Setting up a home recording studio, part 2: recording equipment

Last time we focused on room setup, this time Nigel Cooper looked at recording equipment.

Read the first part here.

Closed helmet

Headphones are another essential piece of kit, as your singer will need them for monitoring purposes to hear the backing track while singing. But they have to be closed, and of good quality, to prevent the sound from leaking out and being picked up by the microphone, which would cause a horrible delayed comb filtering effect. For £100 a pair of Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro in the 80 ohm version will do the job perfectly. The DT 770 Pro fully encapsulates the ears and are by far the most comfortable cans you will ever wear.

They are virtually colorless and great for blending too. Yes, you heard right, mixing. I know a lot of amateur audio engineers will tell you never to mix on headphones, but a professional engineer will tell you not only to mix on two different sets of monitors, but also with headphones. The majority of the younger generation listen to their music through headphones, so you need to mix for that market. When mixing with headphones, the stereo field is in the center of your head and extends to each ear as opposed to being in front of you, so you need to make slight adjustments with automated pans and what’s where in field stereo so your final mix will sound great on anything from high-end hi-fi, a Sonos speaker, a dodgy mall PA and, yes, headphones and earphones.

Helmet closed.

MIDI keyboard controller

Then we come to the all-important MIDI keyboard controller, which again has to be perfect because it’s the one piece of physical gear you’ll be touching more than any other, so the keyboard action should feel and play right, the sliders and knobs should all have a nice tactile feel, and most importantly they should have all the required controls, fingers etc. and seamlessly integrate with your computer’s DAW. I have to admit I struggled with this and couldn’t figure out why most MIDI keyboard controller manufacturers build them to the low-sticky plastic standards akin to a jet printer. £30 ink. Most of the ones I’ve tried, even from respectable companies like Korg and Roland, were more like a plastic toy you’d expect to find in a 4-year-old’s playroom than in a studio professional recording.

MIDI keyboard controller.
MIDI keyboard controller.

But after much research I found a very bright shining star in the department of MIDI keyboard controllers made by a French company called Arturia, the model I chose is the KeyLab MKII, which comes in 49 versions, 61 or 88 keys and boy what an amazing keyboard controller it is too. Well, actually, it’s a MIDI keyboard controller/synthesizer because it comes with a software package called Analogue Lab V which contains amazing synth models of most classic synthesizers and keyboards of yesteryear such as: Roland Jupiter 8, Prophet 5, Oberheim OB-Xa, Yamaha CS-80, Hammond B3 to name a few and they aren’t just sticky software plug-ins either. Arturia scoured the earth and bought these vintage synths, sometimes more than one of each for consistency. They’ve stripped them down and studied every PCB, module, processor, chip, diode and computerized the lot to come up with software emulations that are (again, believe me on this) virtually indistinguishable from the real thing and a times in the mix they are 100% indistinguishable, they really are that good!

Microphone

Next comes the all-important microphone. These days, if you only have £200 to spend on a mic, you’re in luck because there are plenty of amazing studio quality mics out there. Again, the days of having to spend £2300 on a Neumann U87 for decent results are over, although the U87 is quite an amazing mic. The thing is, most people make the mistake of choosing a mic based on what their favorite artist uses or what every blogger uses. The Shure SM7b is a good example. Just because Jacko used an SM7 for the vocal work on his album Thriller doesn’t mean it’ll be the perfect match for your voice. Micheal Jackson had a smooth, rounded voice, so the engineer chose the Shure SM7 off the shelf because it had a rough edge to its tonal character, which would help Michael’s vocal presentation flow through the mix better.

If you have a gritty, edgy voice like Kelly Jones of Stereophonics, you’ll be looking at a mic that has the opposite characteristics, one that’s rounded, soft and slightly dark, otherwise if you go for a mic like the Rode NT1 (which is a bit on the bright side), it would sound too grainy and bright and the vocals would need to be toned down in post. Personally, I use two different mics, one condenser and one dynamic, for different applications and most top recording studios will have a cabinet full of mics for different vocal styles and applications. My two mics are the £275 Sennheiser MK4 which has a bright transparent sound with warm bass if you get up close and it has a good amount of sparkle at the top to make vocals really cut. The other is a dynamic mic, the famous £475 Electro-Voice RE20. The RE20 is smoother, darker and more rounded and it has no proximity effect due to its unique design.

Pop filter

A pop filter is a must to go with your mic, but not one of those budget filters from Amazon that has one layer of nylon stretched over a circular plastic frame, or worse, “two” layers of nylon – yuck. I’m always amazed at how many recording studios use nylon pop filters knowing that they cut out some of the high frequencies of the human vocal range. Especially when the Stedman PS101 pop filter does not affect audio quality in any way due to its unique stamped metal design. The Stedman also prevents spit from hitting the delicate mic diaphragm (diaphragms and spit do not mix). Diaphragms vibrate under the microscope and are sensitive to spit and moisture, so if you have Johnny Rotten gobbling up your mic during an anti-singing session at the end of it, there could be an element of hum and distortion entering the mix when the diaphragm stops picking up the vibrations of sounds properly due to being covered in gob. Also, for hygienic reasons, you can simply run the Stedman under the tap.

Stedman pop filter.
Stedman pop filter.

The final accessory I would recommend getting for your mic is a cover, which will protect the diaphragm from direct sunlight if left in direct sunlight when not in use and a mic cover will retain the color of the metal over the years as this will prevent sunlight from fading it. A Velex-X mic cover only costs around £12, so there’s no excuse not to buy one.

plugins

As for software, aside from the DAW, be it Logic, Ableton or whatever you decide, there are two essential software plugins that I would recommend – one being more essential than the other. Antares Auto-Tune is one, they offer different packages, but the $199 AutoTune EFX+ would be my recommendation. Antares was the original Auto-Tune and the one used on Cher’s “Believe” in 1998. Although it’s great for getting slightly out of tune notes, most people use it for the “Cher” effect or the T -Payne. effect, that robotic Daft Punk vocal sound when Auto-Tune is pushed to maximum overdrive. Nothing does it better than the Antares Auto-Tune.

Audio plug-ins.

The next essential software required for vocal work is the best kept secret of all top recording studios. Melodyne by Celemony. Again, there are three deals, but the $249 Melodyne 5 Assistant is my favorite package. Almost every commercial song you hear on the radio has had its vocals passed through Melodyne. It’s different from Auto-Tune in that you can adjust each note individually in fractions of a semitone as well as adjust the timing, which is vital because even professional singers can’t always nail the timing, but you can also adjust the formant (mouth shape and throat width), note length, sibilance and much more. Basically, Melodyne is totally awesome and if you’re a singer, no matter how good you are, Melodyne will put your voice up there with the commercial releases.

Cables

Microphone audio cable.

Finally come the cables. I’ll tell you right off the bat that sonically there’s no audio difference between a cheap £8 Amazon Basics XLR cable and a £50 Mogami cable, none. With decent XLR and guitar cables you are paying for improved shielding against radio and electrical interference and higher quality cable materials and the XLR and Jack connectors are made from higher quality metals. If your cable runs next to a phone charger, for example, chances are a budget XLR cable will pick up electrical interference, which will often find its way into the recording. Also, I’ve spoken to the engineers at Neumann and Sennheiser a number of times over the years and quite often they receive an expensive mic that’s been sent in for repair because part of a cheap metal XLR connector s was broken inside the mic when the engineer was just unplugging it. this. So I use XLR and Jack Mogami and Klotz cables in my home recording studio.

Ok, so these two articles form a brief overview of the equipment at least. Click the YouTube link below for the full 3 hour 20 minute tutorial video that goes into great detail.

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