College

Making Music on a College Budget

Your guide to a minimalistic home (or dorm) studio.

Making music, for me, is the ideal form of art. I find the process extremely therapeutic, and the finished product has the potential to convey emotion in a way like nothing else.

I think that everyone who wants to make and record music should be able to. The existence of a somewhat steep learning curve though, can turn a lot of people off to it.

On top of that, it might seem like you have to spend thousands to make songs with any real production quality, but that’s completely false. You get what you pay for when it comes to music equipment, but it’s still possible to make great sounding tracks on a reasonable budget. Below are the items (from most to least important) you should prioritize if you have money to put into making music.

Software: It’s the main proprietor of the learning curve. Software is necessary if you want to layer vocal or instrument tracks on top of each other, as well as modify those tracks to your liking.

If you’re in college, you almost definitely have a laptop, which immediately opens several creative doors. MacBooks have GarageBand pre-installed, which is a great user-friendly software for making songs.

The iPhone and iPad versions of GarageBand also aren’t too shabby, but if you don’t own any Apple tech, Windows has a wide selection of alternatives you can use.

Using any software begins like learning a foreign language, but can give you better and better results depending on how much time you put into learning it. There are also several beginner videos you can watch online in order to get the hang of it, or you can take a page from Corbin Bleu’s book and just Jump In.

Microphone(s): The bare minimum is the mic on a standard pair of earbuds. This won’t be yield too bad of results, but if you decide to put money into this venture the next step would be one of two choices:

  1. Buy a basic Audio Interface (think of it as a connector to plug any mic into your laptop) and then a good all-purpose mic, such as the SM58
  2. Buy a microphone that can connect directly into your laptop and/or iPhone.

There are some great mics that do plug straight into your phone or laptop, there’s just not nearly as wide a selection. Method 1 will be more expensive, but will help you later on if you end up wanting to buy higher end microphones down the road.

Also, in order to have notable quality above a pair of earbuds you’re better off looking at retail prices of around $50 or more. That’s not to say you have to spend that much, though; you can easily find discounts on places like Craigslist or the used section of Guitar Center.

USB Hub/Dongle: If you’re a laptop user, skip this part. For an iPhone or iPad, you’ll need to plug in headphones and a mic at the same time. Unfortunately, that’s been impossible due to the newer models’ absence of an aux cord input. If you purchase one of these, however, you can use every device on this list at the same time if need be. You’ll also need a dongle in order to connect the hub to your device too, but hey, it’s cheaper than a laptop!

Headphones: They’re vital in order to mix your songs. How do you know how loud or quiet something should be if you can’t hear it perfectly?

Once again, standard earbuds are the minimum here, but if you do have expensive over-ears, you don’t necessarily want to use them either (though they’re definitely an improvement). Most pairs of headphones, earbuds and speakers are meant to highlight certain frequencies, making songs sound better than the actual mix.

Instead, pick up some studio monitor headphones, which are intended to play the mix exactly as is. These aren’t bad, and neither is the price!

MIDI Keyboard: These are important because after a short while, you’ll get very tired of trying to use your laptop keyboard (or touch screen) as an actual one. The one you want entirely depends on what kind of music you’re making.

If you intend to make, say, acapella songs, then you don’t need one at all. If you want hip-hop beats, you probably want something that’s easier to tap rhythmically than your laptop keyboard. This would do very well. If you play piano and want to make good keyboard tracks utilizing several octaves, here is your best low-budget bet.

Soundproofing: A foam mic shield will help isolate your vocals, and keep it from picking up a lot of background noise. They’re not entirely necessary seeing as they’re on the bottom of this list, but they’d be a nice touch if you’re unsatisfied with how your microphone is picking up sound.

•••

That covers the basics of a minimalistic home studio. I do want to stress that you don’t actually need any of this stuff to make music, just to record it at a semi-professional level. I didn’t start recording songs until about a year after I started writing them.

If you want to write, you don’t need any gear besides an instrument and an open mind. However, I hope this list helps align your musical priorities, and I wish you the best if you’ve begun making music!

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Hudson Keown is a Junior at Arizona State University. His spare time...