For soil-anything that doesn't have any type of chemical additives, ferts, too much manure, pine bark.....Organic type potting soil, top soil, dirt from your yard.
I have used all kinds of different soil bases-and really haven't seen much difference as far as water quality-but I have seen differences in plant growth.
I used a local nursery brand potting soil they make and it was full of the perlite and that didn't cause any problems other than it floats when disturbed and looks a bit ugly until you net it out.
My dirt I use from my pasture "black gold" I like to call it-since it is from virgin land high in organics, composted leaves...etc....It will have lots of bugs, critters, worms and the like. I don't stress over it-I leave them and they drown-I look at it as more plant food or even food for the fish.
I like to add a bit of native sand and clay to my dirt and I sift it all together.
I have used generic clay kitty litter-but found it too messy when I pull plants-but it is great when used in a 25/75 mix. The added Iron is loved by the rosette plants.
When I set one up-
I add my dirt-then add just enough water to cover-then I add my sand-I don't rinse my sand-I like to use everything dry. Then I add water-drain and repeat until clear. Then I add about 2-3 inches of water and start to plant-I already have my hard scape placed, filter, heater and check the hood for placement if one is used.
Once I have everything planted-I fill with water and drain and re-fill if needed until clear.
Its important to start with enough stem plants from the beginning and clear water for best light penetration to plants. The active plant growth is what keep the water safe.
The cap-its up to you on what you want to use-My first NPT I used sand but I had some really nice 1-2mm gravel and used that on one tank and larger on yet another. I use both on some or use sand with handfuls of gravel around the base of plants to help keep them anchored until they take root or for some contrast in texture......It endless...no right or wrong per se...The goal of the cap is to help hold the soil in place until it is water logged and starts its life under water and why you don't need that much.
I used pool filter sand for the first time on the 55gal I re-setup last Oct. and it has worked fine.
This is the tank that I experimented with using sand I collected from my stock pond and ended up needing to add an inch of gravel on top of that sand due to the silts from the pond sand-What a mess-but the gravel worked to help collect the silts and to prevent more silts in the water column. I also had some anaerobic soil issue due to too deep of substrate layer, however, even with all these problems the tank lasted for 5 years before I got tired of looking at it and 2 of those years it didn't have a filter running-but only because it stopped working and I didn't replace it-that is how well the plants worked as the filtration-Plants or fish never suffered-everything thrived.....And this is the tank that also got the flea powder in it at one point-killed a lot of shrimp but nothing else......
I have needed to replace sand on occasion-after a time the sand will start to discolor and I will suck it out with my python that drains out in the garden. I use a plastic cup with dry sand-lower it into the tanks and pour in the places I need it. Best to have the filter off if one is used and usually within 2-3min its all settled.
I have also used a larger meshed net to kinda turn the sand a bit and to remove the hundreds of snails-I scoop them up along with a net full of sand and kinda shake it or sift it and that brightens the sand back up.
I don't use any specific brands-honestly I don't think it matters, I don't stress over water prams. I watch the water, plants, fish, shrimp and snails and they tell me when something is wrong-You can't beat the power of observation. Too many things can cause skewed water pram readings and you are going to do the same thing with the results that you would do with change in behavior of livestock....Water change......
If the plants are thriving/growing and needing regular trims-provided that you used enough stem plants-they will keep the water safe.
Shrimp usually will be the first thing to tell you that you have a water quality issue. Bettas will be the last to tell you since they can tolerate more harsh conditions than other species of fish.
By understanding normal behavior it will be easier to pick out abnormal behavior.....
And when in doubt....make a water change-by the time you complete the water test it might be too late.....
Most important...relax, have fun, use your imagination and enjoy your little ecosystem....That is what its all about...