Saturday, April 27, 2024

Which audio production gear? (Robin Edition)

This article follows on my declaration of principles found in "Does your gear matter" located here. As a third-level teacher and trained audio engineer, I am often in a position to recommend audio gear to electronic music composers and producers. In this article I will set out a minimal threshold for professional audio production.


In the post-COVID world hardware costs have risen, due to electronic parts shortages and worldwide distribution problems. For two years it was nigh impossible to buy some of the equipment I will recommend below. As manufacturers retooled to use alternative parts, supplies began to flow, but prices increased by at least 20%.

Nonetheless, the barrier to entry is a lot lower now than when I was starting out in audio production in the late nineteen-eighties. In part this is because digital technology has (largely) replaced the need for a physical studio. Though you might still choose to invest in analogue mixers and outboard gear racks, that approach is now a luxury, not a necessity. For most people an entry-level system includes a laptop computer, audio interface, powered monitors (speakers), software recorder/mixer (DAW), and sufficient plugins to enable a reasonable workflow.

The goal is to reach a minimal standard of excellence. Though this article presents my personal analysis, it conforms to a standard of practice in electronic composition and production. Indeed, I decided to update this article after a conversation with composer Lionel Kasparian, who recently presented a seminar at DMARC, the Digital Media Arts Research Centre at the University of Limerick. In that seminar he answered questions relating to similar concerns over gear. I realised we had a very similar approach, even down to the exact interface.

Hence this article!


A previous article recommended an amazing laptop that forgoes Apple's over-priced and over-restrictive systems for a refurbished Lenovo. Buying a model a couple generations old loses nothing in performance but saves a significant amount on price. Please note that audio production is far less demanding than video work. So unless you have special needs, for example large orchestral libraries, a system such as this is entirely sufficient. 

Purchase a Lenovo ThinkPad X390 with 16GB RAM for only €300 (including one year warranty). Replace the M.2 SSD with a Samsung 970 EVO Plus at 1 TB capacity for €100.

I sometimes get push-back from people claiming that a laptop like this can't possibly be good enough. So let me emphasise. Reviewers focus on high-end expensive gear, leading people to believe that the latest greatest tools are necessary for you to get your work done. Nope. As mentioned, you need to reach a minimal standard of excellence across your tools. Anything else is gravy.

It's worth mentioning that a desktop computer is more upgradable, more flexible, and more powerful than a laptop. But I recognise that very few people are interested in a larger computer system, so I leave that topic for other articles.

Audio interface

Your sound card is your most important piece of kit. And there is only one brand to buy, unless you have substantially more money. Forget Tascam, Focusrite, Avid, SL, and all other brands. Buy only RME. Why?

RME are the only company who write their entire firmware stack, for ultimate driver stability. RME are the only company to support their gear going back decades with contemporary driver updates. RME are the only firm likely to repair a 20-year-old device for free. (They did for me.) 

RME are the only company to provide the wonderful TotalMix software that does everything your DAW can't. Once you learn matrix mixing, there's no going back. I can easily tailor four stereo pairs of outputs with signals derived from any combination of inputs. That's like having a mixer with 8 aux sends. Except better.

The RME Fireface UCX II costs €1380 for 8 analogue ins and outs plus much digital connectivity. You might look at that price and say "What! Robin, are you crazy? I can buy an audio interface for a fraction of the price!" Yes, you can. And if you are lucky, it just might work without glitches. But now re-read the previous paragraphs. The RME is superior in sound quality and in every other respect. The time you save in diagnosing frustrating audio problems will save your sanity.

This unit can work as a standalone recorder to a USB drive. Essentially you are getting three devices in one: an audio interface, a field recorder, and a multichannel matrix mixer. If you don't mind losing the field recorder functions, you might instead locate the Fireface UC second-hand for under a grand. (RME also sell the Babyface Pro FS at €820 but I find that form factor annoying.)

Active monitors

For active monitors consider a pair of Genelec 8020D for around €900. These may not be the ultimate speakers... for that add a couple more zeroes to the price. But Genelecs have the advantage of being something of a standard (at least in academic circles) so no matter where you go in Europe, you will find Genelecs in the studio. Your production will translate exceedingly well between their entire range. This is a benefit that doesn't apply to other manufacturers. 

If you want 10 Hz more extension on the lows and have an additional €300, consider the Genelec 8030C. Either way you will need to budget for cables and stands, about €300.

The problem with speakers is that you need a good listening room. This is less an issue for near-field monitors, which are designed to be close to your head. With more direct sound getting to your ears, reflections and room modes are less relevant. Nonetheless, the cost to treat a room can easily get into four digits. When you are getting started, it's more economical to instead buy good headphones... which you will need in any case.


When I trained as an audio engineer, the very idea of mixing on headphones was sacrilege. Closed back cans were useful for tracking, but no-one would ever think to mix without speakers. But times have changed and most people now listen binaurally, on headphones. So why not mix that way? Just make sure you are buying full-range open-back headphones to get the smoothest response.

Let me be a heretic here, and say that it might even be possible to skip the speakers so long as you have good headphones. This is true if you have occasional access to someone else's speakers, so that you can check your mixes in open air.

I have always trusted AKG, ever since they were exclusively known to engineers. Now that their line is cluttered with consumer models, it can be difficult to know which are the best value. I recommend the AKG K-712 Pro which are a bargain at €270, or a bit less for a B-stock pair at Thomann. The AKG K-612 Pro has a similar frequency profile for only €150, indeed perhaps it's even smoother in the mids, though weaker in the bass. Unfortunately the cables aren't detachable, which is a bummer. 

Also consider the Sennheiser HD 600 at €340. They have a detailed, open sound but the impedance is much higher, so you will need a good amp to drive them. This is not a problem with an RME interface, by the way, since the headphone output has tons of power. But you won't get the best out of these headphones if you are using a mobile device, including a laptop headphone socket. 

As an aside, if you need closed headphones for the studio floor, you can't go wrong with the AKG K-271 Mk II at only €115 for a design with replaceable cord and unique auto-off switch. So when you remove the cans from your head, the signal cuts off, avoiding feedback from any open mics. 


Most music producers need a DAW... and there are so many of them that it's impossible to say which application will suit your workflow. But you can't really go wrong with Reaper, which provides substantial bang for your buck, considering that you can use it for free. Once you go commercial, send them $225. Once. No subscription or other hassle.

If there's one application that I recommend for the sound designer, it's Reaktor from Native Instruments. This development environment comes packed with thousands of synths, sequencers, effects, and other tools. You might prefer Max for generative work, but it's a lot more expensive and time-consuming to use. Reaktor gives you ready-to-use instruments, so you only need to hack if you want to. It goes on sale for €100 a few times a year.

You don't need to spend any money on plugins. There are so many good free tools, starting with those that come packaged with your DAW. My recent article recommends favourites.


To start in electronic music production spend €1700 for a second-hand RME interface, laptop, and headphones. Later add Reaper and Reaktor for €300. If you need to, add another €1200 for speakers and accessories. You could work for a decade with little more. Spend the rest of your time learning your craft. 

If you wish to record acoustic instruments then things get more involved, since you will need a quiet environment and a decent microphone or three. My experience is dated on such matters, so I will leave this topic for someone else!


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