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1. advice on equipment (headphones, microphones, sound cards)

Dear Maria,
I agree with everyone regarding the Sound Blaster audio cards.
I've been using most of all MOTU and RME products, and they are perfectly stable, high quality and well equipped in terms of analog and digital inputs and outputs. But the price will be for sure above the 400$.
For something cheaper, I've been using the Presonus Inspire, and I think that for that price (~200$) is the maximum you can get with 2 mic preamps (with phantom) and 4 outputs. If not, Edirol, Echo (for PC) and M-Audio offer good products.
For the michrophone, a DPA 4060 should be the best, but it'd be quite expensive...~500$ with the phantom power adapter...you could have a look to Sennheiser microphones (like the MKE 2pc or the KE4 capsules) or Beyerdynamic (like the MCE60). A good solution, if you are a bit practical with electronics, could be to buy a couple of Monacor MCE 2000 (like the Panasonic capsules) and built to yourself the power supply (using a 9v battery, a condenser and a couple of resistances): doing this you'll have a decent microphone for ~5$! If you decide for this last option, I can send you a short tutorial on how to built a microphone like this!
And about the headphones, the Sennheiser are ok, but you could even have a look to the Sony MDR 7505 and 7506 or to the AKG k141 or k240 (the STUDIO version).
Best Regards
Lorenzo Picinali

Lorenzo Picinali
PhD Student
Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre
0116 2551551, internal 6770
Clephan Building CL0.19
De Montfort University