We've all lusted after the shiny new gear that appears month after month in the pages of Sound On Sound — but how do you know what will make a real difference to your recordings and what will be an expensive luxury? Paul White picks out the areas where money will be well spent, and the products that will take your sound up a gear. This is the first article in a three‑part series.
A personal recording studio isn't just something you buy and use. More often than not it takes on a life of its own, changing and evolving like a growing organism. And like any organism, it has to eat to survive — the staple diet in this case being hard cash! The problem is that once you've got everything set up and you're starting to get results, there's an almost overpowering urge to upgrade. The old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is perfectly valid here, so there's no point in buying one superb piece of professional kit to use with a computer‑based system that still relies on an entry‑level Soundblaster 16 soundcard for all its I/O needs! At the same time, there's little to be gained from spending your money on something you'll outgrow in a few months' time. The old saying that only rich people can afford to buy cheap things is very true — the rest of us have to pick something that's going to last! What you need is a growth plan that will allow your studio to flourish with the minimum of feeding or pruning.
I'm as big a technoholic as anyone, and I've also had the advantage of being able to try out and compare hundreds of pieces of review gear in my studio. This puts me in a good position to provide a few pragmatic pointers to the best way to select gear. Perhaps the best way to approach this subject is to look at several of the key items found in any studio and try to put their importance into perspective. After all, we know that more expensive generally equates to better, but is it simply 'better' as far as the technical spec is concerned or a 'better' you can actually hear? I'm sure that at one time or another we've all convinced ourselves that adding a certain piece of kit was going to make all the difference to our recordings, but then once it's paid for and wired in, we find it doesn't really make any appreciable difference. I hope that this article will help prevent such disappointments.
We still get a lot of people calling SOS, agonising over the right choice of a microphone that will give them that big, rich, professional sound. I'm honest enough to know that the microphone has yet to be designed that can do this for my voice, but microphones can make an enormous quality difference, even with a relatively modest studio setup. The problem is always knowing how far to go — and how much to spend.
Readers who are not happy with the sound they're currently getting often ask us to suggest alternative microphones, but in many cases it's obvious from the description of the problem that the microphone isn't actually the main problem. Before even looking at new microphones, you need to ensure that your recording environment is OK. For example, a boxy sound is generally as much to do with a boxy room (or a badly constructed vocal booth) as a boxy microphone, so you might need to think about hanging up blankets and sleeping bags to tame room resonances. Also, work with the mic positioned away from the edges of the room, use a pop shield and don't get further away from the mic than around nine inches when singing or the effect of the room acoustics will become more pronounced. Another point to bear in mind is that if you use compression on your vocals (and most people do), any annoying room characteristics will be exaggerated as the compressor will bring them up in level. Once you've sorted out your recording environment, only then should you think about buying a nicer mic.
When you do get to this stage, what should you buy? A cheap dynamic mic will probably give you a nasal or boxy sound, and it will almost certainly be too insensitive to give you good results on quieter acoustic instruments, such as acoustic guitar. However, a decent‑quality dynamic microphone, such as the industry‑standard Shure SM58 or one of its many competent rivals, can produce great vocal tracks, and many pros have used them on records in preference to more expensive capacitor mics simply because the tonality may suit a particular voice better. Considering that such a mic costs typically less than £100, it's hardly a luxury, but although it may be good enough to give you a solid, professional vocal sound, it's still unlikely to do justice to quieter acoustic instruments. If you have a voice that needs mid‑range projection, a dynamic mic may be your best choice, especially for rock vocal styles, but be sure to try a capacitor mic as well at some stage so that you're aware of what the tonal differences are. It's also worth remembering that a good dynamic vocal mic will give you very reasonable results when used for recording guitar cabinets and drums.
If you want a more transparent, detailed vocal sound with more space and air around it, you're probably going to need a capacitor mic (or equivalent back‑electret model), but which one? Most professional vocal recordings are made with large‑diaphragm models (the diaphragm is usually around one inch in diameter) as these tend to flatter the sound being recorded, often sounding a little 'larger than life'.
I have a selection of large‑diaphragm capacitor mics in my own project studio, ranging from the almost laughably cheap Rode NT1 and Oktava MK219, via Audio Technica AT4033s and 4050s to a Beyer MC740 that cost over a grand at the time I got it. For a mic with a slightly different character that still comes at a low price, check out the AKG C3000. All these mics sound slightly different, but there are few people who would presume to say which one sounds better, as different mics suit different voices. It's not unusual for a singer to prefer the results from the cheaper Rode as compared with one of the higher‑end models, simply because it happens to react well to the tonal characteristics of their voice. This means that if you're buying a mic specifically for your own use, it may be worth auditioning several models side by side to see what works best for you.
A further point to add here is that although professional studio engineers might opt for a small‑diaphragm capacitor mic when recording some acoustic instruments, any decent large‑diaphragm model will also produce perfectly good results with pianos, acoustic guitars, fiddles and wind instruments, as well as making a good drum overhead mic. If you need more than one mic and you envisage doing some stereo recording, then it would be sensible to buy two identical mics.
So, to gain some perspective, yes there is a very noticeable tonal difference between a cheap dynamic mic and a properly designed one, and there's also a big difference between a typical 'stage' dynamic mic and a capacitor mic costing two or three hundred pounds, but the quality gains after that point are very small compared to the price jumps. Mostly you're paying more for a prestige name, better build quality and possibly a better noise and distortion performance. Pairs of more expensive mics are also likely to be better matched due to a higher level of quality control, and there are tonality and accuracy issues, but in subjective terms, these may only have a very subtle effect on the sound. In most project studios, where close‑miking is the order of the day, the key is to pick a tonality that you like and can work with, since pretty much all capacitor mics, from the low‑cost Rodes and Oktavas upwards, will provide an adequate level of technical performance in this environment.
There are lots of mic preamps around that claim to be significantly better than the ones in your mixer, but how much difference do they really make? With a good capacitor mic, and a good recording system and recording environment, they do produce a better sense of transparency, detail and space, but I'd venture to suggest that in a typical project studio where modest mics are used in partially treated or untreated rooms, the difference is likely to be small. That's not to demean the importance of mic amps in any way, it's just the 'weak link in the chain' concept again — if you have a reasonably well‑designed mixer, the subjective improvement will be small.
Having said that, there is a case for buying at least one voice‑channel product which combines a mic preamp with compression and possibly EQ, because this gives you several advantages at once. If you record directly from this into your system without first going through a mixer, you get the benefit of a cleaner signal path and better mic preamps, though as emphasised earlier, these benefits may not lead to any significant improvement in sound quality unless the rest of your system, particularly your microphones and recording environment, are equally good. Even so, because you're getting the mic amp as part of a package that may also contain compression and EQ, you're not really paying out much for this extra quality so it may be worth having, and the extra quality will stand you in good stead when the rest of your system evolves. The trick is knowing where to draw the line — a high‑end dedicated mic preamp with an even better spec might cost four or five times as much as your voice channel, and certainly won't do justice to itself unless used as part of a first‑class signal chain in an acoustically superb recording environment.
If you're working with a computer‑based studio that either has no external mixer or uses only a line‑level keyboard mixer, a voice channel is the ideal way to get a good‑quality audio signal into the system. Some voice channel models also have line‑ and instrument‑level inputs, and if you want to DI clean guitar or bass, these instrument inputs are well worth having.
The compressor section of a voice channel gives you more dynamic range to work with. It evens out levels and helps reduce the risk of inadvertent peak overloads, so by the time all these little benefits have been added together, the difference between working with a voice channel and an indifferent mixer can be significant. Furthermore, some of the more characterful compressors, such as the opto design used in the Joemeek products, can give a solid‑state mic an almost tube‑like warmth. There's a whole range of excellent voice channels/preamps right across the price spectrum; the more affordable solid‑state units include (but are not restricted to) the Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster, Drawmer MX60, Aphex 107 and various Joemeek units. Unless you have really first‑rate studio equipment and recording facilities, it's probably sensible to peg your voice channel budget to around £400 at maximum, though like a good microphone, a quality preamp will stand you in good stead in later years when you've upgraded everything else. An important part of effective budgeting is in choosing something that you're not going to grow out of too quickly.
A number of preamps are now available with digital outputs, which can be useful for those working with digital recording systems. One of the problems with current digital systems is that where analogue inputs are fitted, these seem to require an inordinately high signal level to get a full‑scale digital deflection. For 24‑bit systems, the AES recommendation is that digital full scale should equate to around +20dBu in analogue terms, but by the time your nominally +4dBu analogue gear is delivering that kind of output level, it's probably struggling a bit. If you're using gear optimised for the ‑10dBv standard, you may never get there!
At least if your voice channel has a digital converter built in, you know the analogue circuitry is going to be designed to drive it hard enough without struggling. What's more, if you're working with a relatively inexpensive soundcard, the converter in your voice channel is likely to provide noticeably better performance, especially as it's a lot further way away from the electromagnetically hellish environment of the inside of your computer. Be aware, however, that mixing multiple digital sources can be a problem unless they all run at the same sample rate and have a word clock facility. Voice channels with digital outs are only a simple solution if you're recording one part at a time. The minefield of digital sync is outside the scope of this article, but don't worry, we've got Hugh Robjohns working on it!
People get so wound up about compressors! Certainly, there are big differences between different models, but it really comes down to choosing whether you want a compressor that works like an effect (in that it changes your vocal sound), or whether you simply want one that transparently controls peak levels with as few side‑effects as possible. If you're lucky, you might find a model that does a bit of both, but in most cases, I find compressors tend to fall into one camp or the other. The ideal situation, of course, is to have one of each. If you buy a stereo compressor, it's wise to check that it has a stereo linking switch, as this is essential if you want to use it to compress your overall mix or any other stereo source.
The digital compressors found in most digital mixers, and the equivalent software plug‑ins for MIDI + Audio sequencers tend to be very good at providing transparent level control, so if you already have a digital system with these options available, it's probably best to spend your money on a compressor you can hear working. If, on the other hand, it's transparent level control you're after, then the currently very cheap Alesis 3630 is a good buy.
Valve compressors have a reputation for sounding both warm and detailed, but some of the optical compressors as made by Joemeek and Focusrite can sound pretty warm too. If you want a mid‑price compressor that can do a fair job of both obvious and invisible compression, I think Drawmer, TLA, LA Audio and Focusrite (Platinum) take a lot of beating. You will notice a difference if you buy one of the more esoteric models, but probably not as much as you'd expect unless the rest of your signal chain is pretty good. If your vocal sound is noticeably below par, using a premium compressor is unlikely to bring about the change you're after: look for other causes before spending any more money. Expect to spend between £200 and £400 on a good stereo compressor, though there are some bargains that come in under this price range.
Though pretty much every mixer has some form of EQ, I don't think many people realise just how much better the sound of a good EQ can be than that of an indifferent one. I've got into the habit of working with as little desk EQ as possible, mainly because I've never been satisfied with any desk EQ (at least not in the project‑studio price range), but there are occasions when you do need EQ to get the job done. Desk EQ high and low shelving filters are generally OK if used very sparingly, and the mic controls are fine for a little gentle cut, but if you need to do any serious tonal reshaping for whatever reason, a well‑designed outboard analogue EQ is pretty much essential.
The problem is that desk EQs have to be built to a price because there are so many of them in one console. Often these add a nasal, phasey or harsh character to the sound if you apply more than the gentlest amount of boost, yet with a really good equaliser, you can apply quite heavy EQ boost and the tone changes in a completely natural way. Similarly, at the bass end, a cheap EQ will leave you with an uncontrolled mess while a good equaliser will let you decide just how warm or tight the bass should sound. Boosting the high end with a good equaliser will still give smooth results, whereas a cheap equaliser may sound harsh or edgy.
There are several reasons why this should be; the amount of headroom available in the circuitry of a budget equaliser is one important factor. Then there's the effect of the EQ curve shapes themselves and the phase response of the filters. In general, the smoother the phase response, the more natural the equaliser sounds.
A top‑notch equaliser isn't cheap, but there are still some affordable solutions that sound good. I believe the Aphex 109 is one of the best‑kept secrets in the UK audio industry. It's particularly flexible because it offers either four‑band operation for one channel only or two‑channel operation with two bands. However, in most case, you don't need more than two bands of EQ to get a good result, and this particular equaliser sounds very smooth and classy, despite its relatively low price. The Joemeek Meequaliser is also worth checking out — even though it offers what appears to be a limited range of EQ control, it actually sounds very musical and generally has enough flexibility to get the job done, especially on vocals. Moving to a slightly higher price point, the mid‑price Focusrite (Platinum) and TL Audio (Ivory) units are also extremely fine performers. Keep in mind that if you've already bought a voice channel with a nice‑sounding EQ section, you can use its line input to patch it into a mixer insert point for use at mixdown.
As always, the law of diminishing returns applies as you start to go up in price, but the relatively modest investment needed to move up from a typical desk EQ to an affordable outboard unit can bring with it very significant audio quality benefits. The same is true of computer EQ plug‑ins, where you may find that a dedicated EQ plug‑in sounds a lot nicer than the freebie EQ that came with your system.
Everything you use in a vocal recording chain makes a difference, but choosing an adequate microphone and using it correctly in an acoustically neutral environment probably makes more difference than anything else. If you use the right mic and record to the best of your ability, you're unlikely to need too much in the way of EQ, and though some compression is a good idea to keep the level even, you don't need to spend a fortune to achieve this. For those occasions when you do need EQ to either notch out problem frequencies or enhance weak areas of the spectrum, you'll probably need something better than that offered by a typical desk, but as the high and low controls on most desks are OK for general adjustments over a limited range, a parametric that offers dual two‑channel facilities will probably be all you need to tackle most jobs. Choosing one of these could cost a lot less than a fully specified dual‑channel, four‑band equaliser of the same general quality.
Of course there are other factors that contribute towards a good recorded sound, not least the quality of the original performance. The choice of vocal reverb is also important, and will be amongst the subjects covered next month.
Those who feel that their sound lacks warmth are often tempted to spend extra money on a valve‑based microphone or preamp. But are these really worth the extra? In the case of mics, some sound almost as clean as solid‑state mics, while others are deliberately made to sound warm and flattering. I'd be loath to spend a fortune on a valve mic that might only suit a few of my clients, but if you're in the position of being able to afford more than one good mic, or if you're choosing a mic to suit one particular voice, there are some real bargains to be had from the likes of AKG (SolidTube), Rode (Classic and NTV) and Alesis (GT‑series). These all have their own characters, so again nobody can tell you which one is best, but as mentioned earlier, if your recording environment isn't good, you may find the improvement over a budget capacitor mic is much less than you might imagine. The further you move up the quality scale, the better your recording environment needs to be to appreciate the difference. On the other hand, a quality microphone that's looked after will last indefinitely and it'll always be useful, no matter how large your studio grows. Because a good mic will never become redundant, this is perhaps one area where you could allow yourself to be little extravagant, even if the rest of your studio isn't quite up to it yet.
There are many valve preamps available too, and it's legitimate to ask whether a solid‑state mic through a valve preamp will sound the same as a valve mic. Unfortunately, there's no simple answer, because there can be significant tonal differences between one valve mic and another, as indeed there can between one valve preamp or another. Very often you can find a combination that will give you the result you want, but there are no easy ways to go about this — you simply have to try them out. If you want a valve preamp and are on a budget, the Aphex 110 is extremely good, as are TLA and MindPrint units. Most of the affordable products of this type use a combination of valve and solid‑state circuitry, but if the design is good, this is actually a very sensible approach. Some valve equipment uses higher plate voltages than others, and purists may tell you that only the high‑voltage designs give you the authentic valve sound. In my experience, nobody really knows what aspect of a valve's performance provides the essential magic and I've heard both low‑ and high‑voltage preamps that sound good — and bad! Equipment that uses transformers rather than electronic balancing also tends to have more of a vintage sound, so it's a mistake to attach too much importance to the technology behind a product — it's only the sound that really matters. You should be able to get a good hybrid (valves combined with solid‑state) voice channel for under £500.
If you haven't used a valve mic or preamp before, what are the characteristics to listen for? The differences can be quite subtle, but I find that a well‑designed valve mic or processor often has a very open, detailed top end that's smooth rather than harsh, combined with a sense of solidarity in the part of the spectrum that corresponds to vocal chest resonances. There's also often a slight hint of compression about the sound. Valve warmth is a subtle thing though, and if you can hear large tonal changes (especially a sense of high‑end loss) or if the sound is in any way fuzzy, the design isn't representative of true vintage valve gear. Buy it if you like it, but don't buy it because you've been fooled into thinking that warmth equates to muddiness.
This is not the place to delve into mixers in any great depth, but in terms of sound quality and how they affect the end results you produce, it's worth looking at the main differences between analogue and digital mixers. Digital mixers generally offer automation, onboard effects, some dynamics such as compression or gating and of course automation. Current models tend to be quiet and reliable, but many users still feel their sound quality falls short of the comparably priced analogue designs. In particular, the EQ on the lower‑cost digital desks doesn't produce the same subjective results as analogue EQ, and though it may be useful in certain applications, it can't always achieve the results you need. I've been a little unkind about budget desk EQ elsewhere in this article, but if you turn down the high end on a typical analogue desk EQ, it'll take the edge off the sound and do more or less what you expect. Most of the digital desks I've tried simply turn down the level of the edge you're trying to get rid of without actually changing its fundamental character. In other words, they seem to be able to change the spectral balance of a sound, but they don't 'reshape' it in the way a good analogue EQ does. Furthermore, patching an external EQ into a digital desk may not be an option if you have few or no analogue insert points. Some of the more costly digital desks have more of an analogue sound, but sadly, these are still beyond the budget of many project studio owners.
While the internal effects add to the value of the mixer, are they as good as outboard processors? I'd venture to say that while most are actually pretty good for routine delay and modulation effects, you'd still be as well to look at getting an external reverb unit for any serious mixing work, so when doing your budgeting sums, don't forget to account for this. On the other hand, having internal effects and dynamics processing removes the need for a lot of wiring and avoids a lot of ground‑loop hum and noise problems, so if you're one of those people who doesn't use a lot of EQ or compression, a digital desk might actually be a very good solution. In the main though, the real advantage of a digital desk lies in its recall and automation facilities, and only you know how important this is in your case. For example, if you already automate your audio and MIDI within your computer sequencer, you might actually get a better sound by using a well‑designed line‑level keyboard mixer to combine all your sounds, and simply patch in better EQ, effects and dynamics when you need them.
Most of the advantages of analogue desks are well known, such as their one‑knob‑per‑function layout. However, the EQs do sound very different from one model to another, so it's worth trying a few out to see which works best for you. Some are noisier than others, but in a real‑life project studio situation, any reasonable analogue desk used properly should contribute far less noise than actually comes from the sources being recorded. Having said that, the more channels a desk has, the noisier it is, so if you can get by with a simpler desk, you may actually get better results.