The tools you need in your studio…
By Art Whitfield
What does your studio tool box look like? No, I don’t mean the software tools for your DAW, but real-life tools like screwdrivers. If you are like most personal studio owners, you probably can find your sequencer install disks faster than you can find a screwdriver. After all, who needs a screwdriver anyway when what you really want to do is record that vocal one more time.
In the personal studio, or any studio for that matter, the hardware tool box can mean the difference between wasting an hour of your vocalist’s time, taking a trip to Radio Shack, and maybe not delivering on a contract with a tight timeline. We all have projects that take longer than expected, and the masters are delivered just barely in time, but having a decent tool box around can save some of those last-minute headaches, or save you time up front.
So what’s in a personal studio owner’s tool box? Here’s a list of essentials, in approximate order of importance, with some thoughts about why and how. It’s not a definitive list, but if you’ve never given it a thought yet scramble for tools when problems arise, it’ll make a good starting place. Most items are widely available, not just in specialized stores.
Box or drawer to keep tools—you probably already have many of the tools in your studio that are discussed below. But if you don’t always keep them in the same place, always ready for action, you will spend as much time finding the tool as using it. Find a place for your tools first! Stores like Sears and Home Depot often have nice plastic toolboxes for less than $30. My bright yellow Sears Craftsman was $19 on sale.
- Spare fuses—Keep at least one of each fuse for the gear you own.
- Spare Batteries—For all your own gear, and for gear that may come into the studio, keep four 9V and a bunch of AA and AAA batteries around. Don’t skimp on quality: good alkaline batteries store and last longer than cheaper formulations.
- #2 and #1 Phillips screwdriver—The #2 size is the typical standard size, for rack mounting screws and the like, while the smaller #1 size serves for battery hatches, XLR connectors etc.
- Small straight-blade screwdriver/Jeweler’s screwdriver set—One of those inexpensive sets of jeweler’s screwdrivers, either all straight blade, or mixed straight and Phillips.
- Small needle-nose pliers with integral wire cutter—Useful for most any small grabbing or bending tas k, even for cutting guitar string ends if it incorporates the wire cutter at the back of the pliers near the hinge.
- Flashlight—Essential for looking behind your rack or computer—one more reason to stock up on batteries. One pricey but long-lasting choice might be a miniature LED light—but be sure its LED is white rather than colored, or you’ll never be able to sort out your color-coded cables with it.
- AC outlet tester—A small plug-in unit that has three small lights built into a 3-prong AC plug. The lights indicate if the AC outlet has power and if it’s properly wired. Can be used to quickly verify that AC power in an outlet is on, that grounds are all properly wired, and plug strips are working. Available from most home centers, hardware stores, and Radio Shack.
- Spare AC cable—They are inexpensive and available from many home centers and electrical shops. The classic 3-wire type (sometimes called computer AC cables) is called an IEC cordset. Maybe get a spare 2-prong style that fits into some CD players and boom boxes.
- Duct tape/gaffer tape—Everything is possible with duct tape. Need we say more? Well, maybe we can mention a product called “gaffer tape,” available from a shop that sells or rents audio gear or lighting equipment. Looks and works like duct tape, but doesn’t leave a sticky residue. Gaffer tape is substantially more expensive than duct tape ($7 vs. $2), but once you use it, you won’t go back to duct tape. Available in many colors. White is excellent for write-on strips (use a marker).
- Black Marker Pen—what better to write on the white gaffer tape noted above?
- Multi-Voltage Wall Wart—Radio Shack and other vendors sell what are often called “Universal Power Supply” type voltage adapters. These units plug into a standard AC wall outlet and allow you to select, via a small dial or slide switch, different DC voltages, typically 4.5V to 12V. Many also include a number of adapter plugs so you can plug the DC voltage into most any wall wart powered equipment. Current rating is important, but on the multi-voltage type wall warts, you won’t have many choices. Get the largest you can. Two notes of caution: some wall wart powered gear works on AC voltage, not DC. Check the back label near the plug-in before using. Also, be very careful of polarity (+ and – input configuration). The multi-voltage units include a polarity switch—be sure it’s set right before plugging in to avoid damaging your gear!
- Audio Adapters—See the sidebar for some specific suggestions.
- Multi-Meter, ohm meter, or wire tester—When hookups are not working, when you are not sure if you have a bad cable causing hum, or if you just want to check the battery in a stomp box, a multi-meter (voltmeter with resistance and current measuring functions included) can speed you back to the recording or mixing process. The simplest type is a wire or continuity tester, available from electronics or auto supply firms. This type is essentially a light bulb and a battery with two wire probes for testing if a wire can carry electricity. Not too helpful, but it will tell you if you have a bad guitar cable. Commercial cable testers test signal integrity of most standard audio cables, like XLR mic cables, 1/4″ audio cables, and RCA cables. Finally, there is the multi-meter, a tool that not only tests for basic electrical function, but provides voltage, resistance, current, and sometimes other tests. These can be found in home centers and electronics shops for prices ranging from $20 to several hundred. Stick with the units less than $50 since you only need the basic functions. My favorites are the least expensive, except for my trusty Fluke 87-III (don’t ask how much I paid!!).
- Aspirin (or similar)—Yes, aspirin is one of the most often used tools when none of the above seem to work. I have friends who prefer a shot of whiskey, but aspirin is my favorite stress buster while still allowing me to work.
Needless to say, this list isn’t gospel. Everyone will have slightly different needs. In particular, see Elizabeth Papapetrou’s article Dissin’ Disaster where she adds to my list with specialized tools for soldering and cleaning cables and gear.
If you end up needing something and don’t have it, add it as soon as you can so it’s there the next time…and be sure to invest in a tool box that’s a bit bigger than you think you’ll need, as you’ll probably fill it up sooner than you think!
Art Whitfield (email@example.com) is a recording engineer and electronic repair tech in Rochester, NY.