Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a HUGE problem in the audio industry. At least, it’s a huge problem for the people spending the money. I guess it’s not as big of a problem for the companies that are making money exploiting the weakness of it’s customers. In many ways, the purchasing of a new piece of gear is often like an episode of The Sopranos. You watch one episode, you feel unfulfilled, and you are forced to watch another episode to feel like you get some kind of closure. Of course, you go through Season 1-6.5 just to find out that there isn’t even an ending on the last episode. You can invest a lot of time into watching 6.5 seasons of Sopranos to end up with nothing and you can invest quite a bit of cash into your recording rig and still may not end up satisfied with the quality of you recordings.
While I definitely feel that high end recording gear has it’s place. I have heard gear that has excited me. The $4,000 EMI compressor made by Chandler is DEFINITELY exciting. It stood far and above the nearly endless list of high end compressors when I attended the Michael Wagener workshop. It was simply more exciting to hear vocals recorded through that dirty old compressor. However, I can’t say that any other compressors that I heard that day really did anything that obviously excited me. Granted, I’m not in a situation where I can blow zillions of dollars on recording gear like big boy audio professionals can. While maybe the big boys get excited between the difference of this
Learning By Emulation
It’s common for the beginner learning the craft of audio engineering at home to emulate professionals. While the typical pro audio engineer has an absurd amount of information in their brains, it appears that almost all of this doesn’t make it’s way to the web. Audio professionals tend to gravitate toward discussing one $2,000 mic preamp vs another $2,000 mic preamp. That’s great an all, but it has limited use for the home recording dude at home trying to improve his recordings. It needs to be understand that two big boys discussing the difference between two EXTREMELY high end pieces of gear is not much different than two NASA engineers discussing the difference in $300 per pound platinum screws vs $320 per pound nickel coated platinum screws. It needs to be understood that these screws will be used on a spaceship. A ROCKET! A beginner may overheard the conversation and say “Wow! I REALLY need $320 per pound nickel coated platinum screws” for building a shelf in the kitchen. If you use $320 per pound screws in a shelf in the kitchen, you are an idiot! Use the $2 per pound screws from your local hardware store. You won’t notice a difference and neither will your wife who you are building the shelf for.
The lesson here is nerdy stuff that robo experts talk about typically goes beyond the basics.
The Great American Curse
I recently read that while the United States ranks #1 in wealth, they rank #33 happiness. (Don’t ask me where I read this). In the United Stated, society as a whole tends to judge it’s happiness by the amount of stuff a person owns. The majority of people gauge their success by the car they drive and the house they live in. I think this concept trickles down to the recording world as well. I think there are some people who run out and buy Neve, API, and SSL gear simply because they feel they need to in order to prove their status and not because the differences in audio fidelity and musical impact.
Because I am a business owner, I have to look at each investment I make in terms of of ROI (return on investment). When I purchased my Soundelux U99, I thought that my vocal recordings would soar to new levels that would turn heads and would allow me to increase my rates. It hasn’t happened. I haven’t raised my rates on cent because of the U99, unfortunately. In fact, no one has noticed that difference between my Soundelux U99 and my Shure SM7 on songs where I’ve used the SM7 for the choruses and U99 for the verses. If a piece of gear does not allow me to increase my rates, what is the point of owning it? One could argue that an engineer should never stop pursuing the highest level of fidelity possible. I can’t argue with this general philosophy, but if the clients can’t tell a difference, there is no difference. The notion of blindly (and deafly) buying the highest quality gear in the world without much thought should have died just like the big boys studios have died.
When Gear Does Make A BIG Difference
I mix in the box. I’d love to have a giant SSL or Neve console. I can’t afford it yet. For over 4 years, I’ve used Waves plugins. I typically gravitate towards the Waves Rcomp for my compression needs. Recently, I tried out the new free VST plugins by Antress. In particular, there were two plugins that stood out to me. The Painkiller limiter and the Manley compressor clone. The Painkiller does something to my drum bus and parallel compression drum bus that my Waves plugins simply won’t do. I don’t look at it so much as a difference in “fidelity” between the two plugins. I look at it as a difference in function. For example, if I need a dig a hole, I could use a shovel to dig a big hole or I could use a whole digger for a small hole. They both simply do different things. The new possibilities (combined with my audio engineering abilities improving) have lead to mixes that are WAY better than mixes I had done in the past.
One particular client who I have worked with numerous times recently said “WOW!” when he heard a new mix. Without a doubt, a big part of that was in the new possibilities opened up to me with the Antress plugins. This difference far exceeds the incremental difference I’ve received with fancy mics, preamps, and converters. This “WOW!” factor is something that will allow me to raise my rates. In fact, I’ve never heard “WOW!” from a client before.
So now I have to ask myself the big question. Would upgrading to something like the UAD-1 or the Focusrite Liquid Mix open up even bigger possibilities than that of the free Antress plugins? I guess the only way to find out is by trying it out for myself. When do I shell out the cash to try out the higher end compressor plugins?
I tell myself that I should only upgrade my recording gear with recording money because the difference between this piece of gear and that piece of gear is not that strong. However, what if that one piece of gear is the magic piece to the puzzle that really does dramatically improve my recordings and allows me to justify higher rates? An audio engineer MUST pursue these possibilities. I guess in the end, it’s important for us recording dudes/chicks to try out the high end gear as we can afford it and send it back if it doesn’t excite us and doesn’t make our jobs easier and allow us to charge more for our services. The big flaw is in keeping gear that isn’t worth the difference it has made. The bigger flaw is in tricking ourselves into liking a piece of gear that isn’t exciting us. The biggest flaw is not trying out the gear at all.