Maxing Out Recording Gear Upgrades

Brandon Drury —  February 19, 2012 — Leave a comment


Here’s a really simple, really stupid metaphor that sums this up.  If you buy your trailer without buying your trailer hitch, your trailer isn’t going to do you much good. I guess you can use it as a table.  In this case, a hitch is a relatively small investment compared to the trailer.  However, if you could buy just one piece this year and just one piece the next year, suddenly this chicken/egg style debate gets more interesting.

A huge reason people struggle with their recordings is they’ve upgraded their recording equipment in the wrong order.  As always, let me say that recording gear has to be about the least cost effective thing I can think of.  It would be cheaper mailing your letters with the Space Shuttle than it would to outfit a pro studio setup.  With that said, a person has to be a little crazy to do this and they have to be totally crazy to do this full core.  If you are doing this full core, you won’t care if a $4000 investment only gives you 1%.  (See Who Are The Boneheads?)

The gear is a tiny part of the equation.  What you put into the gear is way more important than which gear you choose.  I guess you could stretch this into a sex reference.  I just did.  This is a given and if you aren’t well aware of this principal check out my Killer Home Recording series.

This is gonna be subjective, but this is my damn opinion so take that for whatever it’s worth.  :)

Recommended Upgrade Order

1. Monitoring System
2. UAD Plugins
3. Preamps
4. Microphones
5. Converters
6. Hardware compression

Monitoring System

If you don’t have confidence in you monitoring, you can’t hear.  If you can’t hear, your decisions don’t really count.  You may was well be driving drunk or picking out your newborn baby at the hospital blindfolded.  Any differences you THINK you are hearing are lies.  You must KNOW what you are hearing is pretty much the truth to be any good at this.  (No monitoring system is 100% perfect for a zillion reasons, but if you don’t feel confident in your decisions, you aren’t making good decisions.)

No doubt, when I found a monitoring system that I was confident in, my recordings improved dramatically almost over night.  I can’t say this enough.  Spare no expensive on the monitoring end if that’s what it takes.  If you can feel confident with a less expensive monitoring system, great, move on to the next link in the chain.

Keep in mind that monitoring means studio monitors AND it means room acoustics.  Both of these must work in tandem.  If you  need help with monitors, check out Home Recording Equipment and if you need help with acoustics, see   Acoustics and Studio Construction.

UAD Plugins

I’m officially placing  UAD Plugins  on the required list for Boneheads.  Boneheads are the people I mentioned above who blow money for incremental differences.  The thing about the UAD stuff is it sounds 94% as good as the real hardware, but you can use it all over the place in a mix.

Try a hardware compressor.  When it comes to mixing you get to use it one time and even that takes some routing headaches with a conventional ITB system. I did have a record where I reamped everything through my Distressor.  I liked it.  It took years and that record wasn’t that good anyway.  I never did it again.  Even when I had 3 or 4 compressor it got to be too big of pain in the workflow department.  With UAD compressors I don’t think about doing any of that crap.  I just use the plugins, it sounds good, we move on.

I shelled out $2,300 for the UAD-2 Omni with most of the plugins in their series.  It’s not cheap, but the benefits of having reverbs, compressors, modulation, EQ, etc of this caliber on everything in your mix is hard to put a price on.  You’d need multiple hardware equivalents of each.  That’ll cost you more than a nice house.  There are like 4 people on the planet that will outgrow a UAD and they’ve been bored with money and practicality for a long time.

I can’t say it enough.  I was slow to accept the UAD thing.  It seemed like a lot of money for “just software”.  It’s not “just software” or “just plugins”.  The UAD plugins are elite plugins that beat pretty much everything out there.  We’ll get into that in an upcoming review.


Here comes the most boring of all discussions.  After your monitors are badass and you have killer plugins, it’s time to snag some good preamps.  Preamps have this character thing that is hard to ignore once you’ve gotten your head around the fact that you need to squint your eyes for about 5 minutes before you can hear the difference (at least when you are new to this).  When you get old like me you’ll be used to squinting.  You’ll see.

Once you are used to squinting, the preamp thing is pretty damn obvious.  Cheapo preamps trigger subconscious gut feelings that say you need to EQ something or fix it (even if your girlfriend can’t hear it).  Hell, for all I know there is no difference, but I feel like I’m being watched using cheapo pres and I’m pretty damn sure I’d score very well in blind tests.

For my tastes, API and Neve (or any of the zillion copies) are where it’s at.  They imply in the other guy’s magazine ads that detail is “lost”.  Bullshit!  These tools are all over modern classical recordings.  They sound hi-fi and sparkly.  The Christina Aguilar engineer has her vocal sound settings from a Neve 1073 tattood to his arm.  Her vocals are never “distorted” sounding unless they do it on purpose.

When you hear some ultra-pretty acoustic guitar you have no idea if it was a straight wire pre or something in the Neve / API ballpark.  I can’t think of one genre where I’d say, “I definitely DON’T want Neve or API on this.”  For me personally, whenever someone says something sounds “good”, they mean it’s a Neve or API sound.  That’s my view.

Note:  API and Neve sound different.  How?  It’s impossible to put into words.  You just know it when you hear it.  The difference is like the difference between a Lambo and a Ferrari.  You take the Lambo some times and the Ferrari other times.  Whatever.  Debating which one to get first is stupid.  You’ll ultimately end up with both if you are a Bonehead.

So if you have cash to blow, just buy a used 4-channel API 3124 for $2k.  It’s an awesome purchase, will always hold its value, sounds awesome.  The Wunder PA4 is right there as another outstanding 4-channel preamp for just over $2k (used) that will always hold its value.

If you need a lesson how a guy can use the mic pres in the world for 5 years and then sell them with ZERO loss, read this article:How To Waste $10,000 On Recording Gear You Don’t Like 

I like these two preamps so much that I’m thinking about selling all my other preamps and buying another PA4 and another 3124.  8 channels of Neve.  8 channels of API.  Done.  I don’t want to have to think about it.

If you are on a tighter budget or don’t need so many channels, there are some outstanding 1-2 channel options by True Systems, Focusrite, Daking, etc particularly if you look for used stuff.  Just be prepared to squint.

Note:  If you are doing lots and lots of overdubbing, I recommend getting as few kick butt channels as you can and move on down my upgrade list here.  If the budget is tight, snag the Focusrite ISA One  for $500 and move on.


Yup, I put preamps before fancy mics.  I’m assuming you have mics in the $100 range.  If you have $10 Radio Shack mics, it may be better to upgrade those first.  Here’s what I know.  I’ve been using the Rode NT1a happily this week on a number of voices that require dramatically different microphones.  The thing sounds pretty good.  Through high end pres,  eq, compressors, and converters I have to say that it sounds like a  good microphone.

I  prefer my Peluso 47 on some singers and my Peluso 251 on others, but rarely does the 47 ever work on singers that sound good with the 251.  The Rode NTA1 has a way of doing a respectable job of being all things to all people and there is always outboard gear to do the rest of the work.  I find the Audio Technica AT4040 to be similar.  Through high end outboard, the Shure SM7b is a DAMN good vocal sound….when you want that kind of vocal sound.  The Heil stuff has gotten my attention.  (The upper end dynamics are all over records you own.)

Once you have your other tools together, then buying BOLD flavored mics makes sense.  Until then stick with a few good vanilla  flavors and process them as needed.

The Royer R121 is my go to electric guitar mic, but some days I need something different.  I’m too used to it so using a SM57 sounds exciting to me again.  The 57 is another mic that comes to life with high end pres.  I guess this applies to all mics, but there’s something about the high end pres that smooths out the peakiness of some of the cheaper mics.  I haven’t put my finger around this one just yet, but I know it.

I’m backing way off from my view of having a big mic collection.  I like to have a few different colors to choose from, but a person doesn’t need 40 different vocal mics.  There’s no point.  Most mics aren’t bold enough to warrant this.  If there is a 1% difference in tone, who cares!

I’ve done enough multiple versions of mixes where the vocals turned out light years apart to know that if I have a good source, I can take the tracks wherever I want them to go in mixing.  So much of the creative side IS mixing.  Getting too wound up about the vocal mic is a mistake most of the time.  Exceptions occur when a specific bold mic is needed for a very specific sound.  In this case, the mic provides the character and you can’t really fake it in any other way.

So, I recommend getting all your necessities out of the way, find some good all-purpose mics, and moving on.  You can come back to getting specialized mics like ribbons, condensers for specific sounds, etc after you have tools that you’ll use on a daily basis.

Note:  I’m doing rock, dance, and metal all the time.  I process the hell out of my vocal tracks and don’t feel bad about it.  If you are doing jazz or something where the equalizers went rotten from neglect and no one bothered to replace them YMMV.

Note2:  Once again, if you are doing lots of overdubbing, get you a SM57 or equivalent and a condenser.  Then move on.

Hardware Compression

As much as I love the UAD stuff and think it has set a hell of a mark for what you can do for the price of 1-2 good hardware compressors, it still isn’t the real thing.  The UAD is really just a good placeholder for people who haven’t quite scraped up the cash for $30k in compressors, $30 in effects, etc.

Once you have the large overall benefit of the UAD, which you can apply to all of your tracks, there is a rather large benefit to tracking with compression on the way in.  I own a Distressor, an LA-3A, and a Chameleon Labs 7802.

The LA-3A is a bit of a pain in the ass on really dynamic vocals during tracking because if you push it too much it goes from great to crap.  However, during mixing, where automating before the compressor is easy, it’s AWESOME on lead vocals.  The rumor is that Bob Clearmountain uses the LA-3A on lead vocals.  I never put much stock in such rumors, but I never seem to mind passing them on either.  Whatever.  Vocal tracks that needed a ton of EQ and all kinds of mult-band junk are usually 100% finished with a hardware LA-3A doing it’s thing.  I don’t get it.  I don’t care.

The Distressor is what I prefer to use during tracking most of the time.  It does this thing where tracks are more present and thicker at the same time.  It just makes stuff recorded through it sound more pleasant, makes mixing easier, and also allows me to quickly get creative if I want to.  If a song requires a distorted vocal sound, it’s pretty much impossible to beat a Distressor set to Nuke (litarally, it has a button for that) with the British Mode switch flipped and the release on zero.

While I seem to get beat up over it on regular basis here at the home recording forum, I am a hardcore fan of 2bus compression.  I find that the Chameleon Labs 7802 is sensational in that application.  None of the UAD stuff comes close.  I’m not sure why or how.  Regardless, that upgrade was well worth it over the UAD stuff.

The thing to remember with hardware compression is you get to use it once at any given time.  This is why I don’t recommend getting one before a UAD card.  If you could use that one compressor on 30 tracks DURING MIXING, that would be different.

When tracking a live band, the same applies.  Maybe your bass or a room mic gets the fancy compressor and the rest are left without it.  You would be better off in those cases to have the UAD.

My Chameleon Labs 7802 pretty much only gets used on the 2bus.  While a hell of a bargain compressor at $600, that is $600 invested in that one purpose.  Most people aren’t spending $600 on their 2bus EXCLUSIVELY.  If you are ready for that, it’s a great option.  Until then, the UAD stuff makes sense.


I know for a fact that some of the stock interface combos of preamps and converters leave much to be desired.  Granted, this is another VERY boring discussion.  It’s very very easy to make some bad recordings with good converters.  I know.  I’ve done it for years.  I bought fancy Mytek converters back when I had a terrible monitoring system.  (Bad idea!!!  You talk about useless!)

The Myteks are very nice, clean converters.  I say “clean” because I don’t get the vibe that they have much personality.  They really aren’t trying to.

When I bought my Toft ATB32 console, I picked up some Apogee AD-16x and (2) DA-16x’s.  They have more personality to them.  They are more “alive” sounding.  It’s a sound that not everyone will want, but for anyone doing rock, metal, or pop stuff I think the character of Apogee is desired.  Then again, I’m not a believer in all this “clean” business.  What people perceive to be “clean” is a signal that mangled into sounding that way.

You need to be pretty damn advanced for converters to have a big impact on your life.  You know that feeling when you are really sick and you just CAN’T WAIT to feel better?  Then like 4 days later it occurs to you that you ARE way better and you didn’t really notice your recovery?  That’s how converters are to me.  Just one day you realize that your tracks/mix/whatever sounds better and you didn’t have to work as hard, but you didn’t really feel a sledgehammer to the face when you first started using them.


I still haven’t scraped up the time to do a pseudo-scientific comparision between analog summing and ITB summing.  However, I’ve done enough ITB  mixes where I switched to summing on my ATB32 that made my eyes open.  This could be a pyschological flaw on my end.  It’s hard to say.  All I know is I’m LEANING in the direction of saying that summing is a big ass deal.  I’ll keep you posted with some audio clips soon.


Hmmm.  I’m still recovering setting this one up.  Let’s not go there.  :)


Upgrade in order and you will see sizeable improvement each and every step of the way.

So get your monitoring in order, get the UAD plugins, snag some preamps, some mics, some compressors, and some converters.  I’ll let you know about summing.

Good luck!

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

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