are some common rules that will help you create the best song recordings every time and prevent wasted time, money, and frustration.

Finish Your First Song

You never want to still be writing in a professional studio while the clock’s ticking. You’ll get a better result at home anyway, when your attention isn’t split between writing and recording. By all means, capture your ideas in rough form. Then let your song marinate for at least a few days to get some distance. Does the song still work or does it need polish? A little time away will let you listen with new ears.

Create a Scratch Track

A scratch track is a sample version of your song that you can overdub with better performances once you officially record your demo. It sets the tempo and skeleton of the song. Even if you’ve played it many times live, listening back to your scratch track before recording your demo will help you to find potential issues—too much wasted space, weak intro, outro, or other sections, etc. Also you can give that track to other musicians or vocalists to learn their parts.

Fix Issues Beforehand

Even the best studio recording won’t fix a poorly-written song. Don’t expect it to. Instead, make sure your song is as strong as it can be before recording it, and don’t worry about killing your darlings. Remember, you can always use good ideas in other songs in the future.

Start Where You Are

Above all (yes, I’m repeating this but it’s important) start small and build as you go.

Don’t feel like you have to spend $10k to get a good home recording studio setup in your home. You don’t.

Instead, set a budget that’s realistic and start where you can.

Pick up a computer and DAW if you need one, get an interface, a mic, a midi keyboard, and headphones.

If you have to get a cheaper version of something for now, do it.

You can always upgrade your gear over time. Don’t feel like you have to have a professional grade studio—the important thing is to start creating.

For us songwriters, all the investment in equipment and skills are simply to give our songs the best chance for success. So always keep that end goal in mind.

Play, experiment, and enjoy the process. You’ll be a better songwriter for it!

Click here to download a PDF version of this guide (and get a list of Jordan’s recommended equipment).