There’s never been a better time to build a home music studio. The pandemic gave quarantined musicians new technologies and pricing options to practice scales between emails, and lay down a few tracks the way pros do. Once the exclusive domain of Architectural Digest spreads and MTV Cribs, home studios are now within reach even for those who don’t have a 22-city tour lined up.
With an ambitious young musician in our house, we scrimped, borrowed and splurged to MacGuyver a home studio good enough for our son to produce an actual album. Here’s a look at some of the equipment we used, along with a few dream items that get great reviews but remain on our reach list. For the serious home musician, consider these among your go-to tools:
Vanguard Audio Labs packs its second-generation V4 large-diaphragm ($599) and the stereo V44S dual-capsule large diaphragm condenser mics ($1099) to look almost like vintage timepieces. But these classic-styled mics are anything but throwbacks. the V4 and V44S offer powerful sensitivity, along with a warmth and texture, that outperformed much pricier setups. Both models are classified as J-FET transformer-less mics, which means they use lower-priced transistors to perform the same functions as transformers. A kit version includes a metal shock-mount and rubber O-rings to protect these beauties when you’re not belting out “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” I also appreciate that the mics are designed and finished here in Southern California, where the brand is based. Vibes and performance as solid as a vintage muscle car.
A Los Angeles-based company with a space-race design aesthetic, Soyuz handcrafts sleek microphones for the home and pro musician that look like something 007 would carry to get out of a jam (and by jam, I mean commanding the karaoke bar with “The Spy Who Loved Me”). Take a look at how the Soyuz 013 FET is made. The brand’s mic known as The Bomblet might be an even better choice for those upgrading to their first home studio. It costs the same as a pair of 013’s (around $1200) and delivers unrelenting clarity across the frequency spectrum. Along with the mics, Soyuz makes an inline active pre-amp called The Launcher ($199), a kind of secret weapon for a signal chain designed to take the most commonly found mics in any studio (Shure SM58’s, 57’s, SM7bs, for instance) and give them more color, character, and depth.
After noticing the Mojave Audio mics that Grammy-winning artist Jacob Collier uses, we had to try one ourselves (Whatever Collier does makes an impression around here—he’s that talented.). And Mojave does not disappoint. The streamlined MA-50 mic captures an impressive range for vocals, snare drums or for a splashy room sound. It’s also perfect for podcasting, Zoom calls or video recording. Design-wise, it’s elegant without being too showoff-y. $599.
For true nostalgia thrills, Trash Talk Audio makes mics that not only resemble classic phone receivers; they also create a low-fi “narrowband” telephone effect in the studio and on stage without the need for digital processing or EQ. The PP-1 Payphone Mic delivers the sound of loneliness on the other side of a call or “Clean up on Aisle 3!”-type effects. Sound fun? It is. Available in red, yellow or black, for $99.
Instruments and Sound Tech
Yamaha’s CP Reface keyboard, a re-imagination of the iconic 1970s’s Yamaha Combo Piano, is a home studio miracle—an anytime, anywhere instrument that’s perfect (and perfectly on budget) for a super tight space. The 37-key mini keyboard plays like a full-size piano when you engage a switch that toggles you between octaves. Other options, like analog-style delays, bring warmth and depth to your play. The keys feel solid, and the built-in sound engine offers a feast of different modes, from bright Mamas & the Papas-era electric piano and toy piano to lush electric baby grand. Tight and fast for natural-feeling performance for dabblers and pros alike, at $399.
If, say, Skrillex and Dr. Frankenstein went into the music-equipment biz together, they might turn out something like The Moog Sound Studio 3, a blinking, dials-a-poppin’ three-tiered FM modular synthesizer that takes any home recording area to a daring next level. The stunning patch-cabled console includes a subharmonicon polyrhythmic analog synthesizer, the Moog DFAM analog percussive synthesizer, and the Moog Mother-32 analog synthesizer. Those bundles come with various accessories to help them work together. The results of all that synth power is a limitless source of inventive bloops, pings, ba-beeps and k’thumps to add to any experimental-leaning recording. The look and experience is somewhere between retro and futuristic, maddening and intensely soul-satisfying, and in total a way to create soundscapes as audacious and uncommon as the set-up looks. A portal for free-form musical exploration. If nothing else, it will look sick in the background of your first at-home Tiny Desk concert. Around $2,000.
Orchestral Tools is a sound samples library that recently launched SINEPlayer — an all-in-one virtual instrument player engine and instrument organizer and app store that lets home musicians tap into virtual instrument libraries you’d normally need a full-blown concert hall to find. Whether it’s a complete orchestra with strings, percussion and brass sections, or single one-off instruments (Need an oboe or French horn solo on the cheap?) the SINEPlayer and storefront lets you mix and match to fit your recording cravings. And with the optional Orchestral Tools Creative Sound Packs, you can go deeper on custom sets of instruments or musical vibes, whether you’re cutting a neo-soul track or aiming to outdo the L.A. Phil. Virtually amazing!
SENSATIONAL PLAYBACK MONITORS
Be prepared. Ocean Way’s Pro3 reference monitors deliver playbacks so detailed and authentic, you can practically taste the notes. The company, founded in the 1970s in Santa Monica by Allen Sides, has long set the platinum standard for pro studio speakers, but those large-format monitors typically run $10,000 and up. At around $3,000 for the pair, the compact Pro3s are the most affordable and consumer-friendly speakers Ocean Way has ever released. It’s hard to describe the listening experience other than to say the Pro3s puts the music right in front of you. The sound is immersive to the point of awe-inspiring, the way you might feel peering over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time. A “dream list” item for sure. But the two-way, 14-inch x 9-inch x 13.5-inch monitor speaker system is exactly what you want on your control desk.
MIXING BOARDS, INTERFACES
Here’s another one for the “someday” list. Big Six by Solid State Logic is a professional recording and mixing board that’s manageable—in size and relative price—for the serious home musician-producer. Some say mixing by large console is old-fashioned, a 1980s throwback. But there are benefits for certain situations, like when you need to work live with lots of musicians and manage levels and controls, or if you’re integrating equipment into a DAW‑based system. Big Six is named for its six inputs and comes with input channels with preamp, EQ and compression, as well as a bus compressor and a monitor controller with talkback. It’s a super-analog vibe—turning dials and pushing levers with tons of physicality—that gives home producers more of a tactical feel for mixing than computer interfaces allow. Here’s to handcrafting that wall of sound! $2,999.
I recently upgraded from the Focusrite Scarlett Solo to Universal Audio’s Volt 276 audio interface, and, whoa, the improvements are stunning. Plugging in mics is quick and easy. You can bring it anywhere. Latency is extremely low and this Volt has amazing preamps and a vintage sound mode that lends warmth to anything you record. Feels like a steal at $299.
Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin X is a solid step up from the Volt, though more accessible price-wise than UA’s Apollo 8 and 16 standard bearers. You can connect the interface easily to your computer by way of Thunderbolt for tracking, overdubs, and mixing with A/D and D/A conversion, two Unison-enabled preamps, and available DUO or QUAD Core plug-in processing. The console design puts everything at your fingertips with a central dial knob that lets you adjust and track output levels for your microphone, preamp channels, monitor, and headphone output. It’s helpful in a recording situation to have those physical controls rather digital ones. The Twin X is a powerful hub for a home studio, and priced competitively at $1,200.