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I'm an amateur audio engineer who most of the time needs to record choirs or musical theatre productions, but who occasionally does home studio recording of songs.

I don't have a huge amount of money but I'd like to build a collection of 'essential' audio units to give me the most flexibility and the most professional quality sound.

I have basics like a mixer / hard disk recorder (Tascam 2488), cables, mics etc. but no dedicated effects units at the moment.

For example,

  • will I feel the benefit, the return-on-investment if you like, if I buy a dedicated hardware reverb rather than relying on software reverb?
  • is a mic-preamp more useful than a compressor?
  • what piece of hardware could you not live without?
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4 Answers

You can't go wrong with a good crisp mic pre: it'll improve the sound you get out of even a bog-standard mic compared to the ones built into your mixer/audio interface without massive investment.

But it really depends what you're doing: If you're recording choirs and musical theatre then a single high-quality pre isn't going to be that useful when you're using multiple mics.

The fact of the matter is that plugins are swiftly approaching analogue outboard fx in terms of quality, so your main focus should be on units that are good at capturing things (in my opinion): there's no VST for preamps ;)

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Good point in the last paragraph :) Thanks for your answer –  Mark Pim Dec 17 '10 at 15:51
    
Glad to help :) –  Ed J Dec 17 '10 at 15:56
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+1 I have a rack full of signal processing gear I no longer use because the results are better with the software plugins. –  bogeymin Dec 18 '10 at 13:47
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Yes, a good mic preamp is better than a compressor, especially for the type of recording you do. That said, the preamps in your recorder may very well be quite good. I have an old Tascam analog desk, and it has 24 great preamps! Good analog compressors are also useful, because they should happen before digitization.

Also essential are good monitors, and for the live recording situation, excellent headphones. Otherwise it's like trying to paint with colored shades on. :)

As for the rest, if you are currently using software, continue with software. It's good enough. Should you end up in a situation where you feel it isn't good enough, then buy something that is. And that sounds like a stupid non-recommendation but it's actually quite important:

Learn to use what you have. When you run into it's limitations, when you can't make it sound better, then you will usually know what in your chain is stopping you. The microphones? The preamps, the headphones? The only thing thathard spot is if you have bad monitors/headphones, so get good ones there first.

If you can't tell what's stopping you from better sound, then I'm guessing this may be a good place to ask. :)

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Bottom line: Get a high-quality signal into the computer, backup and organize your files, and do as much editing as possible with software.

Why?

  1. Digital data does not decay. You can fiddle with the effects in digital domain without losing sound quality if you are judicious in how you do it (don't cut the volume before boosting it, don't clip, keep the original recorded signal around so you can re-fiddle with effects).
  2. Great, free plugins for great, free programs are abundantly available.

I'm a hobbyist musician on a shoestring budget myself, so any effects I use outside the PC were purchased for live scenarios (PodXT Live in my case, which is also my ADC, and is itself a computer applying effects via software).

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Studio monitors, studio monitors and studio monitors. Did I mention studio monitors? Buy the best you can (or can't) afford and if it looks too cheap it probably is. Do research on them - find out what folk recommend in the style of music you are going to be persuing.

I don't use any hardware external to my PC now apart from a small yamaha mixer (that's seen better days but phantom powers my Rode microphone), guitars, small yamaha keyboard with midi and saxophone.

I record everything dry (except when I'm having a beer!).

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