A Gear-Buying Strategy for Small Recording Studios

One of the most challenging aspects of building a recording studio is knowing what equipment to buy and when. Where do you start? What should you sink most of your money into early on? The sky is the limit when it comes to how much money you can spend, so it can be very difficult to know what to buy first–should you buy a great mic and a mediocre preamp, or a great preamp and a mediocre mic? What about converters? Should you invest more in high-quality converters early on, or save that investment for later?

After thoroughly researching this topic for myself, it seems that a rule of thumb begins to emerge: start closest to the source (voice or instrument), then work your way down the chain from there. As you get further away from the source, you’ll generally see diminishing returns when it comes to each dollar spent vs. the increase in the quality of your sound.

Using this rule of thumb, you should prioritize your gear purchases like so:

Room Treatment

Although acoustic treatment isn’t technically part of the “recording chain” (and it’s not much fun to spend your money on), it does improve the room’s acoustics, which can improve the sound of anything and everything that you will end up recording in the room. For instance, if your room has too many hard, reflective surfaces, or the bass sounds too boomy, that’s going to negatively affect the sound of the instrument or voice that’s being recorded. It will also affect the sound that’s played back by your monitor speakers, which means you can’t accurately hear what your recording is going to sound like on most systems. Therefore, room treatment is essential, and the sooner you invest in it, the better.

Note that (like almost any other gear) you can spend a small fortune on room treatment. Back in 2008, I spent close to $2,000 on panels, bass traps, and ceiling clouds for my medium-sized tracking and small control rooms. If you can’t afford to buy pre-made panels, at least invest in some blankets, acoustic foam, or better yet, build your own using some quality materials (fiberglass boards, rockwool, etc.). If you must go the cheaper route, almost any treatment is better than no treatment at all, and maybe later you can buy better panels as your budget permits. Remember this: even the best instrument can sound bad in a room with bad acoustics.


A microphone is where the recorded signal begins. It’s the device that’s responsible for capturing the sound of the instrument or voice in the air and converting it into a signal that’s sent down the wire from there. So it’s essential to have a good microphone to start with. More on what constitutes a “good” mic later on.

Mic Preamps

The mic preamp is what the mic gets plugged into. This could be a stand-alone, rack-mounted device, or a microphone input on a mixing console or recording interface. The purpose of the mic preamp is to take the low-level output of a microphone and amplify the signal to bring it up to a usable level. Some mic preamps are known for being really transparent (leaving the tonal properties of the signal relatively unchanged), while others are known for imparting a certain “character” to the sound. Some are also known for being extremely clean and quiet, while others add more “dirt”, “grit”, or subtle distortion. In any case, depending upon the particular preamp, it can contribute more or less to the recorded sound, making it an important part of the recording chain.


Your monitor speakers are what let you hear the playback of what you’ve just recorded. If you can’t accurately hear the playback, then it’s going to be much more difficult to get really high quality sounds out of your studio. Therefore, try to choose monitors that are known for being relatively neutral, and don’t hype the sound excessively in any given frequency range (too much sizzle in the highs, or too much pumped-up bass, etc.). Note that whatever monitor speakers you choose, they’re going to sound better because (if you followed my advice above) you’ve already treated your room, right?


Converters are what take an analog signal and convert it to digital (A/D or analog-to-digial converter), and vice versa (D/A, or digital-to-analog converter). Converters are built in to any recording interface with mic or line inputs. There are also stand-alone converters that don’t function as an interface on their own, but instead are connected up to other gear with digital inputs or outputs (e.g., a recording interface with ADAT or S/PDIF connections). In any case, most modern converters are relatively low-noise, so even entry-level converters are capable of doing a decent job for a home studio. So it generally doesn’t make sense for the average home recordist to spend a fortune on converters when their room treatment, mics, and preamps are less than ideal. But if your recording chain is solid up to here, then by all means, buy some better quality converters.

Outboard Gear (e.g., a compressor)

As far as outboard gear is concerned, some engineers like to use a compressor when tracking certain sources (such as drums, bass, and vocals) to help smooth out some of the dynamics, generally yielding a more consistent performance. But just like mic preamps, compressors can also be really clean and transparent, or add more character to a sound, so it’s important to choose one that’s going to affect the sound in a positive way. It’s also important to note that with computer-based recording, you can get away without having much, if any, outboard gear at all. You can just as easily use a compressor plugin on a track during the mixing stage, rather than using an outboard compressor while you’re tracking.

Other Gear

After you feel good about the above list, and you’ve got some extra cash to spend on goodies for the studio, by all means, invest in some higher quality cables and other more esoteric gear purchases (stands, headphone hangers, XY stereo mounting bars, etc.). But until you’re set in the other areas, buying high-dollar cables just doesn’t make sense. Although I would recommend owning at least a couple of high quality mic cables from the start, for recording critical tracks like vocals and acoustic guitar. Note that they don’t have to cost a fortune, as long as they’re made of quality cable, free from any shorts, and have good, solid connectors (e.g. Neutrik).

Specific Purchases

For any specific gear-buying decision, I would recommend following these basic steps:

  1. Decide on a budget.
  2. Look for the absolute best piece of gear that your budget will permit at the time.
  3. Buy used gear when possible (assuming it’s from a reputable seller with a reasonable return policy). This will allow you to get more for your money than paying brand new prices.
  4. Buy it!

Now to expand upon step 2: determining the “best” item within your budget is another topic entirely. Sometimes you get what you paid for. Other times, you find a cheap piece of gear that really delivers, and you get MORE than you paid for. In any case, here are a few tips for deciding on which specific item to purchase:

1. Read reviews on the pages for online retailers, but be discriminating about these reviews. For instance, some people will write a favorable review of a product immediately after ordering it–prior to even receiving it! So take these reviews with a grain of salt, and also consider the average overall rating, relative to the total number of reviews submitted.

2. Look for reviews from professional publications–magazines, websites, etc. Check out Tape Op, Sound On Sound, Computer Recording, Recording, EQ, Mix, Recording Hacks, etc. Also be sure the “review” is a real review, and the magazine isn’t just reprinting the specs from the manufacturer’s website.

3. Check the forums. Gearslutz, Homerecording, Tape Op, Recording.org, KVR, etc. Find out what other folks have used and how well they liked it. Look for people who actually OWN the gear and have used it for a while, and see how well it holds up over time. Dimiss any “reviews” from those who make statements like “everything that brand XYZ makes totally stinks”.

4. If possible, go to a local music store and audition the gear in person to see which one you like (and you think sounds) the best.

5. Buy it, then move on! After making a purchase, do your best to thoroughly learn how to use it to the best of your ability. Stop looking for other alternatives or “buyer’s remorse” will undoubtedly set in. And then you’ll start eyeing the next one down your list that you chose not to buy, wondering if you made the right decision.

I hope you’ll find these tips useful when it comes to buying gear for your studio. Best of luck in all of your recording endeavors!

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