Getting Started: Gear You Need

The best recording gear is free.

When I was getting started recording, I wasn’t sure which part was most important: the recording software to make it sound incredible, the studio rack full of flashy lights to make me look professional when I shoot videos, or a website to advertise my work and distribute my songs to millions of adoring fans. I mentioned my dilemma to an artist who’d spent some time in professional studios, and she told me the following: “dingbat, the gear you need starts with a good mic. Borrow one from the church if you can’t buy one yet.” Which leads me to our first story time together:

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a set of three basic cardioid vocal microphones for $30 on a variety of websites and in magazines. The mics were made by a relatively-well-known company, not terrifically popular but enough that if you saw the logo, you’d say “yeah, I’ve heard of them.” You can’t expect high quality from a $10 microphone, but if you need some backup mics to keep around, it was a pretty unbeatable deal.

I’ll be honest with you: for vocals, the mics are awful… especially when used “correctly.”

By “correctly,” I mean “with you standing in front of it, speaking or singing in a normal way.”

They catch every plosive sound: every ‘p’ and ‘b’ add a forceful ‘pop’ to your sound. They tend to muffle your voice, so unless you have an EQ consisting of more than three knobs, you’re not going to be able to dial in some clarity on that mic. I was asked to sing for a wedding, and when I got there, the sound system they had featured one of these mics. I tried, I mean I really tried to use it. The truth was that it just wasn’t going to sound beautiful on her wedding day… so I swapped the mic.

But I’m willing to bet that your local church has a set of them laying around in a closet. Hint: they come in their own hardshell case.

And if they don’t have those mics, then they probably have a spare one somewhere that you can borrow.

(For what it’s worth, those mics can be used creatively: dial up the gain and use them as overhead drum mics, or add just a smidge of gain and speak/sing across it at 90 degrees to catch that “in the room” sound — they won’t work for direct vocal clarity, but they’ll definitely work if you re-imagine their purpose a bit.)

I guarantee that you could approach a local church, bar, club, or even a local band and say:

“Hey, I’m thinking about getting into [voice acting / podcasting / recording music / making YouTube videos where I put words behind my dog’s stupid faces], and I’d like to try it out before I buy a bunch of equipment. Do you have a spare microphone I could borrow for two weeks while I decide if this is something I want to pursue?”

You’ll likely generate a discussion about your project, but more importantly, you’ll almost-certainly start to build a business relationship beneficial to both of you down the road. It never hurts to “know a guy” who can help with something sound-related. Build your network early, padawan.

Interfaces will be harder to come by, unless you already know someone who does some recording work. Thankfully, those are one of the cheapest items to obtain to start out with, and it never hurts to have a spare one laying around, either as a backup or as part of a traveling rig you keep in a suitcase somewhere.

The rest, though, should be easy to beg or borrow from connections. A mic, mic cable, even a mic stand if you want: lots of places will have one not-in-use, or at least one you can use until Sunday morning.

The next-best thing is cheap-but-brand-new.

Of course, you’re on this site, so I assume that this is what you’re looking for. If you want to break into home recording without breaking out the piggy bank (or a savings bond), you can get:

That’s a full recording rig for beginners for only $65, and basic recording software is free. Within a couple of years, you will probably replace everything in that list. Thankfully, you can get a boom stand for your mic for under $20, if you want to stand while recording or if you want to move your mic down in front of a guitar amp (because, repeat after me, children: we always elevate guitar amps and put them on some sort of padding. Amps on wood floors resonate against the floor and sound different in the room than they do in the recording and you will drive yourself nuts trying to figure out why it doesn’t sound right).

I’m also going to recommend that you spend your next $50 immediately after you get your first recording rig. Why? Because analog tubes sound awesome: they’re warm and real. Your interface is capable of and will initially be set up to both power your mic and accurately capture sound from it, converting the analog signal into digital signal for your computer to store. You can power your mic instead through an actual vacuum tube and enjoy the slightly-better sound for only $50 (instead of, say, a vacuum-tube preamp for $999 as is available from other fine manufacturers [go for it, these are all affiliate links…]). On top of that, the device acts as a direct box, so you can plug instruments into it to shape their sound or turn the unbalanced instrument line into a balanced mic line. It has a couple other uses, as well, but we’ll cover that more later.

So you can get a recording rig for $65, and you can improve the sound quality of anything you record for an extra $50 when you’re ready to spend the extra money. You will probably want to get some nice headphones, at some point as well, but you should be more concerned about the sound going in than the sound coming out. So spend whatever extra you feel is appropriate just to have a setup you’re happy to start with. After those purchases… well, it gets dicey.

Sound gear is infinitely expensive and infinitely customizable. You can inflate the costs of equipment in any variety of ways, and the biggest problem is that you can do it justifiably. Sure, your live sound board might have a compressor channel built in, but it would actually be better to run each channel through it’s own dedicated compressor so you can fine-tune the settings on each (unless you’re using a digital sound board, in which case, why are you even here?). A new interface might have better pre-amps built in, or you might be like me and want to get the pretty interface that has VU meters that turn red if you peak! Sure, it’s three times the cost of the rest of this setup, but it’s pretty and I like it

When you are getting started recording, you can always spend more on gear. You can seldom spend less. However, if you want to get higher-end gear at decent prices…

Consider used-but-usable.

If I’ve ever been to your town in real life, I’ve done it there and I’ll always preach:

Pawn shops, pawn shops, pawn shops.

They’re not always the best quality, but they generally know the value of what they’ve got and they’re willing to haggle a little bit. Besides, it doesn’t do them any good to keep a $1200 PA system on their floor for two years with a price tag of $700. They’ll probably let it go for $450. It’s the same with drum kits. And you wouldn’t think it would be the same with some comparably-tiny rack-mounted sound gear, but brothers and sisters, I’m telling you that they will let you have that compressor for $50-70, and that beats buying it from a retailer for $180 or on eBay for $90-120.

eBay is, of course, another option for used gear, especially if they’re listing it as a true auction. Even with minimums in place, people are willing to get whatever they can get out of their old gear. I’ve gotten guitar pedals for $15 when I needed to clean up my sound but was bussing tables for a living while attending college. I ended up giving most of those pedals away when I got a real job and upgraded my stuff, and a few of those guys still use those pedals today, ten years later.

You will eventually patch together your own Frankenstudio.

My home studio consists of the following, for vocals:

  • Two mic stands on sale from Musician’s Friend
  • A four-pack of twenty-foot mic cables, also on sale from Musician’s Friend
  • A Rode NT-1A, given to me by a friend who got a new $1000 mic and wanted to be generous with his old gear
  • A BM-700 mic from Amazon
  • An Akai EIE (not the Pro version), on sale for $80 through a now-defunct music gear site called Hello Music
  • An ART Pro Channel II tube pre-amp with built-in compressor and EQ (for the main mic)
  • An ART Tube MP tube pre-amp for the spare mic
  • A hardshell 12-unit rack from a local pawn shop, $40 (it’s a little crooked, but still works just fine)
  • A Behringer 2-channel compressor, same pawn shop, $50
  • A Behringer 2-channel Sonic Ultramizer (a type of sonic maximizer), same pawn shop, $50
  • A Mac mini, refurbished on MacSales.com for $1100 (retail $1800)
  • Logic Pro X, the Apple professional studio software, full-price for $200. It’s hard to find software on sale, sometimes, and I had a tax refund in my (virtual) pocket.

That’s it. I haven’t paid full price for any hardware over $30, and it’s taken me five years to accumulate this list.

Along the way, I’ve given away plenty of mics, many of which were given to me when others upgraded. I’ve also taken gear to my church and just left it set up, not needing it at home but able to borrow it back when I need. Besides, when you work with teen volunteers, they’re probably not going to go spend $250 on a guitar amp. I, however, bought one on Facebook for $100 and I’m glad someone at the church can get some use out of it since I upgraded.

Somewhere, in a vintage hardshell suitcase I got at a yard sale (because for some reason I’m a nut for those), I have a padded bag and a few spare mic cables. Inside that bag is a Shure SM-58 and a SM-57. They’re great mics, but when I first got the MXL 550 & 551 mic pair (again, a sale on Hello Music, which has since stopped selling gear), I put them in a bag and they’ve traveled around with me since. I’ve moved homes a few times in the last couple of years, so I know that they’re somewhere… and when I find them, I might set them up as reference mics or gift them to a friend who is thinking about getting started recording.

The point here is to start cheaply and upgrade as you go. It doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to be expensive. It just has to say hello. It just has to get you started. So let’s do this: get yourself started with whatever you can’t beg or borrow. Get started and learn as you go.

So when you’re ready, let’s look at how to get started recording from your computer or phone.

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