If you’re an aspiring musician, music engineer, or music producer, there’s a good chance that you suffer from some form of gear addiction. There’s really no way around it, nor is there a good way to explain this to your non-musically inclined friends and family. The temptation to make that next gear purchase looms over you like a giant Grammy-shaped cloud—kind of like the uncontrollable urge you have to eat that additional, unnecessary slice of pizza that’s just sitting there in the box, staring at you, waiting patiently to be devoured.
I will confess that I am a guy who loves gear, but I know from years of experience—having worked as an engineer in super-expensive music facilities and my own home setup—that possessing just a few pieces of inexpensive but reliable equipment in your arsenal can be all you need to improve the sonic quality of your music, ultimately allowing you to transfer those great musical ideas from inside your head to the real world accurately.
If your current music rig leaves much to be desired and you’re considering making major purchases on the “latest and greatest” gear available, it may be a good idea to first take a step back and analyze what you currently own, to identify potential deficiencies in your setup. Ask yourself the following: Is every piece of gear I own pulling its own weight? That is, is there old or unreliable musical equipment in your setup which is bringing down the overall quality of what you produce? It pays to ensure that you are not putting yourself at a technical disadvantage before you even begin your creative pursuits.
If you’ve decided that the gear you currently possess just isn’t cutting it, here are a few upgrades you can make to your setup that may improve the overall quality of your home-studio productions.
A Solid All-In-One Microphone
Your budget studio needs at least one workhorse microphone that is versatile enough to satisfy all of your recording needs—vocals, guitars, drums, percussion, bass amps, etc. If you’re looking to buy just one microphone that’ll be able to handle all the tasks you throw at it while maintaining a clean sonic character, consider the Studio Projects CS5 Multi-Pattern Studio Condenser.
This is truly a versatile mic; multiple polar patterns make it suitable for recording a variety of sound sources, and it’s built solidly. Also, the CS5 reproduces what you hear without adding any “hyped” color to the sound.
I would also recommend owning a go-to dynamic mic, such as the legendary Shure SM57, which has been used on thousands of records to record pretty much any sound source, from guitar cabinets to lead vocals.
Computer Audio Interface
Unless you’re recording to 2" tape, which is unlikely due to the size and expense of maintaining 2" machines, chances are you’re using your computer to capture your sound and mix and edit your projects. Having an interface with clean-sounding mic pre-amps is important to preserve the sonic integrity of your music, and flexible I/O (Ins and Outs) enables you to work in a more efficient and ergonomic manner. If you’re looking for a new interface that won’t break the bank, consider the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 (2nd Generation) USB Audio Interface.
This unit is compact, has 18 inputs and 8 outputs of analog and digital I/O, is USB bus-powered, and comes housed in a compact, anodized-aluminum unibody chassis, making it an ideal choice for musicians and digital DJs. It also includes software such as an exclusive Focusrite edition of Pro Tools | First Pack, Ableton Live Lite, the Softube Time and Tone Bundle, Foscusrite's Red Plug-In Suite, and 2GB of Loopmasters samples—pretty much everything you’d need to record, edit, and complete your next music masterpiece.
Owning an accurate set of reference speakers is essential, and it can mean the difference between creating a blurry mix versus one that accurately reproduces all the subtleties and nuances of your performances. If what you hear from your current setup is not translating well to your ears, and you’re in the market for a new set of speakers, the JBL LSR305 5" Two-Way Powered Studio Monitors certainly fit the bill in terms of their clarity and accurate bass reproduction, and their compact size makes them an ideal addition to a home-studio setup. Despite their small size, the LSR 305 monitors have Class-D amplifiers for reliable power and efficiency, professionally balanced inputs, selectable input sensitivity to ensure compatibility with a wide range of signal sources, and Trim switches to help you tailor the sound of the speaker to accommodate the specific room acoustics of your space.
Good headphones are an essential piece of gear in a recording studio setup, because they enable you to work silently without disturbing others around you and provide an alternate sound source to reference your mixes, not to mention they are certainly required if you want to record clean, quiet vocals. When shopping for a new set of “cans,” look for a closed-back pair that won’t leak sound to the outside, and make sure you find a model that feels comfortable for those long-haul recording sessions.
The Sony MDR-7506 has been the studio standard for three decades, and for the price, you really can’t go wrong. They have a relatively flat frequency response, which is important if you want to hear what your music “really” sounds like. I have owned the same three pairs for the past six years, and they haven’t let me down yet.
The low-end detail is not as pronounced as consumer-grade models, but hyped-up headphones with extra bass boosting are not recommended for critical listening and tweaking applications.
Take Time to Make the Right Choice
The amount of pro audio gear available out there is overwhelming, to say the least. When upgrading your setup, make sure you research the items you’re interested in acquiring completely; visit your retailer, read product reviews, ask friends and colleagues about their experiences, and ultimately, choose gear that is going to give you the best bang for the buck without compromising the sound you’re looking to reproduce.