Rough Mix: Fine Tuning

Avoid impulse buying by focusing on the essentials
Image placeholder title

Whether or not you attend the NAMM show in January, you cannot escape its effects on the industry: Your favorite music stores—online or brick-and-mortar—will be closely following the announcements during the show and, in some cases, will have stock ready for purchase immediately after a product is unveiled. Of course, the hype is intended to get you back into the swing of things—making your list, checking it twice, and then getting out the credit card that has barely cooled off after the holiday season.

Like everyone else, I, too, will be making a list of my favorite things from the show. However, I also carry a list of the items that I absolutely need, which serves as a reality check against impulse buying. The list is full of those seemingly boring essentials—cables, mic and keyboard stands, a speaker switcher, and other accessories without which is it is impossible to work. Simply adding another exciting new piece of gear to my studio doesn’t guarantee greater efficiency or better sound unless it is fully integrated into the whole. Instead, it can become a distraction, which is the last thing I want.

With the influx of new releases in mind, let’s focus this month on prioritizing overall improvements to your studio rather than merely emptying your wallet on all those glamor items.


Let’s start by taking stock of the various aspects of your rig—studio, live, or whatever hybrid you have—and do a little planning. But instead of simply listing everything you own, let’s look at how well the items are integrated and whether there are things you can do to improve sound quality or remove barriers to creativity.

I’m constantly surprised that so few people—even professional musicians—do this kind of studio critique. When hired to evaluate someone’s personal studio, I often find a lot of excellent, high-end gear but it’s usally chosen with little thought or investment into how components are interconnected. Unfortunately, top-quality products do not operate in a vacuum: They’ll only provide peak performance when they are surrounded by an equally matched system.

Let’s break this down for the studio environment. In the most basic setup, the recording chain looks like this:

Sound source >> transducer >> preamp >> A/D converter >> storage device.

For playback, you’re looking at the reverse:

Storage device >> DAC >> amplifier >> transducer >> acoustic sound.

In order to evaluate each path, follow the signal flow—visually or in your mind—from the first link to the last, keeping an eye open for any weak spots.

Start with your sound source. If you’re an electric guitarist, consider your guitar and amp: Do they reflect your current interests? Do any components need repair or replacement? Do you want to upgrade your sound (e.g., invest in a tube-based amp)? Are there any problems with your cables? How about the ones in your pedalboard? If you play a synth, acoustic guitar, percussion, or winds, look at every aspect of your setup to see how it stands up to scrutiny.

Next is the input transducer—the microphone: Does it match the kinds of instruments you plan to record? (Are you still using that old stage dynamic to record everything?) And before you move on to the preamp, think about your mic cables: Are they in good shape? Do they match the quality of the mic you’re using?

You get the picture. By taking mental stock of each step in the signal path, you’ll have the opportunity to find areas that are problematic or where you can raise the bar.

Another useful way to evaluate your setup is to look for balance. For example, compare each side of the signal path: Do your input and output transducers—mics and monitors—match each other in terms of sound and build quality?

Another balancing point is between the quality of your transducers and your interface (ADC and DAC): If you are using a low-cost USB interface between your boutique mic and expensive playback system, an interface upgrade would be a worthwhile investment.

Focusing on specific tasks is also an excellent way to examine your rig. Perhaps your playback setup is more important because mixing is your main gig. In that case, look closely at each piece in your monitoring system to see if there is a balance in quality throughout.

Remember that your playback system is more than just the speakers themselves. Topics to consider include the DAC (Is it time for a high-quality standalone unit?); passive vs. active monitors; balanced vs. unbalanced cabling; monitor placement (Should you move them off the desktop and onto stands? Are they positioned properly in the room? Are they decoupled from the stand or desk?); and room treatment (Is the sound of the room altering what you hear from the monitors?). Chances are good that you’ll have plenty to consider after such an evaluation.


Whatever you do, avoid using these questions to justify the purchase of unnecessary gear, at least until you’ve brought your system up to a level that reflects your current needs. Plan upgrades to match your budget constraints, and before you know it, your system will be up to its full potential, giving you a much more efficient, and hopefully creative space in which to work.