Psst. Hey you. C’mere.
If you’re old, you remember Sesame Street’s Ernie getting summoned by a shady looking character with a long coat selling illegal… letters. Much like that shady character, I have a secret, or rather several. And no one wants you to know this shit. Guitar Center, Sam Ash, they’d love to put a stop to this info. But as a part time white hat hacker, my motto is that information should be free.
Here it is. If you want to make great-sounding home recordings, you’re likely overspending. There are smart places to put your money, and dumb places. Ima straighten ya out, kid.
- DAW. The software you run is worth spending money on. There is a noticeable difference in results when using Logic Pro X instead of GarageBand. GarageBand has gotten a ton better, but Logic Pro X only costs $199. Years ago it was called something different and sold for a grand. It’s still worth a fucking grand, but it’s only $199. If you run a Mac, buy it (unless you already have Pro Tools and all the extra crap you need.) On Windows, hell, I don’t know. I run Windows for gaming at home and servers at work but I don’t know anything about PC music software. Someone else can help you with that. I’m not a Mac snob (I used to be.) Here’s a short list of what you need, that comes built-in with Logic:
- High Quality Digital Reverb. I said high quality.
- Intelligent Drummer software that can autogenerate drum parts based on your audio tracks
- A large and high quality collection of audio plugins
- A large and high quality collection of keyboards/synths plugins
- Pitch correction software
- Ability to do at least 48 audio tracks and unlimited MIDI tracks
- Architecture to support third party plugins
- Audio Interface. You don’t need to drop a fortune, but don’t buy something for $29.99. Get a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. They go somewhere between $100 and $150. There are other boxes in that same price range and they’re all good enough for what you need.
- Guitar Amp. You’re a guitarist, right? I used to record with a Line 6 POD and I’ve also tried my hand at Amplitube. Amplitube can get pretty close if you’re willing to tweak it, but there’s a latency involved that most guitarists hate. You will get a much better sound if you use a small tube combo amp with an SM57. Some amps have a direct recording output and sometimes that can sound great. I have it on my Peavey and my Fender. The Peavey out sounds great and I use it often. The Fender out is poopieland and I never ever use it. The key to a great guitar sound recorded is a great amp.
- Vocal Mic. Don’t buy a $99 USB mic. Spend at least a couple hundred and get a Rode NT1A. You can spend more but the law of diminishing returns will hunt you down.
- Monitors. Don’t use $79 computer speakers. Powered monitors are the entire market now (pretty much) and you can get some decent entry-level powered monitors for around $300 to $400 for the pair.
Some people out there are snickering because none of the above suggestions are expensive – they’d all be considered “budget consumer gear” to a pro studio. But I know my audience. You’re just like me. $400 isn’t lying around in your couch cushions. If I had the money to drop 2 grand on a vocal mic, I would. But it wouldn’t sound ten times better than my Rode NT1A.
- Acoustic Guitar. When recorded with a decent mic, it’s hard to tell the difference between a $100 acoustic guitar and one that sells for $1,000. Yes, you can tell a difference if you are featuring the acoustic guitar. But if you’re using acoustic as a background instrument, you don’t need a really good one.
- Electric Guitars. You probably already have your “main axe.” But you might want some other guitars to give you different sounds. A Tele, a Strat, a Les Paul, something with P90’s, a semi-hollow body, etc and so on. Put your money into good bridge pickups and buy inexpensive but solid guitars. Your recordings won’t know the difference. I put a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates in my Gibson Les Paul and my Epiphone Les Paul and recorded them both dirty. I can’t hear much difference. An Affinity Strat with Texas Special pickups will sound very close to an American Strat in the mix. Budget guitars for the win. Actually this is the number one reason I’m the Budget Guitarist.
- Bass. Here’s the trick to getting a great bass sound – get some bright-sounding strings. Seriously. It made my lowly Squire bass sound like a Rickenbacker in recordings. Run your lowly bass with bright strings into a tube amp and take the direct output and record it. Compress with a plugin. Done.
- Mixing Board. You might not need one at all. I use one by Alesis so I can hear reverb on my vocals when I sing, but I’m recording dry.
- Outboard Gear. You can spend a lot of money on outboard gear, but your plugins will come pretty close.
- Expensive Ribbon Mic. The fad on YouTube has been to use a $99 Shure SM57 and a $1,000 ribbon mic. Skip the ribbon mic. You don’t need it. The Shure SM57 can give you a great guitar sound if your amp is great.
- Expensive headphones. You can get some AKG K240’s for $99 or less. Get something about that good. Don’t drop $500 on headphones, because most people listening to your music will be listening on those white cheapo iPhone headphones. You should get a pair of those, actually, for reference.
So there you go. Those are my opinions.
If I allowed comments there’d be a flame war over some of my opinions. People have strong opinions about gear. That’s fine. I love talking gear and I always listen to rational opinions based on logic. Unfortunately that’s not what I get when I open up comments. No one is going to post hate on my website. If you want to email me, please do and we can debate the finer points and maybe you’ll change my mind and maybe I’ll change yours. But there won’t be an audience. And that is enough to drive away 99.9% of all trolls, because they need attention.