How To: Know What Gear To Buy First (and What’s Important)
How Best Should You Spend That Money?

How To: Know What Gear To Buy First (and What’s Important)

In a sea of audio equipment possibilities but a dingy of a budget, what should we buy first? In this article I will cover what I believe is the most important gear to get “up to snuff” and in what order you should replace it. Read on.

What do buy first?
What Gear Should Be Purchased First?

If you’re rich, click on to the next article. You really should just get the best equipment you can and as much of it as you can. See? That was easy!

But for the rest of us, we need to parse out our expenditures and get the best value and the best return. As much fun as buying sexy microphones and cool wall treatments are, they may not be the best value if you’re running Garage Band on a 2007 lap top with Altec speakers from 1965. Of course, depending on the gig or project, you may need to update your kit in a different order than I’m suggesting here. For example: when I started writing music for “Race to the Edge,” I needed a speaker update, sure, but I really needed an orchestral sample update. In fact, spending $4k on new orchestral samples got me the gig. And, yeah, then I updated my speakers. I say this to point out the following list should be considered “general.” Here’s my suggestion for purchasing gear from most important onward:

  1. Microphones
  2. Recorder
  3. Headphones
  4. Computer
  5. Hard Drives
  6. Software
  7. Speakers
  8. Audio Interface
  9. Room Treatment
  10. Analog Gear/Controller/Console

This is a comprehensive list for someone who is doing both recording on set and working in post. If you’re just doing recording, the list ends at #3 for you. If you’re doing post, you don’t need #2 and the kind of #1 you’re getting is very different. In fact, if you were post only, it’d look like this:

  1. Computer
  2. Hard Drives
  3. Software
  4. Speakers
  5. Audio Interface
  6. Headphones/Microphones
  7. Room Treatment
  8. Analog Gear/Controller/Console

Here’s the breakdown of everything I’m talking about here from the general list:

Microphones

It’s a grand time to be a filmmaker with the proliferation of inexpensive/high quality kit. Microphones are no different. Sure. You can

FMK
The Røde Filmmaker Kit

spend $3,300 on a beautiful Neumann U89, but for 90% of your work in studio, a Røde NTK for $550 will do pretty much the same job. Nevertheless, get the mics you can afford and which give you the best value. For recording on set, you’ll need at minimum a great shotgun/hypercardioid, and two wireless lavaliers. Minimum. Period. For in-studio work for VO, SFX, Foley, ADR, you’ll need a Lav and shotgun mic (ADR), and then a nice large diaphragm condenser mic (VO), and if you’re shrewd and lucky your shotgun will serve well as a foley/SFX mic. But ideally, you’ve got a small diaphragm mic there as well. What’s my suggestions for best value and longevity for the coming FCC scorched earth?

If you’ve got bad mics, you’ll lose performance, and if you lose performance you’ve got nothing. Don’t play the false economy game here for certain.

Recorder

It’s obvious that you’ll need some way to record the audio, and, honestly, your iPhone 7+ does a great job of it if you have some kind

The Zoom F8 Recorderof XLR input. But look, don’t do it in a professional setting. If for no other reason than it looks stupid. Get a real recorder. Honestly, the Zoom F8 – which is just about all the recorder you’ll ever need – is slightly more than the price of your iPhone ($999). Your recorder needs to be able to record at a minimum of 96kHz/24bit, have a minimum of 4 XLR inputs, and have some capacity for slating (speaking into the recorder to tell the editor what the slate reads for the camera). Just about anything from Sound Devices or Zoom will do this in spades at just about every price level. Also, if you’re shrewd, you’ll notice something cool about most pro recorders when we get to the audio interface section of this article.

Headphones

I’m guessing I don’t have to explain why this is important? No matter if you’re in a studio or on set, you’ll want some accurate way to audition your sound in an isolated setting. DO NOT PURCHASE BEATS/BOSE/BOZO or ANYTHING ELSE YOU SEE PEOPLE WEARING WHILE WALKING ON A SIDEWALK. Also avoid buying headphones with noise cancellation…or at least have the ability to turn it off. Look at the article on Headphones to understand why.

DirectSound EX-29 Headphones
I love DirectSound’s EX-29 Headphones

Computer

Duh. You’re going to have to have a beast to watch your 8K footage in real-time anyway, right? So no problem there. Just common sense: insure it’s upgradeable, you don’t put your video/audio data on the internal hard drive, and buy a good enough computer to last you 3 years or more. No. I’m not going to get into arguments with anyone about whether Mac or PC is better…especially if we’re talking about running Adobe/Black Magic software. Get what you can afford and what your preferred software runs on. If you want to run SAW Studio, you’re buying a PC. If you want to run Logic Pro X or Final Cut Pro X, you’re buying a Mac. Real Simple. But if you’re running a computer where the Apple Store’s newest offering has more RAM than you have in internal Hard Drive capacity, it’s time to buy a new computer.

Hard Drives

DO NOT commit false economy here. The slowest piece of equipment in your entire studio/editing suite (except for anything running native MIDI) is your hard drive. Compare the data throughput of a modern HD shoving 160mB/s vs. a CPU’s memory bus or even HDMI? Yeah. Super Slow. If you can create or purchase some kind of RAID, that’s better. If you can invest in Solid State Drives that’s WAYYYY better. But remember this: it’s not just the hard drive you need to purchase, you also must always purchase its backup. I delve into this IN DEPTH in this article. It’ll suffice to say that you MUST NOT commit false economy here. Besides, drive storage is super cheap now. Look, in 1993 I purchased my first 1gB hard drive. It weighed 12 pounds, took 30 seconds to spin up, and sounded like a 737 jet when it did, and it cost me $1,000 second hand. It could churn out nearly 8 tracks of 16 bit 48kHz audio before it choked. So as of today, on Amazon, you can purchase 3 TB of SSD for that price – which could probably churn out 8,000 tracks of 16 bit 48Khz audio. No complaints about hard drive prices, okay?

Software

For most of you this is a non-issue. You’re already Adobe CC members, and you’ve got Premiere Pro and Audition. You’ve got plenty of horsepower to have you win the race. But there are other products which you might consider like iZotope RX, Magix Spectral Layers Pro, Waves Silver Bundle, Spatial Audio Designer, and the host of other products I go into in depth in the Pro Member Education. These additional programs make mixing, fixing and exporting so much easier and can give you best results. Which of these do I recommend you purchase first? Although each DAW has it’s own excellent plugins, compressors and the like, and if you’re already using Audition, then my suggestion looks like this:

You’re Using Audition:

  1. Waves Silver Bundle (discounted for MZPMs)
  2. iZotope Neutron (discounted for MZPMs)
  3. Spatial Audio Designer (discounted for MZPMs)
  4. iZotope RX (discounted for MZPMs)
  5. Valhalla Room
  6. Magix Spectral Layers Pro

You’re Using Logic Pro X, Pro Tools, Saw Studio (some other DAW):

  1. iZotope RX (discounted for MZPMs)
  2. iZotope Neutron (discounted for MZPMs)
  3. Spatial Audio Designer (discounted for MZPMs)
  4. Waves Silver Bundle (discounted for MZPMs)
  5. Valhalla Room
  6. Magix Spectral Layers Pro

Naturally, you’ll always want to download the free versions of Blue Cat Audio’s plugins as well as Yong’s W1 Limiter.

For extra credit (and extra problem solving) I suggest these:

  1. Zynaptiq Unfilter (discounted for MZPMs)
  2. Zynaptiq Unveil (discounted for MZPMs)
  3. iZotope Ozone (discounted for MZPMs)
  4. Anything you can afford from Waves (discounted for MZPMs)
  5. Sugar Bytes Turnado

Of course, most of these plugins are made by our sponsors. True. And I use them in nearly every production I work on. I’ll never push something to you that doesn’t bring value even if it is from a sponsor.

Speakers

Like the wheels on your car, nothing means more to the performance or the safety of your vehicle than the tires. If you’ve got bad

LSR 305
JBL LSR 305 Studio Reference Monitor

tires, you’re going to have problems. Perhaps even lethal ones. It’s the same for speakers.

Yes. You heard me. Your life depends on it.

If you’ve got the best gear in the world but your speakers came from Wall-Mart and have the Bose label on them, you’re never going to get a mix that translates anywhere else. Worse, if you’re fixing, you’re never going to hear the artifacts you need to hear in order to get a clean track. The good news is that you can get amazing speakers for next to nothing. The JBL LSR 305 5″-ers are my go to suggestion for anyone who asks. At around $150 each on Amazon, you can create a surround system to mix on for about $1,000 (with sub). Next level up is the Mackie HR 824s. The Old ones. I know. I said Mackie. You can laugh all you want, but on ebay you can get these suckers for under $400 each. The MKIIs are fine, I have just found that mixes don’t quite translate as well. Your results make vary. Consult your physician. Lastly, and bestly, are the JBL Series 7s. Yes. I know. They’re $2,000 each. But they’re the cream, folks. Mixing on them in just about any room thanks to their intelligent balancing algorithms is like having an auto-translate-to-anywhere button. Regardless of your speakers, however, you need to know what your speakers sound like in your space. You do that by taking your first mix from them and testing what they sound like in every sound system you can: your car, your Beats headphones, your sister’s boom box, your office sound system. Everywhere. Then you’ll really know how things translate.

Audio Interface

Some of you PC folks have been happily running your audio from a card in your computer. The same card your computer came with. Something which is great for gaming, because the “surround audio” is built in to the Video Card.

Stop. Using. It. To. Mix.

An audio interface is everything to the integrity of your sound. If speakers are the tires, your audio interface is the transmission. You can have have the greatest speakers and engine, but if you’ve only got a 3 speed transmission that winds you out at 50 kph, you’re beating no one. Your audio interface colors (or hopefully doesn’t) everything your DAW records and plays back. This is another place where false economy can rear it’s ugly head. Don’t rely on 1/8″, 1/4″ T/S, or RCA outputs to get you any kind of good fidelity. You want an interface which has XLR or TRS 1/4″ outs and XLR ins with phantom power. The interface needs to connect via USB or better. It can certainly be a PCI or other card slot, but needs to have some kind of XLR/TRS 1/4″ output. And I’ve yet to see a good interface without a “breakout box” where phantom power is included on the card. If you’re only going to be doing stereo and are only going to be recording in studio out to 4 channels, you should expect to spend $250 or more. If you’re doing surround, you should expect $600 or more.

Your interface should at least have the following:

  1. Break Out Box
  2. XLR input with phantom power
  3. XLR/1/4″ TRS outputs (8 if needing surround)
  4. Some kind of Volume knob (which works on all channels for surround)
  5. USB or better connection
  6. Capable of 96kHz/24bit or better

    MOTU Ultralite MKIII
    MOTU Ultralite MKIII Hybrid Audio Interface

Me? What do I use? In my home studio I use the Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Ultralite MK III Hybrid. $550.

But if you buy your audio recorder right, you can get all of these things built in to your recorder and get double duty. For example: nearly all of the Zoom recorders double as pretty good audio interfaces and the F8 doubles as a great audio interface. Nice, right?

Room Treatment

Once you have the basics, it’s time to treat your listening environment. You can have the best sounding stuff, but if you’ve got primary reflections and things bouncing around, you’re nowhere. Take a look at what our friends at Auralex offer to get an idea of what you might need. Of course, a lot of these solutions you can deal with at Home Depot. We talk for an entire hour on these things in the Work Space Volume of the MZed Pro Education. Start with your desk, and go from there. Take a look at this article on sound reflection and jump in.

Outboard Gear

There’s a host of ways to get your workspace more efficient. You’ve probably already got a small Mackie mixing board for your editing system. Good. Keep it. You’ve obviously got a mouse and keyboard. Good. Keep Those. The issue comes when you need to mix more than one fader at a time, or you’re running software where “mouse mixing” or grabbing faders with a mouse is super cumbersome. Or, you need to have a more complicated mixing situation, and your audio interface isn’t up to the task (for example: if you need to record a band on your off days). Here, you’re going to need help, and here are some of the suggestions I’ve used/use and suggest:

Replace Your Mouse: With a Wacom ($150)

Replace Your Mixer: With a Mixer from Harman/Soundcraft ($1,399)

Replace Your Mouse and Screen: with the Raven MTi2 ($999)

Replace Your Mouse-Fadering: with the Avid Artist Console ($900) (as long as your DAW supports EUCON)

Replace Your Mouse-Fadering: with an iPad and your DAW’s App (Usually Free except for the iPad)

These items also make your work place more “Producer Friendly” so when clients come over they feel like you’re more “pro” than the guy they saw with a laptop and IBM Audio Cube speakers on an Ikea desk in a corner. Never forget, the cooler your system looks, the more money you can charge. Seriously. Try it. Especially if they ask:

“Wow! That Raven is SO COOL! And those speakers are probably pretty awesome right?”

“Oh yeah. They’re JBL Series 7s, and they’re $2,000 each”

The Producer looks around and sees you have 5 of them…

Yeah. You can charge more after that. Trust me.

What do you think of this list? Have responses? Let us know or Tweet about it!

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