5 Home Studio Upgrades to Make Your Recordings Sound Less Like Demos

I made my first stabs at home recording by shuffling tracks between two cheaper-than-cheap cassette machines. Since I didn’t have cables, I’d play the basic track on machine one and “bounce” it using the other tape player’s fingernail-sized mic, which also recorded my live overdub.

Eight years would pass before I met the first studio pro to take me under his wing, and although I idolized the knob wizards who helped me learn the ropes, they made it clear that they merely passed on what others had passed down to them. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to learn from many, including Joe and Phil Nicolo, as well as Jim “Jiff” Hinger, at Philly’s legendary Studio 4, and Mike Hagler at Kingsize Sound Labs in Chicago.

As they accelerated my growth curve at rocket speed and deep-space depth, I came to understand the value of great gear, great ears and focused listening. Here I offer my collected observations on five recording studio upgrades that will lift your best efforts to the next level.

1. Mic Preamps

If you work with a tandem DAW interface-microphone preamp, then start thinking of it, to quote Dan Aykroyd, as a combination floor wax and dessert topping. (By the way, DAW stands for digital audio workstation. Reverb is a jargon-free zone). Your mic preamps are crucial pieces of gear—the “camera lenses” you need to capture sound flow with clarity, crispness and attitude.

My strong recommendation is to at least buy a strip of four microphone preamps, which will support simple stereo tracking or the famous three-mic drum method of star producer Glyn Johns (The Who, Eric Clapton, Eagles, The Beatles). To see how that works, click here.

If you can beg Uncle Mortimer to lend you $2,300, get a strip of API 3124s. These preamps do it all incredibly well, especially drums. They are fat, punchy and will up your game 110 percent—thus turning some of us from home recording god-awful into home recording gods.

If that’s out of your price range, go for a strip of Sytek MPX-4A preamps. I use these predominantly for overhead cymbals, and while they won’t blow you away like APIs, they won’t disappoint, either. Theses preamps are Class A (meaning they amplify both the peaks and troughs of the audio signal) and will run you about $900 factory direct.

2. The Mighty, Mighty SansAmp

When Tchad Blake mixed the Black Keys’ BlakRoc and Brothers discs, he used a Tech 21 SansAmp, and has said, “Whether it’s with the plug-in or the pedal, both are great. I’ve been using that for 20 years now.” Nothing will distort a snare drum into Cool City faster than a SansAmp.

You can run anything through it, and why not? As a pedal, I use the old school Bass Driver version, but there are many different models you can try as well. And as a plug-in, this secret weapon appears somewhere on almost every recording I make. It can be shrill on vocals, but will still work there if you finesse things.

3. Get One Great Vocal Mic

You can truly, truly get by with a small mic locker of Shure SM57s as utility players. But at some point, you’ll want to “step up the mic” for vocalists. If it’s a $2400 choice between a Neumann U87 or APIs, I’d start with the mic preamps as there are ways to get a wonderful vocal sound on the cheap.

For years I’ve used a humble Russian tube mic, an Oktava MKL-2500, that I nabbed for about $250. Then I had it hot-rodded for a few hundred more in an effort to match Neumann quality. I don’t think it quite got there as advertised, but it’s close enough to delight my clients. Many other great tube mic options abound; I’ll leave it to You, the Reader, to make suggestions.

4. Enabling Cabling = Soaring Sound

Yes, I know: Studio cable is frumpy compared to a sexy boutique amp. But it was one of the first big steps I made to improve my home studio efforts. I haven’t regretted it for a second.

I’d say it’s time for you to say goodbye to the beginner’s brand whose name sounds like “hoser.” On a more outspoken note, I have no problem saying that Monster Cable is far, far overpriced, overrated and falls apart easily. Mogami is a far better store-brand option.

I have my cable, including my mic cables, custom assembled at a Chicago-area company called General Cable, which makes the Gepco brand. My go-to is Gepco’s Quad Star, which uses a dual signal path that in essence makes it humbucking, but doesn’t lose a hair of high end. Gepco is cheaper than you think if you order in bulk and I love, love, love that you can order the mic cables in different colors. Have you ever tried to trace a line amidst a pile of 16 black mic cables? Not fun.

5. Gear Multiples: Take Five … or Six … or…

The buy-it-all affliction known as “gear jones” is dangerous for home studio owners: take it from someone who went too deep into debt. But you can make sure you spend good money on less-than-obvious choices for multiples.

For example: I own seven snare drums of various sizes and tonalities, from a floating brass piccolo to a restored 1930s Slingerland Radio King that I nabbed at a garage sale for $20. Every single snare gets used at some point and the drummers come away from the studio feeling kid-in-a-candy-store thrilled.

Build a percussion instrument box. An assortment of six vastly different distortion boxes will broaden a guitarist’s horizons. Funky acoustic instruments that get overlooked include four-string tenor guitars and no-frills banjos (cringe-inducing on their own, but quirky when buried in a mix). Set a budget and make a sensible punchlist before you shop — and coordinate that shopping run with an annual gear inventory and ongoing wish list.

About the Author: Lou Carlozo cuts and mixes almost all his music at his sweet home in Chicago. A former Chicago Tribune music editor and staff writer, his credits run the gamut from the Disney film “Prom” to an album he wrote and recorded for Special Olympics Illinois. In 2013, he scored and performed the soundtrack for the independent comedy “We’ve Got Balls,” which won multiple awards on nationwide film festival circuits.

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