The Top 10 Pieces Of Hardware That Still Matter

Sure, software is great, and you can do most of what you need inside a computer. But the operative word is most: Your computer craves hardware that will help fulfill its software’s maximum potential. Like what? Like these top 10 pieces of hardware, presented in no particular order.
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HIGH-END MIC PREAMP

I’m not an audiophile snob. When it comes to preamps, the ones in the average audio interface do a fine job of converting a mic signal into something your computer can handle. And ultimately, a great vocal will make it through a lousy preamp, while no preamp can fix a “karaoke-night-at-the-local-bar” vocal. But having played with some high-end tube pres, they can make a noticeable improvement — not just with mics, but with synths, electric guitars, and other sound sources. Multiply that improvement over multiple tracks, and the quality adds up. Furthermore, a really good tube pre can even serve as a “mastering processor” to sweeten mixed tracks.

TUBE GUITAR AMP

Modeling preamps are wonderful, because they can provide a zillion different — and satisfying — sounds at the flick of a switch. Yet there’s something special about miking an amp with a real tube, going through a real speaker, and having that signal travel through real air to a real mic (especially a good ribbon mic). You don’t need anything elaborate; even a little tube amp with an 8" speaker can do a kick-ass job on guitar recordings. You may need to deal with some noise, hum, and other issues that modeling manages to banish — but the results can be worth it.

HARDWARE WORKSTATION KEYBOARD

Soft synths have come a long way, but one of the main values of a hardware workstation keyboard is that it can provide a “mini-studio” within your main studio. While the vocalist is tracking into your computer, the keyboard player can be in another room fine-tuning an arrangement, or maybe doing some songwriting. Some workstations even record audio, so the guitarist might use it to practice a lead against a backing track. And of course, its own sounds will augment your collection of soft synths.

PHYSICAL CONTROL SURFACE

Nothing quite beats a mouse for precision editing of specific parameters. But when it’s time to mix, faders are what’s happening: Being able to grab any one of several channels, or move multiple faders simultaneously, makes mixing feel more like a performance and less like fixing typos in a word processor. As a bonus, many control surfaces include additional “pages” to control specific synths, as well as other virtual gear. Motorized faders are even better, because it’s so easy to edit moves: Grab a fader, punch in. Cool.

STAND-ALONE CD DUPLICATOR

Of course your computer can burn CDs. But CD burning is still a function that likes to have the computer all to itself — any interruption in the data flow means you may have another dead CD to add to your collection of “Sign up for AOL now!” discs. Besides, one of the keys to a profitable business is multitasking — if you can make CDs for your clients while something else is going on, so much the better. You might even be able to add another profit center to your operation with one of those duplication towers that does short production runs. After all, a lot of bands would love to have a hundred CDs or so right now to sell at their next gig, and don’t want to deal with the turnaround time of commercial duplication.

REALLY GOOD DI BOX

This is like the mic pre tip: There are interfaces with instrument inputs that work just fine, but there are also Class A DI boxes that translate instrument sounds at the “straight wire with gain” level of fidelity. And you don’t just have to use them for recording; a good DI box can provide the optimum interface between, say, a guitar and a rack-mount studio effect that smokes the guitar player’s floor pedal effect.

QUALITY CONVERTERS

A/D and D/A conversion are the links between the analog and digital worlds, so if they’re not happening, neither is your sound. Remember when people discovered that if they used a DAT machine’s digital out through a quality converter instead of taking the audio outs from the built-in converters, the sound quality was better? No surprise: You won’t find a top-of-the-line, jitter-free converter that costs a grand in a box that costs considerably less. And the beautiful thing about high-quality converters is you can use them in a variety of ways. When you’re not recording, let the converters go slumming by converting your CD player’s digital outs to analog. Mmmm . . . tasty.

SOMETHING WITH GOOD AUDIO TRANSFORMERS

Audio matching transformers color your signal — but a high-quality transformer can color your sound in a pleasing way. Start with the mic — you might want to try using a transformer as an interface to an input instead of just going through a preamp. Direct boxes often have transformers, and these can make a bass sound even “rounder.” Just remember that not all transformers are created equal; listen carefully before you buy.

TUBE COMPRESSOR

Yes, I realize this is the third time I’ve mentioned a tube device in one article, but there’s a reason: Tubes are pretty complex devices that clearly mess with a signal differently compared to digital devices. Given how much engineers like to use compression, having a tube compressor around provides one more worthwhile tonal color, especially for drums, bass, and guitar.

HARDWARE SIGNAL PROCESSORS

There are still some signal processors that exist only in hardware. For example, one of my favorites is the Dolby 740 Spectral Processor, which is no longer in production but is a great mastering tool for certain types of material. A plate reverb still sounds more like a plate than an emulation of same; ditto the spring reverb in guitar amps. A talk box is different compared to a vocoder, and so on. Sure, sending something out of the computer, processing it, then bringing it back in can be a bit of a pain in the butt, although some programs (like Cubase SX) make the process easier. But the bottom line is that it doesn’t pay to be a purist and keep everything “inside the box” if you don’t get to groove on all the cool non-virtual effects out there.

DIGITAL CAMERA

No, you haven’t wandered into the wrong magazine: A digital camera is a fine addition to the studio. First, it’s great PR — take pictures of the band members doing their thing, print out some of the best pictures, and give them to the band. Every time they look at a picture, they’ll think of your studio. Second, you can document a session. What exactly was in the guitarist’s rack setup? Snap a picture. Take a picture of your drum miking setup, and if it was particularly good, you’ll know how to duplicate it in the future. Which guitar was the guitarist using on that session? If you took a picture, you’ll know.

See? Hardware still has its uses, and it’s not going away any time soon. I won’t get all Taoist on you, but balance is indeed a Good Thing. For the mathematically minded, the equation is simple: The right software + the right hardware = the right studio.