Small Budget Renoise Studio

As I’m sure some people noticed, I started a thread on headphone selection, motivated by my own financial circumstances.

This got me thinking: I can’t possibly be the only poor musician on these boards. How about a thread where we put our heads together on how to get off the ground making good music using Renoise with a minimum cash outlay?

To put some parameters around the chaos, I understand that we could all run Renoise on five year old netbooks and use no other tools to come up with something which sounds OK, but I’m going to add some stipulations in the interests of workflow to make it come together.

  • Total budget including Renoise licence: under $1000
  • All new equipment: dumpster diving sounds great but in my experience costs more in the long run
  • Musical style: electronica - no need to include fat orchestral samples and sound packs
  • Must include a computer for running Renoise (desktop or laptop doesn’t matter much, though portability has its points)
  • Must include MIDI controllers for speed and convenience of data entry (USB is fine)
  • Must include some reasonable quality sound output (doesn’t have to be headphones for a stationary setup)
  • May include any other craziness you can fit into the budget which you think really helps (microphones, USB hubs, fancy keyboards, tablets etc.)

If I had ten thousand dollars to spend I’m sure I could put together a system which would make the world jealous, but if I had ten thousand dollars to spend I’d probably have to put the first thousand into a new system, and the other nine thousand into a used 4x4 or maybe a Remington 870. Earning a living is important too.

Of course, if I had a hundred thousand I’d have a full spec Mac Pro, 4K displays, a wall of modular synths … and set it all up in my Vegas studio. But I don’t.

To get things started, here’s more or less how I tackled the problem (although it took me a while to put this together):

  • Lenovo laptop (they were running a special, about $400)
  • Ubuntu Linux (free! and it runs old, cheap hardware well)
  • Korg nano series (got a deal, about $200 for all three)
  • Renoise (about $100)
  • USB hub, USB keyboard, USB mouse, other bits and pieces maybe another $100

Up and running for about $800, spread over several years.

What are you doing for listening? Do you have monitor speakers, or a decent headset?

This is one of the killer aspects of a home studio: Proper listening. I’m using a pair of ATH MD50 headphones that I’m happy with but I’d much prefer to have good set of monitor speakers. Thing is, they seem pretty pricey.

The best I’ve been able to do is a set of Altec Lansing VS4121 speakers. They’re old enough that I don’t even really remember where I got them - I know I was given them as hand-me-downs. They wouldn’t break the $1000 limit even if I had paid for them out of pocket, honestly. They don’t do too badly when I’m mastering. They beat el cheapo earbuds anyway. Twiddling the treble and bass lets me concentrate on the bits I care about, and of course Renoise visual output helps keep it all honest.

One advantage of living in the country is that I don’t have to deal with traffic noise unless a farmer is running a tractor nearby. And if the coyotes start screaming at night I can shoot them. Can’t do that in the city when the sorority girls upstairs start a Justin Bieber marathon. Makes people ask questions.

Anyway, the point is that I at least have a pretty quiet environment. I don’t have to worry about sound deadening, isolation, acoustics or constant low grade traffic rumble. I can turn down my equipment quiet, or turn it up and there’s nobody around to complain.

OK so I am kind of cheating here, but here is how I got started on the cheap.

Computer: ZaReason UltraLap running Ubuntu (i5 cpu, 8 GB RAM) - Work laptop FREE!
Midi Controller - Oxygen 25 $100
Headphones - Sennheiser HD 518 $150 (had for listening to music)
VST synths - Aspect by Loomer, Discovery by Disco DSP around $150 (also the wonderful free TAL Noizemaker and TuneFish)
VST FX - Sequent by Loomer $60
Renoise - $60

Total - $520

I certainly could have bought a decent laptop off NewEgg or similar for $400ish so it still comes in under a grand. For me the purchases that made the biggest difference in my creativity were the Midi keyboard, and the VSTs. Sequent especially helped me make my content more dynamic.

I think that I’d rather spend the VST synth money on a USB sound card, but that’s just me. Reducing noise does make a difference.

The only really expensive part is the computer. I’d always go for a laptop (in this case), since it does make it cheaper (you don’t need a monitor, external keyboard), and it also consumes less power (adds up over time). With Linux, you can get a fairly decent Asus for €300 already (like this one) though the cheap ones usually only have 3-4 cells batteries, so maybe spending a bit more for a 6-cells battery would help with portability.

I’d get the Steinberg UR22 as audio interface (€100). You really can’t get anything better in that price range, and it even has MIDI I/O (I wish I had bought that, as mentioned in the headphones thread). For studio headphones, I’d get the Audio Technica ATH-M50. The X just have detachable cables. If you can find the non-X ones (previous model, basically), they should be cheaper than €140. I include the Thomann links only for reference.

That leaves you with the MIDI controller. I’m not sure I feel it’s essential to have one, actually, but that probably depends heavily on your workflow and preferences. I have an Oxygen 49 that collects dust (too bulky) and an Axiom Air Mini 32 that I like much better, size-wise, but rarely use. (I actually have no space restrictions, but I’m going through the part of midlife crisis where I like minimalism and try to reduce the clutter in my life!)

For Linux, I would go with ArchLinux, by the way, not with Ubuntu. It does require a bit more tinkering, but it’s so much less bloated and dynamic! It’s also a rolling release distro, so you never really have old stuff and need to reinstall everything. For the laptop, you’d want to check if it has known Linux issues.

I’d spend left over money on a better laptop, ideally with a 17" display and a SSD (at least for the OS), but that puts us into luxury territory. There are many good and free VST synths out there, so no need to spend money on one. Check out the KVR One Synth Challenge for some choices (not all are free, but many are). If you were to spend money on a soft synth, then grabbing SynthMaster (factory version) during one of their many 30-50% off sales would give you a very flexible, very powerful all-round synth. That would be another €50-70 (sale). (Actually, I don’t know about Linux compatibility of soft synths, so that may add some restrictions. I use a Windows laptop for audio stuff.)

Maybe a good thing to discuss would be minimum performance of a laptop.

I don’t think renoise needs much more than a 7200RPM drive, but it uses multiple cores well from what I can tell. Core 5?

How about USB versions? Is USB 3 really worth the hype at this stage?

What about desktops and the ability to add all sorts of fancy digital sound cards?

Good point. i3 is dual core, so an i5 is probably what I would look for now, even in a budget laptop. That makes it a bit more expensive, but still manageable. I also find it hard to justify anything with less than 8 GB RAM (but I also feel that more is not really necessary), but if it’s mostly just Renoise, especially if on Linux, then 4 GB RAM should be fine (with the option to extend it later at a reasonable cost).

I’d try for at least one USB3 port so that you can easily connect a nice USB hub to it (something self-powered, costs about €25 for a quality item, less if quality doesn’t matter as much), and as many USB2 ports as you can get, though in inexpensive laptops that is usually just one more. I don’t think USB3 is really useful currently from a music making perspective. It is very useful with external drives.

I’d still use my external audio interface/soundcard even if I still had a desktop. Not sure what advantages there’d be to having internal card(s). That’s for someone to answer who has more experience in that area.

By the way, have you looked at this? That may be worth checking out for a Linux-based music laptop/desktop. It’s very frequently updated and well-maintained too, from what I can tell.

See, if an Atom were good enough, then I could easily build a really small and cheap PC based on a mini-ITX board or something like that. On the other hand, is an Atom really enough? I don’t think so.

I kind of have a dream of a tiny central computer, then just hooking all the bits to it that I want. USB speakers, USB MIDI controllers, USB keyboard and mouse, USB storage devices. That way I can upgrade bits more cheaply and easily than recycling an old laptop and buying a new one.

Looks pretty neat. Not quite sure what it would get me that I’m not already doing, but I keep an open mind.

These days i’d definately buy a second hand laptop, like a Lenovo or some other good quality laptop, preferably with a newly installed Windows 7 64bit, an i5 or i7 processor and at least 4GB RAM.

New laptops seem to only come with Windows 8 and poor performance rate for the money compared to a 2 year old laptop.

Maybe this sound card is something to consider:
It is Creative, so it has ASIO support right out of the box i believe, no need for ASIO4ALL. Probably not the best for recordings, but the latency should be very good. For that price it couldn’t hurt to try.

add a giant LCDTV screen, even a second hand $200 one will work, like from a pawn shop.
I’m a little more than an arm’s length away from my 42" LGTV, it’s a wonderful thing for everything.
I no longer feel like I need a dual screen anymore.

If I do upgrade I’ll get one of those 55" or 60" wall things and run dual, and make a war room.

Although, you may not want to make music anymore, from all the fun you’ll have with porn and videogames.

Refurbished is OK, but I’m careful about generic used stuff. I like a warranty, at least for the first few months. After that I figure anything which broke was my fault.

You have a great point on the television. Lots of computers will put out HDMI today, and some televisions will suck in DVI or VGA too.

Let me see, tiny media PC on the back of a big but affordable TV, mounted on a wall, and I sit back with a USB hub’s worth of controls. I could like that.

If I want recreation, I pretty much go hunting. Farmers will sometimes even pay me a bounty for feral dogs and hogs which ruin their fields and attack their livestock. It’s all another income stream to pay for more USB goodies to make more music.

Here’s an additional question:

I just discovered that small furry things chewed up the cable of my microphone. I let a couple of hungry cats into the closet, so that should reduce repeat offences, but I still need a new microphone.

Any hot recommendations?

… but I still need a new microphone.

Any hot recommendations?

I’m using a Shure SM-57 that I really like for vocals. That or the SM 58 are good, solid, choices for singing or mic’ing live instruments.

As I’ve already made clear, I’m a cheapskate, and it just occurred to me that Black Friday is coming.

Anyone have a line on any great deals coming up? I might just have a computer upgrade in my wallet, if things line up right.

If you wanna keep budget low check out “Superlux” headphones, push well above their weight, many rate their sound to phones worth over £100.

Good tip. At least, their prices look affordable. I sold an old truck, so I should be able to afford something.

If I want recreation, I pretty much go hunting. Farmers will sometimes even pay me a bounty for feral dogs and hogs which ruin their fields and attack their livestock. It’s all another income stream to pay for more USB goodies to make more music.

lol fucking hell

Don’t underestimate the amount of money a farmer can lose to feral dogs. They’re vicious, they form packs, and they will even attack full grown bulls. Since a stud bull can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, it’s a lot cheaper for a farmer to pay me a few hundred to take out feral dogs.

The pigs are just as bad, but they’re worse on crops. Hundreds of pounds heavy, breed like rats, mean as hell with tusks as long as your fingers. Smart, too. Smarter than the dogs, I reckon.

So I’m helping the farmers, helping the environment, getting paid and making music. What’s not to like?