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Is Gear The Answer To Sound Quality Issues?

Brandon Drury —  October 28, 2008

The common theme around here at RecordingReview.com is to make dramatically more effective recordings at home. I’m of the opinion that once a bare minimum of gear is obtained (we’ll say an SM57, a $200 condenser, and an audio interface) that additional gear upgrades offer 1% improvement (MOST OF THE TIME*)..

I know that you are immediately debating whether I’m an idiot or whether the guy that has 20 platinum records is the idiot. All the big boys say you NEED super high end gear, right? (Not necessarily). Obviously, I’m not going to win that war, but I can without a doubt say that the benefits of high end gear have essentially zero impact in an unideal situation.

High end recording gear

So let’s define the ideal situation. The ideal situation involves an incredible song with incredible musicians playing in a phenomenal sounding room playing with amazing sounding instruments with an engineer who doesn’t screw it up. That’s it. Look for a pro engineer who disagrees. You won’t find one.

So the real question is this: What in the hell does a home recording dude who doesn’t have have an ideal situation? It seems that in almost every case, the current inclination is for that person to ignore this fact completely and skip right over to the cherry-on-top stuff the big boy engineers have fun talking about.

Forget the fact that Arnold lifted weights for 8 hours a day. He wore Nike shoes while he did! I need Nike shoes! This is what most beginning home recorders are doing when they obsess over AD conversion and preamps before they’ve worked on the stuff that REALLY makes a difference.

Instead of me just whining and moaning about my disappointments in gear, I figured I’d provide some examples for you to make your own decisions. So here is a collection of highlights from here at RecordingReview.com that put this whole gear thing in perspective.

$1,000 Lessons Learned and Budgets Burned
Bilco discusses a few shocks he experienced when taking his tracks recorded
from a variety of sources to a local studio to be mixed.

MetalGod’s adventures in monitor land…
Here MetalGod took a trip to try out a ton of studio monitors ranging from robo high
end to mega low budget. You may be surprised by the result.

Preamps Don’t Matter?
It appears that Tape Op has spilled the beans about mic preamps!

Recording Gear Quiz
Here’s something I put together to give you an idea of the sound quality benefits of
the high end gear. I did the best I could with signal paths ranging from $100 all
the way up to $5,000. You decide which you like best.

Stressing the Importance of the Source and Minimal Gear
Here Lolgreg shows off a modern rock/metal mix that he got right and did it with relatively inexpensive gear. (The old timers won’t like the compression) but the kids will love this one.

AD Converter Shootout: Mytek AD96 vs Presonus Firestudio
Here are a few examples of tracks recorded through a Mytek AD96 analog to digital converter and a Presonus Firestudio analog to digital converter. Is the difference what you expected? You may be surprised.

Guitar / Bass Preamp Shootout Results
Back in 2005 I borrowed $5,000 in preamps from Mercenary Audio to see if high end preamps were really going to change my life.

Electric Guitar Microphone Shootout
This little shootout compares a number of mics at 3 different placements. How does a $2,600 Soundelux U99 compare to a SM 57?

Preonus M80 vs Vintech 1272 Metal Guitars Preamp Shootout
I’ve been told that you MUST have a Neve style preamp for metal guitar tones. How much did I gain from the Vintech version of the Neve 1272?

What Is My Point?
My goal is not to undermine the significance of high end recording gear. There is definitely something to be gained from it. There is a reason that the big boys gravitate towards the high end mics and preamps.

With that said, ask any pro engineer how many out-of-tune, off-time 16 year kid rock bands they’ve worked with this year. Ask them. What sounds better? A band that can’t groove through a Neve console or the Motown band through a Behringer mixer? You’ll immediately see where your priorities should be placed.

Ultimately, I just don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea about what it takes to make a great recording.

* When a particular piece of gear happens to be perfectly suited for the source, something magical does happen. You immediately so “Wow! What happened???” and your fidelity increases dramatically. While this isn’t exactly dependent on high priced gear, a person with a collection of mics is more likely to hit the nail on the head.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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23 responses to Is Gear The Answer To Sound Quality Issues?

  1. TheSilentDrummer October 28, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    wow! kick Ass analogy with Arnold!

  2. its the room
    its the room
    its the room
    its the room

  3. im agree 100%, buy smart is different that buy expensive! and cost/benefit is the most important thing to take a decision in my gear!!

  4. Brandon,
    Bless your heart! You are absolutely correct! And your website is the only place I found where my arguements
    against the equipment freaks have a safe haven in your mouth! (Pen?)…(Wordprocessor?)
    Thanx!
    Just one little negative critique from me…
    Please lighten up on the seeming apologies to soften your message. As I read, I get the impression, (even though you aren’t overdoing it), I’m feeling your message puts in “safe” qualifiers such as; “Don’t get me wrong…” or “I’m not saying..”.
    You don’t use these words nessesarily, but it’s there in the invisible “warmth” (just kidding), of your writtings. In my opinion, you are right, no need to be safe.
    These observations of yours need to be spoken with the conviction you have! It has to do with Art against snobbery. Elitism vs Joe.
    Part of telling the truth, is expose’. Thanx!!!!

  5. I’m feeling your message puts in “safe” qualifiers such as….

    I find that most people tend to “round” the message up or down to whatever it is closest too (much like the gimmicky Autotune you hear on the pop station).

    I’ve had to deal with way too many comments from jerks who twist what I’m saying. These jerks will sensationalize everything and entirely distort what I say. That’s one reason for the qualifiers.

    The other reason is because I’m not against high end gear in any way. I drool over it as much as anyone and I’ve made big sacrices in order to buy the fancy gear I have now.

    I just want to make it very clear that this fancy gear has its place AFTER a certain list of criteria have been met first.

    So maybe I’m being a wuess, but I think I’m just stating how I truly feel on the subject. It’s odd that you mention this because I’m usually accused of being a know-it-all jerk who thinks he has it all figured out because I’m a bit too concrete in my views.

  6. I can’t read this advice enough. It’s about the song and individual performances…then the room. Equipment is last priority as long as you have a decent basic set of tools.

    Thankfully now there are (sort of) ways around a sh$%ty room, like Superior Drummer/amp sims. And blankets. But you still have to try to correct or learn the room’s shortcomings in order to monitor your mixes…

    I have gear lust to a fault too…this idea has saved me a lot of money over the past year or so.

    And in the meantime, I’ve learned more about mic placement, eq, compression…taken more care into tuning and maintaining my instruments. Spent more time writing and practicing each song before I record. And my recordings are infinitely better with the same equipment.

    Cheers guys…

    -Jeff

  7. I don’t think it’s softening it at all. You make a valid point, but at the same time you don’t want make people who do have tons of gear to feel that they are fools – because many of them won’t be.
    I think that you are making the right point, particularly for anyone who’s just getting into this – it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the gear you’ve got and neglect the reason you bought the gear in the first place.

  8. There’s a band called “The Dear Hunter” and they’ve recorded 2 albums and an EP with subpar equipment. If you listen to the cds however, it sounds very professional and like it was done in a professional space and studio. These guys did all their tracking, engineering, and mixing themselves as well. So I think rather then it be about gear, I think more so it’s about the skill level of the engineer.

    http://www.myspace.com/thedearhunter
    http://lakeandtheriver.com/index.php?showtopic=766 <— this is the forum where the band members chat and this is the specific thread explaining the recording techniques and gear.

  9. Great article!

    One thing to remember is the quality of gear the listener uses to audition the recording varies enormously. Professional critics generally use audiophile quality gear; it shows in their reviews. Most of our fans [customers] will probably be listening to our recordings on iPods. Go figure!

    I remember once hearing someone offer the opinion that Bing Crosby was successful because his voice just happened to sound good on the standard equipment of the day: juke boxes and single speaker RCA radios.

    My suggestion?

    Listen to your recordings on the kind of equipment your target customers use. Mix for that audience and that equipment. If a piece of gear doesn’t make a difference at that level, it’s not worth the ticket price, whatever it is.

    Happy recording!

    Dr. J

  10. Actually I think that’s one of the best parts of this website, the fact that Brandon really does have a hard, usually sarcastic point of view on any particular topic.

    Keep doing what you’re doing and screw ‘em if they can’t handle your brand of ‘tude, they can go read sos online. :)

  11. The first multitrack recording session I did was with a band that practiced a lot, were tight as hell, had quality instruments, a drummer who bashed the crap out of his kit, and a really confident vocalist. I had a fairly good idea back then for levels, mic placement etc, and the general sound I was after, but 95% of why that recording came out pretty good, was because of that band.

  12. A bunch of great points! Brandon’s priority list has saved me a bunch of money this year with practical advice. I record acoustic guitar and vocals and who would think a flatpick collection would be a key part of my EQ arsenal. And more frequently changing strings — good quality ones. duh.

    Dr. J makes a good point too. Tune for your target. Me, I stream live over 128kb/s which can deliver great sound BUT I’m sure most of my audience are listening on PC speakers or earbuds so I EQ for that, not for my monitor headphones.

    I also adopted a “hear a problem/fix a problem” approach to buying gear. i.e. I bought pieces one at a time with a view to solving sound problems that bothered me and learning how to get maximum benefit out of each piece of gear without having a much of moving parts and learning curves to contend with simultaneously.

    Starting with a basic setup doing limited EQ on the mixer I slowly evolved to external preamps and more extensive EQ as I figured out what I was doing and got opinionated on what I wanted to accomplish. In the end I have a small stack of inexpensive boxes — hey no one but me knows its Behringer lol.

    Each piece adds value that I can actually hear although admittedly it took several months of tweaking, listening and reconfiguring to get the sound I was looking for…but damned if that sound wasn’t in there AFTER I learned how to use the equipment.

    As Brandon says… I (the performer) am now the weak link. So now I’m totally focused on picking great songs and playing them as well as I can.

  13. Interresting! All what i am fighting for. Anyway, to all of you, do not forget to do acoustic treatment to your room. It is a really important factor. Being an acoustician, i get mad at seeing people not listening to this advice and buying expensive gear and still have a crappy product. Mixing in a room without acoustic treatment is like painting in the dark, you will paint something… maybe not what you want… Anyway, keep on rockin’
    Frank

  14. Any venue a live band plays in is not usually perfectly
    suited for audio. But still, the music can give you goosebumps(Chickenskin here in HI).
    How you enjoy music, has alot to do with your mood, the setting, who you’re with, if you’re on vacation etc.
    how much and what you’ve recently consumed, etc.

    This goes for listening to recorded music also. Many “purists” claim to be able to hear the impurities in the recording sonicly, but even an audiophile with the best equipment, has traffic noise, (especially if driving a car), refridgerator rumble, household /neighborhood sounds
    poluting things in the background. And besides, most people if put in a completely quiet soundproof box, will hear some degree of buzzing or humming in their ears/brain.
    So what makes recorded music sound great???
    It’s not all equipment or even engineering.
    I once recieved a one of a kind cassette recording straight off the sound board of a long gone live concert of a famous artist. It sounds bad! But the performance is so good, you can actually “Be There”! Chicken skin!

  15. Hi from Pounamu
    My opinion is it is a mixture of all. First good material then good performance then adequate recording gear. A DAW with a great clock is so necessary in digital recording. I just upgraded my 002 Rack to Signature specs, the difference in the sound of my recordings was profound. Going on from this in the last two day’s I purchased Reaper, what an amazing program, the plugins pass anything I have and with the addition of a couple of Stillwell plugins I have a great mastering solution. The price of these is very reasonable and with a top sound. I engineer a good mix normally but the addition of great tools can produce magic regardless of the price factor. Over my years of agonizing over what gear to purchase lead me to only buy when folk talked about the sound of the gear and backed it up. Ever heard a hardware Neve, the portico sound showed me what joy and foot tapping was.
    Always learning
    Best
    Pounamu

  16. Ever heard a hardware Neve, the portico sound showed me what joy and foot tapping was.

    I used a Portico at the Michael Wagener Workshop a few years ago. It was okay, but I can’t say that I was overly excited by it. It just sound “okay” to me.

    To each his own. I’m glad you are digging it.

  17. Yo Brandon,
    I hear what you are saying, like or not to like, preferences of sound etc. I will make the comment though, that it is not the price of something that makes it great. There are some folk out there at this time that have product for sale at most reasonable prices, that think of the common man (I am included), and very nice their products are. Truly though, the chain of equipment shouldn’t have a weak link. I may have referred to this in another comment however I will place it again. I purchased a TC Reverb 4000 a number of years ago and until I got my audio interface Black Lion Audio re-clocked etc, I never once heard it’s pedigree! I do now and it is sweet.

    Best
    Pounamu

  18. its frustrating, a few days ago i went to an pro studio to offer my project studio as a guitar production studio but they asket for apogee rosetta or bigger, logic or pro tools support, 196 resolution and speciphical mics.

    they asked for the gear chart of my studio and i give it to them and they didnt want to hear anything…

    so the question is this….

    whats most important (yes all is important) but whats the most critical betweeen the critical?

    Conversion AD?
    Resolution?
    Capture?
    Mics?
    Gear ?
    Amps?
    Guitars?

    i share my gear list to hear opinions in my case to give you the complete picture.

    I have to improve something to be updated? thats not the answer and the pro studios only doesnt want anything that they can make for their own? bad idea to be only a guitar producer?

    HP Pavilion Desktop
    Alesis Prolinear 820 monitors
    Motu 828 mk 2 (96 res)
    couple Presonus TUBEPre preamps
    Joemeek Twin Q preamp
    BBE Maximizer 482i
    Behringer Ultragain Prodigital AD DA Converter
    Oxigen M audio k board
    Roland Secuencer k board
    Cubase 4 (original software not crack)
    Reason 4 (original software not crack)
    POD X3 Line 6
    Mesa triple rectifier Stack
    Marshall 2555sl Stack
    Orange, fender and another tube amps
    More guitars and pedals that i can effort

  19. Pounamu reply to guitarmaniac30,
    I can feel your passion Guitarmaniac. The thing to do though is to send them a wave CD of your work and let them have an un-interupted listen, if they choose to do so. Have it addressed with contact e-mail and your personal address so if they want your talents they can get back to you with little fuss.
    I’m sure if your playing, style and potential sound excite them for what they do they will be in touch! If they don’t, well take it on the chin and look further.
    As for what gear you use, if you worked for them you would most probably end up using their recording gear so yours becomes immaterial regardless of what you have or don’t have.
    What do you think Guitarmaniac? Am I a long way of base. Give these folks space, there are millions of guitar players out there including me, they are busy people so try to slide in with sensitivity. Keep going.

    Hope this helps somewhat.
    Best
    Pounamu

  20. yeah one of my friends play in a band – Digamy ( http://www.myspace.com/digamytheband ) and they recorded their album with some cheap equipment and i couldn’t believe it was done in their rehearsal room. i guess it’s how well you know eq’ing the instruments. they used an old p4 laptop with windows xp cubase le 3 and an edirol soundcard with a samson compressor and samson mixer. mics where the usual sm57 and vocals joemeek and studio projects. i think the also used a few samson condecers on the drums. but that’s what they had and i think they made great use of it. also the songs are pretty good and that’s what it really about…

  21. i think deep down in our subconscious we realize that we haven’t got the best talent to write the best songs or produce the best recordings. but we can buy the best recording tools and then we feel like we’re in that league of the biggest and the best at least… hence the obsession with high end gear.

  22. Great songs and great tunes swing or move fast or slow. Capture the mood and four, four time becomes needless. Look back 20 years ago a lot of singers sang out of key but the music still grooved, today a new artist finds it hard to get noticed with bad vocals so we bring a machine in. I am long in the tooth but I realised a while ago that I blindly write music and play it because it absolutely gives me a natural high. No boundaries if your not looking for accolades, just sound silence and rhythm. Use what you want if you get what result you are looking for, you are there! I look for sweet gear because I like smooth, just personal preference.

    Best, and happy Christmas to you folk.
    Pounamu

  23. No boundaries if your not looking for accolades

    You just landed yourself on the Greates Quotes page!

    http://forum.recordingreview.com/f16/greatest-quotes-3945/