2020 Review: Home Studio Gear

Rather than do a ‘best of’ style post, every year I’m going to do a rundown of what home studio gear I’ve used this year, and why.

Previous posts in the series: [2019]


The best thing that happened this year wasn’t a new piece of gear, it was a DIY project to build some shelving for my existing gear.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be almost the only real highlight of the year. Music took a back seat in 2020. Although I am trying to change that as we go into 2021 …

Sorting Out The Vibe

By far, the best thing I did this year was to sort out the vibe of the small room that doubles as both my home office and my home studio. This is both the room where I work and where I play. And going into 2020, it just wasn’t right for either purpose.

I’m much happier with the room now, and it’s largely thanks to a little bit of DIY that I did.

I built some shelving out of recycled scaffold boards and industrial piping. That allowed me to build shelves to the exact dimensions I needed for my collection of cheap amps and speaker cabs. There was even room to put my Gigrig G2, pedal board, and the Kemper controller onto their own shelves.

I’m really pleased with the results. Everything has a place, and yet is still accessible so that I can use it whenever I like. It was also a very satisfying project to work on back in the dark days at the beginning of lockdown #1, when no-one knew how 2020 was going to go.

Moving Impulse Responses Off My DAW Was A Good Move

I’ve been using impulse responses since the start of 2014. This year, I made the switch from using a DAW plugin to using a dedicated IR device, and I’m delighted with the results.

Why do it? Why spend the extra money when I could already use IRs right in my DAW of choice? Well, there’s a couple of reasons why.

I did it to sort out the order of my signal chain. Impulse responses are emulating the effect of a mic’d up guitar cabinet. To get the most authentic sound, IRs really need to come directly after the guitar amp itself. However, using IRs in my DAW meant that they were coming after the effects on my recording interface, which can emulate classic studio recording consoles on the way in.

I’m definitely much happier with the sound now that I’m using the Two Notes CAB M to apply IRs before the signal reaches the preamps on my recording interface. Maybe it’s just psychological, I don’t know.

There’s a second advantage that emerged during the year: it allowed me to switch over to Universal Audio’s LUNA DAW. LUNA was launched during the first lockdown period, and it brings a very neat trick with it: almost zero latency recording. I’ve found it almost impossible to go back to Reaper after getting used to zero latency, even though Reaper is a far more productive DAW than LUNA is.

I couldn’t have done that without having first moved IRs off my DAW. LUNA achieves this zero latency by not supporting anyone else’s plugins during recording, and UAD don’t have an IR loader plugin of their own at this time.

Learning To Love V-Type Speakers

In the real world, I have a strong dislike for Celestion V-Type speakers. They get used in budget combo amps, and I never like the end result.

When it comes to impulse responses however, I’ve gone the opposite way. After a lot of experimenting this year, I’ve found myself settling on Celestion’s own V-Type impulse responses most of the time.

The only reason I bought those IRs was for my absurdly-overdue Marshall Origin long-term review. The Origin’s one of the amps that comes with V-Types, and I thought that the review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t compare the Marshall Origin and its stock speaker with the speakers that I prefer.

All I can say is that if the Marshall Origin combo sounded as good as my Marshall Origin head + V-Type IRs, I reckon Marshall would sell a hell of a lot more of these amps. It has taught me that the cab design has a huge influence over how the speaker sounds.

I’m so impressed that, in 2021, I hope to stick a V-Type into one of my 1×12 speaker cabs.

Has The Missing Piece Just Arrived?

Arguably, there’s actually two things still to be sorted. One is acoustic treatment for this room. That has to wait until it’s safe to get the builders in, as I need some electrical work done before I can tackle that properly.

The other missing piece is studio monitoring.

A word of experience, if I may: if you’re going to get into home recording, don’t leave your studio monitors til last. I did, and I’ve spent the year regretting it.

At the start of lockdown, I ordered a set of Tannoy Gold 5 studio monitors. They were my first set of studio monitors. At the time, they were all that I could afford. I’ve really struggled with them, so much so that I just had replace them.

The problem with the Tannoy Gold 5’s – like any other small speaker – is that they can’t produce much in the way of low end. I think they stop at around 70 Hz (it may be even higher). That’s a lot of missing sound.

I knew that before I bought them, but that’s not the same as experiencing it for myself.

It was really driven home to me when I listened to some reference recordings through them. (They say you should listen to music that you know well, to help train your ear.) One of my reference pieces is Gravity Kills, the most quintessential industrial rock album ever made. Through these speakers, it sounds nothing like the music I’ve been listening to for the last couple of decades.

So … what are the options? There’s really just the two:

  1. buy a sub-woofer with active cross-over support, to see if that does the job, or
  2. buy a larger set of speakers that can produce low-end frequencies without the need for a sub-woofer

Option 1 doesn’t appeal, simply because I don’t have anywhere to put one. A sub-woofer would have to go under my desk where my feet currently go. It’s simply not good for my long-term health to be kicking my shins against something all the time.

That left Option 2, and although I’ve only had the new monitors a couple of days, I already feel that it was also the right decision to make. My reference tracks sound like they should, and I can go into 2021 with real confidence over what I’m hearing when I’m recording.

Plenty Of Fails Along The Way

The first set of studio monitors weren’t the only misstep of a difficult 2020. When it comes to my home studio, there’s a long list of fail this year.

The list includes:

  • I haven’t recorded a single complete piece of music this year.
  • I haven’t powered up the Roland drum pad once this year.
  • I’ve failed to make any attempt to capture IRs of my existing cabs.
  • I bought some mics for recording my cabs / making IRs at the start of the year, and haven’t even unboxed them.
  • At the same time, I bought some other mics for recording my acoustic guitar, and haven’t unboxed those either.
  • I did start using the Kemper’s built-in looper for practice, but it can’t compete with even the most basic looper pedals on the market.

Replacing the studio monitors is a commitment to myself: I don’t want 2021 to be a repeat of 2020, musically speaking. Even if it ends up being another twelve months before we can safely get the band back together, there’s plenty for me to be getting on with.

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