Recording Studio Gear Recommendations
What Makes Good Gear Good?
The principles of economics demand a large quality and utility range of products, from great to absolute junk. When looking for gear to be the backbone of a studio, the goal is to find something that works in most situations. That’s the main difference between a $3000 Neuman U87 and a $400 Oktava MK-319—the former is for almost any application, the latter colors the incoming audio to sound either amazing or not, depending on what you do with it. Fortunately, most brands have affordable options for most types of gear. A popular saying is if you can’t make a pro-sounding record with good, budget gear, it’s an issue of skill.
Purchasing equipment new has the distinct benefit of a warranty/increased manufacturer support. However, most home studios begin with used equipment, especially when it comes to high-end gear. For example, it’s no unheard of to get a U87 for $1,500 used (about half the cost of a new one).
So What Should I Get?
Here are a few budget-friendly suggestions for each category of gear and a glimpse at what the pros use. When buying gear, make sure it’s not too worn from use or
The easiest way to make sure you aren’t buying junk is to stick to reputable brands. Each brand is known for different strengths, and those can change often. In alphabetical order, some brands to know are:
Akai Professional, AKG, Alesis, Allen & Heath, Aphex, ART, Atlas, Audio-Technica, Audix, Avid, Behringer, Beyerdynamic, Blue Microphones, Bose Professional, CAD, Countryman, Crown, DBX, DigiTech, DPA, Earthworks, Electro-Voice, Focusrite, Furman, Gator, Hosa, JBL Professional, Lauten Audio, Lectrosonics, Lexicon, Line 6, M-Audio, Mackie, Marshall, Martin, Midas, Middle Atlantic Products, Mogami, MOTU, MXL, Neumann, Neutrik, On-Stage Stands, Pelican, PreSonus, QSC, Radial Engineering, Rode, Roland, Rolls, Samson, Schoeps, sE Electronics, Sennheiser, Shure, Soundcraft, Studio Projects, TASCAM, Ultimate Ears, Ultimate Support, Universal Audio, and Whirlwind.
These brands don’t include plug-in and instrument makers, only gear and accessories. Some are more elite and pricey than others. These brands (and many boutique brands not listed here) can usually be trusted to provide an acceptable level of quality and support.
It’s important to differentiate between consumer-grade and professional-grade. A product built for a consumer is usually not high enough quality for a professional. This is why some of the brands listed above contain the word “professional” after the main brand name; most of the larger companies have consumer divisions that largely don’t provide acceptable studio gear. This is especially true when it comes to microphones, computers, and speakers.
Though it’s hardly a concern for an absolute beginner, the quality of preamplifier in each of the input channels of an interface is something professionals usually worry about. They usually go for either a completely clean preamp that will give them maximum gain with minimum noise, or a preamp that colors the sound favorably (usually adding warmth, especially with tube preamps).
Focusrite: The most popular interface brand at the moment. As such, their interfaces are a little more expensive than some other comparable brands. Still, the fame is deserved, with solid options that start with the Scarlet Solo (<$100).
Behringer: This company has the stigma of providing some of the least-expensive options that can still be considered professional. As far as mixers and interfaces go, that’s beginning to change with the purchase of MIDAS—a company that is among the cream of the crop. Now, you can get MIDAS preamps at Behringer prices, starting with the UMC22. They’re also the only pro brand I know of that offers four mic inputs for $99 (edit: they raised the price by $50, it was that good of a deal).
Top: Neumann U87, Telefunken U47, Neumann U47 FET, Blue Kiwi. LDCs tend to be more expensive than dynamics. For example, you can pay >$3,000 for a U87 (up to $10k for the most-expensive new LDC), but a Sennheiser MD 441U is around $900 (the most expensive new dynamic at the time of this writing).
When you purchase SDCs, try to buy them in pairs, since their most common use is to record in stereo configurations. Usually, when purchased in a pair, both mics are also certified to match each other. It’s good to note that small diaphragms don’t necessarily have a lower bass response than large ones (which is one reason why the AT2020 very successfully gets away with having a small diaphragm).
The Mic: Shure SM57/58. These mics are the undisputed champions of the $100 dynamic world. There are other options that are comparable, and may even be superior in some situations, like the Sennheiser e609 for the SM57 and the e835 for the SM58. If you’re going for looks, the Shure 55 is as classic as they come.
Kick Drum/Bass Mics:
Lavalier and Wireless Mics:
Lav mics aren’t usually used in the recording studio, but they are essential for some applications. The Rode SmartLav+ is a great choice for recording mono audio away from the studio. Countryman is the go-to brand for reliable, professional head-worn mics (make sure to match it with your brand of body pack).
Even budget-friendly wireless systems are $300-500 for a single mic and receiver. Due to the high cost of pro wireless gear, there are many sub-pro brands that should be avoided. Shure, Audio-Technica, and Sennheiser are the most popular brands. For critical applications, Shure has their Axient line that competes with the champion of wireless, Lectrosonics. Be wary of purchasing used systems, as the FCC’s continued restriction of bandwidth for wireless audio use has rendered many older systems illegal to use (currently, anything form 600-806MHz is illegal). This free tool at Shure is a great place to go to make sure your system will work in your location.
Even if your space is such that monitors are a good idea, headphones are still essential for monitoring while recording, and are usually good for checking the stereo image and bass level of a final mix.
There are two types of headphone frequency response; in the studio we want it to be flat (no frequencies are over-emphasized). This is completely different than with consumer headphones, which generally have a larger-than-life low end and often a hyped high end. The budget headphones (sub $40) below aren’t as flat as real studio headphones, but they work well enough for students just starting out.
Budget: Sennheiser HD 201/202 can usually be found used for about $20 and have a better build quality than any other headphone at that price point I’ve seen (replaced by the HD206, as noted earlier). There are also many $50 headphones available, but at that point, it’s probably better to go to the next level.
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro. These are a step above the previous list in just about every way, which is why they cost twice as much. They are by far the most comfortable, especially if you mix for hours at a time. Make sure the impedance matches your equipment since there are different versions; the higher the impedance, the better they sound, but the better your preamp needs to be to use them. The preamp in an iPhone is vastly different than in a pro audio interface. Generally, if the interface has a power adapter instead of being bus-powered, it should be able to handle at least 250 Ohm headphones and still be loud enough.
There are many price points between the above Standards and the top headphones. Also, Waves offers a headphone tracker and audio plug-in to simulate actual studio monitors (even surround setups) with any studio headphones. As with preamps in interfaces, pro studios often care about the quality of headphone amplifiers. At the budget level, mic preamps are more about splitting the signal than quality.
The three types of studio headphones each have separate advantages and disadvantages.
Closed Back: Best for recording tracks. Has the best acoustic isolation from the rest of the room, minimizing bleed into microphones, even at high volumes.
Open: Best for mixing and mastering. Has the best spatial reference, allowing you to check the stereo image and things like reverb more effectively. They also have the worst isolation, which could cause bleed into nearby mics, but allow you to hear what’s going on in your immediate vicinity a little better.
Semi-Closed: A mix of decent spatial reference and decent isolation.
Monitors have an incredible amount of variation. Fortunately, all studio reference monitors are an attempt at the same goal of unaltered, clear audio. As with other gear, you can spend $100-300 on a pair of monitors and get a pretty good sound that should translate to a final mix fairly well; that being said, the top-quality monitors still sound more clear, have a flatter response, and could help you even more to get a good mix. The best thing to do is to head to a music store and audition speakers until you find the pair that sounds the best while meeting your budget. Play some songs you know well on the speakers and pick the pair that makes the songs sound the best (low, mid and high frequencies are all well-balanced, with nothing sticking out).
A few things to consider: frequency response tells you how high and low the speakers reproduce audio. Generally, if you’re in a small room, you won’t be able to cope with really low frequencies anyway; you’ll do your best with the monitors, then check the low end on headphones. If your room is properly treated, then you’ll want the bass to extend as low as possible (perhaps even adding a subwoofer).
Regular monitors are placed the same width from each other as they are from the engineer. pointed at the back of the engineer’s head. If this distance won’t work, near-field monitors are placed closer to the listener.
Some popular options:
A personal favorite of mine in the PreSonus R-series. It’s an example of how a brand’s quality changes over time. PreSonus partnered with Fulcrum Acoustics and now their studio speakers are vastly different.
Note: the above links are mostly 5″ speakers. This is a good size for a small room. Large rooms can handle more low end, so 8″ is usually the way to go. 3″ monitors are available if you’re really on a budget.
What computer you need is determined by how you are going to produce.
Recording Audio: This task doesn’t take a lot of processing power. Even a cell phone can handle multi-track recording. Portable recorders can do it all without a computer. If this is your only task, you’d be covered with almost any decent computer.
Mixing/Mastering: This takes much more processing
Virtual Instruments: This is where the sky becomes the limit, especially in terms of RAM usage. If you use quality sound libraries and want them all to be ready to play at all times, you may need a few computers, all with multiple processors and maxed out RAM. It’s not unusual for a single instrument to take several GB of RAM, so having a system with 64 or 128GB of RAM is a possibility. Beginners definitely don’t need a lot to start out with. Using proper session management, 16GB is usually enough to get your feet wet.
Other Notes: Computers are just like other gear—there are consumer and professional quality designs. Most consumer computers are intentionally bottlenecked by either the hard drive, CPU or RAM. They also usually have a lower
A couple professional lines are Mac Pros (of course), the Dell Precision Series, and the Lenovo Thinkstation. Just to give you an idea, the top Thinkstation as of June 2017 can handle 2x 22-core CPUs and 1.54 TB of RAM; even the D20 from 2011 can handle 2x 6-core CPUs and 96 GB of RAM. Consumer computers usually go up to 32 GB of RAM and a single CPU (usually 4 cores). Some companies are beginning to design computers specifically designed for media creation. A typical, orchestral film composer with the latest libraries may run 2-3 computers, each with 32-64 GB of RAM and either single or dual, 4 to 8-core CPU(s). Here’s a real-world example where composer Sean Jackson goes into detail about all the tools he uses to create music.
Each DAW is resource-optimised to different degrees. The general consensus is that ProTools and many of the most popular DAWs are resource-heavy. Reaper is seen as one of the lightest. Software requirement pages are not clear enough to know if your computer will be good enough; most simply say i5, i7 or Xeon for a processor, when there are CPUs in each of those series that won’t come close to good enough. For many, many years, the i7 3770K has been recommended for audio production; it’s a 2012 CPU that is still plenty fast. An effective way to know if a processor you own or are considering will be fast enough is to go to this page and compare it to the 3770K. For example, a quick comparison of current (June 2017) BestBuy PCs shows that one i7 from 2016 is better than the 3770K (2012), while an i7 in the same series from 2017 doesn’t come close. That being said, the 4770K and 7700K are improvements.
If you don’t have a solid-state drive, get one. It’s probably the best upgrade you can make.
A computer I would trust to run a home recording studio in 2017 would have these specs:
Any processor with a score of at least 8,000 on CPUMark, preferably above 9,500 (link). If using an AMD or overclocking any processor, make sure cooling is adequate. Xeons are the most reliable.
8GB of RAM for recording, 16-32GB of RAM for composing with virtual instruments. RAM speed isn’t particularly important for hosting sample libraries.
Any solid-state hard drive for the operating system and programs. Other
If you’re working with video, a graphics card with at least a score of 1650 on the G3D Mark test (link). If not working with video, then any card with a score of 450 or above. Video rendering requires much more.
A case with silent or near silent fans. Almost any case can be made silent by using quiet hard drives (an SSD is silent) and quiet fans.
Inexpensive, used Dell T-series, HP Z-series, or Lenovo E/S/D-series workstations are readily available on eBay. Laptops often have mobile, low-voltage processors, so double check their CPU scores. My computer isn’t exceptionally
The size of keyboard is usually determined by the size of the desk. Standard configurations go from 25 to 88 keys, with varying quantities of wheels, faders, knobs and pads. If you’re a pianist, you probably want a keyboard-only controller with weighted keys and maybe mod and expression wheel. For non-pianists who do a lot of production, something that’s weighted more like a synth and has plenty of additional controls may make more sense.
As you can see in the above image, keys aren’t the only MIDI controllers. We’ll go into this in depth in another section, but a good place to start for other controllers is the Korg nanoKONTROL2 for adding 8 faders for cheap, and the PreSonus Faderport for adding a single fader with track and transport controls (solo, mute, play, pause, rec, etc . . .).
Free and cheap, app-based controllers are also available via app stores. If you have a tablet and WIFI, you can probably make a great controller for almost nothing. This is especially useful if you are recording yourself, since it acts as a DAW remote.
Mic Stands and Mounts:
Poor-quality stands can lead to broken mics. If you’re just starting out and are careful, there are plenty of $15-20 stands out there. A nice, heavy-duty stand is at least $50. My favorite brand is K&M, but the On-Stage Stands MS9701TB+ is basically the same stand for less money. For straight stands, Atlas makes a heavy one for around $40. Ultimate Support and On-Stage have the most popular overhead stands (when you need to get really high).
Shock mounts do a good job of reducing handling and floor noise; they’re especially important when using condenser microphones. Usually, condenser mics come with custom-fit mounts.
A stereo bar is also handy for making it easier to record a stereo image with two small-diaphragm condensers.
Neutrik is the standard for audio connectors, next to Soundcraft. Cheap audio cables just aren’t worth the hassle. Some solid brands are ProCo, Mogami, and Hosa (very affordable adapters/random cable types). The Monoprice Premier line is the best Chinese cable I’ve found so far (cheapest high-quality XLR).
It takes an army of cables to wire up a studio. The most common ones are XLR, 1/4″ TS and TRS, 1/8″ TRS, RCA, banana plug, and adapters.
DIY Acoustic Panels
Most panels are made out of either Owens-Corning 703 or mineral wool of twice the thickness (usually 2-4″ of rigid fiberglass or 3.5-8″ of mineral wool). These panels work great for lowering the overall acoustic energy in the room since they are effective across a very wide range of frequencies.
Essentially, you create them by putting the insulation in a wooden frame, then covering it with acoustically transparent fabric. There are plenty of tutorials readily available online for simple panel creation, like this one. One of the simplest and least expensive designs is made of cheap 1×4’s for the frame, then filled with Roxul Safe ‘n’ Sound mineral wool. A 2’x4’x3-1/2″ panel can be done for about $13.
Any fabric you can easily breathe through will work from a sound perspective, but it’s important to pay attention to flammability as well. If you’re using fiberglass for the filling, you will also want to have some sort of membrane that lets air through but not glass fibers. The most popular pro studio fabric is from Guildford of Maine; it’s comparatively expensive but well worth it for serious studios.