Tech Thoughts: Little Helpers (for the electronic musician’s workplace)

This is not about fancy instruments or hideously complex software. It’s more about the little things you (more often than not) need in your workplace/home studio as a musician with some amount of electric/electronic instruments or gear.

We’ll be leaning towards the more affordable stuff wherever possible – you can get all of those “must have” recommendations for less than 400 bucks. Actual recommendations are for things I have been using myself day to day.

1. DI

DI stands for direct input or direct injection and is an electronic box (which go from handheld to rack units in size) and is meant to connect an unbalanced source that expects a high-ohmic input to a balanced, low-ohmic microphone input.

They come in passive and active variants, with the active ones usually having the option to be phantom-powered from a so-equipped mixer (see also chapter 7 below). They also add options for “ground lift” (which can help get rid of hum, especially when connecting older MIDI-wired synths), attenuation or, for the active variants, also amplification.

So what do you use it for? Plug an electric (bass guitar) directly into a standard input on a mixer or audio interface, send the output of an electric piano over a long line (think live venue) to the console, bring the levels from a modular system down for connection to an audio interface or recorder…there’s a lot of situations where they help.

Price-wise, they start around 10 bucks and go over 1000 for the fancy transformer, tube-amplified and whatnot rackmount units.

Left to right: passive DI, 2-channel active DI, amp in a box that is also a great DI.

My personal main one is the Behringer DI20, two channels of active DI for 33 bucks. Although not (only) for that job, I also have a SansAmp BassDI, which is more like a bass amp in a box, which also does DI – but at close to 250 quid, is not what I’d get if I just wanted a DI (I usually use it to beef up bass synth voices).

2. Small Instrument Amp

The biggest variety of what we’re looking for are small guitar amps. Something that you can quickly put somewhere and connect an electric guitar, but also a synth or drum machine. It gives you a signal without having to use headphones, and also adds some sonic character.

Guitar amps can be hideously expensive, and that’s even true for the small, battery-powered combos: while they start around 15, they also go above the 1k mark.

The one I’m using is the Boss Katana mini – small, battery-powered, light, but with a decent (as a lot of actual guitarists have told me), variable sound, and also an additional 1/8” input that doesn’t get the “guitar treatment”. How powerful? Seven watts – which, by apartment building standards, can get louder than you’re probably allowed to get. It runs on 6 AA batteries (and last long running on them), or an optional PSU (Boss-standard connector with 350mA current draw).

Guitar, cable and Katanai mini: enough to start out. And the Katana also will help you lots otherwise.

Price? With €95, it’s something which is not completely cheap, but from my understanding, a “bang for your buck” optimum.

I also have a little 5150 microstack that cost about 25 bucks, but I’d recommend it more as an effects processor if miked-up.

3. (Portable) Audio Recorder

Record a spontaneous idea (even if it’s just you humming after waking up in the middle of the night), recording band practice, field recording for capturing some new sounds, recording an improvisation without having to power up the computer…

This is the category with the highest entry price – those things start around 80 bucks – the reason being, I assume, that below that you could just use your phone. Again, they go up to prices above 1000.

On the other hand, it means that if you get something like this, you’re bound to get a decent stereo microphone and be able to record with it properly.

I got the Zoom H2 many years ago – its successor, the H2n, lists for around 150 bucks. It gets you various stereo and quadrophonic (!) microphone options, records to SD, runs on AA cells. Apart from that, options are somewhat limited – there’s a line in in 1/8” TRS format, but with a pretty low (consumer?) level maximum and no level adjustment, and for the microphone, the level is set as “low, medium or high”, with “high” being overpowered even by a jazz drummer in the room.

Generations: as of writing this Zoom’s newest recorder on the left, their oldest on the right.

I recently upgraded to the H8 (also by Zoom), which offers a ton of inputs, phantom power, a built in mini-DAW, exchangeable microphones and all in all more than you’ll most probably need unless you want to produce your next big band album using just this. It also comes at a price of slightly below €400.

4. Cable Tester

This is something you might not really need if all you have is a pair of XLR cables connecting your matched Schoeps pair to your high-quality interface.

If, however, you’ve got a bunch of 1/4, XLR and maybe also 1/8, RCA and MIDI cables, then you’ll want a cable tester.

They help you identifying faults in cables or plugs. They might add attional functions (such as a test tone generator). And they’re often really cheap.

The price range is from below 20 to just below 200 bucks. The one I use – Behringer CT100 – is, with a €18 price tag, at the very lowest end. It does what it’s supposed to. I even reviewed it.

Cable is ok. Good!

5. Generic Power Supply

If you’ve ever bought an affordable synthesizer since the 80s or a guitar stompbox since the 70s, you know what I’m talking about: small power supplies (often of the dreaded wallwart variety) which use one specific combination of about eight different plugs, two polarities and five voltages – bringing the spectrum up to about eighty. Meaning if the PSU for your Kaoss Pad I (or whichever device) fails, you can’t easily use another one.

There’s a simple solution, and that is a generic PSU. They come with a variety of plugs, selectable polarity, and selectable voltage (usually in a range between 4.5 and 24 volts).

Note: some components specifically demand an AC power supply. However, for almost everything you’ll ever use, you’ll be good with a DC supply with either polariy.

Generic as they get. If in question, I’d recommend against the wallwart thingie

These are things that you best get at your electronics store rather than your music store. I have two different ones from Conrad, which are discontinued products, so recommending them is not that helpful. If you still want an actual device: look for something like this Conrad/Voltracft product, and make the choice based on your voltage and power requirements. Price range? Generally from ca. 6 to 50 bucks. Sensible choices cost about 20€.

6. Battery Charger

So far, all of the components we’ve discussed (with the obvious exception of the PSU) can run on batteries, and for many, this is the preferable way to run them. So in addition to that generic PSU, you’ll also want a battery charger.

Generally, they cover a price range from about 8 to over 400 bucks (the latter for the rack-mount, many cells at once and whatever things). I found it pretty hard to found a simple one that can still charge more than four AA or AAA cells at once, and finally found one not at an electronics, but a music store.

Thomann Battery 8. As the name implies, it charges up to eight AA or AAA cells, independently of each other. No external PSU is a big plus. There’s no fast charge or soft discharge option, but I can live without that. Especially considering it’s only 18€.

I was surprised I couldn’t get a similar thing from amazon and the like.

7. Mixer

For the last item, we’re moving to an item that is both extremely and also in this context not very obvious: a mixer.

(Audio) mixers have traditionally been the centrepiece of every studio, and prices here range from 20 bucks to the sky as the limit. However, we’re not looking for the bespoke large-format consoles of old here, in fact, pretty much for the opposite: a mixer that you have as a spare, and which you can use as a handy tool for experimentation, problem solving or generally quickly patching something up.

In this category, I’d write the requirements like this: a) compact and easily portable, b) at least one microphone in with XLR connector and phantom power, c) some sort of equalizer per channel, d) at least one auxiliary send.

Unfortunately, this is the category where I can’t give a recommendation from personal experience: The two devices you see here are a small, cheap and not that great t.mix 502 (which lists for €33), but which has neither an aux send nor phantom power (although the current model generation has at least that), and the classic Mackie 1202 VLZ Pro, which is a tad bit too large for the “small and portable” requirement, and the current model comes at around 250 bucks – which, on the other hand, buys you a really nice compact mixer.

Super-cheap meets classic. Both don’t fit the bill.

So my recommendation would then be: find an affordable mixer that fulfils these requirements – they can be had for around 70 bucks. Don’t look too much for audio quality or reliability – this will not be something you’ll be recording your next album with, and it won’t see prolongued touring abuse, either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s