Wow, I wish I had an aunt like that. But we can all dream, can't we? And actually, sitting down and carefully thinking about what ONE item would improve things the most is a very good exercise in studio planning.
So firstly I would look at weak areas. It's an old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but it's true in the studio too.
The weakest link in your studio chain would be anything that's causing you trouble…
Ah yes, that will be the computer!
It is possible to achieve relatively trouble-free computing. And the way to do it is to dedicate a computer to audio. So you don't run anything else on it, you don't connect it to the Internet other than very temporarily for any necessary authorizations. And you don't 'tweak' it, once it is up and running.
So check the compatibility requirements of your software, and ask your aunt for the fastest, most memory-stuffed computer you think you can get away with.
Get it set up properly, and then just use it – don't mess with it!
If you have achieved trouble-free computing already (yeah, right!) or if you use a standalone workstation, then the weakest link must lie elsewhere…
It's your studio acoustics! The easiest way to improve acoustics is with proprietary absorbers and diffusers. That's not the cheapest way, but hey – your aunt is rich! And she's willing to accept a package of acoustic treatment as one item.
Your best bet is to hire someone experienced to do the acoustic treatment for you. Check out their record of success, and visit a couple of studios they have done, if you can.
Next best is to buy acoustic products from a company such as RealTraps and follow their instructions on installation.
But suppose you have done that already. Hmm….
Got it! The monitors. Now if you had gone to the trouble of getting your studio properly acoustically treated, then you would surely have bought decent monitors already.
But if you haven't, then yes monitors will make a difference. Choice of monitors is very subjective, but I tend to look on Genelec as a benchmark. They are sold into the pro audio market, and they are popular, so you are at least on a par with lots of other people who make money out of recording. If your monitors are inferior to these, you need an upgrade.
Next on the list of considerations is…
A better microphone.
Now it has to be said that a good singer and a good engineer can do a lot with very little when it comes to microphones. A basic Shure SM57 or SM58 will provide a perfectly professional sound.
However, if your style of music demands a certain sound characteristic, such as a large-diaphragm tube mic, then that is what you must have. You can't get this sound any other way. Ask your aunt for something expensive, like a Neumann M147.
I don't see the preamp as anywhere near as important as the mic. But if you have everything I have already mentioned, then a preamp would be a good buy.
Don't bother with expensive transistor preamps. They are not good value for money as they are only a very tiny bit better than cheap ones.
But a tube preamp, well that's another thing entirely. It's a subjective call once again, but I would be very happy with a Universal Audio Solo/610 or equivalent.
On a similar level of importance is an 'interesting' compressor. Once again, you can easily get ordinary and accurate compression from a plug-in. But compression with character is another thing.
I would choose an opto compressor or a variable-mu. A variable-mu compressor, which incorporates vacuum tubes, can also provide similar warmth to a tube preamp, so if you have one of these, a special preamp isn't entirely necessary.
If you have everything I have mentioned already, then truly you have an excellent studio setup. If you're not producing great music, then I'm sorry to have to say that it's YOU that needs upgrading!
Just kidding, although it is absolutely true to say that the best equipment in the world can't produce great music by itself. It's totally down to the person operating it. You might consider improving your recording production skills…
A few years ago I would have added having a great reverb to the list. And there's nothing that can compare with a classic EMT plate or the also classic Lexicon 480L.
But people don't use reverb in the same way that they did, and as long as you have a decent quality reverb unit or plug-in, then you'll be OK. Altiverb is a good example as you can use samples of natural spaces and other reverb units, which gives tremendous flexibility.
I'm going to stop now. I can feel my check book twitching.
Over to you… What's the ONE item of equipment that you would buy to improve your own personal studio setup?