Home Recording Shopping Guide

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When he's not recommending and selling pro audio gear, Michael Groh is also a gigging jazz musician.

At the end of each year, I enjoy discovering what’s new in the area of home recording technology to pass on tips for your home-recording holiday purchases. This year, I spoke with Michael Groh of San Francisco-based pro audio dealer Cutting Edge Audio Group to learn about the gear and gadgets he has been recommending for his home recording clients.

The Phonofone.

Although not a recording device, Michael started out by showing me the Phonofone III, a custom-made passive amplification device that projects the music on your iPhone up to room listening level. It’s a ceramic horn that takes the puny sound of the iPhone’s tiny internal speaker and passively amplifies it four times, attaining a level of about 60 dB. It’s enough to listen to in a bedroom or office, as long as you don’t live in an unusually noisy environment. Hand made in limited editions of 50 units, it retails for $195.

As we talked about what might be good to recommend this holiday season, Michael made the point that many people have a limited budget this year to upgrade their home recording systems. Because of that, “I work with them to prioritize what is the most important element they need or would benefit from upgrading. If you consider your entire home recording system as 100% of your sound, assuming that you already have a digital audio recording system such as Logic, Pro Tools or one of the other platforms, then I believe that as much as 50% of your sound comes from the quality of the microphone you use. Often times, when a customer purchases their first really nice microphone, they’ll be surprised at what a difference in their overall recording quality it makes.”

Royer Labs new R-101 ribbon mic.

Michael praised two mics, suggesting either might be a good choice to fit the bill for a killer addition to your studio. “The first is a new, more affordable ribbon mic from Royer Labs, the R-101. For years, the Royer R-121 has been the first choice ribbon mic of many top recording engineers for its impeccably clean sound and ability to handle all kinds of sources elegantly.” But that quality came with a price of $1,400, which may be a little rich for a recording musician. The new R-101 offers nearly identical performance and a lifetime warranty for a street price of $799. Royer has put a number of recorded examples on their web site (see link at end of story) that compares the same instrument recorded with a R-121 and R-101, so you can readily compare the performance between the two mics, keeping in mind that the 101 is roughly half the price of the 121.

The Bock Audio 195 is a pristine large diaphragm condenser mic.
The second mic that Michael recommended is the Bock 195, developed by David Bock, a co-founder of the highly regarded Soundelux condenser microphone company. Prior to that, David worked as a tech guru at some legendary recording studios, such as Ocean Way and the Hit Factory. He designed the Model 195 to provide a flexible, high-quality, durable, and affordable large diaphragm cardioid condenser. According to Michael, “The Bock 195 delivers custom-designed, hand-built performance easily rivaling that of mics costing many times more.”

It’s also one of the most flexible large diaphragm condensers on the market due to a series of three switches which allow you to tailor 195’s characteristics to best suit the instrument or voice you are recording. The Mode switch offers “Fat” or “Norm” settings. The Fat sound is reminiscent of the warmth of classic tube mics from the 1950s, while the Norm setting gives outstanding high frequency response, the type often favored by vocalists looking for a full and present sound. Additional switches allow for low frequency roll off, helpful when there’s too much low frequency information in the room or sound source, and a pad, to decrease the mic’s sensitivity by 10 dB – a must when miking a screaming amp cabinet or other loud sound source. While the street price of $1,100 makes the Bock 195 a substantial investment for the home recording studio, it’s one that will pay immediate dividends as it can be used an nearly any instrument from voice to acoustic and electric guitars, with dazzling results.

The remaining 50% of your home studio’s sound, Michael suggested, “is made up of three other elements: preamps, analog-to-digital (A-D) converters, and the sound of the room that you are work in. The thing is, Michael argued, is that until you have a top quality mic, you may not hear the quality difference a change in your preamp or A-Ds would result in. So if you have a limited budget, upgrading to a better mic is probably the best initial move. If you have a little more money after getting a better mic, then adding an improved preamp would be the next investment. To that end, Michael said, “One of my personal favorites in this category is a very high quality preamp that won’t break the bank, the Daking Audio Mic Pre One.”

Geoff Daking's Mic Pre One is a contender for the mic preamp that delivers that greatest bang for the buck in the sub-$1000 price range.

With a street price just under $700, the Daking Mic Pre One is a DI-box-sized mic preamp with Class-A circuitry, delivering a clean, uncolored sound, reminiscent of mic pres costing twice as much. It’s also built very ruggedly, so it can take life in the studio and keep delivering great sound, with 70 dB of gain and a continuously variable high pass filter with a range covering from 10-200 Hz and 12 dB per octave cut. This allows you to control the ultra low frequencies that often muddy a home recording.

RME's FireFace 800 delivers pristine A-D conversion at sampling rates of up to 192K.

As to improving your A-D converters, Michael praised the RME FireFace 800, a fully-featured 8-input pre amp/A-D converter that delivers top-of-the-line specs and compatibility with both Mac and PC OS. Unlike many other converters, all inputs and outputs can be used at the same time, so the XLR and TRS inputs on the same channel can be used simultaneously. This results in up to 35 signal sources that can be connected to the FireFace 800 and recorded on up to 28 separate tracks – a far cry from the 1- or 2-input combo preamp/A-D units that come standard with many basic DAW packages. The FireFace 800 has a street price of $1,679.

The BabyFace portable A-D system delivers the same quality as the FireFace and includes gig bag and necessary cabling to go mobile.

The Fireface’s road-ready little brother, the USB-powered RME Babyface, delivers similar blazing specs but in a smaller package ideal for recording on the go with your laptop. 2 Mic-line I/Os, all necessary cabling, and a gig bag for a $749 street price.

We next discussed the newly released Pro Tools 9 that debuted at the recent Audio Engineering Society (AES) conference in San Francisco. “It’s a major step ahead for the home recording studio, because they’ve unlocked the system so that for the first time, you can use the Pro Tools DAW software with anyone’s audio interface. With a list price of $599 for Pro Tools 9, the number one digital recording software is an even better bargain. They’ve added in the Automatic Delay Compensation feature, which was an issue in the earlier LE version of the program. At the same time, Avid announced a number of upgrades to their own line of M Box preamps and audio interfaces, delivering more headroom, assignable knobs and better specs than the previous generation,” he concluded.

Primacoustic's FlexiBooth solves the problem of how to get a clean and tight vocal sound in your home studio.

Going full circle to another very innovative, “why didn’t I think of this” product, Michael introduced me to the FlexiBooth from Primacoustic, a company that specializes in a wide range of acoustical materials ideal for home studios. The FlexiBooth is a wall-mounted variable acoustic cupboard that opens up to reveal a 24” x 48” instant vocal booth, ideal for vocal performances or voice over recording. “It provides a tight, controlled sound for voice work,” Michael advised, “and when it’s closed you hardly notice it. It’s much more space efficient sound treatment than constructing a vocal booth if you’re recording in a spare bedroom, basement or even a room that doubles as a home office, not to mention if you are a renter.” Best of all, it retails for only $399 and comes in grey or beige colors. You can even purchase a number of them to install creating a wide range of variable acoustical surfaces for your home studio. The link below leads to the company’s web pages and “how to” guides for this product.

So if your holiday shopping list includes upgrading your home recording set up, consider any or all of these various options to help make the sound quality of your 2011 recordings even better. Happy Holidays!

Story Links
Cutting Edge Audio Group
Phonofone III
Royer R-101 ribbon mic (check out the sound samples)
Bock Audio 195 condenser mic
Daking Mic One Preamp
Hear audio recordings made with the Mic Pre One
Pro Tools 9
FlexiBooth by Primacoustic
Home Studio Tips from a Big Studio Designer

3 thoughts on “Home Recording Shopping Guide

  1. Michael’s ideas are great… if you can handle that kind of money for your microphones. Yes, the Royer is a fantastic ribbon microphone. But musicians/producers in the home project studio might not be able to pony up that kind of cash. I’ve put records on the Billboard Top 100 using equipment like Shure 55’s, 57’s, 58’s, EV’s lower line condensers and the old Tascam Model 10 mixer into the Tascam 4-track recorder. Of course, times have changed and I now use ProTools alongside a 48 input mixer and far better mics. One thing remains true: For a recording to be really good, the material needs to be great! Having been in studios since the 60’s, I learned one valuable lesson, regardless the type or quality of equipment used, don’t exceed it’s limitations (headroom and other parameters) and it should deliver decent quality recordings. Usually our worst enemies are things like over eq and reverb. Record flat and dry then add only enough in the mix to create your desired effect. That is especially true with vocals. A decent mic can be made to sound like a great mic with the proper eq. If the budget isn’t there for the big stuff… don’t worry, keep writing and/or recording. It will only get better with experience. Now, would someone pass me the Neumann microphone for the next setup.

  2. Some really cool products here. But I’m a little confused by the description of the RME FireFace. “all inputs and outputs can be used at the same time, so the XLR and TRS inputs on the same channel can be used simultaneously.” Why in the world would you want to plug in an XLR and a TRS to the same preamp channel at the same time? I’m assuming the XLR input is mic-level and the TRS input is line-level, so the preamp wouldn’t “see” both at the same time anyhow.

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