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Essential Outboard Gear for Tracking in a Project/Semi-Pro Studio


At some point, many recording engineers and studio owners want to move past their beginner interface and get their hands on some real deal gear. Unfortunately, a lot of that gear is expensive. Buying without knowing exactly what you want, and why, can lead to a lot of wasted time and money.

In this article, we'll show you the essential outboard gear you'll need to up your tracking game. Keep in mind that the gear can make a big difference, but if your source doesn't sound good, the gear won't help!

1) Next-Level Mics

Arguably the most important recording gear you can have is a good set of mics. At least one high quality mic for vocals is crucial if you want to step up your game as an engineer. For vocals, here are our top two recommendations:

Shure SM7B - $399

The SM7B is a classic mic that has been used on countless records for its smooth response. You can absolutely crush this mic with compression and EQ the living snot out of it. It allows so much control which is why so many people use it.

Pro Tip: For clean vocals, take the windscreen off and use a steel mesh pop filter for a more open response.

Warm Audio WA-251 - $799

Warm Audio's take on the famous Ela M 251 is absolutely incredible and should be the first tube mic on your list for vocals. The incredibly silky high end sounds like this mic should be a lot more expensive than it is. Listen to our sound samples by clicking here.

2) Great Preamps

Next in the chain comes preamps. At some point, you will outgrow the built-in preamps in your interface and will need something that matches the nice mics you just got. Outboard preamps will give you much more headroom and some good saturation getting you closer to the final sound before even putting any processing on.

Here are our top two recommendations for preamps:

Focusrite ISA Two - $859.99

The ISA preamps were originally designed by Mr. Rupert Neve for the 110 console. The ISA Two is a 2-channel preamp derived from those same pres within the console. They offer unmatched clarity and work great for a punchy-upfront vocal, drums overheads, acoustic guitar and whatever else you can think of.

Warm Audio WA-412 - $1199

The WA-412 is very similar to the API-3124V but for about a third of the price. These style of preamps are famous for the punch they give to drums. Warm Audio's piece has a few extras including the all-powerful tone switch. This adds some extra harmonics to the gain stage and thickens up the sound like no plugin ever could.

Both of these suggested preamps have multiple channels, but there are single channel versions available. See the ISA One and WA12.

3) Versatile Compressors

A great mic into a solid mic pre needs a compressor. When upgrading your studio, it's important to start off with a compressor or two that can be used on multiple sources. One or two versatile pieces can go a long way.

Warm Audio WA76 - $599

You're probably noticing that Warm Audio is on here a lot. They're pretty famous for their incredible replications at such great price points. They make it easy to afford high-end gear. The WA76 is one of their finest pieces and is a great way to start with outboard compression.

DBX 160A - $449

It's hard to say no the the DBX 160A. It just always sounds good! It's also easy to use because it does the attack and release for you. It's great for punchy drums, smooth acoustic guitar, or even just basic vocal leveling at a price you can't beat.

4) Interface with Real Line Inputs

Many interfaces these days have "line inputs" as a combo jack. The problem with using these as line inputs lies in the fact that the incoming signal still goes through a preamp. So the beautiful signal you just created with your high-end mic, preamp and compressor is now degraded by the inferior preamp in your interface.

There are some interfaces with real line inputs that go straight to a converter. Here are a few:

Audient iD44 - $699

The iD44 is a favorite among us here for many reasons. Great pres, awesome converters, 16 ADAT I/O, monitor controlling and so much more. But one of the best things is that on the first two channels, you can use a real line input by plugging into the balanced insert return jack.

Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB - $759.99

Focusrite's Clarret Range is their flagship USB line. They have 4 great pres built in, but this model also has 4 dedicated line inputs on the back so you can easily patch in lots of tracking gear and get your own sound.

5) High Quality Cables

Investing in better cables can really make a difference in your entire signal chain. Every cable your signal goes through is susceptible to interference and noise, and high quality cables help provide added protection so that your signal is as clean as possible. A cable with better shielding, lower impurities, and even better insulation are all designed to help you get the most out of your gear. Mogami is our recommended cable of choice, as they are unmatched for accuracy, extremely low noise, ease of installation, flexibility, and superior quality.

Mogami Cables

Thanks for checking out this article on Essential Outboard Gear for Tracking in a Project/Semi-Pro Studio! If you need more specific recommendations, check out our guides here.

As always, enjoy FAST and FREE shipping on any order in the continental US. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to give us a toll free call at 855-269-0474, or stop in our store in Downtown Appleton! Be sure to check out our other articles here.

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