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Essential Studio Equipment for 2021

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Max of Max DB Audio is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and sound and mix engineer with a professional recording studio upstairs at Pirate Earlsfield.

With over a decade of experience in songwriting and audio engineering, we decided to learn more about the machines behind the man; delving into Max's must-have music production equipment, sound recording equipment and audio interface.

Whether you're an aspiring audio engineer, or a musician wondering what an audio engineer does (including what they can do for you), an insight into Max's experience of recording and mentoring artists is a great place to start.

You can listen to Max's previous work featuring Alex Ohm, The Nerves, Minor Royals and Rozelle on his website.

‘You won't realise how noisy the world is till you build a recording studio.’

Max moved into his South West London studio in October 2017 and when it came to sound treatment, he decided to do it himself. Of the sound panels, he explains: ‘I built them out of some 600 millimetre thick rockwool, a wooden frame, some fabric to cover, and suspended them by hooks and wire.’

Though soundproofing isn't on his list of services yet, it's always good to know what your audio engineer's got up their sleeve: 'I've built about 1000 of those for people in my life. You could probably build about 12 in a day. Maybe more.’

‘The future of audio engineering.’

Instead of using a traditional mixing console such as a Neve desk, an API desk or a SSL desk, Max uses Universal Audio Interfaces with UAD’s Unison Technology, a virtual console which gives him access to up to twenty-four channels of console emulation. Explaining the benefits of this virtual console, he states:

‘You can pick and choose from 4 consoles on the way in, depending on what sound you’re after, printing your preamp, eq & compression just like a traditional desk.

Most other studios will usually have one dedicated console/desk. With me, you’ve got an option of whatever flavour you want.’

Universal Audio’s Unison Technology has been coined an 'audio engineering breakthrough'. This comes as no surprise when you consider the depth of choice in sound.

'Anyone can mic up a guitar amp or vocals but there’s a real art to recording drums.’

When it comes to choosing recording studio microphones, there are thousands of options. On the importance of finding the right set, Max has this to say:

‘If you're starting out and wondering where to spend your money, don't spend it on the interface, or the monitors, or plugins first. Start where you first capture the audio, the microphone.

If you get good microphones and apply correct mic placement, you'll get good audio. Then you can do good stuff with that audio.

If you capture rubbish audio using a rubbish microphone, it doesn't matter how many plugins, what amazing speakers you've got, how great your sound treatment is in your room, you’re making harder work for yourself. Don’t get into a habit of fixing everything in post.'

With this in mind, he gives a run-down of some of his favourite studio recording microphones, all of which he employs in his West London studio sessions:

'I used to use an AKG D112 on the kick drum (inside) all the time. More recently, I've switched it up and I use the Sennheiser E602. It has more attack and slightly more scooped low mids. It ends up naturally sounding closer to how I’d EQ it.'

'I use this for kick out - it’s Warm Audio’s emulation of a Neumann U47 FET which is a classic mic to use for kick out. It offers a tight low-end frequency response and it also sounds great on vocals.'

'I tape this on to a Shure SM57 for snare, they’re similar sounding mics but I feel the M201TG offers better hi-hat rejection. I use both so I have options when mixing.'

'This is a slightly controversial one as it’s not an amazing mic by any standards, quite harsh and bright.

However, I use it for snare bottoms as I only ever really want a bit of bite/snap from the snare which will be heavily compressed and gated. This mic’s profile also means it’s easy to get into position.'

'I use a pair of these on toms. They just sound great on toms and always have, very little EQ needed, decent snare and cymbal rejected if placed correctly. I also use the AKG D112 on the floor tom.'

'I don’t always mic up HiHat and Ride but If I do, I turn to a pair of these guys - mainly if the song has an intricate ride pattern which needs extra definition and likewise an intricate HiHat sound which isn’t cutting through the mix.'

'I have a pair of these Russian custom-made Ribbon mics as overheads, they sound great when run through some good preamps.

Balanced & not too bright sounding, they compliment the pair of AKG C214’s which are in turn quite bright, I often set them up in an ORTF position or as room mics.'

'I use a pair of these for room mics, sometimes in mid/side position. It’s useful to have a mic with different patterns depending on how much room sound I’m after for the record.'

'I often set this up as a mono room mic/middle of the room, almost a trash mic heavily compressed, it adds a bit of dirt as an option to the mic.'

  • Guitar Cab Microphones & Set-up

'My recent set-up is a RM Biv-1 Ribbon microphone flat against the cone, with a Shure SM57 off axis alongside it.

This is a fairly old technique, you get the weight and roundness from the ribbon and the articulation and mids from the SM57. Combined, you get a classic fat guitar sound, especially when double tracking guitars and hard panning.'

  • Bass Cab Microphones & Set-up

'I often end up sending the DI signal from a bass to one of the great amp simulation plugins I have. I also have a Sansamp RB1 rack unit which sounds great when blended in with the DI signal and adds a bit more string definition, saturation and overall clarity to the bass.

If I’m mic-ing up a bass cab I’ll usually mix it up and experiment with different combinations of large diaphragm condensers and dynamic mics. This setup changes a fair bit but my WA47Jr along with a Sennheiser MD421 or AKG D112 often does the job.'

  • Vocal Microphone

'I recently purchased an SE Electronics SE Z5600a II tube microphone which sounds great on almost everyone. Other great alternatives are my WA47Jr, SE4400a or Rode NTK.'

Mic Accessories: Shockmounts & Stands

If you exclusively play live, you might never have heard of shockmounts. However, when recording in the studio, you're dealing with far more sensitive mics.

To capture the best sound quality possible, the best solution is to get the 'dedicated shockmount from the original manufacturer of your particular mic model'.

It's also essential to invest in some decent studio microphone stands. You must be able to trust your mic stands to hold your precious microphones.

  • For your kick drums and guitar cabs, you need a low-profile stand.
  • Aesthetically similar to these, you have desktop mic stands which are intended for podcasting and bedroom studio recording.
  • Overhead stands are the largest and most expensive of all - you'll need these when dealing with height, such as for drum overheads.

For every studio microphone you buy, you need to consider the correct mic stand to keep it safe and secure.

‘I’ve got an unhealthy amount of guitar pedals.’

Max has been playing guitar in bands since he was thirteen and there are over ten stacked against his studio wall including his favourite: a custom-built Fender telemaster. However, when it comes to guitar pedals, the only unit of measurement he can use is 'an unhealthy amount'.

Here are Max’s top five guitar pedals for recording bands:

'That thing's amazing. I can't say enough good things about it.

It’s great for delays and modulation. You could sit down with that pedal and just flick on one of its 100 presets and play a few chords and you've got a song. It just writes songs for you. You don't have to do anything.'

'I use the Line 6 DL4 pedal as a loop pedal for live stuff. But it's also got loads of amazing delays in it. Even though it’s a bit dated and only 16 bit, it's still a really good sounding delay pedal.'

'That’s a chorus pedal that I've had for fifteen years. It's played on almost every record and every gig I've ever done in my life.

I use it a lot when I've got bands coming into the studio.' It’s got a certain chorus and vibrato sound that many modern pedals try to recreate, but I’ve been through a few and nothing ever compares to the original’

'That's a tone/gain pedal. That thing just stays on the whole time. It never turns off. I don’t touch the settings, everything at 12 o’clock and leave as is.'

'I've got the first generation one, sounds amazing with reverbs and delays, it’s awesome.'

‘Mixing is my favorite part of the process, sitting down and making the raw audio sound like a finished record.'

Alongside recording drums, Max deems mixing sound one of the best and most difficult parts of being an audio engineer. On the importance of achieving a great mix, he explains:

‘You need to go to a good mixing engineer to get your track sounding good across all platforms, whether that’s your car, your phone or laptop speakers, or headphones.’

Max’s preferred DAW (Digital Audio workstation) is Pro Tools. With this, he uses various plugins:

'I’ve got certain plugins which live on my template, others I only use for certain genres. My template is always evolving, always changing.'

The five main plugin manufacturers he uses across rock, pop and urban music genres are:

'My favourite headphones are the Sennheiser HD-600s.'

When investing in a pair of studio headphones, it's important to read reviews and find the best ones for purpose: recording headphones, production headphones or headphones for mixing.

According to Max, the Sennheiser HD-600s are excellent all-rounders:

'My favourite headphones are the Sennheiser HD-600s. Those are the ones to get in my opinion. They’ve got a fairly flat EQ response and being open-back you can wear them comfortably for many hours and feel confident your mixes will translate well.'

‘Three-way active speakers.’

Max upgraded his studio monitors earlier this year, from a pair of ADAM Audio A7Xs to a pair of three-way active speakers - Neumann KH 310s.

Beautiful sounding monitors are key to a great studio set-up but you're not going to get a great sound out of those monitors unless you have good speaker stands. The right speaker stands will isolate your hi-fi, leading to a tighter bass response and better soundstage.

‘It often works out cheaper to spend more on good quality audio leads and buy them once.’

Buying studio cables that will last is better for your wallet and the environment. However, if you can’t afford the up-front cost, there are lots of cheap cable solutions out there.

‘It’s essential that you have a good studio chair to sit on.’

You're going to be spending a lot of time in your studio whether you're producing, writing, mixing or mastering so when you’re choosing your recording studio furniture, please be kind to yourself - get a proper ergonomic chair and desk.

Feeling inspired?

Whether you're on the lookout for home studio equipment or professional recording studio equipment, here are some great places to check out for second-hand and new studio accessories:

  • eBay - For second-hand music making equipment from computers to guitar pedals.
  • Studio Spares - For a mix of professional and more accessible gear from studio monitor cables to microphone pop filters.
  • SX Pro - An international, professional audio recording equipment outlet.

Finally, if you're a musician or band looking for help with music composition, recording your songs or mixing, an audio engineer might be what you need to progress to the next level.

If Max can’t help you, he’ll almost certainly know someone who can, so don’t hesitate to reach out whatever your location, skill-level or genre via his website.

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