When considering a new gear purchase, it’s easy to get caught up in extravagant equipment and overlook things that would ease the pain of daily audio life. There are routine processes that can be simplified, common problems that can be more quickly solved, and significant sonic improvements that can be made if you have the right tools. I’d like to share six audio tools that can easily become irreplaceable pieces in your arsenal. Manufacturers such as Audioengine, dbx, Galaxy Audio, Little Labs, Phonic, Pyle Pro, Radial, Sonarworks, and Waves make options well worth your consideration.
Tool #1: Cable Tester
When signal-flow problems occur, cast a suspicious eye on cables. Wiring issues can cause signal to be distorted, low in level, inverted in polarity, or completely gone. Rather than swapping out a bunch of cables to see if the problems vanish, your time would be more efficiently used testing cables to see if they need to be replaced. Also, it’s wise to test cables before using them or installing them in areas that will be difficult to access. Add a cable tester to your toolbox and never go to a gig without it.
The dbx CT-3 allows you to test 11 different cable types—XLR 3-pin, MIDI 5-pin, RCA, BNC, DMX 5-pin, Banana, RJ11, RJ45, 4-pole speakON, 3.5mm, and 1/4" TRS/TS. It is battery powered and has a tone generator with adjustable level as a sweet bonus.
The Pyle Pro PCT60 packs 14 connector types into a sturdy housing. It supports XLR 3-pin and 5-pin, DIN with 3, 4, 5, 7, or 8 pins, RCA, BNC, Banana, RJ45, speakON 4-pole and 8-pole, 1/4" TRS/TS, 3.5mm, TT (Bantam), USB Type-A and USB Type-B ports. It also has a tone generator and is supplied with batteries.
Tool #2: Polarity Checker
In addition to issues with cables, there can be signal presence and polarity problems with microphones, speakers, and wireless systems. The Galaxy Audio CPTS Cricket is a battery-powered polarity and continuity checker with separate send and receive modules, allowing it to be used at each end of long-distance signal lines. It features an internal mic for speaker testing, an internal speaker for mic testing, and an audio pulse generator. It can drive snakes and speaker cabinets and has simple green and red LEDs to indicate positive or negative polarity.
Tool #3: Audio Analyzer
Beyond checking basic signal continuity and device polarity, you may need to test for frequency response characteristics, SPL values, phase correlation, reverb time, and more if you are analyzing a room or piece of equipment for issues or deficiencies. When it comes to such complicated matters, a portable audio analyzer is just the thing to put on your “Must Get” list.
The Phonic PAA3X is a handheld model with a built-in detachable condenser measurement microphone and backlit color LCD screen. Its powerful essential functions include 31-/61-band spectral analysis (RTA) with 31-/61-band EQ setting display, RT60 (reverb time) measurement, and SPL metering up to 130 dB. It also provides line signal analyzation in dBu, dBV, or Volts via a balanced XLR, a phase check, a signal generator capable of producing pink noise, sine/sweep waves, and polarity test signal types, and instant snapshots to the supplied SD card. It can be powered via a rechargeable li-ion battery or an AC adapter (both included).
The Phonic PAA6 expands the capabilities of the PAA3 by adding more functions, two-channel operation, a color LCD touchscreen with touch pen, two balanced XLR inputs, and two built-in condenser measurement mics, which can be placed in six different positions. Additional functions include 61-band RTA, FFT, THD+N, LEQ, oscilloscope, and a versatile signal generator with more signal types. It can be powered via the supplied AC adapter or the internal Li-ion battery and supports stand mounting. Bonuses include an audio text signal CD and data import/export via USB or SD card.
Tool #4: Speaker/Headphone Calibration Software
If you work with audio, you’re constantly listening through speakers and/or headphones. Listening through speakers involves two accuracy-compromising factors—speaker frequency response and room characteristics. Listening through headphones introduces frequency response variables and problems in proper translation to speakers. There are software programs and plug-ins designed to compensate for these issues and improve the accuracy of your monitoring in a major way.
Sonarworks Reference 4 Studio Edition includes software for calibrating speakers and headphones and can be used in or out of a DAW. It features guided step-by-step processes designed for ease of use. The speaker calibration software requires a measurement microphone (omnidirectional condenser included) to analyze the frequency response of your monitors in your room, then creates a new response curve that results in a flat, accurate sound based upon your personal setup. It also offers mono monitoring and selectable presets to mimic other speakers. The headphone calibration software automatically adjusts the output frequency response based upon the selected model of headphones. Its Simulation mode allows simulation of speakers or different headphones through your own.
Waves Nx is a plug-in offering simulation of physical room acoustics through headphones. It’s all about room simulation rather than frequency calibration. With adjustable room ambience, speaker positioning, head modeling, and head tracking, it can make mixing on headphones seem like mixing on monitors in a room. Surround monitoring in 5.0 or 5.1 is also provided.
Tool #5: Phase Adjuster
If your recording or mixing situations involve multi-miked instruments or configurations with direct boxes and microphones, you’re dealing with important phase relationships. Negative phase interactions often lead to frequency cancellations that create undesirable “hollow” sound quality. Since phase is frequency dependent, tweaking it is best done in a frequency-adjustable way. Some brilliant people have created devices for exactly that objective.
The Little Labs IBP is a single-channel analog phase adjustment tool compatible with unbalanced instrument and balanced line signals. It offers polarity inversion, up to 180° of phase sweep with a selectable sweep range, and low- or high-frequency phase center.
The Radial Engineering Phazer is another single-channel analog phase adjustment tool. Like the IBP, it works with unbalanced instrument and balanced line signals. It provides polarity inversion, up to 180° of phase shift, and a selectable low-pass filter with two range positions and variable cut-off frequency.
Tool #6: Bluetooth Interface
Most people use their mobile devices to play music for enjoyment, professional reference, presentations, or performances. Rather than connecting awkward wired adapters to get your mobile device’s audio output to a PA, studio monitors, or DAW, use a Bluetooth receiver and maintain wireless convenience.
The Radial BT-PRO accepts Bluetooth signals up to 40' away and converts them to a stereo balanced line level output on XLR jacks. It also features a 3.5mm headphone output and powering via USB or external 5V power supply.
The 2019 version of the Audioengine B1 utilizes Bluetooth 5.0 for up to 100' of operational range. It outputs signal to a TOSLINK optical port and RCA jacks. The B1 features aptX HD support and 24-bit upsampling for enhanced audio quality.
Though they may not be flashy, these tools will have you thinking, “I didn’t realize how rough life was without these. I’m never going back to my old life!” Check them out and feel welcome to share must-have tools that you rely on.