The Minimum Toolset for Audio Engineers: 7 must-haves

Audio Technology recently interviewed our Brisbane Head of Audio Engineering, Dr. Lachlan ‘Magoo’ Goold about the minimum toolset needed as a starter kit for Audio Engineers.

Lachlan has produced and engineered acts like Regurgitator, Powderfinnger, Midnight Oil, Spiderbait and Kate Miller-Heidke and has been nominated for 12 ARIA awards, with 2 wins. 
I’ve bought plenty of gear over the years that has changed my workflow — and the way I think about audio — but none of it has made a song better.
Gear may have made a song easier to record, it may have even made the sound a little sweeter, but it was never magic bullet. When you don’t have a Neve console in the shed or a cupboard full of Neumanns, it’s still possible to create great sounds. It may take longer to achieve, but sonic greatness is still possible with the right tools, time, and some creativity.”

So, what would be the minimum amount of gear you need to get started? 

“Now I’m talking about traditional recording (whatever that is). You know, musicians playing together in a room, with a drum kit and amplifiers. Sure, you’re going to layer up a few overdubs, but you need to get those basic tracks down to get the song started.”

1) A Computer

“You need to be able to record something. I don’t want to get into a debate over Mac vs PC, so I’ll assume you’ve bought yourself a nice Mac, with plenty of RAM and all the bells and whistles you’ll need to record crash-free. This doesn’t need to be a new Mac, but stability is important. I know a few people around that refurb the old ‘cheese grater’ models into very reliable machines. I recently abandoned my 2011 MacBook Pro, only to put an SSD in it. Now it’s better than ever, and perfectly fine for recording audio. A computer like that can be bought cheaply and is portable.”

2) Your I/O

“This is where different ways of working come into the picture; figure that out first. If you want to own all your I/O, I’m a big fan of UAD gear and its Unison preamp- modelling technology. I don’t particularly want to name brands, but it is a very good platform. It is expensive, but very versatile, which is a key criteria when you’re starting out. Coupled with eight extra preamps via ADAT and you have enough I/O to record a band. Alternatively, you could acquire 16 cheap — but clean — inputs, and augment that with two channels of character-full analogue gear. Another option would be to borrow the I/O for tracking the basic tracks, or — god forbid — hire a studio. After that, it’s fairly easy to manage the overdubs from a home DIY setup.”

3) Your Listening Environment

“If you are recording at home, apply the most attention to your listening environment. You need to be sure of what you’re hearing. While it’s easy to blow the budget with off-the-shelf acoustic solutions, you can greatly improve a room with some simple treatment or, at worst, end up with a room you can get used to. The key here is critical listening. Listening to lots of music you know well — music where the mixes are well-balanced and musical. I like to have benchmarks that cover a frequency spectrum; my favourite record for low end, my favourite for top end, etc. Once you’ve found those benchmark recordings, listen to them regularly. Obviously, you need some monitors and you’d be wise not to skimp on those. You need more than one set for mixing, but in tougher times, I used old hi-fi speakers to give me a different perspective. Don’t forget a good set of headphones, which can also provide an alternative to your main monitors. "

4) Your Mics

“We need to capture those performances with microphones. For me, the key is versatility. You’ll need at least one dynamic, usually of the radio broadcast variety (Shure SM7, Sennheiser MD421, Electro-Voice RE20). A condenser, that’s not too zingy in the upper frequencies, and a ribbon. It’s surprising the quality you can get for around $300 in today’s market with a little bit of research."

5) Utilitarian Pieces

“A decent stand is more valuable than you might think. Proper cables and a good ergonomic chair are all essential. This can also mean an external monitor for the computer. Ergonomics are very important if you’re going to spend a lot of your day in front of a computer screen."

6) The Kit

"Often, the most critical element is the sound of the equipment you are recording. A good drum kit — even if you are going to layer samples in later — sets the scene for the whole recording. Decent amps, guitars, and keyboards all add to the originality and authenticity of your recordings. Get instruments set up before recording, and bring a tired-sounding drum kit to life with new skins. Borrow as many of these things as you can. Having multiple snare drums on hand can completely alter the feeling of a drum kit from song to song. e gear becomes the colour palette for your artwork and your recording gear is your pencils, charcoal and paintbrushes. "

7) Time

"Once you have something to record a performance onto and play it back, the most valuable thing you have when starting out is time. If you’re able to gauge when something is good enough, only your creativity will be the determining factor of whether your recordings sound professional or poor. Not the cost of your equipment. As they say, time is money. When you don’t have the money to buy expensive high-end gear, you should put in the time to work on something creatively to achieve similar outcomes as engineers that do have the gear. You should spend the time working on songs before attempting to record them. This expenditure of time is more valuable to your productions than any microphone or preamp."
That’s why, students at JMC can book out our studios for free in their spare time, to practice and perfect their recordings (it helps they can also book out the studios with an SSL Duality in it to!)
Find out more about studying Audio Engineering and Sound Production