Does more powerful hardware increase sound quality?

I got this question from my friend Zo in Madagascar, she's one of the best students in the "Make Space for Bass" course last year.

It's a basic question, but I know there are people out there who wonder about the same thing, so I'm passing it on.

And I'll throw in some useful extra info to make it a little mini-lesson on recording.

In this blog post you will learn the important terms "signal to noise ratio", "A/D convertors" and "flat frequency response", to help you understand what people are talking about when they get into digital audio discussions.

She asked me,

"...and just one more question, does more powerful hardware help to increase sound quality?"


"hi, yes it gives you better sound quality but it's important to understand which pieces of hardware make a difference for you at your level."


#1 better microphone 
If you are recording vocals, a mic is the #1 place to spend money because it will make everything else better.

Another way of saying this is, if you record low-quality vocals it will always sound bad, and there's nothing you can do to fix it.

When you record high-quality vocals with a good mic, everything else in your song automatically sounds better. The opposite is also true.

A low-quality sound recording passes its noise down the line through everything else in the whole track.

This applies to everything about audio production. 

Do you know the "signal to noise" ratio? 
It's how we measure the amount of music in a recording, compared to the amount of static or unwanted sound.

For example, record a voice with a crap mic at low level, then try to turn it up later. Yes, you can make the voice louder, but you will also be turning up the static in the circuit and the background noise in the room.

At the end you will have a crappy vocal, because you recorded a lot of noise compared to how much mic signal you started with.

A better example: before you record a sound, make sure it's up as loud as possible in the pre-amp stage (without peaking of course). This way you get more voice and less background noise.  In physical terms, this is the same as putting the singer closer to the mic instead of all the way across the room.

Did you know that in old studio sessions, they recorded the whole band into only one microphone?  The way they mixed the volume level of the different instruments was by positioning the musicians around the room at different distance from the mic. And guess who was right up front... the singer. No lie.  Physical distance from the mic gives you a HUGE mixing clue if you have a 3d visual imagination for music.

Anyway, when you use compression and limiting to raise the volume of a vocal recording during a mix session, you want to get more of the voice (signal) and less of the circuit noise, pre-amp noise, room tone, background noise, etc. This is true for drums, vocals, and everything else that goes into a microphone.

The only place I can think of where it's different is when you're recording an electric guitar, and the buzz of the amp is part of the sound you want. But that's still part of the sound.

PRINCIPLE: high signal-to-noise ratio makes your recordings sound clean and professional.


#2 better monitors/speakers 
When you are producing music you need to hear what's in the music, so monitors are the next important thing to spend money on (including headphones).

For monitors, there are two basic types, "flat response" and "hyped up".

Flat response means basically the sound that comes out is the same as what comes in, as a flat frequency line.  There's nothing added or taken away across the whole range of sound that the speakers can reproduce.

They're accurate for showing you what your mix really sounds like, and if your mix has a problem, they will let you hear it. These are what you need for production. Flat response is good.

The other kind of monitors are hyped up, like the beats by dre headphones. These are made for people at home to have more fun.

Usually they have a bass boost at 100hz, probably a little bit cut down in the midrange (like 1kHz), and possibly a high shelf boost at 10 kHz or whatever.

You know what people do with the EQ on a home stereo, right? They boost up the low end, boost up the high end, and take the middle down a tiny bit.

Why do they do this? Because it sounds better. Like putting salt and pepper on your food, it's just "what you do".

The thing is, hyped up headphones or speaker systems don't really show you what your mix sounds like. It's backwards.

If you play your mix on a hyped up system, and you think the bass sounds great, it means you're hearing an extra +2db of bass included from the SPEAKERS, not from your mix.

Go to play the same mix somewhere else and it will sound like someone turned the bass down -2db. NOT GOOD.

Hyped up speakers make you do a mix which is missing sound pressure in all the places where the speakers were hyped up.

Is that what you want? No way.

So when you're shopping for monitors & headphones, look for "Flat Frequency Response".


#3 audio interface 
This is for converting analog sound into digital audio, and changing digital audio back into analog sound.

Microphone into Ableton is an example of A/D, analog to digital conversion.

Ableton mix out to your speakers is D/A, digital to analog conversion.

I just want you to know those terms so you will recognize them when you hear people talk about "D to A convertors" or "A-D convertors".

Audio interfaces are one place people spend a LOT of money, because the quality of your music depends on the quality of your convertors.

But it's easy to explain:  the audio interface does computer processing and makes it easier for your computer to handle the audio file operations.

Since the audio interface uses its own processing power to convert the sound between digital & analog, it allows your PC or your Mac to spend more processing power on the SOUNDS. This means higher quality sound, less glitching, etc.

The point is, get the best audio interface you can afford.

I would rather have a really high quality 2-channel audio interface than a crappy one that says it has 8 inputs and 20 outputs.


Back to question 1, signal-to-noise ratio.

A crappy audio interface will not be able to capture high quality sound, and that will carry through to everything else you do.

But a great interface preserves the details of your sound quality, both in FREQUENCY and DYNAMICS, which carries through to make everything else better in the session.

During output, a great interface lets you hear more of your mix in detail, not like what you get from your computer's headphones jack.

So get the best audio interface you can. Look for high quality not tons of channels.

After you have these three pieces (mic, monitors, audio interface), you will be able to make professional quality music, even in a small studio at home.

You do NOT need to spend money on analog tube pre-amps, hardware compressors, or expensive VST plugins.

For example it's possible to spend $5000 on one single microphone, but it will not matter if you are running that mic into a crappy audio convertor and listening through earbud headphones.

That's all for this time.

If you have any questions, jump into the facebook group and ask!

-Steve Knots

Steve Knots

Thanks for your visit! If you're new here, check out the session lessons. They're the most exciting new way to learn sound design, composition and mixdown techniques for electronic music production in Ableton Live. -Steve