This episode of Ask Joe is a bit on the long side, but Chris asked some really good questions, and I think a lot of readers have the same sort of questions, so here we go!

Chris wrote:
Joe,

First, great website. I’ve been dabbling in home recording for a few years now, and this is by far the most user-friendly and intuitive user-generated website I’ve seen. It’s a great service, and I really appreciate it.

As I indicated, I’ve been “dabbling” in home recording for a few years. I initially got into it to make hip hop beats (a phase I went through) and to record basic guitar/vocal demos. Here’s my current rig:

– Dell Laptop
– FL Studio (with most FL Studio VSTs)
– E-Mu 1616M
– E-Mu X-Board 49
– Roland Computer Monitors
– MXL 990/993 condenser mic pair
– SM58 (not used much in recording)

After I satisfied my hip hop desires (two of my remixes are at www.soundclick.com/deejayesquire), I turned to recording more instrument-based music, recording mostly rock-, blues-, and bluegrass-informed music, using guitars (acoustic & electric), bass, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, various floor pedal effects, percussion (not a full drum set), and vocals.

After putzing around for a while, I’ve decided to devote more of my time to putting out a decent record. I know my current rig is lacking though.

To get things started, I just bought a new Dell desktop. Given the insane amount of power that’s available, the massive monitor, and the price, I thought the PC-route made the most sense. I’m also used to PCs and didn’t want to burden myself with learning a new operating system. In any event, that’s a relatively fixed starting point for me. Memory and storage are not an issue.

Unfortunately, new Dells have abandoned PCI slots, and now feature PCIe slots. This means I may not be able to use my E-Mu 1616M anymore, which I understood going into it. Maybe E-Mu sells a PCIe-compatible sound card, but it doesn’t look good. In any event, I was ok with that, because I was thinking about something that has more inputs. I have ambition to record a band and/or a drum set in the future.

My question for you (if you’re still with me) is what I should really be looking at? I’ve spent some time looking into new gear–good gear that will last.

Specifically:
– Software – how do you feel about FL Studio. I know it’s generally not considered top tier recording software, and originated with hip hop, etc., but I’ve grown used to it, have the Producer’s edition (with lifetime updates), and now how to use it. If I move on from it, I would probably aim for Pro Tools, but that would be a more expensive route, and limit some of options for audio interfaces, which I’ll get to next. In short, should I graduate from FL Studio, and it is a bad idea to build a home studio around it. Give it to me real.

– Audio Interfaces. I’m looking for more inputs, and leaning towards firewire (which I sense as more reliable and faster than USB 2.0). What do you think about the Presonus FP10?

– Mixer. Do I even need a hardware mixer? This seems to be a standard element in most home studios, but I’m not sure why, if the DAW software has a mixer. Maybe people just prefer real knobs to turn? What am I missing here?

– Microphones. I imagine I need to upgrade big time. This is unanimously something that people encourage. I was thinking about the Rode NT1-A mic. Should I go better? In part, I’m reluctant to drop $1K on a mic, if I’m just going to compress, EQ, and add effects to my vocals. But maybe I’m being naive here. I also intend to pick up an SM57.

– Monitors. I was thinking about the Behringer TRUTH B2031A Active Monitors. Thoughts or recommendations?

Basically, I’ve got about $2,000-$2,500 left to spend. To recap, my rig would look like this:

– Dell Desktop
– FL Studio (Producer’s edition)
– Presonus FP10
– E-Mu X-Board 49
– Rode NT1-A
– SM57
– Behringer TRUTH B2031A Active Monitors

I also intend to get some foam, direct box, and other accessories that I’ve gathered from your website (the 12 steps).

If you could give me your general sense of my conclusions here, that’d be great. What am I missing and where could I do better?

Thanks again,
Chris

Hey Chris!

Thanks for the great questions! I like the direction you’re going, and I know there are a ton of people asking similar questions.

Before I dive into gear recommendations, let me preface this with a few suggestions.

Gear is awesome, but don’t put off this album for three years while you accumulate the perfect studio. Anything you buy will have sufficient sound quality to make a great record. (See Gear Acquisition Syndrome.)

Also, be sure to refer back to my 12 Home Studio Necessities series. It goes a bit more in-depth into each of the things you’re asking about.

Computer

PCs can work just fine for recording. You may run into compatibility issues with motherboards, firewire chipsets, etc. But as long as you’re willing to change things out as needed, the Dell may work just fine.

Software

I’m not as familiar with FL Studio as I am with Pro Tools and Logic. However, I am a big proponent of using software you’re familiar with. (See Why I Use Pro Tools.) If you know FL Studio like the back of your hand, then it might be best to stick with it.

That being said, how well does FL Studio handle audio? Can you see yourself recording and mixing a full band with it? For hip-hop/remix stuff it’s great (I liked your remixes, by the way!), but you need to make sure you have the tools to do a complete project from start to finish.

If you see yourself outgrowing FL Studio soon, then it may be worth looking into something a little more full-featured.

For the PC, I’m a fan of Pro Tools. They’re incorporating a lot more in the way of virtual instruments (drum machines and samplers), which make it a pretty good choice.

Audio Interface

Firewire is probably the best way to go. There are a few good USB interfaces on the market, but I prefer firewire.

I owned the PreSonus FP10 with my Logic rig (back when it was called “Firepod”), and it worked like a charm. For some reason, PCs and firewire interfaces have a history of not getting along at times. My best advice for you would be to check the manufacturers’ websites and make sure there aren’t any known issues with the interface you want and the PC motherboard you have.

In fact, you should check out M-Audio interfaces. Their stuff has a history of being rock-solid on PCs.

Mixer

You’re absolutely right. Most home studio owners really have no need for a mixer. Sure, there are certain scenarios where it makes sense, but for most folks an interface and software will work just fine.

Microphones

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the Rode NT1A. Rode mics in general are a great value. I’d encourage you to at least have two good microphones if you can. Being able to do stereo recording is a plus.

I’d recommend a pair of Rode NT5 mics. Also, an SM57 is a staple. Good call.

Monitors

Monitors are important. Acoustic treatment, however, is just as important (perhaps even more important). I’ve not used or heard the Behringer monitors, but I have other brands I prefer to Behringer.

JBL, Yamaha, and M-Audio come to mind. They have some great monitors in the $300-800 price range that will suit you well. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hip-hop, it would be a good idea to get something with an 8-inch speaker to handle the low end.

Thanks for the great questions, Chris! Does anyone else have advice or suggestions? Leave a comment.

  • I second the suggestion of Reaper. I started learning it and it’s very powerful and intuitive, especially for the $60 price. Also, Reaper’s developers push out updates at a feverish rate, so you get great support. As for interfaces, I’ve had more success with FW than USB, although that is not to say that USB isn’t good, perhaps the hardware I had just wasn’t any good. M-Audio makes great interfaces with decent preamps and pretty good converters. I have run a Firewire410 for 5 years with no problems; it’s my portable workhorse.

    My opinion on monitors is this…you don’t need new ones. As long as your monitors are working correctly and they have a decent frequency range (most do), they’ll be more than adequate. You don’t need fantastic speakers to mix…you need speakers that you are familiar with. As long as you know what professionally mixed music sounds like through your current speakers, you have a baseline for what sounds good when you mix your own music through them. Many professional engineers that mix away from their own studios, will actually take their speakers (and amplifier if the speakers aren’t active) with them so they have an accurate representation of the acoustic space of the studio, and how it affects what they hear. The less variables, the better. Since you’ve used your monitors for a while, you will know exactly what to expect from them. Good luck! Also, great tips Joe…couldn’t have answered the questions better myself 🙂

    • Thanks Sean! I agree about the monitors, too. The best thing you can do when mixing a song is to constantly refer back to a reference track/CD of some sort. Like KeyofGrey says, be intimately familiar with how professional mixes sound on your speakers.

  • Nathan

    I second the idea of using an M-Audio interface for a PC. I grew up mixing on PCs and have owned an FP10 and the drivers for it have a lot of compatibility issues. I’ve also had the problem of it working, but then when they release new drivers it doesn’t any more (the drivers I have to use are about 3 years old). Everyone I know who uses M-Audio doesn’t have a problem.

    That also gives you some room to decide what software you want to use, since M-Audio is compatible with Pro Tools M Powered. I like Pro Tools, but I always recommend Cubase for PCs. I’ve never heard of stability issues or compatibility issues with Cubase on a PC. Cubase includes some pretty powerful virtual instruments and is generally preferred for working with MIDI. In fact, a lot of the new MIDI features that version 8 of Pro Tools included were designed after some Cubase features (and Logic). I don’t know if auto tune is important to you, and while I’m not a fan, Cubase has a new feature that lets you edit recorded sound like MIDI. (Side note, while Pro Tools may be the industry standard in the US, in Europe they love Cubase.) I don’t have any experience with FL Studio though, the only thing I know about it is engineers usually mock it, but they can be pretty jaded so as long as it can handle what you wanna do go for it.

    Another pair of monitors you might wanna check out are KRK Rockit Powered 8s.

    Have fun and good luck!

    • Thanks Nathan. You make a very good point about M-Audio interfaces. Chris can get an M-Audio interface, use it with FL Studio or Reaper. Then he can always upgrade to Pro Tools M-Powered OR Cubase down the road without having to buy a new interface. Nice!

  • Nothing wrong with FL Studio as a songwriting tool and easy to use sketchpad for songs. I’ve been using it for years but I wouldn’t use it to record traditional acoustic/rock music. I’m using Pro Tools mostly now.

    Just because we’re using it, doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
    It’s so hard to get a really stable PC for Pro Tools, and that’s a big reason why I’m not recommending it for you.

    I deal with it because I want to be a professional audio engineer and producer. I would have given up on it if I were a musician.
    If you do want to go the PT route, (I hate to have to say this) get a Mac. and get all the tutorial videos from Groove3.

    For a musician I’d go with something inexpensive but very flexible like Reaper 3. It will work with the hardware you already have.
    If you can wait a bit longer there’s Propellerhead Record coming out which seems to be (I’ve got the beta here now) pretty musician friendly, a little less engineer friendly at this point.

    And as much as I support the Home Recording Revolution, you can always get your album done by a professional and concentrate on being a good musician.

    • I agree about Pro Tools on the PC. There’s always this potential for issues. But I’ve found that can be the case with any DAW. Sonar and firewire interfaces historically have a lot of issues, too.

      I’d recommend at least checking out Sweetwater’s Creation Stations. They’re built specifically for pro audio use. Even if you don’t buy one, seeing what they’re putting inside may be helpful.