Ace plugin

Cheap as Chiptunes Studio

Have you got a hankering for some new studio gear, but don’t want to wade through the internet deciding on what?

Have no fear – our MMS boffins Tom and Al have teamed together to create a unique studio setup..

For those who have already been pauperised this season – the cheap as chiptunes studio!


Mackie VLZ4 1202
So you’ve invested in a few bits of synthesis hardware, and perhaps a hardware effect or 2. To effectively combine all the different elements of your burgeoning home studio, you’re going to need a mixing desk. The mixing desk is the hub of your studio, where signals from your computer, and outputs from your synths are combined together. Signals can be routed to your hardware effects, or back into the computer when you’re ready to record a mix. Plus they look cool. I’ve picked this Mackie for the budget choice, because although it’s not the cheapest out there (£230 approx), it represents excellent value: 12 channels, some with Mackie’s Onyx preamps, built like a tank.. it’s a quality box. Cheaper alternatives compromise on build quality, and (crassly generalising) tend to be more noisy across the board. Because of it’s size, it’s also great for use in a live setup if you’re wanting to take your show on the road. Finally, It will hold it’s value pretty well for when you potentially out grow it, in a way that cheaper alternatives perhaps won’t.

Mackie mixing desk


Yamaha HS series
Studio monitors differ from your home stereo system in that they are designed to give you a ‘flat response’ rather than something which is flattering and pleasing to the ear. When you’re mixing down a piece of music, you need your monitors to be as honest as possible, some manufactures achieve this with more success than others. The Yamaha HS series for me offer ridiculous value for money, and achieve this transparent, flat frequency response in a way that others in this price range don’t. I’ve included the full series here, rather than just one model, because the system you go for will depend on your budget and your room size. They offer a 5 inch driver (HS5, which gets down to 54Hz) for around £260 a pair, a 7 inch driver (HS7, which can put out 43Hz) for around £320 a pair, or the larger HS8 (8 inch driver, dips down to 38Hz) for around £420 a pair. If you want to go all out, you can get a matching sub for around £300 (HS8S).

Yamaha speakers


Korg Volca Series
These wonderful devices have been out for just over a year, and their ridiculously low price has just been dropped to £99 per unit. There’s a bass synth, a drum machine, and a lead synth/keys unit available, all fully analogue, all very usable devices aimed primary at live performance, but will also add zing to your productions in the studio. Great for anyone wanting to dip their feet into the world of hardware/analogue sounds on a budget, you won’t be disappointed – and prepare to be hooked!

Volca series


MIDI controller keyboard
Novation Launch series – Launchkey 49
I should point out first, that although this is a MIDI keyboard which can be used with any DAW, it is designed for use with Ableton Live ideally. Personally, I was very excited when Novation ‘launched’ the Launchkey series. Unlike any controller before it, it provided a really useful mix of Ableton Live integration via a mini launchpad section, dynamic control over device parameters and mixer, plus a decent sized keyboard.You can pick up one of these for around £139, which is not only cheap for an integrated controller such as this, but also very cheap for a 49 key keyboard! The build quality isn’t completely amazing, but still more than adequate for this price point, just look after it!

Ableton Midi Keyboard


u-he ACE
My choice for a budget plugin goes to the synth plugin, ACE. At €69 it’s a total steal. Unlike some software instruments, when you loading up it’s presets, you’re presented with a plethora of usable sounds. This is before you’ve even begun to start playing with it’s modular cable system (A-ny C-able E-verywhere). It’s capable of delivering a huge range of sounds, textures and timbres: deeeeep bass, warm lush pads, melt-your-face leads. It has built in chorus and delay effects, and in short, sounds like a real hardware analogue synth, but at a fraction of the price.

Ace plugin


And now to Alasdair….

Audio Interface
Scarlett 2i2 
Finding a budget audio interface might seem like a dangerous concept for the quality of your work, as it’s so often the case in this department that the more you spend, the better your sound. However there are some surprisingly affordable soundcards available with varying input/output options. So following on from this, you will need to consider what routing options you need before beginning your research. Following the theme of a basic set-up and keeping in mind the other equipment I’m looking at buying, I need to be able to connect my studio monitors to my computer, as well having a dedicated input for my microphone and at least one other spare input for flexibility with other instruments. I’d like to keep the price as low as possible without compromising on sound quality, and after a small bit of research I’m immediately drawn towards the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. This interface has great pre-amps on the 2 dual xlr and jack inputs, meaning I can either connect a mic or instrument cable and be confident that the signal will not be let down by the circuitry converting it on the way into the computer. Working off a USB 2.0 connection, which is no longer the fastest available, I can still be sure that it can handle everything I need from a small interface. Alongside the great looking design and hard-to-beat price tag of £109, I’d say this interface is well in with being the most affordable, professional interface available.

2in 2out interface


Studiospares M2000s
When it comes to headphones in the studio, what I’m really looking for is something with a good frequency response that I can reference monitors my mixes on. A good pair of headphones will last forever and are obviously portable and useful for a number of different applications, so I’m happy to invest some money in them. That being said, I’m trying to keep to the lowest possible budget so will really limit myself to £150 in my research.

There are three products that come to mind immediately for me, as it is something I spend a fair amount of time speaking to Midischool students about….the KRK KNS range, Sennheiser HD-25’s and the relatively unknown M2000 headphones which are a own brand. All of these headphones are within my price range and I know from experience that they all sound great and can be used as a great reference point for my mixes. This literally leaves me down to price, and the M2000s win by a clear mile at an amazing £69.95. For that amount of money you wouldn’t expect much, but these headphones definitely beat the rule as I’ve heard engineers that have been working with audio for 30 years say they can’t fault the sound. The secret weapon in my budget studio is definitely a pair of these.

Studiospares headphones


Rode NT-1 Bundle
Deciding on a single microphone to buy for your basic set-up can be a tricky task. Ideally you want something high quality and reliable that can be used for a variety of applications, for example recording a vocalist, instrument or sampling hand percussion. Firstly consider the type of microphone…. the obvious choice for me would be a condenser, which is typically more fragile than a dynamic mic, but still pretty durable in a studio environment. Equally the sound quality and frequency response will generally be a lot better. There are scores of different models of condenser on the market, varying in price from £35 for the absolute worst to £9k+ for the borderline-ridiculous, top of the range classics. With this in mind, I would give myself an absolute spending limit of £200 and base my comparisons on differences in functionality and any added extras that might be included. After reading numerous user reviews, my choice is the Rode-NT1 studio condenser microphone package. This modern remodeling of Rode’s hugely popular classic mic with the same name also comes boxed with a shock mount, detachable pop shield and dust bag. Priced at around £160 its well within my budget and with great reviews across a host of applications and the bonus accessories, my money is on this microphone being the best value for money mic on the market.

Condenser microphone


Stagg Mic Stand | Acoustic Insulation | Chord Arc Reflection Filter
So as a final addition to my budget studio I’m going to look at any little extras I might need to add to complete my set up. Assuming I already have any furniture needed, I’m really going to restrict this to a mic stand, and some kind of sound proofing treatment for my room. In terms of a mic stand, I can get away with buying the almost cheapest one I can find, assuming it will be permanently set up in a certain position and won’t get knocked-around too much.  Stagg is a well-known budget option available from some reputable retailers, and they have a stand priced at around £27, which would do the job perfectly.

For soundproofing, acoustic insulation can be notoriously pricey and there are also all kinds of rumors in circulation about DIY alternatives.  Firstly, don’t use egg-boxes. If you’re going for an alternative to pre-made tiles, try hanging some blankets or duvets on your walls. Secondly, less can be more. You should try and judge how your music sounds at different parts of your room and compare this to what it sounds like sitting in your mixing position, then treat as you see fit. You might only need something behind your monitors and then at head height on the walls around you. Nonetheless, if you are going for acoustic tiles, the cheapest place I’ve found to get them is an eBay shop called Com4tex.

Lastly, a reflection filter screen behind your mic can make a fair difference to cleaning up any unwanted noise on a vocal recording. These can be very expensive, but the cheapest one I’ve found is the Chord Arc Screen at around £60.

Audio Treatment

Hopefully you’ll have found the above helpful if you’re looking to purchase some new gear! If you’ve got a bit more cash to play with, tune in soon, where we’ll be looking at the Middle of the Roadie studio setup.