Gear for the Working Ear: Five Tools Every Engineer Needs


Who knows how it happened? Maybe the band chose you to record their DIY releases. Maybe you’ve been sketching demos out your whole life. Maybe you inherited a panoply of gear from your quirky uncle Alfred. Whatever the case, you’ve already got the bases covered (the interface, the computer, the MIDI-controller, etc.), but now you’ve got a real problem: you’ve been bitten by the bug—the engineering bug. You want to improve your skill set and your efficiency. You need to procure a tight ecosystem of gear that’ll get you from point A to point B as expeditiously as possible. You feel this deeply, in your bones, and the question quickly becomes, “What do I buy next?”

"...but now you’ve got a real problem: you’ve been bitten by the bug—the engineering bug."

We at B&H have some ideas beyond the basics, some practical paths forward through this, your new existence—the never-ending, gear-buying miasma that will, inevitably, become your life. Welcome to it!

Arranged into five basic categories, here are some basic tools no engineer should ever forego.

1. A Workhorse Microphone

If you’re going to be recording anything in your studio—anything at all from drums to guitars, from vocals to the sound of your radiator rattling (sound-design!)—you’ll need a microphone you can count on, one that’ll work when everything else fails, be it aurally or mechanically. For many engineers, that mic has always been the Shure SM57-LC, which in addition to working on guitars, drums, and even vocals, also makes a pretty good paperweight and decent hammer. Seriously, you can use this mic on anything.


Shure SM57-LC Microphone

Another alternative, if you’re willing to invest a little more, is the Shure SM7. These have long been a standard for certain kinds of vocals—spoken word especially (Marc Maron proudly uses them on his podcast). They also sound fantastic on guitar cabinets and work in a pinch on acoustics and kick drums. The Electro-Voice RE20 garners similar respect in the versatility department and goes for a comparable price.


Shure SM7B Vocal Microphone

The point is this: you need a mic that’s not going to go sideways on you. These three do the trick.

2. Alternative Monitoring Options

By now you have a fair idea of how your usual monitors sound, and yet your mixes never feel right when you give them a listen at a friend’s place or in your car. Why is this? Two reasons: the sonic signature of your room, which might influence what you’re hearing for the worse, and your speakers themselves, to which you’ve become inured over time.


Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones

Look, you’ll have to address your room somehow. You’ll have to treat it, or you’ll have to learn its deficiencies so deeply that you can overcome them; most likely it’ll be a combination of both. In the meantime, alternative monitoring options will do wonders for your workflow: if the drums sound great on your speakers, a secondary speaker system, and three sets of headphones, chances are they sound great—period.

Think about supplementing your main monitors with a pair of Auratone 5Cs or a single 5C Super Sound Cube for mono-checks, because if they’re good enough for Quincy Jones, they’re good enough for you. For headphones, try the Audio Technica ATH-M50x (they’re great, inexpensive studio cans), as well as Apple earbuds (because almost everyone has them) and the Panasonic RP-HT21, a pair of inexpensive headphones that sound just fine.


Auratone 5C Super Sound Cube Passive Studio Monitors

It’s all about taking the average: by referencing on consumer-grade gear from time to time, you’ll be able take a solid sonic temperature of how your mix sounds in most situations.

3. Diagnostic Tools

There is one absolute law of every studio situation, and that law is Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong—usually when you’ve got a deadline. In these situations, you need to get granular and you need to act fast. This is where equipment such as cable testers and multimeters come in handy.

If you’ve got a million cables set up but no sound coming out whatsoever, you need to know which cable is causing the headache. For this task, check out the Kopul CBT-12 - 12-in-1 Cable Tester, one solid-metal unit which can test twelve different cable connections. Likewise, power might cause issues from time to time, introducing extraneous noise or sudden dips in volume. To cover these bases, look to pick up a multimeter here.


Kopul CBT-12 12-in-1 Cable Tester

4. Software

Discount this section if you’re still mixing to tape. If not, chances are your DAW came with some stock plug-ins and, yes, some of them are quite good. While pros such as Dave Pensado and Jaycen Joshua can get titanic tones out of the stockiest software, it can take years of ear-training to coax beautiful sounds out of middling algorithms. In the meantime, check out Izotope Alloy 2 or IK Multimedia T-Racks CS—affordable software bundles publicly praised by engineers like Pensado (in the case of Izotope) and Dave Kutch (in the case of T-RackS). Both feature excellent EQs, dynamite compressors, suitable limiters, and comprehensive metering sections, the latter being especially important for expediting mixes.


IK Multimedia T-RackS CS Deluxe Plug-In Collection

Yes, your ears must guide you above all else, and in your early days, your ears will tell you what sounds bad—but they might not tell you why. Enter the usefulness of metering: drag your favorite, similar song into a session and see how it reads on the meters (note: always level-match the mastered song to your own mix for a better comparison). Even though the reference track feels louder, maybe the RMS readout says the opposite—that your mix is, in fact, “louder.” Now you know you’ve got other issues. Maybe it’s phase. Maybe it’s EQ. Whatever the case, you can see on the meters how your mix and the reference track stack up; you can tell where the differences are. Now your eyes can teach your ears to recognize the why, and not just the what.

Similarly, you can use presets the same way. Some people think of presets as hacky. Some don’t. If you have truly no idea why you can’t get a specific vocal part to sit right, then you’ve got nothing to lose by trying out a preset. If you love it, don’t just use it: figure out why you love it—how the EQ is affecting the frequencies, how the dynamics are tightening things up. If you hate it, do the same thing: figure out why. Tools like Alloy and T-RackS allow you to do just that.


iZotope Alloy 2 Essential Mixing Tools

The common consensus on the metering within most DAWs is that it leaves much to be desired. The same goes for stock plug-ins: some are loved, but most are commonly reviled. These plug-ins, however, are vouched for.

5. Stuff You Already Own

You’re not going to find any links to gear pieces or landing pages here, because chances are you already own a ton of stuff you didn’t know you could use. Case in point—room treatment: bookshelves make excellent diffusers, as the porously-paged books lining them differ randomly in width, length, and height. Those extra carpets you’ve got lying around—why not line every inch of the floor with them? You can get quite creative with this. When I was a wee lad, I stacked all my unused clothing in the corners because I couldn’t afford bass traps. Were they a perfect solution? No! Of course not! But they did reduce unwanted bass-bloom enough to allow me to judge what I was hearing.

Besides your own two ears, the best thing you already own is your entire music collection. The tunes you know are the most important tools in furthering your workflow. How? They become your references: if you need your snare to sound like Dave Grohl’s, then you should probably slap on Nevermind or In Utero and tweak your snare till it competes. They can become your samples, if need be (be careful though—copyrights and all that). You can also test all sorts of things with the music you know: headphones, monitors, and even room treatment. Put on your favorite record. Does it sound like it did when you were a kid? No? Then you know you’ve got more work to do on your room. Conversely, listen to your favorite record through a new pair of monitors. Can you hear more details than you ever remembered? Then maybe those new speakers will provide a useful perspective.


So there you have it—our five basic kinds of tool every budding engineer should keep in the box. Keep in mind, these are just our ideas. Surely you must have some of your own. If your schedule permits you the time to write us a comment, below, we’d love to read it!