Let’s go through the steps of setting up your home recording studio for the first time. Pay close attention though, because there are a couple of steps that beginners often miss. And if you miss one of these steps, it could lead you to hours of troubleshooting later.
I’ll assume you already have the gear and software you need. But if not, you can check out my Beginner Studio Kit.
Step 1: Audio Interface
The very first step is to set up your audio interface, which is the device that connects your computer to any microphones, speakers, and headphones in your system. The connection between your audio interface and your computer is usually made over either USB or Thunderbolt.
In order for the interface to work optimally, you should check to see if there are any drivers available for your interface. In this case, I’m using the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (4th Gen). Therefore, I’ll run a web search for “focusrite scarlett 2i2 (4th gen) drivers”. You can do a similar search for your audio interface.
Install the latest drivers available for your interface. Then, connect your interface to your computer using the included cable.
If you followed the previous steps, you should see your audio interface as an option in your computer’s sound settings. Selecting the interface here will mean that sound from YouTube and Spotify or any other applications will play through your interface.
Step 2: Headphones & Speakers
You can quickly verify that the audio is playing out of your interface by connecting a pair of headphones to the interface and playing a video on YouTube. Just be sure to start with the headphone volume all of the way down and slowly turn it up. This will help you avoid a big burst of sound that might hurt your ears.
If you don’t hear anything, go to the bottom right corner on a Windows computer and click the speaker icon to make sure your interface is selected. This setting is in the top right corner on an Apple computer.
Now you should be hearing sound through your headphones when you play something on your computer. If you have a pair of studio monitors, you can go ahead and connect them to power but make sure they are switched off. This will ensure we don’t accidentally send any loud bursts of sound that could damage them.
With the speakers turned off, connect your interface outputs to the inputs on your studio monitors. Audio interfaces usually have ¼” TRS outputs or XLR outputs and studio monitors usually have ¼” TRS inputs or XLR inputs. You’ll just need a cable or adapter that fits each device.
Once you have this connection made, turn down the monitor knob on your audio interface. Then turn on the studio monitors. The studio monitors might also have a volume knob. If so, set it to 0 dB or about halfway to start.
Now, start playing music on your computer and slowly turn up the monitor knob on your interface until you reach a comfortable volume level. This is where you might need to adjust the so-called “gain structure” of your system.
If the studio monitors are extremely loud when you barely turn up the monitor knob on your interface, then I’d recommend turning the studio monitors down so you can turn the monitor knob to about half or ¾ as a comfortable listening level.
If the studio monitors are too quiet even when you turn the monitor knob almost all the way up, then turn the studio monitors up a bit.
Step 3: DAW
So far, we’ve only heard your computer audio play through the interface. Next, we need to set up your DAW or Digital Audio Workstation. This is the software you’ll use to record and playback your productions.
The setup process for your DAW will vary slightly depending on the software you’re using, but it’s more or less the same as installing any software on your computer. I’ll demonstrate things in this video with Reaper, which you can download and try for free.
Once you have the DAW software installed, go ahead and open it up and navigate to the settings menu. Within settings, find the “Audio Hardware” or “Audio Device” page.
In some software, you have the option to choose a driver type. If that’s the case, choose ASIO. Now we can select our interface from the list of devices. Reaper also gives me the option to set a range of inputs and outputs. I want access to all of my interface’s inputs and outputs, so I’ll select the full range here. Then I’ll press “Apply” and close the menu.
Once we have selected the DAW as our audio device, our software is ready to start recording.
Step 4: Microphones & Instruments
Let’s set up and record a microphone. Since we are recording a microphone, we need to mute the studio monitors to avoid a feedback loop. Anytime you use a microphone, just turn the monitor knob all the way down.
First, we will record a dynamic microphone and then we will record a condenser microphone. There’s a very important difference between these two mics.
The dynamic microphone can be connected directly to one of the XLR inputs on your audio interface. An XLR microphone cable like this one can be used to connect your microphone.
Within the DAW software, we need to create a track for this microphone. I’ll do this in Reaper by clicking “Track” and then “Insert Track”. First, I’ll label my track “Shaker” because I’m going to record a shaker. Labeling the track like this will automatically label the audio clip when we record.
Before continuing, we need to tell the track which physical input on the interface we want to use. In this case, we connected the microphone to input 1 so let’s select input 1 as the track input.
Next, we need to arm the track for recording. This is usually done by clicking a red button on the track we want to record. When I click that button, I start to see some audio signal on the track meter. But it’s very low level. So, I’ll use the preamp knob for this input to boost the signal level up until it is around -12 dBFS.
Aim for a strong signal level, without allowing the meter to reach 0 dBFS. If the signal exceeds 0 dB, you’ll hear clipping and distortion.
In some DAWs (like Reaper), the input monitoring feature is turned on automatically, which is why I can hear my microphone through my headphones when the track is armed for recording. In other DAWs, you may need to manually switch on the input monitoring feature.
Here is where a lot of beginners run into trouble. Once you hear your microphone with input monitoring enabled, you might notice that it is delayed. In other words, you speak into your microphone and then a moment later you hear it through your headphones. This is very distracting when performing!
I’ve got a full video on why latency happens and how to find the right settings for your session. Here’s a link to a previous video, “Is Audio Interface Latency Ruining Your Recordings?“.
But if you just need to hear the clean signal that you’re recording (without any effects from the DAW), you can use the “Direct Monitor” feature that is built into your audio interface.
In this case, you just press the direct monitor button on your interface and that will send the microphone signal directly to your headphones rather than running the signal through the DAW first.
Of course, if you use direct monitoring you should turn off input monitoring in your DAW or you will hear an echo.
Your track should now be armed, you should have a good input level on the meter around -12 dB, and you should be able to hear yourself through your headphones. Next – press record.
After recording, I see the option to save or delete the recording. I’ll click “Save All” and then listen back to my recording by placing the spacebar.
If this was a condenser microphone, you would need to supply phantom power to the microphone. Dynamic mics don’t need phantom power, condenser mics do. You should generally avoid sending phantom to non-condenser microphones, but a typical moving coil dynamic mic like this won’t be damaged by phantom power. So, no worries if it’s on by accident.
Rather than recording a microphone, you can also record a direct input. For example, you could connect the output of an electric guitar directly to the ¼” input on your interface.
Once you switch the input to “Instrument” mode, the process is the same as recording a microphone. Let’s create a new track, label it “electric guitar”, and set the input to input 1. Next, arm the track for recording and adjust the preamp knob to get a good level without clipping. Then press record.
If your interface has more than one input, you can record each input to a different track in your DAW. To do this, just create two tracks, label each track, and select the correct input for each. Let’s say we have a vocal microphone connected to input 1 and an acoustic guitar microphone connected to input 2. This means the input on the vocal track should be input 1 and the input on the guitar track should be input 2.
As long as we arm each track before recording, each microphone will be recorded when we press the record button. This keeps the signals on separate tracks so you can balance them separately later on in the mixing process.
Step 5: Mixing
We don’t have time to get too deep into the mixing process in this post, but here are a few basic points…
The mixing process is where we take all of the tracks we’ve recorded and blend them together. This can include simply adjusting the faders to turn each instrument up or down in level. But it can also include using equalization, compression, and reverb.
In the video below, my friend Dan Worrall explains the four fundamental elements of a good mix.