It's arguable that no one lusts for high-end gear more than we do here at VIP. With names like API, Universal Audio, SSL, Neve, Neumann and Telfunken (to name just a few) being tossed around from the pros and pro-sumers, all the while leaving the consumer-grade equipment users wondering what they're missing out on by not using these top names. Well, the cold, hard truth is high-end gear DOES produce a "professional" sound. There's a good reason why the pros are using SSL consoles, Distressors, 1176's, etc. Because they sound amazing!! This is not to say you can't get a professional sound with consumer grade gear. It just takes more work and more practice.
Allow me to be brutally honest; Cheap microphones sound cheap! They just do. I was once the guy who could only afford a $200 SE 2200 and it forced me to use mic placement and EQ techniques that may not otherwise have been used. And this was the best learning experience for me. We still have that SE 2200a microphone and it still has it's place and use. But once the Neumann U87 and other high-end microphones joined our family, the SE gets used rarely.
To be fair there have been exceptions in our experience. For example, we regularly use Rode NT5 SDC mics for acoustic guitars, hi hats, drum overheads and guitar amps with amazing results. These mics cost around $500/pair. Compared to its professional counterparts (our beautiful Neumann SM 84), $500 is cheap.
Preamps & Compressors
Yet another question that is asked by new Engineers is, "do I need an external microphone preamp?" Well, yes and no. For starters, if your audio interface has a built-in preamp then that will be sufficient. If not, then yes you will need a mic preamp. Furthermore, should you compress while recording or "in the box"? Our answer is both.
We are very fortunate to have our preamp and compressor selection in both Studio A and Studio B. Our decision with the mic preamp types we chose has three factors: Clean microphone signal, transformer coloration and tube saturation. For a clean, silky signal we go with the Focusrite ISA series. These units provide a signal without any "coloration" to the sound. For a more colored and saturated sound we go fo the Vintech X73's and the Avalon 737. The go-to choices for vocals and bass guitar. I wish it was possible to put into words how amazing these two units sound. It takes an ear that spent years using low-quality gear to really hear the hype. Some preamps have compressors built into their signal chain. Our Avalon 737 has an incredibly delicate and smooth compressor that is perfect for vocals without over compressing the signal creating issues for mixing. We also chose the Empirical Labs Distressor for an outboard compressor. Often called the "Swiss Army knife of recording studio compression", we would certainly agree. I challenge anyone to tour a major recording studio and not see at least two of these in their racks. So we bought two as well...
Music instruments are no exception to this rule. Guitar players, I challenge you to play a Squire Stratocaster and then play a Fender Stratocaster. Hear the difference? Can you feel the difference? Yes, yes you can. This goes for acoustic drums as well. We recently upgraded our Pearl Forum birch kit to a vintage Yamaha Maple Studio Custom kit and the difference is phenomenal! This one seemingly small upgrade has taken our drum recordings to the level they deserve to be.
All Together Now
By no means am I saying that you can't get great recordings and mixes on low-budget equipment. I'm just saying it takes for more expertise and experience with using these units. A great engineer can make amazing recordings with cheap gear. But an inexperienced Engineer can get horrible recordings with high-end gear. On the same token a great guitar player can make a cheap guitar sound fantastic. So much depends on the end user. But if you put a great Engineer in front high-end gear, you're going to hear what why thousands and thousands of dollars are invested in the studio equipment. Learning on low-grade equipment not only shows you flaws but demands more out of the engineer using it. In conclusion, if you are an artist seeking a professional recording studio, a sure-proof way to check their legitimacy is by their equipment list.
Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (301) 730-4553 for any further questions or concerns.