A Shure Thing: If there is one microphone that could be considered a true studio essential, it is most certainly the Shure SM57. This highly versatile, directional dynamic mic is ideal for capturing virtually any sound source, from drums and guitars to vocals, piano, strings and more (legend has it that Tom Scholz used nothing but SM57s to cut the entirety of Boston’s stadium-sized first album). The 57’s ability to withstand high levels of volume makes it the go-to mic for tracking electric guitar and other amplified instruments. At around $100 new, you could consider picking up several of these workhorses — after all, they’re quite possibly the only type of mic you’ll ever need.
A Good Signal Chain: Maintaining a clean signal chain — i.e., the pathway from sound source to recorder — is key to getting great-sounding tracks. To that end, you’ll want to start by ensuring that all connectors are high quality and produce little to no extraneous noises. There are also many useful devices for creating a solid, balanced signal. Two important examples are the microphone pre-amp (or mic-pre) as well as the simple rack-mount compressor/limiter. The mic-pre takes a weak signal and boosts the output using a gain control, allowing the signal to stay clear at high volume without distorting; the compressor keeps the sound level uniform by squashing (or limiting) the source signal. Products such as the PreSonus TubePRE Microphone Preamp 1 Channel and the Behringer ADA8000 Ultragain Pro 8-CH both run for less than $200; for those on a budget, the ART Tube PAC ($99) and Behringer Tube Ultragain Mic100 ($30) combine pre-amp and limiting in a single affordable box.
Rhythm Regimen: For practical purposes, musicians often rely on standalone beat programs (as well as those included in the likes of GarageBand or Cakewalk) when laying down rhythm tracks. Of course, there’s still nothing like the sound of a real drum kit, assuming it has been properly prepared beforehand. Drummers that don’t take the time to tune their kit will likely wind up with a lackluster thud that no amount of equalization will be able to remedy. However, with a simple tuning key and a good set of ears, your drums will sound resonant, punchy and ready for recording. Always be sure to pitch the bottom (or resonant) heads higher than the batter heads — this will allow more air to breath out of the drum. Adding a bit of dampening material (such as Moon Gel) will prevent excess resonance and allow you to shape the sound of the drums to fit the style of music you’re playing.
Stay Tuned: While you’re at it, make sure you have the means to keep all the other instruments in the studio in tune as well. Basic pitch pipes are certainly the most convenient — and inexpensive — tools for quick, on-the-spot tuning for stringed instruments. Those looking for a more precise piece of apparatus could consider something in the order of the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner pedal ($100). Ideal for both studio and stage purposes, the TU-3 has an automatic muting function that silences the signal when in use, and also includes an Accu-Pitch Sign function for visual tuning verification.
Ergo Studio: It’s also a good idea to make your work area as comfortable as possible, particularly if you spend hours on end in front of a computer or mix console. A sturdy computer task chair with pneumatic height adjustment will provide proper back and neck support while allowing you to sit at the proper listening level. Even little things like a good typing surface can make a huge difference; manufactured by Austin, TX-based Metadot, the Das Keyboard ($125) is a highly responsive, high-end unit that is well suited for lengthy session work.
* If you have multiple mics on the premises, consider investing in a sturdy microphone carrying case, which you can use for both studio storage and schlepping to and from gigs.
* Keep a roll of gaffer’s tape handy for properly securing all cables (and without leaving any sticky residue) during recording sessions.
* Particularly if your room is basement level, a good dehumidifier is absolutely essential for keeping the area free of mold and mildew.
* Using colored mic cables can help avoid confusion when wiring up multiple sources (and they look nice, too).