Your Sonic Swiss Army Knife: 10 Home Recording Gear Essentials

I remember hearing a story from my dad’s cousin about a recording he made. The technology was so Spartan that they had just one mic to cut all the instruments. When the bassist needed a boost, he moved his upright closer to the mic. The drummer had to sit further back to avoid drowning out the guitar player...

...who as it turned out happened to be a guy named Bill Haley. My cuz was his drummer, Dick Boccelli. And the song was ... geez ... let me see if I remember the name of it.

Oh yeah. “Rock Around the Clock.”

There’s a lesson in that song for all of us today. The great news for home recordists—no matter how limited your gear—is that less can still mean more. “This is a wonderful time to build a home studio,” says Matt Newport, founder of Black Lion Audio and now the current head of Dizengoff Audio.

“There’s a tremendous selection of very good budget-priced gear out there,” he adds. “Stellar Microphones, Michael Joly Engineering, Warm Audio and Livid Instruments make good gear for budget-conscious engineers. These days it’s possible to get very good tracking results without spending a fortune."

Well said. To get the goods with at least some level of precision, you need a set of tools that won’t let you down. Let’s use the analogy of a Swiss Army knife: It’s no butcher blade or electric drill, but it’ll still do the job with military precision. So are you ready to march into sonic battle? Stand at attention, brothers and sisters in arms!

1. Your best blade: the Shure SM57

Though it costs less than $100, you will find an SM57 in the mic locker of virtually every major studio in the world. It’s still the go-to mic for snare drums in countless pro sessions. And if you’re a klutz like me, rest assured: You can actually back a car over this thing—yes, people have done this—and it will still work. In one experiment, I recorded EVERYTHING with 57s: Every drum, the bass (with no DI), vocals, guitars, keys. You can hear the result by clicking here. (Do note the drums and mixing were done at a bigger studio ... but you’ll get the idea.)

2. Your bottle opener: a Vox Night Train NT15H

With the Night Train, Vox became versatile. You can switch between 7.5 and 15 watts, achieving fabulous clear and distorted sounds at levels that won’t drive the dog or your roommates crazy. It features EL84 power tubes and 12AX7 preamp tubes, and pairs wonderfully with any decent 8- or 16-ohm speaker. I love other small amps such as the Fender Pro Junior and my 1960s Vox Pathfinder—the latter actually solid state! But unlike those amps, the Night Train isn’t a one-trick pony. What’s more, you can upgrade it later on with a wonderful mod by Ben Fargen that swaps out the cheap transformer with a Mercury Magnetics monster.

3) Your corkscrew: Dizengoff D4 mic preamp

Let’s assume you can have one external mic pre in your studio, and only one. I’d pick this limited edition sweetie, which Newport now builds by hand as a tribute to a classic 1960s British tube console preamp you’ve heard on Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Zombies discs. While the Dizengoff D4 is in and out of supply on the market, it's still easily one of the best recording deals out there.

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4) Your file: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

While the Apogee Duet is a nifty little interface with 2 inputs and 4 outputs, and up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution, it runs about $600—ouch! The Focusrite retails for $200 and runs 24-bit/96kHz, which is close enough for me fidelity wise. Yes, it’s only got 2 outputs, but consider whether 2 additional outs are worth $400. I don’t think so. As Focusrite likes to say, “You need high quality, not a high channel count.”

Among home studio warriors, the Scarlett gets just as high ratings as the Duet. Yes, the Duet has more fidelity and I respect anyone who goes in that direction. But I was never a big fan of that single-knob thing Apogee seems to love (as on my Ensemble, which never played nice with Pro Tools). And I personally like the combo XLR-TRS inputs on the Scarlett. Plug and play; that’s the way.

5) Your screwdriver: Something that runs on tape

Neil Young recently described digital recording as sounding like a bucket of ice cubes dumped on your head. Having some tape-driven device—from a Roland Space Echo to a Tascam 144—can help alleviate the pixelated sound blues. Tascam’s Portastudio cassette suite is obsolete: about as popular as an eight-track player. But I love my 246, and still use it. One way to do so is to dump a digital slave track to the 4 track and cut your bass there, where the in-the-red warmth is something to behold.

If Bruce Springsteen could record “Nebraska” on a Tascam 144 Portastudio, these machines must have some overlooked mojo. And you can have much more fun with the pitch change know than with any plug-in that changes pitch. Used Portas are dirt cheap.

6) You multi-purpose hook: Tech21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI

Stop reading and purchase one of these on Reverb. Now. Don’t take my word for it; producer Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Los Lobos) loves to run just about everything through this “bass” preamp. And so can you: snare drums, slide guitars, keys, shakers, whatever needs some hair on the chest. It’s the master tool of rustic sounds and overdriven madness. I use a SansAmp on pretty much every session I do, and it has never let me down for character. Your enemy is the dumpy, amateur home demo. The SansAmp is your best friend.

7) Your saw: Alesis HR-16 and/or HR-16B

Used in tandem, these discontinued drum machines feature a wide swath of sounds that you can bend any number of ways by changing the pitch or sample. Any high-fi drum machine will do the trick (including the Alesis SR16 or SR18), but these two old-school tools in tandem are hard to beat and easy to program—and can work together via MIDI. Here’s a neat trick: think John Lennon and run them through delay and compression. Think cheesy psychedelia and run some occasional flange and/or phase on them. The trick is to NEVER use the straight sounds, but work them as a basis for a fabulous color scheme of your own making. Favorite sound: The “lip pop” on the HR-16B, which I used to write a song called “Lip Poppin’ Fool.”

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8) Your scissor blades: Two dbx 163x compressors

I can see and honor a lot of “headroom” for debate on this. But the 163x (mentioned in my previous home recording piece) has character—a dark, low-fi sound all its own. It’s run on a single slider and you can use a pair for mixes bounced to CD, if you mix that way. For internal bouncing in digital they’re impractical, but they’ll work fine on stereo keyboards or stereo guitars. Even a single one is fun to use on an unorthodox keyboard such as Suzuki Omnichord (though it might boost line noise). Long live the squash! Honorable mention: FMR Audio’s RNC 1773.

9) Your tweezers: Line 6 POD

Amp modeling technology is legion now, but this is the one that started it all. I learned about the POD from Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam’s guitarist, and bought one right away. Years later I still use mine and it’s like having a dozen amps a kidney bean. You can run it direct, to an amp, or split the signal with a mic’ed amp. Used first-gen PODs run less than $200. To be sure, newer models and competitors have gone far beyond this progenitor. But I’m lazy and dumb, and find this version easy to use, without any manual or head scratching. Don’t fix that guitar in the mix: Get this.

10) The carrying case: Your ears.

It’s amazing how many people can’t correctly answer the question, “What’s the top essential in any recording arsenal?” Why do wannabe engineers and producers treat their ears worse than their rears? At least they wipe their rears. But they blast their ears regularly at concerts. They turn up their headphones way too loud for too long. They eat like crap (no pun intended), impeding blood flow. And they never, ever exercise, except when trotting to the bathroom to wipe, well, you know. A future post will cover ear hygiene, the most overlooked practice in keeping your engineering chops sharp.

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About the Author:

Lou Carlozo is a Chicago-based producer, engineer and studio musician who records, mixes and masters albums in his basement. Send your home recording questions and tips to him via the comments section below.

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