As a starting music producer, acquiring gear that you use to record and mix can drain your bank account quickly. Of course some gear is cheaper than ever, but quality is sometimes trumped by the manufacturer’s will to produce recording devices cheaply. And other gear can’t be bought new anymore; which can cause the prices on the second hand market to rise considerably. And then there are also devices that just were never manufactured in large quantities.
If you’re like me and you know how a soldering iron works, and have a basic understanding of electronics, the appeal of building your own gear isn’t that hard to see:
- Gear can often be built cheaper than buying it new or second hand
- Far greater control over the build quality
- The ability to modify gear to your own liking (different transformers, tubes, enclosure, etc.)
- If it ever breaks, you’ll probably be able to fix it yourself
- You’ll have a better understanding of why certain gear sounds the way it does
- If you need any additional information about your build, there is a great community willing to help you
Also, in the recent years 500 series modules have caused a surge in the DIY community. Not worrying about building a power supply that is noiseless and is up to every standard makes it a lot easier to create your own audio device. A standardized format also drives down prices for components and enclosures. And some manufacturers such as Empirical Labs have even started making their own 500 modules that are ’empty’, meaning you can create your own 500 module from scratch and experiment.
After finishing the build
What to build
So, what kind of gear do I build myself? I’m not what you would call a ‘hardcore’ DIY-er, that’s to say you won’t see me etching printed circuit boards (tried it once years ago and it went horribly), or reverse engineering pieces of gear of from the fifties. I have built a few pedals over the years, and in the next few weeks I’ll build a Fuzz Factory clone. Recently I also built a tube microphone preamp for the API 500 format: a Sound Skulptor MP566.
Where do you find these kind of things? A great place to start is the forum of groupdiy.com. This is probably the biggest DIY audio community out there (in regards to recording gear at least). A lot of the projects start here, as there is a vibrant community of people that are constantly working to come up with new projects.
Although it’s a vibrant community, for me the biggest downside to groupdiy.com is that most of the projects or kits you can buy are bare bones. The upside to this is that the projects are very customizable. But some kits only contain PCB’s and hard to find components, leaving you to order the remaining parts from other sellers. This adds time to the whole process and makes it more complicated. Also, sometimes there are no build guides, so you really have to know what you’re doing. And if you’re finished with your build and it doesn’t work, it can take a while before anyone’s willing to help you.
Even if you’ve never used a soldering iron before, there are kits for you to build yourself. So called ‘full kits’ are a better option if you’re looking for a simpler solution. These kits include everything you need to build your piece of gear, from the PCB to the last screw. There are some great manufacturers selling full DIY kits:
- Sound Skulptor (selling API preamp clones, Neve preamp clones, Tape Simulators and much more)
- CAPI-gear (selling API clones of his own 70’s API console)
- Audio-Maintenance Limited (selling Pultec clones, Neve 2254 clones, and recently Fairchild 627 EQs of which only a few existed)
- Hairball Audio (1176 clones, and some preamps of their own design)
- DIY – Recording Equipment (selling distorting devices using different ‘colours’, and other various handy devices)
- PCBgrinder (selling kits of 1176 stereo rack units and Pultecs, these kits are a bit more advanced)
Worth noting is that some of these manufacturers are based in the US, and some in the EU. This can be of importance due to import duties and shipping costs.
There are also some manufacturers that create partial kits, that most of the time include everything but the components that can easily be ordered from a mass supplier like Mouser. Audio-Maintenance sells some of these kits, and a new player is AVD Audio. Eurorack (the standard for modular synthesizers), also has plenty of available kits from many different manufacturers. Eurorack modules are also capable of processing line level audio, although they use minijack in- and outputs so you need to convert that to the format that you’re using.
How my MP566 kit arrived
The building process
So, what’s the process like from start to finish when you order one of these kits? For the Sound Skulptor preamp, it was very straight forward. A package arrived with every component sorted in bags by type. Their build guide is very well written, although there is some Frenglish as it is a French company. Soldering and assembling everything took about a day or a day and a half, since I don’t really assemble these kits a lot. There are some tests to do measuring voltages on different test points to ensure everything is working correctly. Luckily mine powered up on the first try and everything was working perfectly.
Of course the quality of the documentation and assistance will vary with each different manufacturer. But, for Sound Skulptor it was very straight forward and clear.
So, what does it sound like? That depends on the circuit design and the quality of the components. For most of these kits, components are the same, or comparable to, the components that The Big Names (API, Neve, and so forth) use in their products. Sound on Sound did a review of the Sound Skulptor MP573 and found it a “totally professional looking and sounding product”. Tape Op did a review of the Stereo Tape Simulator and recommended it sincerely. Good sounding demos that showcase these products can be lacking online, and I will demo some equipment once I have built a few more products.
What’s next? For me, building a Fuzz Factory clone in the next few weeks will be a fun small project. I’m also looking to build a Neve 1073 clone from Sound Skulptor, and an API clone from AVD Audio. The Tape Simulator from Sound Skulptor is high on my list. And building a microphone clone of a U47 is also a long term wish of mine, although I have yet to see a kit that has the quality and ease of build that I’m looking for.