Intro from Jay Allison: One of Transom's most popular features ever is TOOLS Editor Jeff Towne's primer on setting up a small recording studio, but the page hasn't had an update in six years. So, Jeff has created a completely new version, covering computer and software selection, the requisite hardware, along with equipment recommendations in various price ranges and pretty much everything you need on this topic, all in one place. There are links to individual tests of gear, manufacturer's sites, downloads, etc. etc. (One interesting new thing: ProTools is becoming dislodged as the go-to choice for documentary production.) This is the kind of useful, generous advice that makes us all love Jeff Towne.
From Jeff Towne
It’s easier and more affordable than ever to set up a small studio, whether at home, or as an auxiliary production space in a larger facility. As the trend toward smaller, less-expensive, more-powerful recording gear continues to accelerate, it gets harder and harder to stay on top of the latest innovations and deals. It seems like we updated our recommendations for setting up a home studio only yesterday, but in fact, a few years have gone by, and several important things have changed. We’re temperamentally more likely to wait and see if the latest, greatest thing is really stable and reliable and useful, rather than continually staying out on the bleeding edge, so we might not include that virtual mixer that you control with your mind, until we’re sure it’s reliable. Ultimately we’re more interested in getting work done, and doing it efficiently, than in having the coolest, shiniest, geekiest gear. Keep in mind: if your current set-up is working for you, you may not need to make any changes. But if you’re feeling constricted by your old home studio, or if you’re setting one up for the first time, here’s what we think you might want (at least for the next few days…).
More than ever, the computer is at the heart of the modern studio. But what kind of computer? Smartphones are getting more and more capable with each new model, but they’re still not quite powerful enough to base a home studio around. Tablet computers, such as the iPad, are getting close, and even today, one could build a basic recording/editing/mixing station around one, but you’re still better off building your basic studio around a more-capable computer, at least for now.
The chip speed, RAM and storage space that are standard on most new computers have increased to the point that it’s no longer necessary to get the biggest, fastest flamethrower of a computer in order to do basic audio editing and mixing. Audio-editing applications often have specific system requirements; so if there’s a particular program you’d like to use, check the compatibility requirements for that program. In most cases a moderately powerful off-the-shelf computer will be sufficient.
For instance, the recent versions of AVID’s Pro Tools (version 10 or 11) require a minimum of 2 gigabytes of RAM, 4 gigs is recommended. Most computers built in the last few years have fast enough processors and large-enough hard drives to install and run the program. But if you’re thinking of using an older computer, or even when buying something new, it’s always safest to check: there’s a document listing compatibility for both Windows and Macintosh systems here.
Most other audio editing programs are much less specific about computer requirements. Adobe Audition’s requirements are less stringent than AVID’s, but there are still some threshold values for computer performance, listed here.
One of the things we like about Hindenburg Journalist is that it will run well on even relatively modest computers. There’s one foolproof test: download the free 30-day trial of the software and see if it works!
REAPER is also pretty forgiving about hardware, a moderately powerful computer running Windows XP or 7 (and a few earlier versions…) or Mac OS X 10.4 and above, should have no problem running the software.
You can find our review of Reaper here.
We’ve long been Pro Tools supporters here at Transom, it has long been something of an industry standard, and the LE versions offered a relatively affordable entry point. But recent changes in the product line have made it a little harder to recommend, especially for beginners. While we applaud the removal of the requirement to buy and attach a specific interface in order to get the program to even run, the price for the software has increased rather dramatically, to about $700 (although there are less-expensive upgrade paths if you owned earlier versions of the program.) The more-affordable M-Powered and SE versions have been discontinued, but those were limited in many ways, and we never recommend those for serious production anyway. Pro Tools Express comes bundled with some AVID interfaces, and can be upgraded, but you’re tied to those particular interfaces which can be a real limitation.
So, while many of us still use Pro Tools, we’ve started to also look elsewhere, and Hindenburg Journalist, REAPER and Adobe Audition are looking like preferable tools for audio documentary production.
Apple computers have long been popular for audio work, partly because of the predictability of the internal hardware. There are fewer possible variations of configurations than there are in similar Windows systems. On the flipside, Apple operating system and/or hardware upgrades often require significant rewriting of the software that runs on it. Several years ago, the switch to Intel chips created some situations where older software would no longer run. More recently, the introduction of the Lion operating system created similar compatibility problems with some software, and dropped support for the Rosetta emulation software that allowed certain legacy applications to run.
Even with those caveats, Apple computers are generally ready for audio editing out-of-the-box, and require little or no customizing to make them good foundations for a small audio production studio. The iMac is a simple solution, and even models that are a few years old have sufficient power to run most audio software. Even a Mac Mini has robust enough specs to host most Digital Audio Workstation software. As mentioned above, the MacBookPro laptop is a viable host for professional audio applications, while the MacBook Air is not as sure of a bet. The internal solid-state drives should work OK, but are not officially supported by some applications, such as Pro Tools, and the limited number of external ports can be a problem.
On the Windows side, recommending a specific machine is difficult because there are so many possible different configurations, but most currently-available systems running Windows 7 will have sufficient power to run most editing programs. Check the requirements of the particular application you would like to use to be sure. As with most computer issues, faster chips and more memory are always helpful.
Of course, there still are circumstances where it’s a good idea, even required, to get an old-fashioned tower computer with extra internal drive bays and lots of slots to upgrade RAM and install external cards. If one is recording many tracks simultaneously, or mixing down very large sessions with lots of real-time plug-ins, it still may make sense to get a flamethrower of a tower computer, and invest in a system that uses additional cards to carry some of the processing load. Professional recording studios and film production facilities very likely still need that kind of rig, but Transom readers tend to be doing more modest productions with fewer tracks and relatively modest plug-in loads.
It’s still good practice to store audio on a separate drive from the one that’s running your system software, although drives and processors are so fast these days that you can often get away with saving the audio and session files for simple productions to a computer’s main system drive. If using a tower computer with multiple hard drive bays, an internal SATA drive is recommended. If using an external hard drive, Firewire is still preferable to USB on Macs, although USB2 and USB3 drives can often access files efficiently enough for most sessions. Thunderbolt ports are plenty fast, but you’ll need an adapter to connect to firewire devices. The MacBookPro generally has more ports than the MacBook Air, which can be very helpful. Firewire is NOT recommended for Windows 7 machines; especially for Pro Tools, USB 2 is preferable on those machines. The official lists of approved and compatible hardware change often, so it’s always best to check with the software’s official manufacturers’ websites.
External hard drives with larger capacities, smaller footprints and lower prices are being released on a regular basis, so having sufficient room for storage and backup is more affordable and convenient than ever. The convenience of being able to easily move a project from one computer or studio to another makes an external drive very attractive.
As is the case with many aspects of its operation, Pro Tools has very specific requirements for external hard drives: here is a list of requirements for Pro Tools 10. In general, Firewire is recommended for Apple computers, and USB2 or 3 for Windows computers. A minimum disc rotation speed of 7200 rpm is recommended as well. Although most other software is not as rigid in hard drive requirements (even Pro Tools will often work fine with drives with inferior speed ratings) using a high-performance drive will reduce the risk of problems when using any editing program, especially if a production uses many tracks, lots of edits, or multiple real-time plug-in effects.
For portability, we like LaCie Rugged drives. They’re small, quiet, have multiple connection options, and can usually run on bus-power, which means no external power supply is required. As the name indicates, they’ve been designed to survive some level of shock, although it’s still a good idea to be gentle with them. The rubber sleeve on the outside doesn’t provide all that much protection by itself, shock-absorbing bumpers inside the case are much more important, but the sleeve, and curved corners make the drive scratch and dent resistant, and less-likely to damage other objects packed around it in a backpack or gear bag. You can even get different-colored sleeves to quickly distinguish multiple drives from one another.
For archiving and back-up purposes, we like large-capacity RAID drives, set to RAID level 1, which mirrors your data on two drives to provide greater protection from physical drive failures. LaCie “big” drives provide a lot of value per dollar, but there are good products from G-Technologies, Glyph and many others. Make sure that RAID 1 (mirroring) is available, if you’re looking for the security of redundant data. And remember, even when using RAID 1, you need to back-up your data to another drive: no system is completely immune from technical failures, or from being misplaced or stolen or damaged.
Laptops and Tablets
Until recently, laptops were not great candidates for the main engine of a serious studio, but now, many laptops have plenty of power to do most editing and mixing tasks. But there are still some downsides: a larger screen is preferable when doing detailed editing and mixing; a full-sized extended keyboard often makes using keyboard shortcuts a lot easier; adding audio interfaces, external hard drives, accelerators and dongles can be a challenge with a laptop’s limited ports and expansion slots. But many of those problems can be overcome. Connecting an external monitor and/or keyboard to a laptop is generally pretty simple, and hubs or docks can usually add a few more ports when required. Fewer and fewer applications require additional horsepower in the form of external cards or accelerators, so it’s no longer obviously preferable to get a large tower computer with available expansion slots.
Small, inexpensive NetBook computers were proliferating a while back, but Tablet computers have largely supplanted them. Neither of those is especially well suited for heavy-duty audio editing and mixing. That will surely change, and the large touchscreens on tablets may soon be the ideal audio workstation control-surface. There are already a few audio recording and editing apps that run on tablets, but they’re not quite ready to build a studio around. Yet…
Most of us already own a computer for other uses, and while devoting a machine solely to audio editing is an excellent policy, it’s rarely practical. In most cases, your existing computer will be just fine to host your audio editing, requiring no additional expenditures, or only minimal ones, like adding RAM. While it’s entirely possible to run multiple programs at once, even while editing or mixing audio, many problems can be avoided by reducing the number of processes running simultaneously on the computer, especially when doing a final mix, or export. Background activity, such as an email program checking for new mail, can sometimes interfere with an audio program, which may have needed computer resources at that moment, so it’s good to reduce, or eliminate potential conflicts by quitting out of other programs when doing critical audio work.
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There’s been a major transformation of the Pro Tools universe since the update to version 9 and 10. For many years, a proprietary interface was required for Pro Tools to even start up. One needed an MBox or 002 or some similar interface made by Digidesign, or M-Audio, if you were using Pro Tools M-Powered. But with version 9 and above, it’s no longer required for the user to use any hardware interface at all, the software can run on the computer’s built-in audio hardware.
So Pro Tools is now like most of the other audio applications out there: you can pick the audio interface you want, or use none at all. Here at Transom, we still think it’s a good idea to use an external audio interface, particularly if one is recording anything in real-time, such as narration to a story. If one is exclusively importing sound files that have been recorded elsewhere, it’s less crucial, but an external interface also provides superior playback quality over a computer’s built-in headphone output, which makes monitoring more accurate. We still use our M-Box2 Mini as a front-end for Pro Tools 10, even though it’s not required.
It’s certainly nice to have the option of not using an interface, especially when traveling with a laptop. (Note: Pro Tools now requires an iLok USB key to run, so there still is a piece of hardware that must be attached to the computer at all times, but at least the iLok is smaller than most audio interfaces, so it’s a little less bulky to carry or have plugged into the computer. The iLok also can function properly on a USB hub, which audio interfaces usually do not.)
There still are a few audio interfaces that are structured as cards that install in a tower-style computer, but it’s much more common to use an external device that connects via USB or Firewire. Some computers have a built-in audio input, usually for a microphone, but those inputs are rarely of sufficient quality for reliable use. Most Apple computers have not had analog microphone inputs for some time, requiring that a USB or firewire interface be used.
Using a USB or firewire interface is a good idea in any case, even if your computer has a microphone input; the inside of a computer is a very electronically dirty environment, and not ideal for amplifying a low-level signal like microphone audio, without picking up hums and buzzes and other noise from surrounding circuitry. The quality of the microphone preamp makes a difference, and computer manufacturers are not going to spend a lot of money to put an especially nice microphone preamp in as standard equipment. So you’ll get better results with a good external interface. The differences in playback quality are less extreme, but an external interface is likely to have quieter, cleaner, more accurate Digital-to-Analog converters, resulting in truer audio in your speakers or headphones.
Many interfaces come bundled with some kind of audio editing software, but it may not be the one you want to use. Most software will accept audio from almost any interface, provided it meets ASIO or Core Audio standards. M-Audio makes a wide range of USB and Firewire interfaces. Edirol also makes a number of good USB interfaces, as do Tascam, Mackie and many other manufacturers. Make sure to get a model that’s designed for what you need to do: there are interfaces designed to accept signals from turntables, from electric guitars, from microphones with XLR cables, etc. Some only transmit one channel; more commonly a USB interface can send between two and four channels into the computer, and monitor a stereo output. There are larger, more expensive interfaces, often using Firewire, which can transmit large numbers of independent channels simultaneously to and from a computer. In many cases, a single channel USB interface is sufficient if what one is primarily doing is recording narration.
We think the M-Audio MobilePre with its two XLR microphone inputs provides a good balance of capabilities, quality and price.
There are very small USB interfaces that simply connect a single microphone to a computer’s USB jack. This can be a compact and affordable solution if the only real-time input one needs is a single microphone. If you might want to record two or more microphones simultaneously, in order to have separate mics on a guest and a host during an interview, or to mic multiple interviewees, or for recording stereo music or ambience, it’s worth investing in an external interface designed for such purposes. It’s sometimes technically possible to combine multiple USB devices into a virtual hybrid input device, but many audio recording programs don’t know how to handle that kind of input, so you’re better off with an actual device with multiple inputs.
If you only need one channel for a single mic, USB adapters such as the Centrance Mic Port Pro or the Shure X2u offer hardware input gain control, a hard-wired headphone jack, so there’s no monitoring delay, and very good sound quality.
You could also use a dedicated USB microphone. There are more and more good-quality USB microphones available, but it still feels like a better idea to get a good-sounding microphone that you can use in different contexts. The simplicity of connecting a single cable between the mic and the computer is appealing, but there might be some occasions when you would like to use that mic with your portable recorder, or plugged into a mixer or an external preamp or processor, and a USB mic will not allow you to do that. So, it’s better to get a mic you like and add an interface, which leaves you more options.
There are a few mics that offer both an analog output and a USB output. We like the Studio Projects LSM, it’s compact, flexible and sounds good. Blue Microphone’s Yeti Pro offers the same combination of outputs, with slightly more clunky design. The Audio Technica AT 2005USB is a dynamic mic with a hand-held design, but it comes with a tripod desk stand.
USB mics, or these combination mics, can be plugged directly into a computer via USB, and will appear to most audio recording programs as a USB interface, and can be selected as the active input. They all have headphone jacks as well, allowing direct monitoring of the microphone, as well as audio played back from the computer if desired.
Choosing the best mic for your needs is a huge topic in itself so please see the Transom Mic shootout.
We’re hoping to update this to include some newer mics, but in the interim, there are some excellent resources on the web, including shootouts by the folks at Recordinghacks.com; among those, two that focus on Podcasting, meaning that they’re looking at spoken-word voice recording, rather than sung vocals or instruments.
For an announce mic, the best choice depends on how your small studio will be used. If it’s mostly for production, with very little recording of important voice tracks, there are loads of cheap, decent condenser mics out there. Find one you like from the Transom mic shootout! Studio Projects B-1 mics are very good utility mics for $99. Or drop $300 on a Shure SM7 or an EV RE20 for a classic radio sound. If you want warm and silky, the Neumann TLM 103 sounds pretty amazingly close to a U87 when used as an announce mic, but for $999 instead of $3,000.
Computer-based editing and mixing has become so central to the audio production experience that sometimes little else is needed. A decent computer, maybe an interface, a pair of headphones, and an internet connection might be all one needs. But for greater flexibility there are a few more pieces that can be helpful.
We used to always include a mixer in a small studio set-up; it was crucial for feeding different sources into your recording set-up, for adjusting your microphone gain, for feeding various sources to your speakers. But the last few times we’ve set up studios, the mixer never got plugged-in. Surprisingly, in many small studio set-ups, it’s a superfluous piece of gear. A mixer is quite useful if you do need to input several real-time sources into your computer, or easily play back different devices through one set of speakers.
But if your production process is based around importing soundfiles from a flash recorder, or delivered to you as files, you probably don’t need a mixer. Even if you record live narration or basic two-track interviews, you might be fine recording and monitoring via a USB interface.
However, if you do record from multiple sources that need to be loaded in, in real time – such as old analog recordings, multiple microphones, or telephones – a mixer can make life much easier, eliminating the need to continually rewire the studio in order to audition materials or record. If you use a phone hybrid to record phone calls, a mixer, especially one with an aux send, allows you to make a mix-minus feed to fully use the hybrid to send and receive audio. Having a good-quality mic preamp or two can overcome a common deficiency of audio interfaces. There are some relatively compact mixers that are fairly inexpensive and very capable, yet have better preamps than most USB interfaces; those mixers can be a good front end for a more modest interface.
Mackie mixers have long been favorites in small studios, for their balance of price, quality and flexibility. Ironically, these mixers that were originally revolutionary in their low cost are sometimes now considered to be on the expensive side. There are indeed some less expensive options currently available, but Mackie remains an excellent value because of their high-quality mic preamps and solid construction.
The Mackie 802 VLZ3 has 3 mic inputs, and a total of 8 channels. It has an aux send which would allow you to route audio to a phone hybrid, or make a separate headphone mix. It sells for about $200. There’s even a 402-VLZ3 that has 2 mic inputs and one stereo line-in that might be sufficient for the most basic of set-ups, and that’s only about $99.
Yamaha makes some inexpensive models that are still very functional. The MG 102c is only about $100 for a 10-channel mixer with 4 XLR mic inputs and 3 more stereo line inputs, a pretty amazing bargain for so much flexibility.
One option worth considering is the Mackie Onyx i-series mixers, which have built-in firewire interfaces. You get the flexibility of a mixer, the quality of Mackie mic preamps, and the simplicity of a single device to connect to your computer. The Mackie Onyx 820i is almost identical to the 802 VLZ3 mentioned above, but has even better mic preamps and adds a second aux send, which can help with complex routing. And most importantly, it can send each channel to your computer via Firewire, eliminating the need for a separate interface. It sells for about $400.
Several other manufacturers also make mixers with built-in interfaces. It’s important to be aware that many USB mixers can only send their stereo output to the computer, while others can send each input channel as an individual track. The multiple track option gives greatest flexibility, but might be overkill for some studios. Even the stereo-only option can be quite convenient because it eliminates the need for a separate computer interface.
Although it’s tempting to save money and space, and avoid annoying the neighbors by doing all your audio work on headphones, good monitor speakers are a crucial part of any studio. They don’t have to be huge, or especially powerful, but getting a pair of speakers designed for that purpose is an important part of getting a good mix. Headphones are excellent for checking fine detail, but it’s very difficult to balance foreground and background elements in a way that translates well to speakers when mixing on headphones. Small plastic computer speakers are adequate for basic auditioning and rough editing, but will not accurately present the full range of the sounds you are working with. You’re likely to miss shifts in ambience and other details that will be apparent on better speakers. It’s especially easy to overlook low-frequency rumbles and thumps, such as noise that results from wind, P-Pops, mic handling noise and traffic, when mixing on small computer speakers. That can result not only in an unbalanced mix, but uncontrolled low-frequency energy can also interfere with the proper operation of compressors and other level-management tools, making your mix sound weak or uneven.
What you specifically want in a small studio are called “Near-Field Monitors,” which are designed to be placed fairly close to the mix position, to minimize the effects of the surrounding space. That said, the acoustical environment still has some effect, but less than when speakers are placed far away. There is a continuing arms race on among the manufacturers of compact, self-powered monitors, with more and more affordable, decent-quality, options every day. These speakers, which contain their own amplifiers, making set-up and wiring even easier, are excellent choices for a small studio. Simply plug the line-level output of your mixer or audio interface into the powered monitors, adjust your levels, and you’re done. M-Audio, KRK, Mackie, and many other companies have self-powered speakers (sometimes called “active monitors”) with 4”, 5”, or 8” woofers at excellent prices, from $300-500 for a pair, and remember, you don’t have to buy an additional power amplifier.
It’s overly simplistic to say that bigger is better, but in many ways it just comes down to physics: it’s very difficult to get deep bass from a small speaker, so if your physical space and budget allow it, you should consider going for a speaker with the largest woofer you can. Subwoofers can compensate for a small speaker’s inability to reproduce low bass frequencies, but getting all the elements properly aligned so that they create a realistic representation of your audio can be a challenge. Many affordable subwoofer-based systems are more concerned with creating dramatic room-shaking effects for movies and video games than they are with simply filling-in some missing frequencies in a speaker system’s response, so be careful when using a subwoofer – too much drama in your playback room is likely to make you mix the bass poorly.
Ideally, you should check your mixes on more than one type of speaker: see if it sounds good on your big studio monitors, does it still sound good on the little computer speakers? How about headphones? Eventually you will learn how to find a balance just by listening to your main speakers, but make sure that your primary listening set-up can give you as much information as possible, by not skimping on those studio monitors.
The subject of acoustical treatments for your listening space is more complicated than we can cover in this article, but if your space is not overly hard and reflective, or extremely resonant at a particular frequency, the proximity of the near-field monitors should overcome most acoustic problems, One doesn’t need a perfectly-tuned space in order to make decent mixes. Place the speakers so that the two monitors and the spot where you’ll sit will make an equal-sided triangle, and position them at about ear-level when you’re in your working position. Keep a clear path between your ears and the speakers (it’s tricky to keep computer screens out of the way, but it’s crucial that you do) and try to soften or break up any hard, flat surfaces between you and the speaker (like your desktop), which could create interference from sonic reflections. Don’t get the speakers too close to a wall, or too far into a corner; the bass response will be affected.
If you’re having problems with echo, or a resonance problem that sounds like a ringing or unnatural build-up of certain sounds when you’re listening, you may need to do some treatment of your room. There are good resources on the web. Skip the cardboard egg-cartons on the wall, they don’t really do much of anything, but some strategically placed acoustical foam might. Even without investing in a full-on studio treatment, just getting some soft materials on your walls, like drapes or other heavy fabrics, will help a lot. If you can break up plain flat surfaces, especially behind your mix position, you’ll reduce many problems. Professional studios use specially built diffusers for that, but if you can place a bookshelf or some other irregular surface that will scatter audio reflections, it will help.
If you need to record your voice in your studio, a whole other universe of complications arises. You need to isolate the mic from extraneous noise, from both inside and outside the room, and you need to reduce reflections and echoes of your voice as it arrives at the microphone. Sound isolation is very difficult without major construction: blocking sound requires mass and air gaps. Acoustical foam will not eliminate traffic noise from the road, or block the sound of your neighbor’s dog barking, nor will it allow someone to sleep in the room next door while you crank your speakers. Foam and other non-structural acoustical treatments can make your room sound less echoey or boxy, but you can’t make a truly soundproof booth or control room without some serious construction.
If you have a relatively quiet space, but you’re getting too much room-sound in your mic, you might want to buy or build something that isolates your microphone while you’re recording. Several companies make baffles designed to surround a microphone and block extraneous noise from polluting the main sound source. They have varying levels of success with that: simply putting some foam on a curved piece of plastic, or in a fabric cube, can’t fix most acoustical problems, and can sometimes make them worse. The more elaborate (and expensive) devices, such as the Reflexion Filter from SE Electronics, are quite good: the multi-layered design comes closer to effective, even, acoustical treatment. But even the simpler devices, including the home-brew foam-in-storage-cube constructions, can offer some improvement if your room is too echoey. Just remember, none of them are a true sound booth; you can’t get a clean recording with one of these if the neighbor kids are setting off fireworks outside your window. But they can be quite effective if you just need to reduce the echo and resonance of the room you’re in. It’s also helpful to have some soft materials behind you (perhaps drape a quilt over something) and it often helps to have something directly above the mic, perhaps a piece of acoustical foam placed on top of the baffle.
Most professional studios have racks of high-end preamps and processors, and if you will do a lot of voice recording in your studio and the budget allows, having at least one high-quality mic preamp might not be a bad idea. Microphones put out a very low-level signal, and the preamp that raises that signal to line-level makes a big difference in the sound quality. The preamps built into mixers or interfaces are often perfectly sufficient, but rarely as good as a dedicated external unit.
In general, rather than using Compression and Limiting and De-Essing and EQ when recording, it’s safer to just record clean and use software plug-ins that process the voice the way you like, saving the settings for each announcer you work with. There’s something to be said for recording through “voice channel” hardware boxes which put a nice preamp, a compressor, some EQ, and a de-esser all in one device, but it means you have to commit to a certain sound at the time of recording, and if you get your settings wrong, you have to live with it. Improper settings could give you a voice track that’s over-compressed, or has no high end, or is lispy from too much de-essing, and you’re stuck with it! If you just get a nice clean voice recording, say via the very good mic preamps in the Mackie Onyx mixer, you can tweak it later with some plug-ins in your editing program. If you do get an external mic preamp to give you some more clean gain than you’re getting from your mixer or interface, make sure it’s not adding unwanted artifacts at the same time. There are lots of inexpensive mic preamps that bill themselves as adding “tube warmth” or other attractive-sounding attributes. It’s true that a high quality tube-based preamp can lend a pleasing character to some sources, but most of the little cheap boxes add more noise and distortion than warmth. That effect might be just right for some circumstances, especially in music-making, but for standard narrations in audio documentaries, clean and unaffected is better.
Outboard compressors and EQs used to be important components of any good studio, and there are still appeals to a good piece of hardware, but the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of plug-in processors is hard to resist. Most audio editors come with a selection of basic plug-in effects, which in many cases may be sufficient for most production work. A good Compressor can even out the differences between loud and soft sounds, giving a voice, or other sound, a bigger presence. Equalization can control specific frequencies, reducing boominess or shrillness, or adding sparkle to a dull sound, or fullness to a thin one. The built-in compressor and EQ in Hindenburg Journalist do an amazingly good job, especially given their very simple controls. And Hindenburg’s Voice Profiler does an almost magical job of applying just the right Compresssion and EQ to make a voice sound good in a mix. Pro Tools ships with a wide selection of plug-ins, including separate 1, 4 and 7-band EQs, a Compressor/Limiter and a De-Esser to reduce excessive sibilance. Adobe Audition comes with many built-in effects as well, including excellent noise reduction. REAPER includes extensive ReaPlugs, including very flexible EQ and Compression plugins.
The effects plug-ins provided with your editing software may be more than sufficient for most productions, but there are additional options as well. All of these audio editors can use third-party plug-ins, if they’re in the proper format: usually VST, AU, RTAS or the new Pro Tools plug-in called AAX. It’s worth double-checking to make sure that a third party plug-in will work with your audio editor of choice.
There are many specialized third-party plug-ins to choose from: we’re particularly fond of those created by Waves. The plug-ins can be purchased one at a time, but they’re usually more affordable in bundles. Although many of these plug-ins and bundles are expensive, the company runs periodic sales, and individual retailers often offer better prices than the Waves website does. Some of the smaller packages, such as the Native Power Pack and the Renaissance Maxx collections each contain a good array of processors, including great-sounding EQ and compression plug-ins. The Waves L-1 limiter and its very similar successors the L-2 and L-3 are our go-to dynamics processors, controlling the loud peaks of an audio signal, providing a transparent way to increase the overall level of a mix without creating distortion.
Once you have the computer and software you want, here’s what we’d recommend:
A good small studio:
- A Mackie Onyx 802i mixer/interface – $400
- Mackie MR8v2 Active monitors – $500
- Waves Renaissance Maxx Plug-ins -$260
- Shure SM7 mic – $350
That’s about $1500 (without a computer or editing software.)
If that’s a little steep,
- M-Audio Mobile Pre 2-channel USB interface – $150
- KRK Rokit5 or M-Audio BX5 or Mackie MR5 monitors – $300
- Native Power Pack Plug-ins – $225
- AKG Perception 220 Microphone – $180
That’s about $850 (without a computer or editing software.)
Want something less pricey? This would still be pretty good:
- (No Mixer)
- Shure X2u Mic-to-USB interface – $100
- KRK Rokit5 or M-Audio BX5 or Mackie MR5 monitors – $300
- Audio editor’s provided effects – $0
- Studio Projects B-1 Microphone – $120
That’s only a little over $500 total (without a computer or editing software.)
Of course, there are many other pieces of gear and software that would work just fine. We’ve concentrated on a few that we’ve had good luck with here at Transom, and that we find to be good values. You might prefer different specific pieces, but hopefully the rough guidelines we’ve drawn here will still be helpful. Feel free to add recommendations for your favorite pieces in the comments.