I know this is supposed to be a time of peace and joy and ham and stuff like that, but ever since that Chanukah many years ago when my parents got me my very first Sony multitracker, the holidays always seem to bring visions of new studio toys to play with. What better way to spread love and good cheer than by giving (yourself) the gift of gadgetry? To wit, here a few good bets for this holiday season - or any season.
Shure thing: No one should hit the red light without a Shure SM57 ($89), the world’s most popular, rugged and affordable dynamic microphone that offers reliable reproduction every time out. Great for just about any application you can think of, from acoustic guitar to vocals, drum kits to keyboards and more. Already have one? Get another!
Headphone extender: What’s more aggravating than having your headphones come flying off in the middle of a good take simply because you didn’t have enough cord? Next time, don’t get caught short - get yourself a handy-dandy headphone extension cable, made by companies like Hosa, Russ Andrews, and others. Less than $10 buys you 25 feet of flexibility.
Compression suggestion: A good compressor-limiter can be one of the most versatile pieces of equipment in a studio’s arsenal, acting as both a volume leveler (particularly useful for mastering a mixed demo) and a signal processor for adding beef to acoustic guitars or close-miked drums. While old-style analog compressors generally fetch four figures on eBay, the market is teeming with nice new units that won’t squeeze your bank account. They include the ART Twin Compressor System ($240), the Joemeek C2 stereo compressor ($300) and the bargain-basement reSonus Comp 16 ($100). If you’re browsing the used rack, keep an eye out for the DBX 160, a great half-rack unit found in countless home and pro-level studios ($300-$400), or, for the budget-minded, its kid brother, the super-basic DBX 163x (as low as $50).
CDs and sleeves: With blank media getting cheaper by the minute, there’s just no excuse to run out of CDs just as you’ve finished your last mix. Retailers like Staples, Best Buy and Circuit City frequently have deals on CD-R 50-packs ($10 or less). While you’re at it, pick up a few boxes of removable CD sleeves (I’m partial to Case Logic’s double-sided ProSleeve II) in order to keep your discs clean and scratch-free, not to mention some permanent fine-point markers for quick and easy labeling.
Isolation solution: We all know that leakage can add life to a homemade recording, but if you’re stuffed into a really small room with a really loud amp, sometimes a bit of baffling is necessary. A piece of plain old cardboard or a sheet of plywood might work in a pinch, but if you really want to do the job right, consider a professional-grade baffle (or “gobo,” as they’re known in the business). For instance, check out the Freeport line of gobos from Primacoustic (http://www.primacoustic.com/freeport.htm), which come in a variety of styles for baffling off everything from amplifiers to singers ($275 per pair and up).
Speaking of acoustics, if your listening area is haunted by unwanted echoes or other phantom reflections, try a slab or two of Auralex acoustical foam; just attach a few squares to the problem area and presto, no more echo. Auralex in large quantities can be pricey, but for smaller jobs, you can often get away with a few 12x12 “Wedgies” ($4).
Rack ‘em up: If organization is your goal, start by keeping all of your rack-mountable items such as DAWs and processors in one nice tidy spot with a decent rack stand. Many come with locking casters and adjustable frames for added convenience. Companies like On-Stage and QuickLok offer 12- to 20-space units in various shapes and sizes ($30-$150).