Tools I Use
Below is a list of the equipment, software, plugins, etcetera that I use! I’ll try to keep this list updated as time goes on, as I’m constantly learning, trying new things, changing the workflow.
Equipment is expensive. At the same time, buying a quality product (such as a new mic or guitar) should mean you can own and use that product for a loooong time. So I’d say the investment is surely worth it, and I allow myself to save money for a big purchase once every 6-12 months.
Western Guitar: an expensive Martin, not sure the model. Semi-acoustic. Has a really full sound, which sounds beautiful in real-life, but gave me some trouble recording. In the end, I figured out that putting the mic really close, pointing at the 12th fret from the side, gave the best results. (Micing from further away just made the sound way too muddy and reverby.)
Have owned it for almost 10 years now. My first real, individual music purchase. Tough to play, to be honest, as it’s so big and heavy. But it’s worth it for the sound :p
Spanish Guitar: a relatively inexpensive Alhambra Z-Nature. The cheapest one that had a proper completely solid top. (It makes a huge difference in sound quality.) Sounds wonderful, also much easier to play than my other guitars, and especially better than several small training guitars I used to learn guitar when I was young.
Downside? Any mix that’s even remotely busy, or wants to sound more “pop”, can’t really get away with only using this guitar. The sound is too soft.
Definitely want more distance (between mic and guitar) on this one. And watch out for low-end rumble. And play the strings a bit more aggressively than I normally would, otherwise too much noise (such as me taking a breath) gets into the mic, instead of, you know, the guitar sound.
Electric Guitar: A Fender Stratocaster. Bought by my parents for less than 100 euros, including (cheap) amplifier, almost 15 years ago now. It’s very much a broken piece of equipment these days. It detunes so quickly and has so many defects that I have to seriously consider replacing it soon …
MIDI Keyboard: Novation LaunchKey Mini. Used to own a full-sized MIDI keyboard, which I received from someone who bought it on a whim but then never used it. It was just too big to use in my small space, the keys were very plastic, and at some point many of them just stopped working. So I bought something much smaller, with heavier keys, and some more buttons and faders for DAW control.
Banjo: Received as a birthday gift during my “Mumford & Sons” phase. Probably the cheapest one available. I can’t tell the difference, it sounds like a banjo to me! Should use it more often, but I’m out of practice. And it’s hopelessly out of tune.
Cajon: Not mine, sits in the living room for anyone to use. In reality it’s used as a chair in desparate times, and only used musically by me whenever I feel a song needs drums/percussion/groove … but an actual drum would be too much.
Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC): one from sE Electronics. My main one, as it has always worked flawlessly, and I can quickly attach/detach the pop filter.
Small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC): actually two of them. One from sE Electronics, another from Lewitt. (I need two to record stereo images of one guitar performance, for example.) The Lewitt one was bought years after the first one. And something turned out to be wrong, so it’s currently in repairs. But both sound fine, not really different enough to comment on it.
I started out with a Steinberg UR22. It feels and looks very solid, and has never failed me.
However, it only has two inputs. Once I needed more, I bought the Behringer UMC404HD. Yes, it’s Behringer, but it’s far cheaper than its alternatives. And honestly? I think it sounds better than the Steinberg and I haven’t noticed any flaws with it yet. (The Steinberg has quite a high amount of noise.)
I obviously use a PC for recording and mixing. It’s a broken old laptop, currently 8 years old, which used to be my university laptop. It’s slow. It lags more and more when I try to mix anything with more than 10-15 tracks. But it’s all I have :p
Besides that, I have a bunch of standard XLR cables, picks I somehow collected over the years, capos I collected in that same mysterious way, nothing special there.
I need a good ribbon mic, because I’m pretty sure the sound will really suit my voice and song style, and also so I can experiment using the “Mid-Side Technique”. (A figure-eight mic in the center, a LDC/SDC in the middle, and use that to record a balanced stereo image of myself playing and singing at the same time.)
I need a functional electric guitar, as I mentioned.
I need a proper digital piano and digital drums, but for now I’ll manage just playing those things with my tiny MIDI keyboard.
I need proper acoustic treatment. (I’m looking at panels like the Ekustika Wooden Queen. They look cozy, like they could actually be part of your furniture without sticking out like a sore thumb, and I’m sure that a few of them in the right place will make a huge difference.)
I’ve always used Studio One. (Well, since I started taking this seriously and creating music that will actually be sold/used Before that I dabbled in demos all over the place.)
It just looks way better than all the other DAWs (colors, UI, general design). Much easier to use than anything else. Obviously has its downsides, but they were never enough to steer me away.
I do use Reaper though for some things S1 can’t do, or can’t do as easily. For example, Reapers ReaTune effect is a great and easy way to subtly tune vocals, without sounding autotuned or introducing artefacts.
I’m still not really an audio engineer. I’m an artist who was forced to really learn the mixing/mastering side of things as I had to do everything on my own, with health issues making it all more difficult.
So it’s not like I have a large list of “my favourite plugin for every situation” or my “default workflow”.
Nevertheless, these things have been the common denominator throughout most of my projects:
- A saturation plugin. (Such as Saturator by BedRoomProducers.) => just adds some extra loudness and fullness to a vocal, without getting in the way
- FabFilter Pro EQ => as you might have noticed, I care about UI and how things look. This is an intuitive EQ that looks great and is easy to use. (I mainly use it to aggressively cut away the low and high frequencies … before sending that signal to a reverb.)
- Any reverb will do, but I really like the look and sound of OldSkooLVerb (by Voxengo). And I’ve learned that you really want a reverb with good EQ built-in, as you’ll basically always want to cut highs and lows to prevent muddiness.
- A slapback delay on the vocal. I’ve always used the stock plugin in S1. (Otherwise, I only use delay on arpeggiated background support or when I want a more “dreamy” atmosphere.)
- I’ve tried many free plugins for other instruments (electric guitar amps, drums, etcetera). I haven’t really settled on “the best one”, I keep searching until I like something (enough) for a specific song. (My computer being slow, the bigger and more well-known VSTs are not even an option for me, as their file size and processing power is too large.) That being said, you really don’t need to buy expensive plugins in most cases: there are many great free products if you search for them.
- I use the stock compressor. But I never use it aggressively. If I need to really squash something, I’ll perhaps use multiple in a row. But if that’s necessary, I’ve screwed up in the recording phase :p
I can’t stand to listen to the same song/section repeating over and over. In the same way, I can’t stand to listen or record the exact same instrument for long periods.
So on a typical day, I’ll record varied bits of different songs in my next album. Maybe I’ll do the guitar on song #1, then play some bass and drums for #2, then do low harmonies for #3.
(Yes, it means more shuffling around your setup, but it’s worth it to not get annoyed at the repetitiveness.)
When I need low harmonies, or just really low vocal parts in general, I’ll record them in the morning. As soon as possible after waking up. (If I wait longer, my voice has warmed up, and I often can’t even reach that low anymore.)
When I need the actual vocal, and especially the high harmonies, I’ll warm up during the day and record those in the evening. It just changes the sound, the expressiveness, the quality of the performance to something better. Simply by being warmed up, more awake.
I do many takes of everything. Even if I’m not sure if I want to double the vocal, or double the guitar, I’ll record it multiple times anyway. It’s happened way too often that I do need those extra takes for something critical later.
(Look at it this way: you can easily just … ignore extra stuff you’ve recorded if you don’t want it. But it’s not so easy to record extra stuff a long time after recording the first few parts.)
Because of my health issues, and my voice being unpredictable, I can’t always start with vocals. (Even though I’d like to.) In that case, I just slowly build the core elements of a song. (Usually the percussive elements, the guitar/piano that leads the way, and then some extra ear candy for the lowest and highest frequencies.)
Only once I have the vocals, do I start mixing, tweaking, editing, adding plugins and effects.
The vocal is the most important part of each song. It has all the attention. It draws the listener. The rest of the mix should support that. So mixing stuff before I even have the vocals done, is pretty pointless and will usually lead to choices being undone later.
That’s basically it. I’m still learning a lot with each new song, still changing the workflow, trying new things. So there are no other rules set in stone, or golden principles I always follow, or anything like that.
I do try to constantly switch between Mono and Stereo, and try to export the mixdowns each day to listen on multiple devices. It’s happened to me that I completely missed an obvious mistake/click/wrong note when working with headphones on, which just jumped out at me when I sent the song to myself on WhatsApp and listened on my phone. The earlier you catch stuff like that, the better.
Hopefully this gave some insight! Maybe some inspiration, or some ideas.
As boring as it sounds, I think the coming years will just see me buy that “stretch goal” equipment I really want and could use, and I’ll probably try other techniques and plugins all that while. I don’t see a reason to completely change stuff, but who knows.
Until the next time, El Troubadour