Soil substrate works great. However, Please read Diana Walstad's book before using dirt in a tank.
Make sure the soil does not contain any added fertz and does not include too much composted organic material. If you have excess organics in the soil it will take quite a long time for the tank to cycle. Most advise against using sand over soil, but in my dirt tank, I have about 1/2" of sand between the dirt and the fine gravel. Be sure to use plants some plants which have a good root structure if using soil, swords or crypts are nice and will prevent you from getting anaerobic pockets which could cause sulfate problems.
I have had problems dosing nitrate with a soil substrate. I can dose huge amounts of KNO3 without problems in CO2 enriched tanks with inert substrates, but if I dose it in a soil substrate tank, I get some reduction back to ammonia -which is not good for fish or shrimp. With soil, the best approach is to lower light level if you have algae rater than try to increase nutrients. I do occasionally dose micronutrients and KH2PO4 if the plants look like they need it.
my soil substrate tanks are built into west facing windows of the house and get plenty of direct sunlight, so they require minimal supplimental lighting.
there is a good forum with Diana Walstad at Aquabotanic.com