Tech Tip:Good Gear
By Alex Reed
You've probably heard many times from TAXI that production doesn't matter when pitching your tape--it's the song that counts. Still, a certain level of sound quality is desirable in that you don't want the recording to distract the listener from the power of the song.
If your demos tend to sound terribly muddy, distorted or hissy--to the point where you can't even make out the melody, then this article is for you. I'll mention some quality gear I've used in professional studios that is affordable enough to buy for your home. Going on the assumption that you already own a guitar or keyboard with which to write, I'll stick to the basic necessities of a decent home studio, and I'll save the technical explanations of the gear for another time.
Let's start at the beginning: The microphone. It's no accident that the Shure SM-57 is the most popular and enduring of them all. It's thoroughly reliable and relatively transparent. Use it on vocals, drums, guitars, anything. If you want to invest a little more, get the AKG 414 or the Neumann TLM103. These mics manage to add warmth, presence and even excitement to your sound; they are perfect all-purpose mics.
The next step in the chain is the microphone pre-amplifier, or mic-pre. All consoles have these already built-in, so why should you buy a separate one? Because "outboard" mic-pre's have only one dedicated purpose, they typically perform their job much better than the ones in your console. I am pretty impressed by Bellari's RP-520. It has two channels, so it's great for drum overheads, as well as guitars, keyboards and even vocals. The tubes inside help add warmth and counter any inherent coldness if you're recording to a digital medium.
This brings me to the recorder, most likely either a computer disc or a tape-based machine like Alesis ADAT or Tascam DA-88. I highly recommend recording your signal as 'hot' (loud) as possible, because you won't get the best resolution unless you utilize all the bits available on each track. Higher resolution means fatter, bigger sounding results.
The way to control levels to your recorder is with a compressor. This allows you to pack the most signal onto tape/disc without getting 'overs.' I bought the Alesis 3630 because, at under $200, it does a remarkable job of imitating the hugely expensive SSL stereo compressor, one of the finest ever made. (Save even more by getting the similar Alesis NanoCompressor.) Put it in your chain after the mic-pre and twist each knob, training your ears as to what happens when you raise the threshold, adjust the attack, etc. Too much compression will remove the dynamics of the signal, so keep tweaking until you like what you hear.
You'll want it to be a stereo compressor so you can use it again when you mix. Put it on your stereo buss, e.g. between the console and the DAT player. This is essential if you have more than a few tracks recorded and you want it to make sense when it's mixed down to two. If you've been mixing your songs to a cassette deck, I suggest upgrading to DAT or CD-R. (Subsequent dubs will be cleaner this way.) Both the Sony PCM-R300 and the Tascam DA-20 are excellent DAT machines for the price.
But let's backtrack and look at your options for consoles & recorders. The cheapest way to go is still the 4- or 8-track Portastudios, which record onto analog cassette. I suggest you save until you can at least afford a digital multi-track recorder. For a few hundred bucks more than analog, you get a compact design that houses a console, at least 64 virtual tracks of recording, and well-designed effects such as reverb, delay, chorus, etc. This means you don't have to drop more dollars on effects processors.
If you're in a position to spend a few thousand on your console/recorder setup, you first have to choose between tape or disc. If interfacing with computers is perfectly natural to you, then go with a Macintosh with Protools and/or Digital Performer. But if you're not completely computer literate, you should consider tape-based recording instead. I like the combination of Yamaha's 01V or 02R with Alesis' 20-bit ADAT's. If you step up to this level of gear, you'll be putting yourself on the same playing field as professional engineers who record many of the albums you buy.
Other essentials include near-field monitors (the ever-visible Yamaha NS-10's or Alesis Monitor One speakers will do the trick for about $300) and an amp (either a dedicated power amp or regular stereo receiver, also about $300). You don't have to go crazy buying fancy cables for everything, but I do suggest investing $100 or so in 2 instrument cables and 2 mic cables (I like Spectraflex and Horizon, respectively) to put in your signal chain from microphone/instrument to tape/disc. Also, make sure you have a decent tuner. (I like the BOSS TU-12H.)
I deliberately left out certain areas of recording, such as equalization, drum machines and stomp boxes, because you can get a good recording of your songs without them. More important than any of the gear I've mentioned is your ability to develop and trust your ears. You can do this by regularly comparing your recordings with CD's you like. After you've mixed the song, ask yourself: Can I hear the melody? Can I make out the words? Is the hiss louder than the music? With a little investment in time and money, your songs can keep the impact they have when you play them live.
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