Setting up a recording rig can be daunting, but you’ll save time and money
by thinking through what you’re trying to accomplish and what gear you
need to get you there. Sometimes the simplest solution—perhaps a 4-track
mixer/recorder and workhorse dynamic mic—may be all you need to get
rolling, whether you’re a songwriter or want to demo your band. And it
doesn’t have to cost a fortune. For example, you can score a flash-drive
4-track (such as the Tascam DP-004), a versatile mic (like Shure’s SM58),
plus a pair of headphones for about $300.
I review a lot of guitar, studio,
and other equipment for
various print and video publishers.
Because I get my hands on
so much gear, I receive a lot of
questions from players looking to
upgrade their rigs. Most of these
messages have some version of the
same general question: “What’s
the best ?” And my reply is almost
always the same two-word answer:
“It depends.” It’s really difficult
to give more of an answer than
that without having an in-depth
conversation, because there are so
many products out there and so
many individual uses for them.
That can make it difficult
to choose the right product for
your needs and uses, especially
if you don’t have a lot of experience
with a particular product
category. What’s my suggestion
to help with this problem? You
should first know what you need,
which is not always the same as
what you want. If you can figure
out what you need a piece of
gear to do, then you can narrow
things down to the products
that will fill that need. A list like
this will go a long way toward
making your decision easier, and
even better, cut the list of choices
down to one, two, or just a few.
At this point, you can make
your decision based on which
item fits your workflow best or
offers the nicest selection of extras,
which one you just like better, or
simply choosing the least expensive
option. “Least expensive”
is always the last of my criteria,
because all too often I’ve ended
up replacing low quality, inexpensive
gear with higher quality, more
expensive gear. In the end, that
always winds up costing more
than just buying the right product
in the first place. I’m not saying
there isn’t gear out there that
is both affordable and of good
quality, or that you shouldn’t get
the best deal you can. Just make
sure you’re getting the right item
regardless of the price, so you
don’t end up paying twice.
I’ve been going through this
in my studio lately. For years,
I’ve been working with outside
clients and projects, and I’ve
tried to have a wide assortment
of gear to cover any scenario
that may present itself. Due to
time limitations, I’ve recently
made the decision to focus more
on my own personal projects in
my studio. With this in mind,
I’m re-thinking the gear I currently
have and am turning a
lot of it over for items that will
better suit what I want to do.
I’m being ruthless about this
since I have far less of a need to
keep gear around “just in case”
anymore. Out it goes if I don’t
see an actual use for a piece of
gear, even if it is a great item.
Sure, it’s hard to let some of
those cool pieces of equipment
go, especially after I’ve had them
for many years, but there is a
payoff. I can get the right gear
for my needs, streamline my
workflow, and keep the focus on
making music—which is where
I want my focus. Let’s take a
look at the steps in the process.
Have the end in sight.
Owning gear isn’t the goal. The
goal is to create music, and the
equipment is simply what you
need to reach that goal. So for
the first step, figure out what
you want to do. What do you
want to accomplish musically?
How will your rig be used? What
applications will you have? For
example, I realized that even
though I had a nice assortment
of mics and other gear that could
record a live, acoustic drum kit,
I probably won’t be doing that in
my studio anymore. I also probably
won’t be recording an entire
band while playing live. I may
go to outside studios to do these
sorts of things, but I won’t do
them in my room. So, I sat down
to make a combined list of what
I do in my studio now and what
I want to be able to do in the
future, arriving at the following:
• Track electric guitar.
• Track various acoustic
instruments, such as steelstring
and classical guitar,
small hand percussion,
possibly piano, and so on.
• Track electric bass.
• Track electronic keyboards.
• Track electronic drum kits.
• Track vocals.
• Create final mixes of songs.
• Master final recordings
I also looked at the number
of players or singers I record at
one time. The maximum number
I arrived at was four or five,
including electronic drums, bass,
one or two guitars, and vocal.
Your list might be very different.
Maybe you record acoustic drum
kits on a regular basis. Maybe
you track a full band while all
members are playing at once.
Maybe you just record yourself
playing steel-string guitar.
Figure out what gets you
Now that you have a list
of what you want to do, you
can make a list of what you
need for each item to happen.
What instruments and voices
do you need to mic up? How
many inputs do you need on
your audio interface? Do you
need external mic preamps or
processing outside of what is in
your interface? Will you and your
musicians monitor the sound
using headphones or studio
speakers? If everyone will be using
headphones, does each player
need a separate mix, or can you
all listen to the same mix?
Your assignment for next
time is to make a list of things
you want to accomplish in your
studio, and then begin to make
a list of the gear required to
accomplish each item on this
list. When we come back next
month, we’ll look at how to fill
the former editor in chief of
magazine. He’s written
more than 1000 articles
and six books on recording
and music technology, and
has released an instructional
DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is
entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate
Electric Guitar Sound
. To learn more, visit