As we said in the first article in this series Studio Starter Kits For Different Studios - Our In Depth Look At What You Can Get For Around $1,000 To Meet YOUR Needs, the question “What studio gear should I buy?” isn’t a detailed enough question for anyone to provide any form of useful answer. You need to know exactly what kind of audio application you intend to use the gear for otherwise you could end up buying a load of gear that you either won’t use to its fullest potential, or worse still, not use at all.
In this series of articles we are putting together a number of studio starter kit suggestions based on a variety of common audio production fields to help you to not only find the gear you need but to also help you to understand why we have suggested the gear we’ve chosen for each audio product category.
In this article we focus on the essential studio gear in the home studio market for self producing songwriter recording artists.
If you haven’t already read it we recommend that you read the introductory article to this series Studio Starter Kits For Different Studios - Our In Depth Look At What You Can Get For Around $1,000 To Meet YOUR Needs.
Self Producing Songwriter Recording Artists
Artists who want to record and mix their own music will need an appropriate selection of studio gear. A multipurpose microphone for recording both vocals and instruments, a pair of headphones for tracking, a pair of monitors for mixing, an audio interface for recording audio into a computer and for monitoring audio playback from the DAW, but does the $1,000 budget stretch that far? If so, how does the $1,000 get divided up between these studio essentials?
The two most important choices we need to make when choosing studio gear are the transducers, these are the devices that change sound energy into electric energy (microphones) and the devices that change electrical energy back into sound energy (the studio monitor speakers). You can't mix what you can't hear and you can't record what isn't captured in the first place.
We strongly recommend that a significant proportion of a $1,000 studio starter kit budget should be invested on these transducers. Let’s start by talking about microphones.
Affordable Microphones For Singer Songwriter Recording Artists
There are several very good large diaphragm condenser microphones in the $150 to $400 price range that we’ve tested and know will serve you well for years but why large diaphragm condensers? Why not dynamic microphones, ribbons or pencil mics? Simple, large diaphragm condensers are very good all rounder microphones. They are equally at home, recording a lead vocal track as they are recording guitars, pianos, drums kits or any other acoustic instrument. Just about anything you can imagine throwing at it, a large diaphragm condenser will do your recorded music justice. Dynamic microphones, ribbons and pencil microphones are good though their applications can be limited to a narrower range of recording applications, and so to get the best value for money in this starter kit we are recommending a large diaphragm condenser microphone. Microphones we can recommend for under $400 include:
sE Electronics SE X1 S Bundle - $199
You don’t just get a microphone, you also get a shock mount and a clip in pop shield to reduce vocal plosives hitting the mic capsule. The microphone itself is very good for the price. It’s a fixed cardioid, which is the polar pattern most commonly used in home studio recording as it’s most sensitive in front of the microphone while rejecting sound entering from the rear. This is useful for capturing tighter drier sounds if the room you record in sounds a bit lively and ambient. Tonally, the SE X1 is nothing amazing but it isn’t anything to complain about either. It’s a solid mic that captures solid sounds.
Sontronics STC-20 Starter Pack - $215
The STC-20 Starter Pack is again more than just a mic. You not only get the very nicely made Sontronics STC-20 large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone, you also get the shock-mount with built in pop screen, a high quality XLR cable and a padded bag to store you mic in.
The STC-20 features the same large open grille that houses the same one-inch gold-sputtered capsule as found in the Sontronics STC-2, the multi-pattern big brother of the STC-20. This is a great microphone that could stand up well against any competition, however when you look at the price, the STC-20 almost falls into the category of “no brainer”.
Visit Sontronics for more information.
Aston Microphones Origin - $399
The Aston Origin is a high-performance cardioid condenser microphone utilising a one inch (1″) gold evaporated capsule. It is versatile enough to use with most instruments and excels on acoustic guitar and vocals. Its hand-selected capsule is teamed with high-end transformerless circuitry using only the best components such as WIMA capacitors, the same devices you’ll find in boutique microphones costing far more than the Origin. The Origin is designed to deliver direct, smooth and intimate sound for a natural and transparent recording. Like the other microphones in this article, the Origin is a fixed cardioid mic.
Visit Aston Microphones for more information.
Studio Monitor Choices For Singer Songwriter Recording Artists
Now we need to address the other half of the studio transducer quandary, the studio monitor speakers. In the not too distant part a decent set of active studio monitors used to be expensive, this is not the case these days with many of the top monitor manufacturers producing entry level systems for less than $500.
Small active two way active monitors are the best type of studio monitor for songwriters who wish to record at home. Smaller monitors generally sound better in smaller rooms. It’s tempting to buy large studio monitors but in reality large drivers tend to not perform very well if there isn’t enough space in a room for sound to develop. If you are considering buying a large set of studio monitors then you must consider the size of your room, is it large enough? If not, save some money and opt for a smaller monitor as bang for buck you’ll be getting a better sounding system.
We’ve heard a great many small personal desktop near field monitors at Production Expert. We’ve listed three of what we consider to be the best studio monitors for under $400 that would meet, if not exceed, the demands of the everyday songwriter recording artist.
IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitors - $299
These are very much a personal monitor as the listening sweet spot is quite narrow. Don't expect to get half a band sitting in between these monitors in final critical mix listening. That said, the iLouds are very well designed. The back of the monitors have positioning EQs switches that can lift the sound ever so slightly to help improve the sonics in whatever room they are in. These are also ultra portable and affordable for “in the studio” or “on the road” monitoring. Exceptional sound quality for the price and size. The iLoud Micro Monitors punch above their weight, its name also suggest these can get pretty loud, which indeed they do.
Visit IK Multimedia for more information
JBL 306P MKII - $398
We recommend the 306P MKII’s to anybody starting out as they would be a perfect first pair of monitors and to the seasoned pro with a nice pair of monitors already these would be a useful B pair. These deliver a pleasing impression of detail at the top end and an impressive amount of genuinely deep bass from this medium sized two way design. Read our full review of the 306 MKII monitors to find out what we think:
Visit JBL for more information
ADAM Audio T5 - $398
ADAM Audio has always had a great reputation for designing and building great sounding studio monitors that deliver superb detail along with top end shine that other monitor manufacturers can't seem to get close to. Somehow, in the T Series, ADAM Audio managed to design a low-cost monitor range that, to our ears, sound expensive without compromising on quality of sound. For the price, we don't think there is another set of studio monitors on the market today that can deliver as good as these, but are these the right monitors for you? Only you can decide that, hearing is believing. If you are considering a set of T5s you need to head on down to your local ADAM Audio dealer to test these for yourself.
Visit ADAM Audio for more information.
Audio Interfaces For Singer Songwriter Recording Artists
Audio interfaces don’t need to be overly complicated nor cost the earth to be able to record great sounding music. Songwriters typically record one or two inputs at a time. With that in mind, an audio interface with at least two inputs will be all you need. There’s no point buying an interface with lots of inputs and outputs as there a good chance you’ll never use them unless you want to record lots of microphones in one take.
Audio interfaces in the lower end of the market are very similar, there’s not a lot between them. The vast majority are compatible with Mac and Windows computers, some even support iOS devices. We have tested and can recommend the three interfaces below which all squeeze into the $1,000 studio starter kit budget. These all provide the following features and functionality that songwriters need in order to get sound in and out easily of a DAW:
Two combi XLR Jack front panel mic preamps with 48v phantom power (to power large diaphragm condenser microphones)
One headphone out with level pot
Stereo outputs for connecting studio monitors with a main monitor volume knob
USB Bus powered
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 - $129
Presonus, the makers of Studio One, offer a range of amazing audio interfaces. The AudioBox is their entry level device. Simple, elegant and easy to use, this ticks all the boxes for the songwriter recording artist.
Visit Presonus for more information.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB - $159
Focusrite, like Presonus, have had many successful years producing audio interfaces. The Scarlett 2i2 is their entry level interface. The gain pots light up green or red depending on the signal level at the pre which is a nice feature to have when tracking.
Visit Focusrite for more information.
TASCAM iXR 2-ch $269
This Tascam has two good sounding mic preamps and a transparent signal path but where the iXR really scores is that it is able to be totally buss powered or used in conjunction with an iOS device such are your iPhone or iPad making this a truly portable recording solution for those on the go. Read our full review to find out more about TASCAM’s iXR 2-ch:
Visit TASCAM for more information.
Headphones For Singer Songwriter Recording Artists
By now most of the $1,000 budget should have been prioritised for gear that gets sound in and out of the computer. The remaining budget needs to be invested in a decent set of closed back studio headphones as these will play a vital role in recording, but what do we mean when we say closed back?
Closed Back headphones provide a greater degree of isolation (depending on design) compared to open back designs, which make them the better choice for recording applications. You will find it near impossible to record and overdub takes without headphones as they provide the means to listen to what the DAW is playing back while you track. Headphones, like audio interfaces, don’t need to be expensive but they do need to be considered. You can’t go wrong with a reputable pro audio brand name here.
Try to avoid generic cheap headphones. Top tip: It’s worth opting for a set of headphones that enable you to swap out the cable for a replacement as studio headphones tend to get a fair amount of punishment over their lifespan. Cable replacements are a lot cheaper than full headphone replacements. The three headphones we’ve tested all provide this handy feature as well as being affordable enough to fall within the $1,000 studio starter kit budget.
Shure SRH440 Closed-back - $125
Shure’s SRH440 are a comfortable set of headphones to wear and sound great. For the price you can’t go too far wrong with these though many of the components around the headband that are used to adjust the size are made from snappable plastic. If you take good care of these headphones they will serve you well for many years.
Visit Shure for more information.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Closed-back - $149
The Audio Technica’s ATH-M50x also tick all the boxes for studio starter kits, what’s nice is that they are also available not only in black but also blue and red. The ear cups are super comfortable and swivel easily. The sound quality is nicely detailed and well presented throughout a range of different musical styles.
Read: What Are The Main Features And Benefits To Look For In Your Next Pair Of Studio Headphones to find out what we think of the ATH-M50X compared to other Audio Technica headphones
Visit Audio-Technica for more information.
KRK 8400 - $249
The sound is very open and transparent from the 8400s, in particular at the very top end. The bottom end is equally as nice and round without trying to flatter the sound. Don’t confuse these with the cheaper 6400 model as these sound better. The 8400s have been well designed to withstand years of heavy studio use, we should know as one of our team members has owned four sets of these for over five years with them all to this day working perfectly.
Visit KRK for more information.
Three Studio Starter Kits For Songwriters New To Recording
In our three kit suggestions below we have prioritised each kit list in order of the most important studio gear essentials to the least important:
Studio Kit Option 1
sE SE X1 S Microphone $199
ADAM Audio T5 Studio Monitors $398
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 $159
KRK 8400 $249
Studio Kit Option 2
Sontronics STC-20 Starter Pack - $215
JBL 306P MKII - $398
TASCAM iXR 2-ch $269
Shure SRH440 $125
Studio Kit Option 3
Aston Microphone Origin $399
IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitors $299
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 $129
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x $149
These are just suggestions, you don’t need to stick to these exact bundles. Mix and match so you create a starter kit that works for you.