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These days, the sound quality you can achieve with a minimal investment in home studio recording equipment is amazing. But as nice as these affordable recording tools are, they all have sonic limitations. What do you do if you want to take your sound to the next level of quality? This article will show you where to start if you're ready to upgrade your entry-level studio gear for the professional-grade stuff.
If you're serious about making the best recordings possible, one thing that can really help is having equipment that was built to deliver uncompromised sound quality. However, it's important to understand that the gear you use is only going to sound its best when it's used properly. The more you can learn about mic positioning, gain structure, signal routing, frequency interplay and so on, the better your recordings will sound. So be sure to pick up some audio tutorials to really get the most out of your gear.
No matter how skilled you become as an audio engineer, many home-recording enthusiasts eventually hit a wall built by the limitations of their entry-level gear. There comes a point when you want to be able to craft a finished product that sounds like a record—not a demo. You want to move on from being a project studio to a professional home studio.
The good news is that the very same equipment that professional studios relied upon for decades is now available at a fraction of the cost. The legendary brands that are found in professional recording facilities worldwide (Neumann, SSL, Genelec, Telefunken, etc.) are now within reach for the home studio. So when you're ready to upgrade your equipment, where do you start? A great place to improve the quality of your studio is where the free-flowing sound waves meet your equipment: the microphones.
Every link in your audio chain is important, and will add to the overall detail of your recordings. Having high-end microphone preamplifiers in your signal flow can do wonders, but the best way to really hear a dramatic improvement in your sound is to upgrade your microphones.
Upgrading your microphones is the closest you'll get to an instant gratification improvement with high end recording-studio equipment. When you upgrade a microphone preamp, you often have to record several tracks to really hear how it's impacting your overall sound. This isn't the case with nice microphones. You plug them in, record yourself singing a few lines or playing some notes on an instrument, and hit stop. On playback you just close your eyes and listen. You'll hear the difference right away.
If you're recording mainly vocals and instruments, a large diaphragm condenser microphone is a good mic to pick up. There are many excellent large diaphragm condenser microphones available, but if you want a guaranteed winner, go for a Telefunken ELA M 251E Classic Tube Microphone, a Neumann U87 or a JZ Black Hole BH-1S. If you're recording a lot of drum cymbals and stringed instruments, small diaphragm microphones are the tools to have. For a killer set of small diaphragms, go for a pair of Neumann KM184's or pick up a couple of Schopes Colette MK41's. If you need a little sonic variety, a good ribbon microphone can add a smooth texture to your work. Good ribbon mics to consider are the Royer R-121 and the Rupert Neve-designed sE Electronics RNR1.
If the high end is still a bit out of your reach, there are still lots of good microphone choices that can pump up your sound quality. For large diaphragm condenser mics, the Neumann TLM 102, the Rode K2 and the Studio Projects C1 all offer really impressive sound quality for their price ranges. For small diaphragm mics, the Audio Technica AT4049b is a more affordable choice, and for ribbon mics, a pair of Cascade Fat Head II's with Lundahl transformers really impresses.
While a microphone upgrade directly affects the sound that you capture, being able to accurately hear the captured sound is equally important. Since your speakers and your headphones are the only part of your recording studio that you get to hear, it makes sense to invest in some high-quality monitoring equipment.
If you're currently using sub-par monitors, upgrading to an accurate system will make all of the difference in the world. Even if you've been using mid-level prosumer monitors, you'll immediately notice the depth and detail a higher-end speaker can reproduce. When you start using a new monitoring system, it's important to take some time to get used to their sound, this way you'll have a better feel for their response when it's time to make critical decisions in your mixes.
There are many great monitoring options besides the Adam, AKG and Focal models pictured above. Genelec's 8000 series monitors are favorites in studios around the world. If your control room is large, getting a pair of Genelec 8040 is the way to go. If it's a medium-sized room, the 8030 is a better bet. The Genelec 8020 is the best choice for small rooms. It's also a good idea to outfit your near field monitors with a subwoofer. If you're using the smaller 8020's, you should pick up the 7050B sub. The 8030's go well with the 7060B, and the 8040's get along well with the 7070A. It's also easy to bump your system up to handle surround mixes using these Genelec subwoofers. Another great surround sound monitoring solution is the Focal Professional SM11 series.
While it's often contested whether audio cables improve the sound or not, no one ever questions whether upgrading your computer audio interface impacts your overall sound. Not only does a high-quality interface improve the quality of your recordings, it also improves the playback sound as well. That means that every sound going in and out of your computer will be affected by the quality of your computer audio interface, so it makes sense to invest in an upgrade.
There are a number of factors that contribute to why these interfaces outshine their more affordably priced counterparts. The quality of the components and the circuitry, the clock, the drivers and software that enable the interface to interact with the computer—even the quality of the power supply—can have an impact on the sound. When manufacturers cut corners trying to hit a lower price point, one or all of these factors can be impacted. When you build something right without compromises, you can hear the difference.
One way to tap into the power of uncompromised audio circuitry is with the B&H SSL X-Desk and Apogee Ensemble bundle. The X-Desk can serve as the analog centerpiece of your studio, handling the routing and cue mix duties during tracking, acting as a multiple monitor controller and as a control room talkback device. But where the SSL X-Desk really shines is in its ability to act as a 16-channel mix bus.
When you have multiple tracks of audio in the digital realm inside your DAW software, some of the magic gets lost when you digitally bounce all of those tracks down to a single stereo mix. The mathematics involved with summing all of those ones and zeros down to a single stereo mix often compromises the detail and depth of your sound. The solution is to use an analog piece of hardware to bus those multiple tracks down to a stereo pair. The X-Desk contains the same circuitry as some of the world's most expensive recording consoles, so you know you'll be getting the best sounding mix possible. The B&H Ensemble and X-Desk kit includes a Mogami 8-channel snake to connect the X-Desk to your system.
When you really get down to the nitty-gritty details of improving your sound quality, you discover that every link in your signal chain (both large and small) needs to be as strong as possible. One of the links in this chain is your preamplifiers.
A microphone signal is very weak. In order to be properly recorded, this signal needs to be boosted at the input stage. The component responsible for boosting this signal is the microphone preamplifier. As you may have guessed, all microphone preamplifiers are not created equal.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, the fruits of a preamp upgrade sometimes don't become obvious to you until you've used them for a while. The industrial design of outboard preamps tends to wow prospective buyers with lots of cool-looking blinky lights and oversized knobs. While it doesn't hurt that the preamps themselves are attractive looking, this isn't why you invest in them. It's all about the sound.
Most computer audio interfaces come with built-in preamps. These stock preamps tend to be as transparent as possible. What you get when you invest in higher-end mic preamps is the ability to add a lot of character and nuance to the sound of a microphone, and in some cases they give you a surgically clean sound with lots of headroom and outstanding signal to noise ratios.
Some preamps go beyond just giving you the basics (phantom power, phase, low cut filters, etc) and act as more of a complete channel strip. The Millennia TD-1 pictured above also features two bands of mastering-grade parametric EQ and a special input which can accept the load of a guitar amplifier. It's not uncommon for a preamp to also feature compressors and limiters and other tools to tweak the sound to your liking. The Tube-Tech MMC 1A features an optical-band multicompressor, and the Focusrite RED 7 is equipped with a compressor/limiter and a de-esser/exciter stage. There are also exquisit sounding preamps and channel strips availble from Avalon and Grace, such as the vacuum tube based VT-737SP and the ribbon microphone friendly M201.
While they don't have a direct impact on your sound quality, a good control surface enables you to speed up your workflow. They also do an outstanding job at making you feel less like you're a computer operator and more like a music producer. A quality control surface will severely cut the amount of time you spend touching the mouse and increase your mental focus on the music.
One of the biggest drawbacks to working with a mouse (besides feeling like you're checking your email) is that you can only adjust one parameter at a time. A software control surface gives you tactile control over dozens of controls simultaneously.
The Euphonix MC Control takes manual control a step further by including an 800 x 480-pixel touch screen LED interface. It displays a range of different audio meters and all kinds of information pertaining to your session (track names, pan values, etc.). The touch screen enables you to arm, solo and mute tracks and carry out other tasks. Its four 100mm touch-sensitive faders are motorized and you can scroll through your session and use these faders to control as many tracks as needed. If you desire even more fader control, you can link up to three Euphonix MC Mix units together with the MC Control and have 36 motorized faders at your fingertips.
The SSL Nucleus offers more of a hybrid solution, uniting an elegant control surface with a high-quality USB audio interface, and bundling it with Duende Native Essentials (some of the finest EQ and dynamics software available). The Nucleus contains two of the very same microphone preamps that are found in SSL's renowned Duality and AWS consoles. Its acclaimed SuperAnalogue signal path offers your ears unparalleled monitoring quality to two separate outputs. It uses both HUI and MCU protocols to connect with the DAW of your choice, ensuring compatibility with Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Nuendo and all major audio software applications. If you tend to use more than one DAW at a time, the Nucleus can seamlessly switch between three programs at a time, so you can utilize all of its controls and premium sound quality on multiple platforms at the touch of a button.
One of the more hotly debated subjects in pro audio is whether or not premium cables improve your sound quality. Personally, I'm on the side of the fence of people who do believe they make a difference. So I suggest getting Mogami or Canare XLR cables to connect your new microphones. If you're investing in a top quality pair of speakers, it doesn't hurt to also pick up a good pair of cables to connect them to your studio. A pair of these 10 foot Mogmai XLR male to TRS male cables are recommended.
Thanks for checking out this article! Hopefully you have a better idea about how you can upgrade your studio to get that sound you've been chasing after. If you have any questions about this lovely equipment, we encourage you to post them in the Comments section below!