Best Music Production Equipment for Beginners

I’d like to try and help voiceover professionals who haven’t yet set up their own home studios so that they don’t make some of the common errors that I made.

I want to point out that I’m not a technical whiz so this will be very low tech. These ideas and opinions along with my personal experience and observations are mine alone.

Many others will have different views. This is just an attempt to help those who have not yet set up a home studio. This is my progression through the business of recording my voice work and getting it to my clients since the mid-nineties.

First of all, it’s a good idea to think about whether you need one, and then, if you do, what you want to accomplish with one. As I see it, there are two basic types of studio.

One is for someone who wants to send voice work only to clients…no production. The other is for people who produce, or want to. In my case, I have never been a producer and I send my clients voice only.

Music Equipment List-
Explaining the Music Jargon!

It’s no wonder that few musicians build a home studio. On top of the expense, the music jargon can be incredibly intimidating. You’ll come across strange concepts like balanced and unbalanced, patch bay, in-line monitoring, busses, slot resonators, analog and digital, and sequencers. It takes a considerable amount of stamina to wade through all that mumbo-jumbo and figures out what all the music jargon means.

The fact is, you don’t have to understand much about technology to create a decent home recording studio – just as you don’t need to understand electricity to buy a good ceiling fan. A little guidance from people with experience, some basic research on your part, and a lot of listening will teach you everything you need to know.

Still, you do have to know what to ask for when you go to the store, you need to use the right music jargon. Thus, some vocabulary is unavoidable. Let’s begin with the basic components that make up a typical computer-based home recording studio.

All music equipment in a studio falls into one of three general categories: Input, processing (the computer hardware and software), and output.

Let’s take them in order.

Input Gear

If you want the computer to “hear” and store your singing, you’ve got to get your voice into the computer in a language it can understand. The devices that collect the sounds are called input devices.

Microphone

This piece of music equipment you probably already know about, the input device with which you collect sound is the microphone. The microphone collects your voice or instrument and converts it into electrical impulses called analog signals.

Pre-amp

The electrical impulse created by the microphone is so weak that, by itself, it wouldn’t even create a squeak, much less a big sound. The name for this piece of music equipment is the preamp, it magnifies the signal so it’s powerful enough to create sound you can hear.

The preamp can do something else that’s very important if equipped properly. Computers don’t understand “analog.” They only understand “digital,” which is basically just a code made of a series of Ons and Offs (these are represented as 1s and 0s). The language difference, of course, creates the need for a translator – something that can understand analog, and then translate it into digital and send it on to the computer.

The music jargon for this process is analog-to-digital conversion, and the preamp can be equipped to do this task. The computer sound card does this conversion.

Keyboards and synthesizers

The microphone isn’t the only way to collect sound. You can also use a keyboard or synthesizer. Electronic keyboards and synthesizers send music in a language called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) that allows devices to speak to each other through a MIDI cable – another piece of music jargon worth remembering. You can also get something called a controller keyboard that allows you to control several synthesizers from a single keyboard.

Samplers

A sampler, which can be either a piece of hardware or a piece of software, is like a recording studio in a box. It records and stores snippets of sound from musical instruments. Those snippets can be changed, manipulated, and layered. A sampler is useful where you don’t have access to live instruments, but you want a live sound.

Outboard equipment

Outboard equipment is hardware that allows the musician to create special effects such as reverberation. You can also use plug-ins to create these effects.

Processing Gear

Computer

From the input device, the sound goes into the computer where it is replayed, processed, or stored. You’ll read more about computers later. For now, just keep in mind that the computer can be either an Apple Mac or a PC. The computer uses the following items to do its job.

Sound card

The sound card takes the information from the outside world and converts it into language the computer can understand. Thus, like the pre-amp, it acts as a translator. The sound card also determines the quality of the sound you get. The better the sound card, the more realistic the sound.

Software

The computer can only do what it’s told to do. Software is the stuff that gives the computer its instructions (with a little help from you!). Software can help you record, mix, manipulate, and do all kinds of other wonderful things, depending on the package you use.

Plug-ins

A slightly less well known piece of music equipment jargon is the plug-in. These are bits of software that process the music further, or add effects – for example, there’s a plug-in that makes the sound reverberate. Plug-ins often do some of the tasks of outboard equipment, though often not quite so well as the dedicated piece of hardware.

Output devices

What fun is music equipment if you never get to hear back what you’ve recorded? Output devices provide a way to get the sound out of your computer, so you can listen to your creations. Here are some common output devices:

Monitor

A very important piece of music equipment is the monitoring system, this is the type of speaker. However, the purpose of a monitor is not to make music sound good; rather, it is to reproduce sound accurately so you can make it better. It doesn’t enhance or improve. It just, well, monitors the sound.

Speakers

Speakers and monitors are similar kinds of music equipment; but speakers may be designed to improve the sound. This is great if you want to enjoy the fruits of your labor; it’s not always so great if you want to hear what you actually recorded.

Headphones

These are a pretty self-explanatory piece of music equipment. Headphones are just speakers you wear on your ears. They are great if you want to listen without creating ambient sound. For example, you might want to hear the music while you add a voice track; or maybe you’ve just got a really strict landlady! But beware, there are funny acoustic things that happen to the sound between the speakers and your ears that don’t happen on headphones!

Mixing desk

Our final piece of music equipment is the mixing desk, it allows you to regulate and adjust the music. Mixing lets you adjust the relative volume of different instruments, but it also lets you send different types of sound into different channels. This latter function can make it easier to get just the sound effect you want. Most music software now does mixing, too, so a mixing desk isn’t the necessity it used to be. But it can still provide useful functionality and connectivity.

ISDN or MP3?

The people who have already spent time in production will be way ahead of the rest of us in knowing how to put together a production studio, whether at home or elsewhere. This article is basically for the rest of us, who only want to voice material for clients and send it back to them.

With that in mind, you still have two choices. You can either opt for installing ISDN lines and using them to do sessions with clients in studios outside your home, or you can record your clients material in your little studio and send it to them using mp3 or an ftp site.

I find today that there are a great many clients for my work who want me to send them mp3 files, either attached to email, using an ftp site or burned on a CD.

I also have friends who have ISDN studios in their homes and use them…some more, some less frequently. Most of them do at least some audio production work as well as just doing voice work. In my case, I do not use ISDN in my home studio. I do have access to it though, if required, through a benevolent producer friend.

Ok, assuming you don’t do audio production, such as creating radio and television commercials complete with music background, and don’t want to get into the ISDN thing…I can give you the benefit of what I’ve discovered over the past several years.

Recording studio equipment

I chose an ElectroVoice RE27ND microphone. Someone advised me to buy the microphone I sounded best on. This particular microphone was in use at the radio station for which I did commercials and promos. The technical people at the station told me I sounded good on it, so I bought one. A lot of radio stations use it’s cousin, the RE20, as their standard microphone.

I had no dedicated studio room so I used the dining room table. I ran the microphone through a Symetrix sx202 pre-amp and recorded on a Sony MDS-302 Mini-Disc recorder. I still have the system, including the computer that powered it, all long since retired.

This was in 1995-96, so it was pretty early in the home studio game. There was little access to CD burners. Only the biggest studios downtown had them. But I could record on mini-discs and then transfer them to tape cassettes and keep the quality pretty high. At least to the cassette!

At this point, the only way to record and edit was by using the software that came with the sound card installed when you bought the computer (usually SoundBlaster by Creative), or that came with Windows. Now, there are further choices as to what software you use to record. I’ll have more on that topic later.

I was doing a lot of work in the commercial sound studios in Toronto and area and didn’t really advance much further in the home studio field until coming to San Diego in 1999.

I had a reasonably fast computer for the time, and eventually got a DSL hookup. It was dicey with the DSL because I was living at the outer limits of service from the phone company office (or CO) nearest me.

By the way, I suspect most of you might have tried DSL and then cable, or the other way round, as a connection for your computer. I started with DSL, which worked (there were some stressful times when PacBell first started offering DSL, as many may recall), but when I moved to a new house in a new subdivision, I opted for cable. I’m quite happy with my decision, but there are also lots of happy DSL users. It’s your choice…either will work for you.

Shortly after arriving in San Diego, I began to upgrade my home studio. Very early in that process, I went from a dialup 56K modem on EarthLink to DSL. That made it much faster to transfer audio to clients over the net.

I did find that longer .wav files were still a problem and a lot of people were still asking for them. I tried attaching them to email, but for longer audio files, I had to cut them up into sections. In a lot of cases, I was dealing with studios where they could patch the audio but it was still a hassle.

In the next while, things happened fast in the audio field. People started using mp3’s more extensively, so I did as well.

Better sound cards were becoming available and eventually, I bought a SoundBlaster Platinum Plus Live 5.1. It has a front panel for connecting microphone and headphones, including volume controls, as well as optical connections for people who want digital outputs.

I started hearing about a new microphone…a producer friend called it a Neumann knockoff. It’s a Rode NT1000. I tried it out and it was an quite an improvement over the ElectroVoice. There was one problem for me though. It was also a lot more sensitive.

The RE27ND has a very narrow pattern, meaning there wasn’t as much room noise picked up. The Rode has a much wider pattern, and it’s just so much more sensitive, I had to rethink the studio space. I had been getting along with a minimal amount of soundproofing. Not so with this microphone.

Soundproofing a home voiceover studio

I know voiceover people who are using their walk-in closets as studios. I’m using one of the bedrooms in my house. There are many ways to sound proof.

A friend of mine bought himself a prefab sound booth and it works well for him. You need a bit of space for the prefab booths, although they do come in different sizes.

I found that buying an inexpensive comforter and hanging it on one wall has helped immensely. You can also get soundproofing material from your local pro audio store. I will be doing more in regards to my soundproofing in the future.

Audio Processing Gear

In the same conversation with my producer friend that ended with my purchase of the Rode microphone, he suggested I should be running it through the same system he was, a dbx286A preamp/mic processor. I picked one up at the same time I bought my Rode NT1000. I also acquired a pro windscreen and microphone stand.

With my recent purchase of a new Dell computer system, I ran into a small problem. The Creative Audigy 2 sound card that came with it doesn’t have the front panel I had been used to, and I was left with mini-plugs on the back of the sound card for connections.

I didn’t feel comfortable with that so, after asking around at sound stores and consulting other voice pros, I bought a sound card called a Mia from a smaller company called Echo, based in Carpinteria, California. It is a very good pro card, with ¼ in jacks in back as well as digital outputs. I have both cards installed but all my voice work goes through the Mia.

The most popular editing choices seem to be Cool Edit and Sound Forge by Sonic Foundry. You can spend more and buy Pro-Tools or SAW, but these programs are intended for people who are actually doing audio production.

This is the system I currently use

The Rode NT1000, into the dbx286A, into a new Dell dimension 8300, into an Mia sound card – by Echo, edited on Sound Forge by Sonic Foundry, and either burned on CD, attached to email and sent out or loaded on a client’s ftp site. I have my own ftp site, so my clients can simply download from there. I do have Cool Edit and use it to edit music mp3’s but not for voice work. There’s nothing wrong with Cool Edit, I just prefer Sound Forge.

If you have a questions about anything here, please email and I’ll try my best to answer you.

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