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Prof Recommends

I am frequently asked by students and alumni who are starting to purchase audio gear what I think about this mic, or that preamp, or if this is better than that. There are so many options out in the market for low-cost audio equipment, that students are frequently asking me for input on microphones and preamps that I’ve never used. It would be more helpful, I think, for me to post a list of low-end pro audio equipment that I think is a good value for the money.

First, a word about low-cost gear. Over the past few years, there’s been a flood of lower cost audio gear being sold, and generally, the quality level on the low end of the scale has been rising. It is now possible to get a decent, usable microphone in the $200-300 range, where even 10 years ago there would have been nothing usable in that range. Even with that said, there is no ‘secret weapon’ $200 microphone that sounds just like a Elux 251 – there’s just no way to imitate the quality of the components and the precision of manufacturing that goes into a $4,000 piece of equipment for $200. Ignore the marketing hype, and trust your ears. The way it sounds to you is the way it actually sounds.

So, the following represents equipment that I use, or have used, that I think is a good value. In most cases, these are pieces of low-cost gear that you will still be useful to you in a few years when you’re working professionally.

Microphones

When you’re buying your first mic, what you’re looking for is a general purpose microphone – something that will be usable on everything from voice to acoustic guitar to cello. That means a Large Diaphragm Condenser.

AT4040

Price: $299 (new), ~$250 Used
This might be the best value microphone I’ve ever used. It sounds clean, quiet, a little bright, but very usable on everything from vocals to acoustic instruments.

I have a hard time recommending anything cheaper than this microphone. $250 (used) is really not much money to spend on a piece of equipment that’s going to be critical to your recording quality. I still reach for and use this mic on sessions; on male vocals especially I find it has a great little high-mid notch that responds well in a pop mix.

If you’re looking at anything cheaper than this, I suggest saving your money, working a few extra shifts at Starbucks, and then buying the AT4040. It’s the best little cheap mic you can find.

AKG C 414

Price: $950 (new), $550 (used)
If you have a little more coin to drop, the 414 is a great choice. This is a newer release in the venerable AKG 414 series, and this is a mic that will stay usable for a long, long time. For more information on the differences between the new 414 releases (they have both an XLS and an XLII model), read this article from Sound on Sound.

The reason I list this as a great value is because of the used price. You can find these, as well as some older ULS models, on ebay for around $500-600. This is a fantastic price for a world-class mic. There’s nothing else you can buy in that range that will give you as much mic for the money, new or used.

Audio Interfaces

Before you buy an audio interface, there are a few questions you need to ask. Is it more important for you to have 8 mediocre channels, or 2 really good channels? How often will you be recording source material that has more than 2 inputs at a time? Will most of your work be recording vocal or guitar inputs over sampled tracks, or do you need the ability to record an entire band all at once?

The Apogee Duet is a great place to start if you can live with 2 channels of input. The interface sounds clean, great preamps, great converters, it’s easy to use, has the ability to setup a split headphone cue, this is still the box I use for road gigs.

If you need more inputs, I recommend buying a used MOTU 828 interface. The original unit is usable, but what makes these such a great option is that there is a secret upgrade that makes them just killer. A company in Chicago, Black Lion Audio, will take your used MOTU 828 and swap out some of the key components, making it sound like a high-end audio interface. You might spend $200 for the used interface, and another $400 on the upgrade, but when you’re done you’ll have an 8-channel interface that sounds like a monster piece of gear.

FMR Preamp and Compressor

A few years ago, a small company called FMR started manufacturing a preamp and compressor that used low-cost external parts, and high-quality audio components. Their gear started earning its way into the racks of professional engineers, and has become an steady favorite. If you want to find out more, check out the write up by Mercenary Audio. Mercenary has one of the best reputations in the industry for pro-level gear, so an endorsement from them launched this little company in a big way.

I didn’t list used prices for these, because you don’t find them used that often (nobody wants to sell them!), and when they do show up the used price is almost as much as the new price.

FRM RNP

Price: $499 (new)
The RNP (Really Nice Preamp) is a good first step away from the preamps that came stock on your MBox or other audio interface. It’s clean, with a little bit of push to the sound that works nicely on vocals and other acoustic sources. I wouldn’t use it for anything classical, but for a pop/rock sounds with some bite to it, the RMP is a great choice.

FRM RNC

Price: $199 (new)
Very clean, very usable for any high-fidelity source. This is a great first compressor to buy and use, because it’s a fairly neutral box. You can start to learn what a compressor does, what it sounds like, instead of getting bogged down in what some specific boutique box (like the Distressor) does to color the sound. Definitely worth grabbing as you build your signal chain.

Where to Buy Gear

For new audio gear, I use Sweetwater exclusively. I’ve bought equipment from them for years, and I have always been satisfied with their customer service and price. They hang on to their customer representatives for a long time, which means one person handles your account for years. I like that. I don’t like going to Guitar Center and having a different 19-year old bass player from a punk band tell me how awesome Oktava mics are every time I go in there.

For used equipment, I prefer Craigslist. This is LA, and LA is an industry town, which means no matter what piece of audio gear you want to buy, there are 20 of them for sale between here and Santa Monica. I like picking up and holding, plugging in and listening before I buy. I’ve used eBay for some purchases, but for anything that has tubes and caps, I need to hear it.

One thing I love about Craigslist; if you know what you’re searching for, you can enter the search term, and then bookmark the results. Then, each time you click that bookmark, it takes you directly to the new search results for that specific item. (If you use an RSS reader, you can take this whole thing to 11). This is a link to the search listings for ‘AKG 414‘.