Back-to-School Gear for Audio Students

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You can learn a lot about audio by recording your own music (or a friend’s music), and by volunteering to assist a local sound engineer. However, attending a formal audio school can also really help you learn the nuts and bolts of sound. If you plan on studying audio production, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some key equipment. Below, we’ve listed some commonly used gear that all audio enthusiasts and professionals encounter at one point or another. While the equipment in this guide tends to lean more toward the recording arts, understanding and mastering its use will help you in any professional audio vocation.

What are computer audio interfaces?

The use of computers in audio production is widespread, whether you’re recording music, creating sound design for film or video, or recording a performance as a live sound engineer. Therefore, computer audio interfaces are among the most basic necessities for sound people. These devices enable you to plug professional microphones and other signals directly into a computer, and they provide a higher level of sound quality than a built-in soundcard, so everything that you record and play back will sound much better. The Avid Pro Tools Express + Mbox Mini Studio Bundle is a nice option because it supplies you with a good little audio interface and a copy of Pro Tools Express software, which is an entry-level version of the most commonly used audio application in broadcasting and in professional recording facilities. Simply put, using this system will bring you up to speed with the industry standard recording software. If you want the ability to record through more than one microphone at a time (if you’re studying recording engineering, this will be a necessity), you should consider the non-mini version of the Mbox (which features two mic inputs and MIDI I/O). Two microphones still won’t be enough for many users, so you may want to go for a more capable audio interface like the MOTU 8pre (which features eight inputs and preamps). Be aware that the MOTU 8pre does not come with Pro Tools software, but it is compatible with the separately available Avid Pro Tools 10 software.

For extensive information about audio interfaces, check out the B&H InDepth Buying Guide, Audio Interfaces.

How necessary are good studio monitors?

Another thing that audio people can’t live without are studio monitors. Perhaps as important as the ears on your head, your monitors let you accurately hear the sound that you’re working so hard to control. The Yamaha HS50M is a good choice because it provides excellent-quality sound at an affordable price, and it was inspired by the venerable Yamaha NS10M speaker, which is likely one of the most commonly used monitors in professional recording facilities around the world (the NS10M was mysteriously discontinued in 2001). Be aware that the Yamaha HS50M is sold individually, so if you want a pair of them, you need to purchase two. Another option with a slightly fuller sound is the Yamaha HS80M (which features an eight-inch woofer—the HS50M has a five-inch woofer). Adding a powered subwoofer to your monitoring system is always a good idea, because it allows you to hear low-frequency sounds that your studio monitors are incapable of reproducing. The Yamaha HS10W subwoofer is a perfect match for the Yamaha HS series monitors. B&H also offers the Yamaha 2.1 Active Nearfield Monitoring System Kit, which supplies you with a pair of HS50Ms and an HS10W sub. When you purchase monitors, don’t forget to pick up some cables so that you can hook them up to your studio. The most commonly used cables for connecting monitors are 1/4" TRS male to XLR male.  

While it’s important to have great sounding studio monitors like the Yamaha HS50Ms that provide you with a flat frequency response, it’s also helpful to have monitors that behave more like average, consumer speakers. Avantone Pro manufactures a line of MixCube monitors that do a great job of recreating the characteristics of a typical consumer speaker. With a pair of monitors like these, you can use your primary studio monitors to get your sounds and to create your mixes, and you can occasionally switch to your MixCubes to hear what your work will sound like on normal hi-fi equipment. This way you will know how your sound and mix will translate to the outside world. Behringer also manufactures a similar product called the BEHRITONE, which are available individually in black or with vintage wood panel styling.

Are monitoring controllers really useful?

When you have multiple sets of reference monitors that you use to hear your work, it’s really useful to have a monitoring controller. Perhaps more of a luxury item than an absolute necessity, this piece of equipment allows you to quickly switch between multiple sets of monitors, so you can instantly hear how your work translates through the different kinds of speakers.

Monitoring controllers also often have control-room capabilities, such as including a built-in talkback microphone (to communicate with people in other rooms of your studio—assuming that you set up one of those at some point). They also let you easily switch the audio source that feeds your monitors, so, for example, you can switch from listening to the playback of your DAW software to listening to the playback of an external source, such as a CD player. This way, if you’re trying to achieve that Jimi Hendrix sound, you can instantly compare your work with the press of a button (assuming that you’re playing Voodoo Chile on your external device).    

What sort of studio headphones are right for me?

While we’re on the topic of monitoring your audio, it’s fitting to mention the importance of having a good pair of headphones. In fact, as an aspiring audio engineer, a decent set of headphones is likely the most important item you can have. There are many great studio headphones to choose from, but one pair that many people gravitate toward as a standard are the Sony MDR-7506 Circumaural Closed-Back Professional Monitor Headphones. They offer great sound, a very high grade build quality, and they fold up to a pretty compact size, making it easy to throw them in your bag so you always have them with you. If you need to save a few bucks, you can pick up a pair of Sony MDR-V6 headphones, which offer nearly identical design and performance. A great accessory that’s compatible with either of these two headphones from Sony is Pearstone Deluxe Ear Pads. The soft velour on these ear pads is dramatically more comfortable than the fake leather ear pads that come with the headphones, and they’re well worth the extra expense. You’ll appreciate them every time you pop your headphones on your head; whether you’re doing some field work on an icy winter morning, or you’re stuck in a steamy control room in the summer, and the AC is busted.

What entry-level mixers would work for me as a student?

A mixing console is a defining piece of equipment that separates audio people from non-audio people. If you don’t know what you’re doing, a mixer can be downright terrifying. However, if you have an affinity for sound, they are among the most tantalizing pieces of gear you can buy. They are loaded with buttons, knobs, faders and blinking lights; all of the things that audiophiles can’t get enough of. Mixers are used in all forms of audio production, so they’re great for audio engineering students. Another perk is that some mixers have very budget friendly price tags, and they come in smaller sizes that may fit more easily into cramped dorm rooms. If you had to pick one mixer to learn on, a great option would be the Mackie 1604-VLZ3. This is a 16-channel board with XLR inputs and preamps on all 16 inputs. It’s great for use in recording, live sound mixing, monitor mixes, video post production, you name it. It sits nicely on a desk, it can be put in a standard 19-inch rack, and each one is built with an ominous, indestructible look.  

Are there a couple of basic microphones with which I can start out?

Students don’t need to arrive at audio engineering school with a locker filled with vintage microphones, but it’s a good idea to have a few personal microphones at your disposal. If you’re only going to have one or two mics, most audio pros would agree that either a Shure SM58-LC or an SM57-LC would be a good way to go. The SM58-LC is the most commonly used microphone for live vocals, and the SM57-LC is used in recording studios around the world for miking guitar amps, drums and a number of other sound sources. One nice thing about having your own mics is that they’re far more sanitary than the mics to which the other students have access. Another great thing about having your own mic is that you’re aspiring to be an audio pro and they’re absolutely essential. If you were studying to be a photographer, you would likely want to own a lens. This is the audio equivalent.

What key accessories do I need to have?

Audio people often need certain accessories to patch different equipment and signals together, and being able to do this properly requires many different kinds of cables. It’s quite difficult and expensive to have a library’s worth of audio cables with you at all times, so many people use audio adapters instead. Audio adapters are less expensive than dedicated cables, but if the goal is to outfit yourself with every kind of adapter so you will be able to patch anything together, you can’t beat having a Remote Audio Adapt-a-Pak Pro kit. It’s loaded with 55 adapters that are neatly organized in a clear plastic case. If the Pro kit is a bit out of your price range, you can also go for the Adapt-A-Pak LT kit, which comes with 27 adapters. These may seem excessive, but trust me, they’re wonderful things to own. The frustration you feel when you realize you can’t make a patch is awful, and you end up wasting a lot of time coming up with a workaround. These kits make a great deal of that annoyance go away.

As far as reading material is concerned, the Sound Reinforcement Handbook is considered by many in the audio industry to be the most thorough explanation of the principles of sound and audio equipment. First officially published in 1987, it remains a must-read to this day.

If you’re serious about live sound reinforcement, a powerful metering tool like the Phonic PAA3 Audio Assistant can be incredibly useful for measuring the sound levels in different locations of a venue, and for measuring reverb times. Its real time 31-band spectrum analyzer enables you to see the EQ wherever you are located, which is helpful for creating a balanced mix and for hunting down rogue frequencies that may be causing feedback issues.    

If you have any questions or suggestions for equipment for aspiring audio engineers, we would love to hear from you. You are encouraged to submit a Comment below.