Here’s my simple philosophy for keeping expenses down: CONTROL YOUR GEAR LUST!

The marketing gurus are after you! And they are always trying to sell you something you probably don’t need. To record with professional quality, however, you will need a few more items and a few better items than you need for just knocking around with a few garage quality demos. Here’s the recording/tracking chain:

1. Computer. You need a good computer – at least a dual core Intel machine. Two drives: one for your DAW software (Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, etc.) and the other for your tracks. I’ll have more to say on this another time.

2. DA Converters. You need HIGH QUALITY analog to digital converters. This is one place not to scrimp! The biggest different in your sound happens here – with converters (and digital clock). I use the Apogee AD16x (I sometimes need 16 simultaneous tracks for live tracking) – now replaced by their Symphony system. In order to get the least possible latency, I use the Apogee Thunderbridge and X-symphony card in order to be able to use the thunderbolt in/out on my computer. Get something comparable (Lynx, or UA Apollo). You won’t regret it.

3. Preamps. Next in the food chain are your preamps. Here, the marketers go wild. Since preamps add color and texture to the sound on the way in, helping with the often brittle quality of digital recording, you’ll be tempted to get all kinds of preamps. What you NEED, however, is at least one really good clean or transparent preamp, and at least one more colored preamp (tube or heavy transformer based). You might also get two or three “channel strips”. A channel strip includes a good preamp, a good equalizer, and a good compressor/limiter. The ability to bypass the equalizer and/or compressor/limiter is an important feature. You won’t always want these in the chain.

For clean/transparent pre amplification, I like the True Precision preamps. I bought the True Precision 8, which includes 8 channels, since I sometimes record bands. It gives me 8 great channels for a drum kit, for instance, and at a good price point. Other great transparent preamps are Grace preamps, but they tend to be a little pricier per unit. A very nice, inexpensive tube pair of tube preamps, if you can find them, are the Peavey VM-P-2s. I got a pair used and love them. Another good set of used preamps is the Presonus MP-20. I get good workhorse time out of mine.

On the channel strip side, you might get a non-transformer strip, a good transformer-loaded strip, and a good tube strip. For a little tube flavor to warm things up, perhaps the best price for the money for a “money channel” is the Universal Audio LA 610 MKII. I use mine all the time, especially for vocals. Another good workhorse choice is the Avalon VT-737sp. For a good budget minded non-transformer channel strip, think about the Presonus Eureka. I use mine regularly. The preamp is fast and transparent, the compressor adequate for most projects, and the eq is very clean. For a transformer-based strip, you can’t do better than the Focusrite ISA 430 MKII. It takes a while to learn (due to its many, many options), but simply sounds fantastic on just about everything – especially bass! I use mine all the time.

4. Hardware compressor/limiters. If you are multi-tracking, you may never need these, but it is a good idea to have a couple on hand to tame transients on the way into the box. You could spend a bundle here, but I wouldn’t. I like the FMR audio RMC1773 “Really Nice” Compressor. Tremendous for the money, and I’ve never had a studio situation – drums, bass, BGVs, etc. where they didn’t do the trick if I needed them to tame a signal.

5. Microphones. Here again, the marketers will want to you spend, spend, spend. What you really need, however, are a few good mics in the following categories:

  • Large Diaphragm cardioid condenser. First, you need a good large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone for capturing vocals, drum overhead, etc. How good? Well, despite what you might be led to believe, you can get good professional recordings with less than you think. I have come to love quality and versatility of the Neumann TLM 103. This is a very straight forward, quiet, clean microphone with tremendous handling of sound pressure levels (spls). There are lots of other great choices here that won’t break the bank. The Mojave MA-200, MikTek C7, Shure KSM44A, or AKG C414XLS will all do the trick for about the same price.
  • Stereo Pair – Small Diaphragm Cardioid Condenser. Second, you need a good stereo pair of small diaphragm cardioid condenser microphones for capturing a range of acoustic instruments – mandolin, fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, choirs, ensembles, etc. These are also good for cymbals. Many studios make use of the Neumann KM 184 matched pair. I find these to have a tiny bit too much of a high end spike for my taste, which doesn’t make them versatile enough to handle some instruments – like the fiddle. I now use the MikTek C5MP and love them. The high end is not brittle, but smooth and easy to eq. I also like supporting the local economy. These great sounding microphones are made in Nashville.
  • Dynamic Microphones. Third, you need a few workhorse dynamic microphones. These are especially good for recording drums and guitar amps and cabs. I grew up on Shure Sm-57s for these tasks, and I’d strongly recommend looking into the Shure DMK57-52 drum microphone kit. You’ll get three SM57s, and a Beta 52 for kick, along with a nice case and drum mounts. The Beta 52 is a great kick mic, and can also double when you multitrack the bass amp with good results, and does surprisingly well also on double bass. For bass amp miking and for some vocal applications, it is also good to have an Electrovoice EVRE320 on hand. A great mic for the money and a real workhorse.
  • A Ribbon Microphone. Finally, it is a good idea to have one ribbon mic in the closet. Some instruments and vocals just have too much high end bite, and only a ribbon mic can get them under control. And from time to time you’ll want to reach for a mic that will provide that dark vintage vibe. Also, ribbon mics have a figure 8 pattern, which can be helpful in many applications, especially when you want to capture room ambience. Typically these are expensive microphones. Its hard to beat a Royer R-121 for versatility. The AEA R84 is great. If I need one of this quality, I usually head downtown and rent one for the day (about 60 bucks). In my closet, however, I have the very affordable Cascade Fathead II. For most applications, it is more than adequate – great for the squeaking violin or the room mic. And a good guitar amp mic as well. For as often as you’ll probably need a ribbon, this should be enough. I also get great use out of my very affordable Cascade X-15 stereo ribbon mic. I have a very active sounding drum room, and this is a great room mic for stereo miking drums in such a room. It is also lovely on guitar in some applications.

Ok. Granted there are lots of other choices and occasional needs – omnidirectional, tube condenser, etc. And you can keep adding on. The basics, however, are mostly cardioid mics – condenser and dynamic, and the occasional ribbon.

Home recordists usually have room issues. These are often over-stated by product marketers, however. In today’s world, you’ll be doing a lot of close miking, and the room will not present huge issues. Even drum miking can be fairly well controlled in rooms that are not perfect. On the room-prep end, I’d recommend that you grab a closet and turn it into a vocal booth if you can. This will be your main need in terms of room issues. Here’s mine.

Vocal Booth in the Closet

And purchase one of several great new products for controlling room reflections. I use the SE Reflexion Filter when recording lots of instruments, and for some vocal applications – a first rate product. The Auralex ProMAX is also great and very versatile. Two of these will be all you’ll need to control most room issues.

That’s it for gear in the recording/tracking chain. You don’t need more than this to get professional quality recording going at home.

I’ll blog another time about studio monitoring equipment and recording software and plugins to consider. Again, the philosophy is, and will be, the same – Control Your Gear Lust!

  1. […] Music: Recording I.C. WillNear-coincident Microphone Spacing (ORTF)Recording Sarah McCutchanControl Your Gear Lust!Welcome to Jonymac (pronounced JohnnyMac) […]

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