Start Producing Music on a Budget With These 5 Items

Matt CookGear, Guides, Production, Reviews

Checklist and pen

There are a lot of articles that claim to start you out with the perfect “cheap” home studio setup, but they usually go on to recommend that you go out and buy $1,000+ of gear and software. Unless you have a lot of money to throw around, this is a pretty insane approach. Good news! You can start producing music on a budget of $300-500 and some talent (read: hard work, time, and practice) using this list.

The List

  • Computer
  • Headphones
  • DAW
  • MIDI Controller
  • Drum Samples / Loops (Optional, but not really.)

Note: To add the ability to record electric instruments with 1/4″ cables like electric guitar or bass guitar, you will need an audio interface. For vocals/acoustic instruments like the guitar, you’ll need an audio interface and a microphone. You can pick up the Focusrite Scarlett Solo and the classic Shure SM-57 for barely over $200 with a cable.

The interface is wonderful for a beginner, and the SM-57 is a workhorse of a microphone. You won’t break it, and you can record literally everything with it. I guarantee you will find an SM-57 in every professional studio.

Digging In

Computer

A macbook keyboard

The first item we’ll cover is the brain of your rig – the computer. I have successfully used windows desktop Windows PCs, Windows gaming laptops, MacBooks, and even Mac Minis for music production. You can make just about anything work, so long as it lives up to the specs required for your preferred software. You can check out Ableton Live’s specs here.

I’m a huge Mac advocate because of its simplicity, reliability, security, and software selection for creative professionals. That being said, Windows works too.

Headphones

Sony headphones on a desk

(For a slightly more detailed review of my headphones of choice, see this entry.)

The second item you’ll need is a pair of headphones. Okay – you can write music using cheap earbuds, but to professionally mix and master a project you absolutely need to pick up a professional pair of headphones or studio monitors. More good news! You can pick up headphones like the Sony MDRV6 Studio Monitors for around $70. These are what I use when I’m away from my actual monitors. They last pretty much forever by many accounts, and sound great. My monitors of choice are the Presonus Eris E8s for their relatively flat response, great price, and balanced bass response without a sub.

For a more realistic listening experience with headphones, you should pick up a copy of Goodhertz’s Can Opener Studio. This plugin crossfades the sound a bit and brings you closer to the experience of listening on desktop studio monitors. You can find information regarding a 50% discount in their FAQ, bringing this plugin to $25. They aren’t paying me for my advocacy – the software is just so good that I will probably end up blabbing about it in half of the articles on this site.

DAW

Screenshot of the Ableton Live workspace

The third item, the DAW – or “digital audio workstation” – is central to any gear checklist. Having used Pro Tools, Logic, Garage Band, and Sonar, I am convinced that Ableton Live is the best, especially when part of your creative process (writing/arranging) involves the software. Ableton Live 9 Intro can be had for ~$80. If you are truly looking to start producing music on a budget, there is no better option than this in terms of price, included sounds, and flexibility.

The current version of Live 9 Intro comes with 4GB of sounds, 4 software instruments (Impulse, Drum Rack, Simpler, and Instrument Rack), 21 audio effects, and 8 MIDI effects.

The only real downside to the Intro version is the limit of 16 tracks per project. However, all of my favorite tracks I’ve ever produced used less than this. You can definitely make it work until you’re able to upgrade to Standard or Suite, which you can do at a discount as a Live Intro owner.

MIDI Controller

Fourth, you will need a device to play your ideas out on. My first and favorite MIDI keyboard was an M-Audio Keystation 49 (~$80). I’ve also had an M-Audio Oxygen 49 (~$170) that I liked a lot, but as nice as it is to have all of the knobs and sliders that some modern controllers do, I just didn’t use them. The controller I am using now is tiny and awesome. The Keystation Mini has 2.5 octaves and fits in my backpack. I paid $50 at the time of posting this article – I would have gladly paid $75-100. I’ve had great experiences with both Korg and M-Audio’s entry level gear.

Drum Samples / Loops

The last item you need to start producing music on a budget – but one of the most important items – is your collection of samples and loops. For most projects, the samples and loops that are included with DAWs just don’t stand up to what’s available elsewhere. A producer’s samples are often the hallmark of his/her sound. They provide a jumping off point during your normal workflow, and can even help you out of a producer’s block.

Find Samples

Get started!

Start producing music on a budget by following this list and let us know how it goes. Post your questions in the comments – feel free to share your music too!

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