Music Production: On a Budget, What Should I Buy?
Someone asked me this question yesterday, so I spent some time thinking about it. Here’s my thoughts:
First, this is assuming you already have a computer and a DAW. For now, all you need to know is that Mac is still the industry standard, but there are still a lot of us who use Windows. Like me, lol.
The specific question was, “I have a $1k budget, what should I get?”.
First, if you’re just starting out, I will always recommend hardware over software. Pretty much all music-related hardware keeps its value, so if you decide that production isn’t for you, you’ll be able to recuperate a lot of these costs.
Software is cool and I use a ton of it, but for a beginner it may not be the best investment. Kyle Trewartha (GREY and Singularity) said it pretty well in a masterclass, basically saying, “torrent it first and use it for a while. If you end up liking it, buy it when you can afford it.” For a beginner, resist the temptation to buy up a bunch of software. You’ll see all these awesome deals on plugins and you’ll want them, really, really bad, but stick to hardware for the first year or two. Learn to use your stock plugins. You’d be pretty surprised at the number of famous records mixed on stock plugins.
Second, I always endorse buying cheap, then upgrading when you feel ready. No need to get top-tier gear out of the gate. You won’t appreciate it and enjoy it unless you’ve already had to work on cheap gear. In some cases, that gear can become a crutch, so resist the temptation.
And… I’m just going to get this out here right now. If you’ve only got a $1k budget, don’t buy a pair of monitors. I’ve used nice stuff and I’ve used cheap stuff. Honestly, looking back, every cheap monitor I ever owned ended up being a bad investment in the long-run. There are too many factors in getting monitors to sound good (room, speaker positioning, proper stands, etc) that’ll hurt more than help most beginners and intermediate engineers. Until you have a budget of like, $2k+ for monitoring, honestly I’d say ignore it. Your buddies will have them and you’ll think they’re super cool, but it’s a consumer marketing trap. I noticed just as much in headphones as I ever did on my cheap monitors, and you’re better off learning to use headphones until you can afford a proper room and monitoring setup.
So let’s get into it.
There are two options I’d recommend here. One I’ve tried, the other I haven’t, but have only heard good things about them.
First is the option I personally own and have tried. A quality set of headphones + WavesNx + Sonarworks Headphone Edition.
I used this for a good while until I switched to proper monitoring, and it works great. On a budget, it’s about the best value you can get, imo.
As far as headphones go, there are tons of viable options. I personally had a set of Beyerdynamic DT880s, but I’ll admit they weren’t my favorite. I actually enjoyed using my cheaper KRK KNS8400s, lol, so I recently sold the Beyerdynamics. But most people have had good experiences using those ones or the DT770s. The Sennheiser HD650s and HD600s are great choices, too. A quick google search will reveal plenty of awesome options, so pick whichever ones you feel meet your needs. Just make sure Sonarworks has a profile for them before you buy them (if it’s a studio style headphone, the definitely have it, lol).
Sonarworks, by the way, is correction/tuning software. The team has gone through and evaluated a ton of popular headphone choices and created corrective EQ to make sure the sound you’re getting from your headphones is “flat” (accurate) so you can mix properly on them. They also make room correction software, which I personally use in my room, but that’s outside the scope of this article.
The Waves Nx series is a basically a binaural processor they use to emulate a room around you while you’re wearing headphones. Really cool technology. If your headphones are tuned/corrected properly, they’ll create a controlled, realistic environment around you, so you’ll feel like you’re mixing in a room, not in headphones. There’s a good reason why you should be doing it like this instead of mixing purely in headphones, but I’ll let you figure that out with your own research.
The second option is to get the Slate VSX series headphones. I haven’t tried these, but it’s the same concept I explained above but instead of using three different products to achieve it, they bundle them all together into one. They tune the headphones for you beforehand, then you use their software to emulate a bunch of different environments in which you’d normally want to check your mixes. Really cool tech. I’ll probably buy a set in the future and write a review on it.
The headphones + Sonarworks + WavesNx option is probably going to end up being cheaper, depending on the headphones you buy. I got my WavesNx tracker on a good deal, so I ended up paying less than $100 for it. I don’t think Sonarworks ever runs any sales, but the headphone edition is like €100 or something cheap like that. With a set of DT770s, that’ll end up pretty close to $400. Slate VSX starts at $500, so if I were in that position, I’d just get the VSX.
So, you’ve got $500 left, what else do you get? Well, similarly to cheap monitors, I’ve never found a budget microphone that I thought was worth getting. If you really want commercial-level sound, there are a lot of parts you’ll need to get it there, and none of those can be accomplished on a sub $1k budget. If you have to have a mic, the cheapest mic I’d recommend is the Slate VMS condenser mic, since it’s made with relatively high quality components and really versatile. I personally wouldn’t use it without a decent outboard preamp, but you can still get pretty good sound without one.
I get asked about MIDI keyboards a lot, too. Unless you actually play piano or have the desire to learn to play piano (and are willing to practice every day), it’s not worth it. If you decide you want one, I’m a big fan of the Novation stuff. The Launchkey series are pretty cheaply made, but they’re versatile and look cool. Killer board for the price. I personally have a Novation Impulse 61 that I use in the studio and I love it. A lot higher quality than the Launchkeys, but don’t look nearly as cool, imo.
So what do you get? Well, here’s the deal. As cool as your computer is, there’s a little chip inside it called a DAC (Digital-to-Analog-Converter). This converts the computer code data on your computer into physical waves that are sent to the headphones to become sound. Computer manufacturers know that most consumers don’t need very high quality sound, so they cut costs on the DAC chip. Understandable.
But as audio engineers, a good DAC comes in handy. Not only does it make sounds coming from the computer sound better, but it makes the sounds going into the computer sound better, too. So, in my experience, a mic recording on a cheap DAC will sound more narrow and lifeless than one recorded on a high quality one. There are a bunch of different reasons for this, but for now, just know that conversion is important.
Converters are important. You’re going to need them if you really want to work in audio. There are a bunch of other added benefits to having an outboard DAC, but I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you what to get, lol.
Most people’s first buy is a Focusrite 2i2. Solid, reliable, and popular. Solid choice. I had one for a while… didn’t love it. Not very versatile, but it’ll get the job done for most beginners. I eventually sold it and purchased a Focusrite Forte, which I liked much, much better. Eventually Focusrite abandoned the project, though, so the software drivers you need to run it aren’t super reliable.
The 2i2 is entry-level conversion. It’s not anything special. It’s cheap and does the job. Great for an entry level musician. If you don’t want to think about it too much, save some money and buy this one.
As far as conversion goes, there are really only like 3 levels of converters: budget, high end, and really high end. You can get a 2i2 for sub-$200. The next level up is like $500-$1500. Anything between that $0-$500 range are usually cheap converters but with more I/Os (ins and outs) that aren’t worth the money. Get decent converters first, think about I/Os later, imo (but I’m also a producer, not a tracking engineer, lol).
You’ve got a lot of choices in the $500-$1500 range. UAD Apollo and Apogee are popular choices. Both are great converters. UAD gear is a trap, though. Once you buy one piece of their gear, they trap you into buying more and more of it. Which is great, because their software and hardware is all great, but you end up hemorrhaging money into it. If you would like to eat and live in a house with a roof, I’d recommend avoiding UAD gear until you’ve got lots of money, lol.
Anyways, you’re in luck. And I’m biased on this because I use their gear already and I love it. Antelope Audio just released the Zen Go last month, and it has the same converters as their Zen Tour series.
When they announced it, I was a little pissed because I use a Zen Tour and people are getting the same conversion quality for half the price I paid for it. But I run a digital-analog hybrid setup now, so all the extra I/Os on the Zen Tour come in handy. Anyways, take advantage of that. Antelope converters are kind of the border between high end and really high end, so you’re getting top-tier conversion. The only reason you’ll need to upgrade is for I/Os, and personally, I wish I had invested in good conversion earlier rather than later. It made a big difference for me. So for $500-ish, you basically get some of the best converters on the market, which is a steal.
Note: Converters don’t actually make a difference in the physical final product of your song. They help you hear more detail and make playback more accurate. The difference may appear subtle until your ears are trained for engineering.
If you stretch your budget up to $1500 and get a VMS mic, I honestly think that’s probably some of the best money you can spend. VSX headphones, VMS mic, and the Antelope Zen Go is a setup I would feel comfortable using as a professional. That gives you solid quality bare-minimum listening/recording gear. With just $1k, I’d skip the mic and get the headphones and converters. Either way, that’s a solid setup that’ll get you on the right track as an engineer.
Gear is important. A lot of times you don’t realize what you’re missing until you upgrade, and then you realize how important it is. I worked on cheap monitors with terrible results for years, until I finally said “screw it” and purchased my Focals. After that, I’ll never recommend cheap monitors ever again. I cringe thinking about how much time I wasted working on those things, and should’ve just stuck to headphones for everything. Same with recording through crappy converters and on terrible mics. I’d rather record a cheap mic through good converters, though, since I find it more salvageable than a quality mic through bad converters.
Anyways, that ended up a lot more intense and complex than I originally intended, but hope you learned something!
Good luck, have fun!