DAWs, high-end synths and plug-ins, samples, presets, headphones, monitors, mentorship, and more...
Many people will tell you that you can’t produce music on just a laptop and headphones and that you need a sufficiently treated studio space, whilst this is advantageous, it isn't essential. The best way to start making music is exactly that - to start. Acoustics and equipment can be upgraded over time and with some great DIY options for room treatment and dirt cheap second-hand gear on popular auction sites like eBay, it's never been easier to start! We are going to concentrate on more than just a laptop and headphones here though and we aim to outline how easy it is to build a sufficient home studio for under £500!
Before we get stuck in, we are assuming that you already have either a home PC, laptop, or in some instances a smartphone. If you don't own any of these devices, the second-hand market really is a great place to start and with the cost of desktop PCs drastically reducing after 12 months - there are certainly bargains to be had.
Whatever device you own, to start making music you will need a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). There are many flagships and often expensive DAWs from the main players in the market but most are available as stripped-down (cheaper) versions that provide all the main functions you need to get started. Ableton Live Lite, Cubase Elements, and REAPER offer more than capable production hubs to get you going for well under £100. Ableton is currently offering their flagship ‘suite’ software as a 3-month trial - getting you instantly going for zilch!
Ableton Live Intro - £70
Get instantly creative with loops, beats, and samples with Ableton Lives intuitive GUI. This intro-version of Live provides you with 21 Audio effects, 8 Midi effects, and 5gb + of sounds. The software is limited to 16 channels and is more than ideal for the first few years of your production journey - Techno & House tracks are often produced with under 12 channels!
Grab it here
Cubase Elements - £85
Cubase can be traced back and claimed as one of the programs that started computer music. Their elements edition has the same audio engine and many of the same FX and instruments as their flagship version. Cubase is often mentioned as ‘the best sounding DAW’ - although there is no proof to back up this claim - yet.
Grab it here
REAPER - £50
Although seen as somewhat experimental, we have included this program due to the stacks of features included for the price. The features included in this DAW are often seen to rival Cubase and Logics flagship versions whilst holding firm with a budget price point - It's probably the least expensive way to get a full-featured DAW for recording live instruments, running VSTs, and making finished recordings without limitation.
Grab it here
Ableton Live Suite (3-month trial) - FREE
One of the, if not the most popular DAW on the planet! Ableton Live Suite is used by the best producers in the world and opens up massive opportunities for creativity and collaboration. Due to the lockdown period, Ableton is kindly offering their flagship software as a 3 month FREE trial as an act of courtesy for people stuck at home! Grab it while it's hot!
With our SKapade Monthly Membership, we can obtain up to 40% educational discount on Ableton Live DAWs. Sign up here for £1
Now, these aren't essential (they offer much more flexibility and in some cases, extra volume) but will speed up your workflow massively and help record sounds in and out of your DAW. Audio interfaces that are designed for studio use range from £30 - £3000+. Before deciding on which one to go for, you will need to work out how many ins and outs you require. For new producers in electronic music using only a computer at home, one or two inputs is ideal - and don't break the bank! Audio interfaces for under £100 will all have similar feature sets so it’s an idea to focus on what software comes bundled with it. You can often hit the jackpot with free synth & piano VSTs, and even DAWs, so have a shop around and decide what's best for your buck!
Behringer U-Phoria UM2 - £30
A no-frills 2 in 2 out interface offering connectivity for line/mic and guitar/bass. Headphone monitoring is also present as expected.
Miditech Audiolink III - £52
Offering connectivity for mic/line and instruments the Audiolink is a flexible interface for under £60!
Audient Evo 4 - £99
A stylish new interface offering 58db pre-amps and 2 in / 2 out connectivity. Looks great!
NI Komplete Audio 6 - £170
Bundled with Traktor DJ software, Ableton Live Lite DAW, Monark Analogue synth (Worth £90 alone), and a selection of Native Instruments FX plug-ins AND 4 in 4 out connectivity you won't find much better for the price! Excellent value!
You’ll probably have been told that you only need a laptop, DAW, and headphones to start making music, whilst this is true, as you get further into music production critical mixing decisions need to be made. Being able to monitor your low end especially is essential in achieving a clear and loud mix. Unless you have professional (expensive) monitoring headphones, a set of sub £300 monitors can go a long way in the studio!
The first feature you want to consider is: are monitors flat response? What do we mean by this? Home Hi-Fi, car stereo, and similar systems often add boosted harmonics to make your music sound richer and louder than it actually is - when mixing down your own productions you don’t want these added harmonics as they can cloud mixing decisions massively. Always make sure the monitors you purchase are flat response (or as flat as can be).
Active or passive? Nowadays, most studio monitoring options are active - meaning they do not require a separate amplifier to power them. Through purchasing active monitors, you save a wad of cash that can be spent elsewhere on your studio build.
Clean and crisp high frequencies with a dedicated subwoofer input for future connectivity, can you go wrong for £70?
Kurzweil KS-40As £100
Great clarity and warmth in the mids and highs. As always at this price range, the low end is a touch weak. Great starter monitors for little money.
Tannoy Reveal 502s £190
A name you can trust, the 502s offer decent enough low-end response down to 49hz couple with clear mid and high monitoring for under £200. Our recommended choice!
6.75-inch drivers offer loud sound with low-end response accurate down to 50hz. Nice!
Adam Audio T5V £260
The T5Vs are verging on 'expensive' for a £500 studio set up but we had to include them here. Offering sound rivaling monitors twice the price and frequency response down to 45hz, if you don't mind buying second hand (around £200) we would snap up a pair of these instantly!
If you want to keep costs to an absolute minimum, investing in a decent pair of headphones for monitoring can help. For mixing down tracks we would always recommend checking on headphones and monitors but there is absolutely nothing stopping you starting ideas, making beats and arrangements in a half-decent set of cans.
Bear in mind that ear fatigue can be an issue with producing predominantly on headphones and we encourage you to take breaks every half an hour or so to let your ears settle. Most, if not all audio interfaces will allow for headphone monitoring and you can choose from closed or open back style monitoring headphones. We recommend closed headphones and taking regular breaks as open headphones are known to cause sound bleed into mics etc when recording.
It's worth noting that open-back headphones are more comfortable when used for long periods
Impressive sound and closed back monitoring, the K92s large cushions offer comfort over long periods.
Closed-back design offering a rich bass response, ideal for low-end monitoring if you don't want to splash out on studio monitors straight away
The MDR7506 Headphones have a closed-ear design for comfort and reduction of external noise interference. Also a folding construction for portability and easy storage. Great value and a trusted choice!
Software, VST, and Sample Subscriptions
Referring back to our first few paragraphs on DAWs, if you choose to go with an entry-level option you might need some extra software to get the most out of the DAW. Where Ableton Live Suite has everything you need, Live Lite doesn’t come bundled with any Synth instruments and has limited options for EQing. There are multiple great options available out there which include 100s of high-end plugins for a low monthly cost. Subscribing to one of the packages below gives you a one-stop-shop of everything you need without having to invest further in the future. Slate Digital and Plugin Alliance are two of the best in the business and include synths, EQs, compressors, Reverbs, Delays, Saturation, Distortion, and Mastering Suites for under £15 a month!
Best complete software packages
Slate Digital All Access - $14.99 per month with no extra cost for new plugins added every few months! $5000 worth of plugins!
Plugin Alliance Mega Bundle - $24.99 with a $249.99 voucher back after 12 months.
Tried and tested brand trusted by professionals.
Best for multiple synth instruments
Arturia V Collection - $24.99 per month for 24 plugins!
A great set of analog-style vintage synth. Create any sound you want! You might find you only use 2 or 3 of the synths for dance music, though!
Best high-quality single synth deals
Arturia Pigments $9.99 p/m
XFER Records Serum $9.99 p/m
Lennar Digital Sylenth e9.95 p/m
All DAWs such as Ableton & Cubase will come bundled with sounds and samples to get you going straight out the box but if you are looking for a specific sound or genre, genre-specific sample packs and subscription sites are a great place to start!
Sites such as Splice, Native Instruments Sounds, and Loopcloud put 100s of 1000s of samples at your fingertips. Most subscriptions come with free trials and free credits to get you started.
Splice 7.99 p/m
NI Sounds 8.99 p/m
Loopcloud starting at 5.99 p/m
SKapade monthly membership
"A mentor is someone you can look up to. It is a person who guides you and helps you in making well-informed decisions. Mentorship means that someone takes you under their wing to teach you how to fly…so to speak. “One of the greatest values of mentors is the ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” — John C. Maxwell
Mentorship is such an important part of personal and professional growth who can help accelerate your learning and put you in front of their own collection of industry contacts.
Here just some of the benefits of having a mentor:
- Important skills and knowledge are passed on from mentor to mentoree
- Supportive relationships are formed
- Mentors give objective advice and constructive criticisms
- Mentors help with setting reasonable and achievable goals
- Mentors become your cheer-leader and confidence booster
- Mentors are well connected within their industry breeding multiple opportunities for the mentoree
- The mentorship becomes mutually beneficial and personally rewarding for both parties