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.

Post Scriptum: 8. MIDI Thru Box

After releasing this post, I thought about a component that I’ve been relying on for years now (not decades, for reasons I’m about to explain). So here goes:

You might also want a kind of MIDI Thru box. At least if you’re playing the DAWless game to some extent.

Back in the day, MIDI specified that each MIDI-equipped device be required to have (at least) three MIDI connectors: IN, OUT and THRU. THRU was a 1:1 copy of the signal received at the IN, thus facilitating daisy-chaining components.

Sometime in the ’90, manufacturers started to deviate from this requirement – the first in my possesion is the Boss VF-1. What they did: they only had an IN and OUT, but provided a merge functionality, meaning the OUT carried both signals generated by the device, and everything received at the IN port.

In the last few years, finally all hell broke loose: there’s now devices claiming to “have MIDI” which only have a MIDI IN (e.g. Korg Volca, Behringer Neutron), only a MIDI IN with the wrong connector (Makenoise 0-Coast, MFB Nanozwerg Pro), or only a MIDI OUT and with the wrong connector as well (Korg SQ-1).

Which means if you want to control several devices with one sequencer, you usually need to make that THRU functionality yourself.

That’s where the THRU Box comes in. It simply has one MIDI IN and a number of MIDI THRU connectors, and those copy the information received at said MIDI IN.

I use the MIDI Solutions Quadra Thru V2. It comes at €55, provides four MIDI THRU ports, and, best of all, does not require a dedicated power supply. The reason for that is that if the device connected to the MIDI IN fulfils the MIDI specification, it can receive power from said MIDI connection. However, complying to MIDI spec even if you claim to do so is not really something you can be sure of (see above), so this one might not work for you – but I never had any problems.

Competitors range from 44 bucks for the MIDITech one with 2 THRU ports, up to over 200 for the Kenton MIDI THRU 25 with – you guessed it – a whopping 25 THRUs.

My take on this, based on my personal workflow, is that for the “big gun projects”, I use the computer-centered setup anyway, which gives me MIDI connectivity with more than 20 outs, which for my demands is enough. The THRU Box is then used for those quick setups where I just connect a MPC and two Volcas or similar.

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