While we at SOS all like to try out and write about the latest and greatest gadgets, we're also conscious that some people have very tight budgets. One of the more common questions we get asked is about how to make good quality recordings without spending a fortune on gear. Fortunately, the vast majority of recording equipment available today is capable of producing extremely good results, and by paying less, you tend to lose out more on features than on quality. Clearly, high-end gear does sound better, but I'm always amazed by what can be achieved with the cheaper stuff. Many of my early four-track analogue recordings sounded fine, even though I was recording a whole band with a full drum kit — and back then there were no affordable capacitor mics, so we used the same dynamic mics we used for gigging.
Nowadays most budget multitrackers offer a minimum of eight tracks, and digital technology has effectively made tape hiss history. Whether you choose hardware or computer software is up to you and depends on your preferred way of working, but there are plenty of options and all can produce great-sounding results in the right hands.
In addition to your multitrack system, you need some sensibly accurate monitor speakers and one or more microphones. You can compare speaker price and performance by looking up reviews on our web site, but with only a few exceptions, most monitors costing over a couple of hundred pounds can be used to handle serious mixing providing you familiarise yourself with them by playing commercial CDs in your studio at every opportunity.
Pretty much the same is true of microphones. As with all gear, you can spend more money and get more quality, but there are very few studio mics out there now that can't produce good results. If you pay £100 upwards for a large-diaphragm capacitor mic, you can expect it to do a more than reasonable job of recording vocals when used with a pop shield and basic acoustic treatment.
The real secret to making good recording without overspending is to spend your financial budget wisely but not to be restrictive with your personal time budget, because you need to build up the experience necessary to use your equipment to its best advantage.
In addition to trying out all the recording techniques you read about, you also need to be aware of the acoustics of your monitoring environment and, where necessary, take steps to improve things in that area. Listen critically to commercial recordings to see how sounds have been chosen and how they fit together, then apply what you have learned to your own recordings. After all, it is no use being able to record perfectly if what you're recording isn't right in the first place. When listening to records, ask yourself what style of vocal reverb they used. Can you hear the effects of compression? Can you hear levels being adjusted to make way for vocals or solos? Start off simply by combining only four or five elements in a mix, and whenever you get the urge to add something new, make yourself justify its place in the piece of music rather than simply adding more because you can.
There's so much to learn that the only sane way to start is by keeping your projects as simple as possible and then adding complexity as and when your experience can handle it. As you've probably guessed all along, choosing the right gear is only part of the story — you will always be the most critical part of your recording system.
Paul White Editor In Chief