If you haven’t noticed by now, I make it a point to help you save dollars when planning your home studio (I’m a bit of a minimalist).
These days, it’s very easy to fall prey to the latest gear hype just because you saw an incredibly well-rehearsed, well-edited video demo. This is the fastest way to buy something expensive you don’t need, and that you will never be able to use in the same fashion that was presented in said demo.
Here are the top 5 pieces of gear you need to buy to make beats, based on their level of indispensability:
I’m an Apple fanboy, so my go-to suggestions will always be a Macbook Pro or an iMac. Because software/hardware compatibility is so crucial for computer music, I feel like Mac OSX and Apple computers offer much greater stability, especially when the dreaded time for updates comes your way. Remember: it’s not just a matter of hardware for hardware spec comparison.
Laptops have come a long way and are now very close to desktop performances. For this reason, and because portability is such a great purchasing point, I lean towards the Macbook to start your journey.
The iMac, on the other hand, is probably the greatest all-in-one computer of all time. There is simply not an alternative to getting a blazing-fast quad-core computer with the best 24-inch monitor on the market. And when you put together 60-track sessions, you will love that screen size.
Now I know Apple computers seem to be on the expensive side. From experience, the money you save upfront will be spent later down the line for updates, repairs and debugging. Mark my words: a computer running on Windows will eventually fail you (blue screen of death before saving a crazy beat, anyone?). I’ve been using Apple computers for 20 years and never once had to take it back to the Apple store for repairs or maintenance.
Lenovo has great options for very low prices.
If you don’t have money for an Apple computer, no problem. There are some awesome PC alternatives by the likes of Dell, Lenovo and Asus.
A DAW, or digital audio workstation, is the first piece of software you must buy. This is the brain of your operation. No music can be put together on a computer without a DAW.
My two favorite DAWs are Logic Pro X (Apple-only) and Ableton Live. Logic Pro X distinguishes itself by its very low-price, amazing content library and great stock plugins. You can literally produce songs from start to finish with only this one piece of software.
Ableton Live also offers great plugins, instruments and content but at twice the price. To me, what sets Live apart is the creativity-enabling features: the best time-stretching and pitch-shifting algorithms on the market, low-CPU usage and simple user interface. If you can afford Live, go for it.
Finally, judging simply by its popularity, I will throw FL Studio in the mix as well. I have never used it myself, but kids these days seem to gravitate towards FL for its simple workflow and great stock plugins (think Gross Beat).
When I started making beats, the closest you got to free sample packs was to buy a copy of Future Music in the hope the CD-ROM attached to the magazine would have a few sound you could use for hip-hop (it was usually not the case).
Nowadays, it’s extremely easy to find free samples packs, synth presets and mixing plugins. I’m not talking about torrents here. Most companies now have freebies to help you get aquainted with their products. You can in fact try our Serum presets and Kontakt libraries for free.
To find some hidden gems, simply Google or Youtube “free trap drum kit”, “free serum presets” or “top 5 freee mixing plugins”.
Downloading free sounds and plugins has two main benefits. First, you don’t pay a dime and instantly improve the quality of your beats. Second, you can start to see what kind of products you like, the ones you actually go back to when producing, and that way, you never have to spend $200 on a library you will never use (it happened to me countless times).
You now have a computer, a piece of music software to run on it and some sounds to throw in there. You’re good to go!
If you want to take things further, the next piece of equipment you will need is a good monitoring solution. Here, you are looking for headphones or speakers that give you a clear representation of what your music “actually” sounds like. Nothing too flattering. That way, you will never be shocked at what your beats sound like in your friend’s ride or in his studio.
I’m a strong proponent of headphones over monitors. Price, portability and overall flexibility make a great case for it. For just a couple hundred dollars, you can get a highly professional monitoring tool that you can take anywhere. With headphones, you basically pay half the price for equivalent quality studio monitors.
Sounds like a good deal? It is.
From experience, AKG, Audio Technica and Sennheiser are brands you can’t go wrong with.
Steps 1 to 4 cover the basics. You can make a career if you get very crafty with those four pieces of gear. I have seen people get signed to major labels using nothing but Logic Pro X stock plugins. It’s all about your creativity, ears, skills and experience (think 1,000 hours).
If you want to take your game to the next level, improving your sound sources will be the next logical step. I always advocate software over hardware in this case. Again, it’s a matter of price, portability and overall flexibility.
You will never find a keyboard workstation with as much quality content as Omnisphere. Similar offerings in the hardware world cost $3000 to $10,000. Aside from Omnisphere, the Komplete line by Native Instruments gets you an insane amount of plugins and sample libraries for a great price.
Start with one of those two.
Finally, let’s look at mixing plugins. I’m talking about equalizers, reverbs, compressors, limiters, etc.
Once you start to put good pieces of music together, it’s time to give them that professional polish and feel. Stock plugins can take you 90% of the way there. But a great EQ or a top-of-the-line limiter might make the crucial difference between great demo and chart-topping banger.
As far as recommendations, I feel like Fab Filter as great bundles that will cover most bases. If you have bought Komplete in the previous step, you will have great equalizers, compressors
Other great plugins suites include Izotope’s Ozone and Neutron (they are kind of CPU hogs though).
Back when I started twenty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to see people getting 10K bank loans to buy a big Apple / Protools rig to get in the “studio business”. The overhead was so high. It’s no surprise most of these cats aren’t in the recording game anymore.
Start slow. Start with what you have.
Use the family PC if you need to. Buy a DAW and watch thousands of Youtube tutorials. Then, get your own laptop.
The idea is to spend a little money as possible in the beginning to know what you need, what you like and most importantly, what doesn’t work for you.
I’ve seen in the past posts and videos showing you how to put together a studio for less than a thousand bucks. That’s rubbish. Keep the $2,000 to $3,000 mark in mind and you won’t get as many bad surprises at the Guitar Center register.
As you can see, I’m a strong advocate of purely in-the-box setups. Software has become so powerful it kind of makes no sense to buy fancy hardware that takes an insane amount of space. Let’s be honest: hardware is for people with a lot of time on their hands and this generation has NO time.
Start with a rock-solid in-the-box setup that you know inside and out.
I said inside and out.
The rest you can always rent for the weekend!
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You don’t need anything. You can achieve incredible mixes on your white iPhone earbuds for all I care, given that you understand their frequency response (what they sound like at each crucial frequency bands). So my short answer to the question in the title is: headphones. Plain and simple. Oh… and here are 5 reasons why.