Although it is an article of faith around here that everyone understands how recording studios actually work, that seems to be far from the truth of it.

Most people – when asked – will tell you they have “a pretty good ear” and yet when you ask them about something they just heard, you get blank stares. So this being Prime Day over at Amazon, “we is going shopping.”  In today’s world, you can build a home studio that will produce higher quality sound that anything commercially available prior to about 1975-1980 for just a few thousand dollars.

My daughter Denise is coming down at the end of the month to work on an album…so a chance to go through some serious sound work as an observer.

(continues below)


We’re going to do this as a series…basics today, next session will get into microphones, speakers, amps, and instrument plugins (called VST’s), and then a short discussion on studio workflows.  Three parts just eyeballing it.  Four if we do instruments.

Let’s start with the basic audio chain.  Think of this as “signal path.”

There is an “input chain” if you are doing recording.  And for listening, there is an “output chain.”

On both sides, the enemy is hum and noise.  And this is where the huge improvements have come.  Which is why garage bands today can sound (technically) as good – or better – than Apple London back in the old days.

Not that the content is as good, but that falls into the category of a “bigger engine in a car doesn’t make a better driver, either.”

At the heart of a good home studio is the physical interface.  In our case, it was a Presonus StudioLive 16.0.2 16-Channel Audio Mixer Pack which will set you back about $900.  Presonus has a less expensive PreSonus StudioLive AR16 USB 18-Channel hybrid Performance and Recording Mixer and it runs about $600.

The difference?

It all has to do with the computer to control surface interface.

The “oldest” of inexpensive mixers were plain analog affairs.  To record (a max of two tracks at once) you’d come off an inexpensive mixer (called a board in broadcasting or the desk if you’re doing a road tour and responsible for front-of-house [FOH] sound) and then into a low-noise computer sound card.

Picture an  analog board going into an upgraded computer sound card like the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX PCIe 5.1 Sound Card with High Performance Headphone Amp which is $40-bucks.

Obviously, this would work – toss in a cheapo used analog mixer from Craigslist and…well, not great…but works after a fashion.

The next generation of mixers were simple USB 1.0 affairs.  Alesis makes an inexpensive  (Alesis MultiMix 8 USB FX | 8-Channel Mixer with Effects & USB Audio Interface)  $150-class 16-bit, 44.1/48 kHz stereo USB output for easy recording and playback from your computer.  BUT! Notice the underline?  Only two channels out.

The next level up is the USB 2.0 connection and that’s what the lower-end Presonus boards use so they get multiple output channels.

Then, when you get up into the $900 class (and up) you get to high performance interfaces like USB 3.0 or FireWire.

See what happens?  As the performance of your board goes up, demands on the computer I/O goes up.  So to even begin thinking about “real” music at home, you need to balance all the elements.

Think in terms of a minimum of 8GB of RAM and at least a 500 GB SSD with 1 TB or more preferred

Plug it in, and we’ll move along.

In our little home lash-up, we have the Presonus 16.0.2, FireWired to a reasonable AMD computer with big SSD.

So far, though, we can’t record or play anything:  That’s going to require more shopping.

In this first bit, the main thing is a) figure out how you want to use the home studio and buy the computer and interface suitable for the mission.  Simple “audiophile” listening can be done with a sound card out to an audio rack, no mixer necessary.

A growing trend, by the way, is to skip the big console completely and go with a very small box which is designed to pipe audio into the computer with some mixer-outs.  See the 8-channel version of the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools | First for some ideas on this approach.

I’ve seen it done four ways (internal soundcard, USB interface, FireWire console, and FocusRite type pre’s (short for pre-amps)) and they all work.  More a matter of purpose and price point.  The bigger consoles (Presonus) have tons of live sound options, but the FocusRite product are great for mobile/club recording.

To repeat, though:  Even the really great audio cards (SoundBlaster/Creative) usually can’t compete with the external units simply because the inside a computer is an electronically “dirty” place.  Noise from clocks, I/O busses…yuck!  The external pre-amps is the right way to go.


Next stop on this morning’s little adventure (shopping spree) is to pick out a DAW – short for digital audio workstation.  Everyone has their favorite (it’s like religion or politics – everyone thinks their answer is the only good one…).

For our lash-up, it’s the Magix MAGIX Samplitude Pro X3 Suite and that’ll set you back $599.  But it is soup to nuts and really good if you plan to do a lot of tracking (recording) and want mastering  capability – suitable for output to CDs and such.

That (and the high-end versions of Avid Pro Tools ($594)) are the upper end of DAWs.

If you are just starting out, try downloading Audacity (here) or Mu.lab (here).

There are a zillion others to pick from – again, each with a mission  Propellerhead Software’s Reason 9 is about $400, but with their work on ReWire that allows routing from one app to another, that’s worth looking at.

Another DAW that gets high marks is Steinberg Cubase Pro 9 Recording Software if you have $485.  Or, consider Image Line FL Studio 12 Producer Edition for $199.

FL Studio is an interesting DAW in that its roots go back to the urban contemp “beats program” FruityLoops.  As urban music has evolved, it become FL Studio.

If this is all a bit overpowering, try the Presonus video here ( for a quick course is DAWs.

Next week, the Urban discussion of amps, mics, and VSTs.

In  the meantime, though, if you’ve got music in your head, go check out one of my favorite Van Morrison riffs at the beginning of this song…

Prepping: Worth a Read

Hell of a deal here:  My buddy Gaye Levy on her new site has a dandy freebie: Need Help with Food Storage? Get My e-Book for Free with No Strings Attached!

Absolutely, totally worth it!


Good news for a change here after the visit to the retinal specialist Monday:  No shot int he eye!!! Both are better than 20-40.

At least for now.  The steroid eye drops are doing their thing…so back for a dye test in four weeks. Though I’m not keen when a doc uses the word dye, if you know what I’m saying…

Write when you break-even,

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