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The right gear: equipment

Don't know your DI from your Hi-Fi? Untangle the tricky world of equipment.

Microphones

There are scores of different makes and models, all suited to certain situations and not so good in others. You can read all about the different types of microphones here.

Even the best microphone can sound lousy unless you’ve got a decent pre-amp. Mics put out small signals that are then amplified to a fuller sound by a circuit called a mic pre-amp. Your soundcard or mixer should have a pre-amp installed, but the quality of your recordings will depend on how good that preinstalled circuit is. When you’re starting out you should be able to make do with what you’ve got, but if you’re striving towards better quality recordings it might be worth getting a pre-amp box for around £100.

Amps

The first decision to make is what size amp will suit you best. Amps are rated by wattage rather than physical size, but high-wattage amps do tend to be bigger. While it might be every aspiring rocker’s dream to play in front of a wall of Marshall stacks, it’s unlikely that you’ll be needing one unless you regularly play arenas or stadiums. You’re probably best off narrowing your search to combos: amps that combine the amplifier electronics with one or more speakers in one handy box. They’re generally cheaper, easier to transport and take up less room.

WHAT WATT?

A 30 watt amp will be more than enough for your bedroom, rehearsals and small gigs. A sound engineer will normally mic your amp up to the PA system when you play live, so you don’t need to buy one that’ll shake the plaster from the walls. Larger units will probably sound better, unless you invest in a tube amp. As a rule, if an amp doesn’t have a 10 inch speaker, don’t use it outside your bedroom. Smaller amps, 1-10 watts, are great for practising on your own, but will be drowned out by a drummer or other guitarist, so aren’t suitable for jams.

SOLID STATE AMP

When you're starting out, you'll probably be using a solid state amp. These are cheap and good for the early stages of your career. However, in terms of aural quality they can lack dynamic range, making it difficult to differentiate between guitar sounds.

TUBE AMP

When you get more gigs, a tube amp will become more appropriate. Not only are they better quality than a standard amp; creating a 'warmer' sound, they are also technically less problematic. The only downside is that they cost a fair wad more than their solid state counterparts.

COMBO AMP V’S HEAD/CABINET UNIT

There is also the question of whether you need a combo amp or a head/cabinet unit. If you'll mainly be studio-based and playing in small clubs you'll probably be ok with an all-in-one combo unit. However, if you're playing larger venues you would do better to invest in a 'head/cabinet' set up. These are so called because they're made up of the 'head', which is the actual amp, and the 'cabinet' which is a speaker. This setup gives you a louder sound on stage and is useful if you want to hear yourself over the rest of the band.

If you’re playing live and not using the local PA, an amp with two speakers is recommended. Standard 2x12 amps are small enough to store in your living or bedroom, fairly easy to lug around for practices and won’t see you laughed off stage at medium-sized venues. However, whatever kind you use its most likely your amp will be mic'd up to the PA. If you're a bassist and haven't got an amp the venue's sound engineer may allow you to plug straight into the PA but this won't always give you as strong a sound and gives you less control over your sound onstage.

Try before you buy

Always try before you buy, bringing your own guitar and cable, and don’t feel pressured to get a huge amp – a smaller amp with good tone will serve you better than a huge, cheesy sounding behemoth.

It's also vital you check whether your amp has a built-in clean/dirty channel. If not, and you want to rock out, you will need to invest in an extra FX-pedal.

Clips

Producer James Kenosha - where to buy kit and what to buy

Producer James Kenosha's advice for musicians looking to buy kit (filmed in 2009)