I was asked today to write a blog post regarding what I consider to be the three key elements of studio equipment to upgrade if/when the opportunity arises.
I'm glad the number three came up, because I believe there to be three crucial areas to address when putting together a home studio; input devices, processing tools, monitoring.
Let's talk about acoustic instruments and vocals, as these are affected greatly between the instrument and the computer. The first thing your wonderful sound hits is the microphone. This first component is where your sound enters the recording chain. I would make sure that the sound I have worked so hard to achieve passes through unharmed. And, it might be nice if a bit of sparkle or silky smoothness gets added along the way. I certainly wouldn't want a cheap mic only transferring the frequencies and dynamics it's able to pick up, and colouring those it can with a less than desirable sound.
The next thing your sound hits is your audio interface, and once again, it can change for better or worse. I don't consider the audio interface to be as important as the microphone, but there should be no weak links in your recording chain. However, the difference between a $200 and $400 microphone is very noticeable. I can't say the same thing for an audio interface.
By this I mean your DAW and the effects/plugins at your disposal. Most people starting out don't realise that the recording software you use affects the sound of your recording, and the quality of the effects and other plugins you use also contribute. Using a good DAW like Pro Tools, Studio One, or Cubase will ensure clean, professional quality processing. These programs always come with all the plugins and effects you'd usually need, but investing in some professional plugins can change the sound of your recording drastically - for the better. Waves are one of the best (if not the best), and they often run specials, which means that you can pick up pro plugins at a very good price. So don't blindly record into free applications like Audacity and expect professional results, and similarly, don't expect your vocals to sound good once you've layered a free reverb plugin onto your takes.
Your only window into how your music sounds is your studio monitors and/or headphones. Imagine trying to see clearly through a stained-glass window. That's what you're doing if you have cheap speakers and headphones. The better the quality of your speakers and headphones, the clearer the glass. You could have the best gear money could buy, but if you're making decisions and changes to your music using cheap monitoring gear as your reference, you could be making all the wrong moves. Burn a CD, chuck it on your hi-fi or car stereo and..."Ew, that doesn't sound right. That sounds horrible." - Yeah, that's what I thought, get to the shops.
So, in closing, if you're looking to upgrade three things to improve your studio and ultimately, your recordings:
There's plenty of gear in a studio that can affect the sound of a recording, but all that is trivial if the three things listed above are not the best you can afford.