Gear Talk: Reasonably Priced Alternatives Part 3

Welcome back to Studio.Stage.Live! Hopefully this week finds you busy with new work. It’s been a strange season for all of us that’s for sure. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about reasonably priced alternatives. For the first week we talked about direct boxes and compared the Radial Lineup to one of my personal gotos in a pinch, the IMP. Last week, because so many of us are doing studio work or podcasts, I compared the SM7b to the SM58 and things were a lot tighter than even I expected when I started writing it. This week I have another hopefully useful alternative for you to consider. A lot of us use touchscreens, whether for a Waves program or remote control app for a mixer. The one every company suggests that you get is the Dell P2418HT, which is a great option but I think there is a product that we can find (I’ve personally bought several of) that has similar specs and maybe a few extra features. 

But first the Dell. With a native resolution of 1920×1080 it checks basically all the boxes for most applications (there are quite a few touchscreens with a much lower native resolution). This monitor is an IPS panel with an hdmi port and a full displayport for connection options. The display also supports a full 10 finger multi-touch which is the other feature to make sure your screens have before you buy them. There is even a built-in usb hub built into the screen itself so that when you plug in the usb cable for the touch support, you get a few extra ports near the monitor itself. All of this with no extra driver necessary for operation. Probably the one thing you get with this monitor that most others don’t have is that if you keep it on its stand, you can lower it down to the desktop or raise it up quite a bit. But the biggest feature is the ability to rotate and have it sit vertically. Add all that to an anti-glare screen surface and a basically miniscule bezel, you are left with a product that is well worth the money. We have several of these in service and have had nothing but predictable and extremely reliable service. Sometimes the anti-glare service is a bit uncomfortable to use but in the environments we are working in, anti-glare is incredibly helpful. There are also VESA mounting options which is always important for me and can be handy down the road. The only real problem here is that MSRP is over $300. Even used, if you can find them, isn’t that much cheaper. I also have not seen any additional sizing options if circumstances warrant a smaller option.

But the good news is that there is a great alternative that at the very least is cheaper so that if you want a touchscreen, the cost of entry is more reasonable. That alternative is the Planar Helium PCT2435. This display checks all the boxes, at least for me. It has that native resolution of 1920×1080, it supports 10 finger multi-touch, built-in USB hub, and an HDMI and VGA connector set for use with your computer’s video card. Much like the Dell option, this monitor also has built-in Windows 10 support. While the stand doesn’t get as tall as the Dell does, it does support turning the display 90 degrees (not natively, you’ll need to take off the mount and manually remount it). There are also VESA mounting holes. A side benefit is that the monitor does come in three sizes: the 24” we’ve been talking about as well as a 22” model and a 27” model, priced accordingly. There are some different stand options as well. The only catch to this is that the price of this display fluctuates wildly. I’ve bought one for ~$225 before which is a great deal but as of right now, they are sitting just below the Dell monitor. Something to keep an eye on. But, remember the screen size options. If 24” isn’t a needed thing, check out the smaller models. The 22” with just a regular stand ( also includes VESA) is ~$100 cheaper. This was the first screen we bought from Planar as a test subject and it’s currently in use at my FOH position for Waves SuperRack. It doesn’t have an anti-glare coating but because of where the monitor is located that isn’t an issue. The timing of this post isn’t too great from a price standpoint but I still wanted to write it knowing the price will go down. The Planar displays have been really great and I feel like they might even be a better value. I love the presence of the VGA port instead of the displayport and when a pandemic isn’t on, they are usually $75-$100 dollars cheaper. Would I buy the Dell if they are about the same price? The answer to that question is maybe. But right now there is still about $20 difference and for me, working where I work (at a church), every dollar counts. The good news is that even now, on Amazon, they have a used option that is quite a bit cheaper than the Dell. Because we have Amazon Prime and can return if there are issues so easily, it’s a no-brainer for me.

Hopefully this week, as well as the others, have introduced you to some alternatives to the mainstream gear. There is a lot of great stuff out there that if you’re willing to try, you might save some big bucks with and be able to pick up a few extra toys. If you have any questions about my experiences with Planar displays, just drop me a message either here in the comments section or on Facebook. I have a few more posts talking about some other reasonably priced alternatives so if you don’t want to miss anything, click this link, and subscribe to this blog. Have a great week!

Gear Talk: Reasonably Priced Alternatives Part 2

This week, I wanted to do a comparison of studio and podcast mics. I’ve seen the whole gamut of mics being used by podcasters, streamers, friends, and pros. Some people are even just using the headset mics built into their headphones (don’t worry, I’m not stooping that low). The premier mic that I’ve seen used in the most places and with the most clout, is the Shure SM7b but the hard part came when I was picking a reasonably priced alternative. I looked at ElectroVoice offerings and even some other Shure products. But it came down to the price, what could I find that was both reasonably priced and still sounded at least decent to good. That was the Shure SM58. Yep, the 58 strikes again.

But before we go there, here, let’s start with the SM7b. It is a standard dynamic with a cardioid pattern that does a great job in rejecting off axis input. The mic ships with two pop filters to suit your needs but Shure really brags on its built-in “shock absorption” that really helps to keep your audio free of pops and mechanical noises that result from air and movement. Another great feature that Shure added to the SM7b is an extra layer of shielding that helps protect mic itself from hum and buzz from computers and other electronics that may be in your studio. Lastly the SM7b has some built in filtering options that might be useful in various applications to help it capture specific sources more effectively. Probably the only downside to the mic (also occurs in most of its direct competitors as well) is that it takes a lot of gain to power the capsule (this is likely due to the lack of transformer, we’ll discuss that later). In order to combat that you’ll need a Cloud-Lifter or a pre-amp with plenty of overhead. What people love about this mic and probably why it is so useful is so many different applications (I personally love to use it with guitar amps) is that the response curve is very flat for a dynamic microphone (link to spec sheet with response curves). If you take all of those features and combine it with Shure’s legendary reliability you’ve got a package that, in my opinion, is well worth it’s MSRP of $399 (be sure to check with your Shure dealer for better pricing!).

Then comes the SM58. On the surface, especially when you consider the price at $99, you’d think these mics are in completely different classes. But they are essentially different shells to very similar capsules. The SM58 has been a staple in the live world for decades and except for one thing is very similar. That one thing is the presence of a transformer in the SM58 that serves to boost the outgoing signal. That transformer however does change the response curve making it a bit less balanced and flat as the SM7b that we talked about above (link to spec sheet with response curves). You’ll also be without the added windscreens and extra shielding. While there is a small amount of shock absorbing inside the shell, it is far less effective. There are a couple videos on youtube you can watch that compare them (here is a link to one, the video will start at the A/B comparison) if you level match them, it will be hard to tell the difference, especially when the speaker has good mic technique. It may not be near as sexy as the 7b but it sure does sound good and if you’re on a budget, $99 is just about right. 

Whether you’re looking at starting a podcast, looking for a better-than-a-headset mic for streaming or zoom calls, the SM7b and the SM58 are great choices to accomplish either of those use cases. The great thing is that if you don’t have the money for the SM7b now you can get the 58 and upgrade later and because it’s the SM58, you’ll find a use for it elsewhere I’m sure. I’ve personally used both of these mics and can vouch for both, be sure to reach out with any questions you have to or in the comments here or on Facebook. Also, if you’re starting up a podcast and have any questions hit me up somewhere and I can share with you how we got ours going. We are continuing this series next week talking about touchscreens. See you on the flipside!

Gear Talk: Reasonably Priced Alternatives Part 1

Welcome back everyone! After a couple crazy weeks I’m finally back into a rhythm of writing. In late July my third son was born and I decided to just take a break, do that survey (link here if you missed it), and just enjoy time with family. But now I’m all rested (sort of) and ready to get back at it. I have been trying to do this series for awhile and finally feel like I finally have enough content to pull it off. I’ve put a list together of a bunch of the premium pieces of equipment and their more reasonably priced alternatives that I have found and typically use when budgets are a bit tighter. Should you always use these alternatives just because they are cheaper? No, the alternates while performing the same typically have some missing conveniences or features. But when budgets are tight, it’s almost always best to put your money where you’ll see the best return and these alternatives offer options to save money in ways that aren’t as critical. 

The first gear alternative I wanted to offer is with direct boxes. Radial offers some of the best audio conversion boxes that are readily available. They are well built, offer lots of options that help with every situation and even offer an option to merge a stereo source like a keyboard down to a mono source so information isn’t lost if you don’t have the extra inputs (one of my favorite features). But they are a bit pricey. The models equipped with a Jensen transformer (active – Radial J48, passive – Radial JDI) from radial are $199 each. Their little brother that doesn’t have the premium transformer and is passive only is the Radial ProDI and still runs you $99. There is even a cheaper version of that, the Radial SB2, which I think was brought about to compete with the lower market is $69. These are all really nice DI boxes. They are built from full-metal and very durable enclosures and will work for decades. We have quite a few for use in our main auditorium that we have acquired either new or from equipment auctions. I love them. From a user experience standpoint they feel very sturdy. They are also the cleanest DIs I’ve every used. In almost 10 years of using them, these DIs have never been the source of the buzz or hum. I can’t say that about other options I’ve used. Just like with the differences in premium verses generic pre-amps, you’ll hear the same differences in premium vs. generic direct boxes. If you’re stepping up your gear game in other areas, it might be time to step up your game here as well. So, maybe the next time you are getting some new direct boxes, pick one up or get a demo from a vendor and try it out. I love to use these nicer DIs with perennial inputs like our worship leader’s acoustic guitar and our keyboard inputs. It’s easy to justify spending a bit more on something if you’ll be using it every week and you’ll definitely hear the difference.

But, there are situations where you just need something cheaper, the rest of gear in the ecosystem isn’t of the best quality, or you just don’t have the money. I’ve used quite a few DIs over the years from Whirlwind’s Director DI (which is $62.50)  to some very sketchy back room DIs that work most of the time. However, there was one really reasonably priced alternative that rose to the top. The Whirlwind IMP DI. I have seen some of these get run over, accidentally (and purposefully) thrown, and just abused and they just keep working (I liken the IMP to the sm58 as it just always works). I attribute that to the fact that Whirlwind decided to rivet the electronics in place rather than glue them like so many of the low end DIs on the markets. At ~$52 they are a killer deal. Very simple design which a ¼’ input and XLR output along with a ground lift switch (the feature that needs to be on every direct box. However the thing that you’ll be missing here is an input pad which while not required is helpful when using line level inputs from keyboards and computer audio devices. If you’re looking for a full featured DI for even cheaper, the only one I’d recommend is the Behringer UltraDI. This is basically a Director clone with some likely durability differences but still quite functional and full featured. I’ve used these before and while they feel cheap they work just fine. Just be ready to handle them carefully if you want to get a long life out of them. 

Well that’s it for Week 1. Next week I’ll be talking about another lower cost option for you to consider. Hopefully this week either introduced you to a cheaper option or a maybe a new premium piece of gear to start stepping up your game with. Please let me know in the comments below or on Facebook if you have any questions, I love connecting with you guys and helping any way that I can. Also, be sure to subscribe to my blog and you’ll get an email whenever a new post goes live so you don’t ever miss a thing! See you all next week