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50 Smart Studio Buys

Improve Your Setup Without Breaking The Bank By Various
Published February 2009

Even if you're tightening your belt, you can still upgrade and improve your studio and methods — you just need to be a bit more crafty about how you spend your cash...

No‑one wants to spend more than they have to at any time, so ideas that can help you improve your studio on less cash are always welcome. Given all the recent media attention on the 'credit crunch', many of us are probably even more focused on value for money than usual when it comes to gear. So we thought it would be a good time to ask Sound On Sound writers to name the inexpensive items they've bought that have turned out to be great investments. Whether that means gear that has performed exceptionally well for the price, saved money, or improved the studio environment much more than its cost would suggest, our authors were brimming with ideas. We've divided their tips into categories ranging from 'Small Change' upwards, so whatever your budget, there'll be something here to appeal to you!

Pocket MoneySmall Change

  • K&M 238 Stand Clamp & 237 Table Clamp (around £15/12$15‑20):

www.k‑ These two nifty little gizmos can transform practically any bit of furniture into a mic stand, and have bailed me out on numerous occasions where mic stands have been in short supply. (They're the key to using the Maplin lighting stand mentioned later as a multi‑mic stand too.) Another application for them is when you want to set up a stereo mic rig, for an M&S, ORTF or spaced‑pair setup, on a single stand for ease of positioning. They hold nice and tightly, especially if you throw in another few dollars for a cheap pair of locking pliers. The latter saves shredding your fingers on the knurled fasteners as well, if you're using a few of these brackets on the same session. These modestly priced K&M clamps let you turn almost any piece of furniture into a mic stand.These modestly priced K&M clamps let you turn almost any piece of furniture into a mic stand.Mike Senior

  • 8GB USB 2.0 Thumb Drive (under £15under $30).

Invaluable for backup and data transfer, and you can even set it up as a place to record audio (check your software's preferences for where it records files, and change as appropriate). USB thumb drive speeds are very variable, but a fast one may be quick enough to read and write multitrack audio in real time. Craig Anderton

  • Duvet (around £15)Quilt (around $30):

While not the most rigorous of acoustic treatments, the humble polyester‑filled duvetquilt is great for damping down an over‑live room (hang it on the walls or across corners) and for creating a temporary vocal booth. I hear you can also sleep under them! Paul White

  • Tanager Chirp Software ($40): If you're a laptop user, check out this very cool and very cheap software program that turns your QWERTY keyboard into something suitable for playing notes into virtual instruments. Couple it with a low‑latency interface (on the road, I use the CEntrance MicPort) and you can actually do things like play bass notes into Reason. If only they could figure out a way to make computer keyboards velocity‑sensitive… but then I'd ask for aftertouch. A laptop QWERTY keyboard cost-effectively becomes a music-input keyboard with Tanager's Chirp.A laptop QWERTY keyboard cost-effectively becomes a music-input keyboard with Tanager's Chirp.Craig Anderton

  • SuperDuper! Software (£19.97)$27.95:

www.Shirt‑ With eSATA, Firewire 800, Firewire 400 and USB2 connectivity, the Lacie D2 Quadra external hard drive is an essential part of my Mac setup. It's very cheap and quiet, but drives like this are everywhere so instead I'm nominating the SuperDuper! Mac utility. I could set the Lacie up as my Time Machine drive for incremental and automatic backups, but SuperDuper! adds features that make it worth its download price, despite the silly name. With 'Smart Backup', only files that have changed are copied, significantly reducing the time taken for system backups. But the essential difference is that system backups made with this utility are bootable, unlike those made by Time Machine. (Note that Super Duper! can work alongside Time Machine, using the same drive). If your system disk fails during a session, your client will not want to wait for you to restore from Time Machine, so just boot from your SuperDuper! backup and carry on… SuperDuper! makes bootable system backups with the minimum of fuss.SuperDuper! makes bootable system backups with the minimum of fuss.Mike Watkinson

  • Caig De‑oxit Contact Cleaner (around £15$6‑20): You might find that you can resurrect what you thought was faulty equipment by applying a little De‑oxit. It has provided a miracle cure for many a crackling jack plug, and doesn't leave behind the same residue that other contact cleaners can. Matt Houghton

Few things spoil a good recording session as effectively as crackly connectors. I always keep a can of Deoxit D5 to hand to treat guitar jack sockets and dirty jack and XLR pins, and it can even help sort out crackly pots, though it isn't intended for that. It's great on patchbays, computer card edge‑connectors and on battery terminals — just don't spray it into capacitor mics, as it can affect the high‑impedance circuitry. The essential treatment for crackly connectors is Caig's DeOxit, prolonging the useful life of your existing kit.The essential treatment for crackly connectors is Caig's DeOxit, prolonging the useful life of your existing kit.Paul White

  • Studiospares Mic Stands (£12‑21): The price and quality of mic stands can vary significantly. However, I now always buy the own‑brand mic stands from UK studio supplies outlet Studiospares (448‑000 Stand and Tele‑boom and 448‑320 Short Stand and Tele‑boom). Unlike most 'cheap' mic stands, they don't have any plastic parts: they are all‑metal, tough and robust. Mine are often rigged and de‑rigged by non‑professionals and I haven't had one breakage yet, but if you do, they carry a range of spares for their range too. (Note that the short stands can be harder to get, as Studiospares don't seem to carry the same stock level as they do of the normal stands.) Mike Thornton

  • Childrens' Toys (£3‑£12$3‑20):

Even in these cash‑strapped times, I still find it possible to spend money on new stuff for the studio. But I'm not talking about preamps, processors or plug‑ins: my money goes on real instruments! The most recent addition to my studio is a battery‑powered keyboard, which has a saw‑wave synth sound with a medium decay and sounds nothing like a piano. There are 12 keys, each about 7mm wide. I bought it from my local branch of the British homeware store Wilkinson, for a mere £3the equivalent of about $3. Other recent purchases include a kids' xylophone, which cost around $10, and a hammer‑actuated metallophone built into the body of a giant orange plastic frog (its eyes light up and everything!), for $15. In the past, when there has been less money in the kitty to blow on gear, I've resorted to making my own instruments. The most successful of these DIY jobs is a shaker made from an empty tin of hair wax (Dax Red, in case you wondered) filled with green lentils, and finished with some electrical tape to seal it all up. It sounds great — the lentils stick to the residue of the wax inside the tin, making a soft 'shhh' sound. These all add extra flavours to the sonic palette. Admittedly, they take a bit longer to fit into the project than, say, a plug‑in, as you need to set up mics, control spill, and learn to play them well. But they're fun and rewarding to use, and they most certainly sound different to the conventional line‑up of instruments! Cheap toy soundmakers are fun and can be bought on almost any budget.Cheap toy soundmakers are fun and can be bought on almost any budget.Chris Mayes‑Wright

  • Planet Waves SOS Guitar Tuner (under £15under $20): OK, it's not chromatic. But if you're a guitarist, this tiny, cute, put‑it‑in‑your‑guitar‑case tuner uses an LED strobe system to simplify tuning and is extremely inexpensive. Craig Anderton

  • Recorder (£10‑£50$4‑50):

You probably played one of these at school and have since dismissed them as only suitable for kids or medieval noodling, yet these inexpensive wind instruments are easy to master and, especially in their treble and tenor manifestations, able to produce tones that, with a bit of echo and other processing, can easily pass for flutes, duduks and all other manner of world-music exotica. My favourite trick is using a harmoniser plug‑in to simulate Jon Hassell‑like breathy solos. Real instruments often add that 'certain something' to a track, and the recorder is easy enough to learn to play that you can make it sound very presentable really quickly. Stephen Bennett

  • Two‑way Wired Intercom (£12.99around $30):

This is a very neat little problem‑solver for simple talkback functionality when doing location recording on a budget. The two small stations are joined with a simple 20m TS mini‑jack cable, which can pretty easily be replugged, extended or converted to meet your particular needs. The system will happily run from a 9V PP3 battery and goes loud enough to deal with most typical applications. There's also a connector on the master unit for an optional 9V DC power supply if you don't want to keep shelling out for batteries. (I got mine from, code BZ61R.) Mike Senior

  • McVitie's Hob‑nobs:

This superior biscuit is one of the cheapest additions to any studio and makes the recording and mixing experience go much more smoothly. You can even use them as bait to tempt experienced acousticians and recording experts along to your studio. McVitie's HobNobs make every session run more smoothly!McVitie's HobNobs make every session run more smoothly!Matt Houghton

  • Dubreq Stylophone (around £15$20): A few readers may be old enough to remember the original Dubreq Stylophone, a miniature electronic organ famously used by Rolf Harris, but also by artists such as David Bowie and Kraftwerk. It was a simple device, offering little more than a flat metal pad with keys etched into it, a pen‑shaped stylus connected to the circuit by a wire, and a built‑in speaker. Playing it was merely a matter of touching the pen nib on the pad, sliding it across the keys, and selecting vibrato as and when required. In late 2007, the Stylophone was re‑released by toy makers Re:creation in partnership with Dubreq Ltd, and distributed via the Web and toy shops. The new version is a pretty faithful reproduction of the original, although it does add an input for jamming to MP3s and two extra tonal variations of the classic drone. I'm sure there are plug‑ins that emulate the Stylophone, and sample libraries offering some of its sounds, but much of its appeal is in the way the pen interacts with the pad, and the sound of the gritty little speaker on top. I bought mine in a toy store for the equivalent of $20, which seemed like great value for a classic — so much so that I have gone on to buy them as gifts for other people. Tom Flint

  • Large Flexi Tubs (around £5under $5):

These circular tubs I found at the UK's B&Q DIY store are made of a stiff rubber material that's very tough, and they have handles on the edges for carting them around with. Because of their shape, they're great for holding coiled cables (especially heavy looms), and their flexibility makes it easy to cram them into the car when you're working on location. Various colours are available, which you may also find useful if you want to keep different types of cable separate from each other. Mike Senior

  • Intelli IMT500 Clip‑on Tuner (£20$20‑40; check retailer web sites):

This little device straps onto your guitar's headstock and obtains the pitch via vibrations along the guitar's neck. One of the most common criticisms of home recordings is that the tuning is wayward, so anything that allows you to easily and quickly make sure you're on the beam is a welcome addition to any studio — and if you have an acoustic 12‑string, I think it's an essential one too! This Intelli tuner is incredibly convenient and costs next to nothing.This Intelli tuner is incredibly convenient and costs next to nothing.Stephen Bennett

  • Ikea Broder Shelving Fitments (under £5 per fitmentaround $3 or less per fitment): If you want multi‑purpose shelving anywhere in your house, Ikea's impressively heavy‑duty Broder system is certainly worth looking at. However, one studio‑specific benefit of it is that the angled Front Tilt Bracket can make a normal shelf board into a great little keyboard stand, allowing you potentially to mount two or three keyboards one above the other on a single wall, while still being able to access them all. The Front Edging fits to the shelf to stop the keyboard sliding off the front of it. (I've also got my eye on the Broder bike fixings as potential guitar holders, but I've not tried those yet...) Mike Senior

  • Orchestral Music Stand:

Music stands might seem pretty dull, but my Thomann bargain ( is more useful than you might suspect. Use it for holding lyrics when you're singing, or to help keep paper manuals off precious desk space when working with a new plug‑in. But its greatest coup comes when you're playing live, where it serves as a perfect and sturdy stand for a laptop computer. It even has holes in the base to keep cables neatly routed to the floor! In the USA, check out the Stagg Orchestral music stand ( in black metal with circular perforations, at around $20‑25. Is it an orchestral music stand, or is it the perfect supporting act for a laptop on stage? Amazingly, it's both — and for pocket money.Is it an orchestral music stand, or is it the perfect supporting act for a laptop on stage? Amazingly, it's both — and for pocket money.Stephen Bennett

Under £100 Under $150

  • Line 6 Toneport UX1 Audio Interface (around £65around $90): Like most guitar players, getting good guitar tones into my recordings is something of an obsession for me. While there are now lots of manufacturers that offer suitable products, I was hooked by the original Line 6 POD and I've been more than happy to stick with the brand ever since. While I'm currently using a POD X3 for my own needs, I recently bought a Toneport UX1 for my 10-year-old son's hand‑me‑down PC system. This very neat little USB audio interface offers mic, instrument and line inputs as well stereo line and headphone outputs. While the audio quality is actually very good, the thing that shouts 'bargain!' loudest is the bundled software: GearBox, with its combination of 16 amp/cabinet models, mic preamp modelling and a collection of guitar and studio effects, is fabulous. The Toneport UX1 can transform a humble computer into a wonderful world of guitar amps and, via the included 'lite' version of Ableton Live, you also get a recording studio thrown in. For guitarists looking to make their first steps in computer‑based recording, or seeking a portable interface for use with a laptop, the UX1 is an absolute steal. Oh, and it's also very inspiring for 10‑year‑old guitar beginners! John Walden

  • Soldering Setup (around £30around $40):

If you're not careful, you can get fleeced on cable purchases and still end up with cables that are too short or miles too long. My advice is to pick up a soldering iron, stand, desk clamp and some solder. If you're not sure what to do with them, search Google or YouTube for instruction and mess about on an old cable. When you're confident, you can slash cabling costs, make precisely the type and length you want, and repair that pile of broken leads that would otherwise end up in the bin. Paul White

  • Raw Material PPMulator+ Plug‑in (£49.99 download): This is an amazing metering plug‑in from the people who bought you Mackie's Tracktion DAW. PPMulator+ can be used to meter inputs, outputs, or your whole mix, in a range of industry‑standard formats, and in mono, stereo, surround, and even M/S. The resizeable window can be set to needle or bar‑graph display, and everything is customisable, from ballistics and reference levels to channel labels and colours. If you do TV work, and you know what "IEC 269‑10 Type IIa BBC PPMs with M3 or M6 summing” means, you've either already spent a vast amount on hardware metering, or you need this plug‑in. Simon Price

  • EMO 445 Cable Tester (around £78): Finding cable faults is a real pain if you don't have a cable tester. You can get by with a meter, but a dedicated tester is best for finding intermittent faults, as you can waggle the cable around while watching the lights. I like the simplicity of this EMO Cable Tester, and it can also be used as a junction box to convert one connector type to another. It can test jacks, XLRs, phonos and fuses. In the USA, check out the Whirlwind Audio Tester ( at under $80. Paul White Golden Age R2 Ribbon Mic (£79). See 'Under £200' section for details.

  • Griffin PowerMate (around £30$40): As I do a lot of work on a laptop, often on the move, I am a key commands addict with an aversion to using a mouse. As an alternative, the PowerMate from Griffin is a rotary hardware controller ('knob', if you like) that can have up to six actions (rotation, clicking and combinations) assigned to any action in any application that has a key command. So you can shuttle backwards and forwards through a project, zoom, scrub audio, browse a playlist, and mute the system volume when the phone rings. You can even use it as power button for your desktop machine (Mac Pros can be fiddly to turn on if you have them locked in a soundproof cupboard!). You can't yet control faders in the mixer, or have it take control of whatever your mouse is focused on (like Novation's Nocturn), but for around £25$35 you do get brushed aluminum with a funky blue glow around the base… Griffin's PowerMate is a sleek and substantial rotary knob that can be assigned to control a surprising variety of actions and parameters in your music software, making life easier for very little outlay.Griffin's PowerMate is a sleek and substantial rotary knob that can be assigned to control a surprising variety of actions and parameters in your music software, making life easier for very little outlay.Mike Watkinson

  • Lighting Stand with T‑bar and side bars (around £40around $85):

I was looking for a large mic stand for a choir‑recording job I was asked to do recently, and remembered that SOS Editor In Chief Paul White recommends using a lighting stand instead. There are two good things about the one I got from (code PD78K). Firstly, the tubes are hollow and you can easily prise off the plastic end stops, so you can mount thinner extension bars (or orphaned mic‑stand boom arms) inside. Secondly, the side‑bars can be swivelled at any angle in relation to the T‑bar, which gives you a lot of flexibility — for example, I've set up a Decca Tree mic configuration on a single stand. It's also able to reach where normal stands won't go high enough and, in conjunction with a few blankets and duvets, makes a remarkably flexible gobo. Mike Senior

  • Audio Technica AT2020 Microphone (around £60‑70around $70‑100):‑ This inexpensive back‑electret recording mic has proven itself capable of delivering high‑quality results on both male and female singers, and I've also used it on acoustic guitar and violin. It looks the part too. If the mic is just for your own use, try out as many as you can to find what suits you best, but if you need a mic that can cope with a number of vocalists and also double as an instrument mic, the AT2020 is a real bargain. One of the best budget recording mics on the market, the AT2020 is capable of delivering results that bely its modest cost.One of the best budget recording mics on the market, the AT2020 is capable of delivering results that bely its modest cost.Paul White

  • Rockwool:

Many people avoid spending money on acoustic treatment in home studios because it doesn't actually give them any new sounds. In fact, spending a few tens of dollars on slabs of Rockwool (better known as mineral wool in the USA), covering them in breathable fabric that lets the air in, and straddling them across the corners of your studio will make all your existing gear sound more expensive, by damping down the peaks and troughs of your room's frequency response. Suddenly those budget monitor speakers sound better, but audio recordings of your voice and acoustic instruments will benefit most of all. You can generally buy Rockwool from builders' merchants, and the most suitable density is 45kg/m3 to 60kg/m3. Martin Walker

  • Novation Nocturn Control Surface (around £80under $150): Novation's baby plug‑in controller might be seriously affordable, but it does the job as well as anything else out there, and sometimes better. The company's innovative Automap 2.0 technology lets you map plug‑in parameters to the Nocturn's knobs in any order you like, across as many pages as you need. Your map is remembered for every instance of the same plug‑in. A "Head‑up Display” window shows you what the Nocturn is controlling from one moment to the next. I use the Nocturn to control the channel EQ and dynamics in Pro Tools in preference to my considerably more expensive mix surface. Novation's baby Nocturn controller surprised us with its sophisticated functionality.Novation's baby Nocturn controller surprised us with its sophisticated functionality.Simon Price

  • Rycote Invision Shockmounts (around £40 eacharound $70 each): They're shockmounts. They're very good. They're inexpensive. What more can I say? Shockmounts from the Rycote Invision range, like this one, are effective, reasonably priced and virtually indestructible.Shockmounts from the Rycote Invision range, like this one, are effective, reasonably priced and virtually indestructible.Matt Houghton

  • Epiphone Valve Junior Guitar Amp (£80‑100around $149): While the current crop of guitar‑amp simulators can generate some pretty amazing tones, sometimes there's just no substitute for moving a lot of air using a cranked‑up tube amp. This baby has only two controls. One is labelled 'Volume', and seems to consist of two settings (dead quiet or really, really loud), while another is referred to as 'EQ'. But stick it in another room or a cupboard, feed it a signal from your interface and turn it right up and you'd swear you had a stack of Marshalls on hand. Couple this with a burgeoning on‑line community of modders and you have an inexpensive way of adding something special and individual to your recordings. Stephen Bennett

  • Chameleon Acoustic Frames ($34.99 each):‑acoustic‑frame. I recently decided to fit out my new studio room with a dozen 60 x 120cm bass traps, and opted to build my own (using fabric‑covered Knauf Rock Silk slabs), to save money. I'd resigned myself to achieving Heath Robinson results (as befit my DIY talents), so was delighted to discover Chameleon Acoustic Frames, which allowed me to put together 12 very smart‑looking four‑inch‑thick traps for less than it would have cost me to buy just two fully assembled commercial equivalent traps (including all the materials, as well as international shipping costs and UK import duty on the frames)! What's more, the frames were easy to put together: it took two of us only about six hours to assemble all 12 traps, fix chains to them, and hang them up. (Price not including carriage and duty.) Mike Senior

  • Massey L2007 Plug‑in ($89): For cost‑effective plug‑ins, you'd be hard pressed to find better than Steven Massey's range. The one I use the most is his L2007 Mastering Limiter. There's nothing to touch it when you consider the $89 price. Here's what I said in my review August 2006 review. "This plug‑in has got to be the star of the show; when you consider its price, it is truly amazing...” Enough said! Mike Thornton

  • Behringer FCA202 Audio Interface (around £65around $100): I've been searching for an inexpensive Firewire-based interface for use on stage. Behringer's baby is small enough to fit into my laptop bag, sturdy enough to survive life on the road, and cheap enough for me not to have a heart attack if some keen fan runs off with it — and it has a Kensington lock port, so you can probably even prevent that happening! Powered from the laptop, the quality of output is enough to please any front‑of‑house engineer and its low latency makes virtual instruments eminently playable. It's also pretty good in the studio for an extra couple of reasonable line‑level inputs to your DAW — though you will need an external preamp, as there are no mic inputs. Stephen Bennett

  • Cockos Reaper Software ($50 non‑commercial/$225 commercial, download): This fully functioning sequencing platform keeps expanding its feature set (via free updates) at an extraordinary rate. My favourite aspect of it is, without doubt, the astoundingly flexible mixing facilities — route anything anywhere and set up complicated effects setups within a single mixer channel, all with flawless plug‑in delay compensation. There are lots of good bundled plug‑ins, and both VST and DX processors are also supported. I also like the 'one type of channel for everything' approach, although the MIDI facilities, while respectable, aren't at present in the same league as the audio side of the program. The download is only about 3MB, and even the unregistered version is fully functional (albeit with the usual nag messages), so you only have to pay if you decide to use it regularly. It's PC software but an OS X public beta is available. If you're looking for a budget DAW, you may need to look no further than the well-specified Reaper.If you're looking for a budget DAW, you may need to look no further than the well-specified Reaper.Mike Senior

Under £200Under $300

  • Oktava MK012 Microphone (around £160$200‑250):

www.oktava‑ All sorts of claims are made about these slightly rough‑looking little modular pencil condensers, and people rig up 'shoot‑outs' against Neumanns and the like, as if to prove there's no point in spending any more on a microphone. All I know is that they're seriously useful tools with good, low‑noise performance and a smooth, distinctive and surprisingly classy sound. I start off most instrumental sessions rigging up Schoeps or Sennheisers, but the Oktavas end up being used more often than you might imagine. Robin Bigwood

  • Fender Champion 600 Guitar Amp: For just a shade over £100under $200 on 'the street' (by which, of course, I mean the Internet), this is pretty amazing value for a 5W tube guitar amp — never mind for a Fender. It's perfect for practising at home, where your usual tube amp could make you some enemies amongst your neighbours. As it stands, it is a little noisy as a recording amp, but you can get brilliant results if you buy a modification kit, such as those sold on eBay ( for less than $60 you can turn this amp into a boutique beauty that sounds like it costs several hundreds more! If Fender isn't your thing, you can get mod kits for other budget tube models, such as the Epiphone Valve Junior and the Gretsch G5222. The new breed of mini guitar amps like this Fender Champion 600 are just the thing for creating authentic tones with minimal volume and outlay.The new breed of mini guitar amps like this Fender Champion 600 are just the thing for creating authentic tones with minimal volume and outlay.Matt Houghton

  • ADK S7 Microphone (around £150$299): When I did the audio files for my recent article on kick‑drum recording, I was very taken by the sound of the Neumann U47 FET as a close mic, and was keen to try this technique on a more budget level. The problem is that most budget condenser mics simply can't handle the kind of sound pressure levels that you get in a kick drum. The ADK S7, however, can manage a whopping 150dB SPL with its pad switched in, so I recently tried using and it rewarded me with one of the best kick sounds I've ever had. Needless to say, it's scarcely left its mic stand since. Mike Senior

  • iZotope RX Restoration Software (£180around $280): In my editing setup, iZotope RX's Spectral Repair mode takes centre stage. Load an audio file that's been spoiled with a creak, cough, police siren or maniac sheep (I'm not kidding), click around in the gorgeous spectral display area, and a few seconds later you have a pristine recording again. This is nothing short of miraculous, in my view, and until RX came along anything comparable cost thousands of pounds. Robin Bigwood

  • SE 2200A Microphone (around £135around $275): The star of my collection of SE mics is my SE2200. A lot of my recording work is in the area of classical/contemporary fusion, as well as more regular session work, and I've given up counting the number of session musicians and singers who have been blown away by the sound of the SE2200. I recommend the SE Electronics range of microphones in general, with the lower‑cost ones being especially good value. Unfortunately, they have discontinued the Mini, which is a shame, because for me it has proved to be an excellent radio presentation mic at an unbelievable price. Mike Thornton

  • Mackie 402 & 802 VLZ3 Mixers (around £90 and £150$99/$190): The 402 VLZ3 may be tiny, and the routing options may be a little limited, but you get two fantastic, natural‑sounding preamps that are are well worth the price on their own. The 802 doesn't cost that much more but you get more preamps and more routing options — which make it ideal as a front end and monitor controller for the budget‑conscious home studio. Two more winning mixers from Mackie, the 402 and 802VLZ are versatile, good sounding and affordable.Two more winning mixers from Mackie, the 402 and 802VLZ are versatile, good sounding and affordable.Matt Houghton

  • Frontier Alphatrack Controller (around £130around $200): If you use a DAW, a control surface can make life easier, but if my own experience is anything to go by, you may find yourself using the transport buttons and little else. The USB‑powered Alphatrack offers a full‑function transport section plus a single moving fader that follows the selected track in your DAW, and there are dedicated buttons for looping, punching in, setting markers and so on. Not only does it save you money compared to a conventional control surface, it also saves desk space. Why pay for eight faders when you may only need one at a time? The Frontier Alphatrack saves on space and money.Why pay for eight faders when you may only need one at a time? The Frontier Alphatrack saves on space and money.Paul White

  • Yamaha MSP3 Active Monitors (around £180/pairaround $299): You can find plenty of bigger, superficially more impressive and blinged‑up monitors for £180, but you'll find very few that are as versatile. If you can live without much bass extension and holographic soundstaging, the sound is good enough for many monitoring purposes, with surprisingly good clarity and dynamics. They're physically small, and shielded, so they'll tuck into cramped corners, but happily go loud. You can mount them on mic stands, for impromptu placement as rear surround speakers or super‑portable PA. They're constructed from a hard‑wearing resin, and both drivers are physically protected, so they'll travel without being boxed, and survive kicks and knocks. Mine get used as a secondary main pair, rear surrounds, and as talkback and musician replay speakers on location, and I'll never get rid of them. Robin Bigwood

  • Line 6 KB37 Interface/Controller (around £180around $200): This is my kind of USB interface: It has a three‑octave keyboard, decent mic preamp, high‑impedance input for guitar, phantom power, digital out, programmable controllers, cool analogue meters, and GearBox software with amp, effects and mic preamp models — everything except a DIN MIDI port (MIDI is handled via USB). It has the added bonus of encouraging an efficient workflow. Line 6's KB37 packs a lot of functionality into a very cute keyboard-based interface.Line 6's KB37 packs a lot of functionality into a very cute keyboard-based interface.Craig Anderton

  • AAS String Studio VS1 Software ($229):

www.applied‑ Although physically modelled instruments will never replace the real thing, there are nevertheless some inspiring ones out there, and String Studio saves me hundreds of pounds by letting me create and play a whole raft of real and imagined stringed instruments. Each note you play sounds slightly different, just like a real instrument, but, best of all, the various instrument parameters respond like those of real instruments when you alter them in real time using MIDI controllers, so you can change your picking position, where the instrument is miked up or where its magnetic pickup is positioned, damp the strings or let them ring out, all on a note‑by‑note basis. Satisfy your need for exotic stringed instruments with AAS's String Studio.Satisfy your need for exotic stringed instruments with AAS's String Studio.Martin Walker

Under £300Under $450

  • Focusrite Liquid Mix 16 DSP processor (around £270around $450): Focusrite's analogue modelling technology provides some of the most colourful and convincing EQ and compression currently possible within a DAW environment. If you can live with 'only' having 16 Liquid Mix instances available, and are happy to work with mouse and plug‑in, this little Firewire box gives you all the benefit of its more expensive brother without the cost and the laser light‑show front panel. Just about the cheapest add‑on DSP system available, but one of the best. Much of the appeal of Focusrite's Liquid Mix DSP modelling technology, for less cash: the Liquid Mix 16.Much of the appeal of Focusrite's Liquid Mix DSP modelling technology, for less cash: the Liquid Mix 16.Robin Bigwood

  • Pocket Digital Recorders:

This year we've seen a flurry of pocket‑sized digital recording devices, taking advantage of the increased capacity of non‑volatile recording media such as Compact Flash, and mobile‑phone‑driven circuit miniaturisation. The competition between manufacturers has pushed standards up and prices down, so now you can buy a really high‑quality recorder for little more than the price of a basic microphone. Because of that, no singer‑songwriter should go out without one and risk missing the chance to record that fleeting moment of inspiration. I have most experience with Tascam's excellent DR1 (‑1.html), which I like because of its large screen and relatively superior navigation controls, and Edirol's R09HR (‑09HR) — a product capable of making very well‑balanced recordings. Nevertheless, if I were about to buy something for permanent occupation in my pocket I'd also strongly consider Olympus' LS10 (‑10_18555.htm) and the Yamaha Pocketrak 2G ( because they are so small and have some impressive features of their own. All four are good value, bearing in mind that, with a little care, perfectly usable recordings can be made with any of them. Tom Flint

  • Audio Technica AT4033a Microphone (around £220around $350‑400):‑ My head aches at the thought of all those large‑diaphragm, side‑address condensers in this price bracket, and all the uninformed Internet forum arguments about their relative merits. So for me the AT4033a is the Ibuprofen of the budget mic world, providing focused relief from the confusion. To my ears, this beautifully constructed and understated mic has the essence of high‑end about it — there's a 'rightness' and coherence in the sound that's nothing to do with any on‑paper specs. Robin Bigwood

  • Golden Age Ribbon Mics (£79‑£229$169‑399): When we tested a wide range of ribbon mics in the studio last year, we were surprised to discover that our favourites in a particular application were not necessarily the most expensive. The Golden Age Project (GA) R1 Mk2 and the Active Mk2 particularly stunned us as amazingly good all‑rounders for the money. Even some of the mics we weren't so crazy about in general, such as the GA R2, we could imagine finding a use for on a record, and they would certainly represent a very useful introduction to the ribbon sound for those working with small budgets. Matt Houghton

Money-saving Tips

Tripods Triumph: If you're using speakers that have threaded mounting inserts in the base, you may find that old camera tripods (which always seem to be cluttering up my branch of Cash Converters) can be pressed into service as stands, with the advantage that you can adjust the height and pitch of the speaker to better suit your working position. I picked up one for a tenner in a junk shop the other day, and it works a treat for my little mono 'grot box' speaker. Just check that the leg locks can take the speaker's weight. Mike Senior

Box Clever: Those of us with computer-based digital audio workstations such as Pro Tools can mix 'in the box', so consider doing away with the desk. Instead, consider having a rack of mic preamps. I own a Focusrite Octopre with the digital card, so I now have eight excellent mic preamps in a 1U case, at a price that won't break the bank, which I use with either my HD rig or my 002R. The other function of a desk is the monitoring side and this can be covered by either the Mackie Big Knob or the Samson C-Control, the latter being considerably cheaper. Mike Thornton

Count On Quality: My money-saving tip is to buy the best gear you can afford rather than the cheapest! This is simply because it's the good stuff you're most likely to keep for a long time. What might seem like a bargain today could prove to be a waste of money later on when it's sitting unused in the studio, and then you end up having to shell out again for something better. Of course, if you do ever want to sell, it's the best gear that tends to retain a respectable second-hand value. Tom Flint

Dig For Discounts: I now buy a lot of my studio and live sound accessories from a company based in Preston, UK, called CPC ( They have a huge on-line catalogue where I source cables, adaptors, DI boxes, batteries and so on. Many suppliers put huge mark-ups on these extras, but I find that by going to CPC I can get them at 'wholesale'-type prices with an excellent delivery service. If you're in the USA, search the Internet and you're almost certain to find a local equivalent. Paul White

Lite Show: Today's 'LE' or 'lite' editions of music and media software tend to be pretty similar to last year's full editions: for example, a program like Sony Vegas Movie Studio will let you put together rock videos for a fraction of the cost of the pro version of Vegas. Sonar Home Studio, Logic Express, Cubase LE and the like represent exceptional value and may very well have all the features you need. Craig Anderton

Find Your Own Sounds: If you're on the lookout for new sounds, don't automatically get your credit card out to buy another sample library. As long as you have a microphone and some sort of digital or analogue recorder (or even a simple soundcard), you can use your imagination to capture a host of intriguing new sounds for free. You don't need to set light to a piano, either — kitchen and other household objects provide lots of potential, as will a trip to the local hardware store, dumpsters, recycling centres, and so on. It may require a little lateral thinking, but your found sounds can then be used as percussion, or turned into new instruments. Best of all, you'll be creating original 'signature' sounds that no-one else has. Martin Walker

Transport For Less: If you use a computer and you fancy a remote set of sequencer transport controls mounted on your keyboard or mixing desk, remember that many sequencer applications use keypad commands for transport functions (or can be redefined to use them). So buy a mass-market numeric keypad (typically under $30), and plug it in alongside your normal computer keyboard. USB models can be used up to about five metres from the computer, or you can pay a little more for a cordless one. A dedicated MIDI controller may cost you four times as much! Martin Walker