Monday, February 7, 2011

Five Essential Tech Tools for Starting Your Studio

Every time I play a gig, someone inevitably asks for advice on getting started with a home studio or DJ rig. Since talking tech is my favorite pastime (next to actually making tracks) I usually end up staying up way past my bedtime answering these questions – with a grin on my face.

In the interest of getting more sleep on the road, I've assembled a list of the five major considerations in putting together a rig of your own. This info is current as of February 2011 and I'll be updating it periodically as new products supercede older ones.

1. Choose your DAW

The first thing you'll need to do is decide which software best suits your production needs. While the legendary Pro Tools dominates the high-end studio world, the EDM community pivots on the following three products: Ableton Live, Apple Logic Studio, and Propellerhead Reason. The differentiating factors between these three products are as follows.

Propellerhead Reason offers a slew of killer synthesis and beat-making options, but in order to record or combine your synths with audio tracks (like vocals or other real-world instruments) you'll also need to purchase Propellerhead's Record.

Apple's Logic Studio suite of tools includes everything under the sun for creating original tracks via a traditional timeline-based work environment. Synths, loops, even mastering and performance software are all represented - and the package is offered at a killer price point of five hundred bucks. Make no mistake, Logic is incredibly popular with many of the world's top producers (with a bit of a tilt toward progressive and trance), so don't be fooled by its price. It's a great option if you're a Mac-based producer.

Ableton Live occupies an entirely different territory than the previous two options. For starters, it's the only product that you can use for both DJing and producing, which is a remarkable achievement. What's more, its unique session and arrangement modes allow you to improvise and compose on the fly without ever having to hit the 'stop' button - which must be experienced to be truly appreciated. Finally, with the full Live Suite package, it can go toe to toe with any top of the line DAW, thanks to Suite's dazzling array of easy-to-use synths and extensive collection of sampled instruments and loops. Unsurprisingly, Live has found a home with some of the world's top producers, like Deadmau5, Josh Gabriel, Wolfgang Gartner, Sebastien Leger and Jaytech.

Yes, there are other excellent DAWs out there, like Cakewalk Sonar and MOTU's Digital Performer, but those listed above are the ones that I've personally used extensively and feel comfortable endorsing.

2. Sound In - Sound Out

Once you've chosen a DAW, it's time to pick an audio interface. While there are tons of options, here are my top three favorites for under $300.

With XLR jacks on the front, The M-Audio Fast Track Ultra is ideal for producers who will also be recording vocals or other traditional instruments. What's more, it also includes MIDI in and out jacks for attaching a synth or keyboard controller. Throw in S/PDIF digital I/O and two dedicated insert jacks for adding external processors (like compression or EQ) and you have a full-service product in an extremely small package.

On the DJ side of things, Native Instruments' Audio 4 DJ is a great little dual stereo in/out interface that's perfect for gigging and built like a friggin' tank. If you can forego the audio inputs for recording and just need two sets of stereo outs for DJing and monitoring at home, then go for its little brother, the Audio 2 DJ. For about a hundred bucks, it's a killer little box - and incidentally, it's what I use for all my own DJ sets.

If you really want to go for it - and have room to grow as you add vintage and/or modular synths - MOTU's UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid is a fantastic choice. What's more, it's fully compatible with their extraordinary Volta plug-in, which allows it to control and automate any voltage controlled synth.

3. Monitors

If you plan to focus on remixes and/or original tracks, you should never skimp on monitors. After all, these are the final components that translate your productions to your ears. Imagine trying to do graphic design on a crappy display. Think about it. Yeah, it's like that.

For less than $400 a pair, the M-Audio BX5a powered monitors are an excellent choice for an entry-level studio. Balanced sound, great price and good looking to boot, these monitors are a great place to start.

If you've got a bit more cash and a need for extended bass, the Mackie HRmk2 series are a long-time industry fave because they deliver balanced sound and authentic bass. I know quite a few producers who swear by these monitors and own a pair myself.

At the exotic end of the spectrum, M-Audio's Studiophile DSM3 monitors are a killer choice for studios with a bit of extra room. Standing a full sixteen inches tall, these monitors are stately in their physical appearance, but that's not why we love them. The bottom line is the sound and the DSM3s provide incredible sonic detail - even in the subs - which is a remarkable feat in itself. I currently use their predecessor, the EX66, and am delighted with those.

4. Keyboard Controllers

Like audio interfaces, there are oodles of options for USB keyboard controllers. For pure selection, head over to M-Audio's controllers page, where there's something for literally everyone. If you just want a good all-around basic controller, check out their Oxygen 49.

Novation is another popular brand of MIDI controller and their range of products extends beyond keyboards into knob and slider controllers, as well as Ableton-specific goodies like their new Launchpad.

For producers on the go - or DJs who want to add a bit of real-time fun to their sets - Korg's Nano Series of tiny controllers is a killer way to add knobs, pads or keys to your rig. James Zabiela is a fan of their NanoPad drum pad controller for his live sets and personally, I'm a longtime user of the NanoKontrol knob/fader controller for both gigging and studio applications.

The new M-Audio Venom is another worthwhile consideration for producers looking for a hardware synth for live gigs. It's an analog-style synth that uses actual samples of vintage gear, a MIDI interface (if you plan to purchase more hardware synths, you'll need one) and an audio interface, as well. I've been going on about this synth since its arrival and for $500 (US) its an amazing value.

5. Microphones

Whether you're sampling audio in the field or recording vocals in your home studio, you'll need a solid microphone. In the pro world, there are literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of options for mics ranging in price from a hundred bucks to over ten thousand dollars. Just google "microphone" and see for yourself. After you’ve done that, here are a few mics that definitely hit the price/performance ratio quite nicely.

If your audio interface includes XLR inputs with phantom power, head over to Blue Microphones' website. They deliver outstanding bang-for-buck when it comes to quality condenser mics. On the other end of the scale, Blue also offers a nifty array of USB-based microphones with an audio interface built right into the mic.

Again, here's an area where M-Audio's vast and deep product line shines. If you're looking for a solid large diaphragm condenser mic that's well suited for vocals, under $500, check out their Luna II and Solaris microphones. At the lower end of the spectrum, the Nova condenser is a downright steal at $129 list.

Other manufacturers delivering microphones with time-tested quality and value include Audio-Technica, Shure, and (if you’ve got some extra cash and a jones for legendary gear) Neumann.

So there you have it. Happy shopping!


  1. To balance the mention of Logic (Mac only), you might want to mention FL Studio (Windows only). Tons of great features, plus lifetime free updates.

    --Jim Aikin

  2. "Yes, there are other excellent DAWs out there, like Cakewalk Sonar and MOTU's Digital Performer, but those listed above are the ones that I've personally used extensively and feel comfortable endorsing."

  3. This was outstanding. Thank you so much. I will share the knowledge.