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Skimping On Life To Buy Pointless High End Recording Gear

Brandon Drury —  April 5, 2012 — 1 Comment

Skimping-On-Life-To-Buy-Pointless-High-End-Recording-Gear

This article is going to tie in quite a bit with my Keep Brandon Out Of Jail – The IRS Desperation Sale  problem I’m dealing with. I’m going to talk about myself and my own trials and tribulations with cash, cheap gear, high end gear, and where the hell this has all taken me. This article may suck worse than usual. Fair warning. SMILEY

Looking Back….Garth Brooks Style

I’ve been doing my accounting and back taxes for the past nine days. Bla! One interesting thing about remembering back to February or September 2010 with extreme detail (trying to remember what I bought for $49.62 at Lowes 09/22/2001) is it stirs up some of the feelings I had at the time. By going through my statements I can almost read my frame of mind…like feeling like a kid again or something. It’s strange tapping into a mindset that you’d forgotten.

In May of 2010, Killer Home Recording launched. I went from a guy who lived on Ramon noodles to a guy who now eats grilled chicken. (“Movin’ on up” from The Jeffersons starts to play.) Getting out of the ghetto (I still live in the same crap hole of a house) didn’t immediately corrupt me. In June of 2010 I ordered a Yamaha MR816 to replace a malfunctioning audio interface I had limped through too many sessions with. The MR816 is a very, very good audio interface (see my review of the Yamaha MR816 here), but not the kind of thing you’d expect to see at Ocean Way. I sent it back due to issues with features not being available to me, but I’d imagine 99% of you would love it.

In June of 2010 I was using Behringer ADA8000s for my converters. It’s weird thinking that I was fairly content with this setup even with all those emotions that Behringer strikes up. It didn’t sound bad to me.

By July 2010, the bank statements say I snapped. I’m not sure if I was simply reading crazed right-wing propaganda or what, but I decided I wanted to make my version of Ocean Way on 1/zillionth the budget.

By December 2010 I was the owner of:

  • Toft ATB32 console (with massive patchbay system)
  • (2) Apogee DA-16x
  • Apogee AD-16x
  • Focusrite ISA428
  • API 3124
  • Wunder PaFour
  • Universal Audio La3a
  • UAD-2 Quad Omni
  • Neumann KM184

Then I went on a synth binge:

  • DSI Prophet 08
  • Roland JP8080
  • Access Virus Rack
  • Novation Bass Station

Keep in mind I had everything I needed to record a full live band and just about everything else before all this stuff. This stuff was just extra.

Fast forward to February of 2012

I found out that the wife had gotten herself pregnant. Oops! I immediately went on lockdown. I decided I wasn’t going to spend a damn dime on my recording adventures. Income across the site was down. I dumped $3k to promote the Slate Digital Cup in March hoping it would stir some activity and income and then in April, after all my investment in $s and hours, I lost money. (Those of you with real jobs probably can not relate to this. Put in overtime for 4 weeks straight. Get your paycheck. Open it. It says, “You owe us $600.” WHAT!!!)

May 2012 ended up quite a bit better but I have to admit I was wondering if this was the right path for me or not. I kept replaying that scene in Top Gun where Goose says, “Maybe we should become truck drivers. What was the name of that school? Truckmaster?”.

There is huge pressure on me to get the ol’ lady and I into a house we think a little guy could survive in. I’m not sure the present home would qualify (seriously), although watching a Louis and Clark documentary of how Sacajawea carried her newborn the entire way was actually relieving (also seriously). I realized it was time to grow up and FINALLY do my taxes from 2010 to get us into a child-safe house.

So I dug in, learned how to do accounting, read more circular logic within the IRS website than you can find at a Nascar race, and found out that I owed WAY more than I had in my bank account. Since the month before actually lost money, even the idea of monthly payments to Uncle Sam seemed like I was walking on shaky ground….don’t tell my loan officer that!

Really, this situation reminds me of that part in Apollo 13 where whoever says, “We are screwed! We are screwed! We are screwed!”. Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) stands up and says, “Listen you pussies. I feel this is about to be our finest hour!” (BTW, Gene Krantz’s book is badass!)

So based on my current situation where the IRS is demanding, that little creature/germ growing in the ol’ lady’s belly is demanding, the wife has always been a little demanding, etc where does an API 3124 fit into the picture?

Where Does An API 3124 Fit?

We can talk all day long about mic preamps this and mic preamps that. I can’t explain why volume knob talk is fun but it is. I’m as guilty as anyone. In a vacuum where nothing else matters but harmonic content or slew rates, this stuff is fun. It makes a lot of sense in the fantasy land of our kick-butt recording forum we have here to NOT factor in utility bills, health insurance, etc when playing with our old-man versions of GI Joe.

The Disappointment With High End Gear
When we walk out of our control rooms and reality smacks us in the face, the lack-of-difference difference between API, Wunder, Manley, and Focusrite is downright insulting, really, compared to the implications we consume in magazines, the web, etc. Hell, maybe even the difference between API and Mackie preamps is insulting. I haven’t decided that, yet.

By doing ZERO accounting, ZERO taxes, and living in a paid for “house” that’s probably worth about what my console is worth (I’m not joking) I had made my reality artificially easy. So, yeah, API, Moog, and Neumann all sound like great ways of spending my money and time.

Now that my time has ran out and I’ve got to settle all of these old debts, to be honest, I’m not remotely impressed by what the high end gear has done for me. Let me clarify.

There are certain sonic benefits that a Wunder preamp will give you over a Presonus Firestudio audio interface preamp. Oh good! A solution to our problems. You open that door, crawl 2” and then another door slaps you right in the head. You can only run with these preamp benefits so far until you run into new issues. They aren’t a one way ticket to the promised land of mega recordings. I’m not even sure they are a factor, necessarily.

This persistent obsession with nailing ultra-mega quality in my recordings doesn’t appear to be any easier with the $50,000 in tools I’ve bought since 2010. I have bands I tracked before I had all this crap. They turned out pretty good. (Not my dream sound, but pretty good.) The recordings done since I’ve gotten this crap have turned out pretty good. Again, not my dream sound. WTF! WHAT….DID….I…..BUY!!!! If Brandon sounds the same with X tools or X tools+$50,000, what did that $50k buy me? A cool looking control room? BLAAAAAAAA!!!

Moog Voyager vs The Plugins

Last week, I was doing my Tuesday Jetface synth pop gig. I found a bass sound I was in love with using the Moog Voyager RME (I paid $1800 for it.). I was excited. It was actually a breakthrough on the Moog for me. I thought I had found “it” after a year of ownership.

Minivanz from Jetface said, “Let’s see how close we can get with Syleenth in 60 seconds.” (Minivanz has gotten pretty handy with creating synth sounds.) Anyway, he pushed his buttons and played with filters. We A/B’d the two. There was absolutely ZERO reason to pick one over the other in terms of sonics from my vantage point. ZERO. From a creative standpoint, either synth is prime time for this bass sound we were going for. One costs a crap ton, requires patchbays, cables, console channels (in my case), and lets us only use one sound at a time.

The implication when you buy a Moog Voyager is it has “automatic magic” in it. If you tell a synth guy that you own a Moog Voyager he’ll impersonate Randy from South Park and say, “Nicccccccce”. Most of us so inclined have used virtual instrument synths. They work.

Note: I’m showing my hesitation in claiming any MAGIC in them because, again, deep down we all know that “real” and “analog” synths sound better….right?:confused:

Guess what. Not necessarily. In the context of real music production, The Moog Voyager works. It ain’t magical. It has a sound and that sound usually works. That’s it. That sounds like an insult to good ol’ Bob Moog. It’s not. (Maybe a compliment to the Sylenth guys.) It’s not a whole lot different than the $800 guitar dilemma.

The $800 Guitar Dilemma

In 1996 when I started playing guitar, a $500 guitar sucked. Some of them sucked BAD. Epiphone sucked. Cheap Jackson guitars sucks. Cheap Ibanez guitars sucked. Something happened and in the early 2000s Rondo Music started selling SX and Agile guitars for $200-300 that didn’t suck. Nowadays all kinds of guitars don’t suck. There are probably a few pretty awesome guitars for pennies on the 1996 dollar.

We had a forum thread around here and it was asked why a person should spend any more for an $800 guitar. Since I’ve played $800 guitars that I feel are PRIME TIME (My main axe is a 1991 PRS Custom 24) I had to scratch my head. I can’t think of a reason in 2012 to ever need a guitar that costs more than $800.

This Skrillex Issue

Regardless of what you think of Skrillex’s music, the odds are strong that if you were paid $10k to deliver a dubstep-like noise for a deodorant commercial, you’d say, “Damn, what am I doing wrong?” (There are the old-timers in electronic music that give the “Dark Side Of The Moon Argument” and always insist something really old is “best”. To each his own.)

I heard a dumb rumor that I’m dumbly repeating that Skrillex is pulling in $100k a night. The other dumb rumor is that he does everything with Native Instruments Massive, FM8, and iZotope Ozone 5 all on a laptop using Beats headphones by that company I refuse to buy from.

I’ve been tinkering with electronic music since 2001 and had spurts here and there where I took it kinda sorts seriously, but by definition I approach it from a silly point of view. No one has ever bought any of the junk I’ve made. I do it for my own amusement and rarely even put it online. I’d guess many people are like me.

I wonder how many people would like to make $100k a night using $1,500 in audio gear and a lot of creativity. I wonder how many people work at Subway who would like to win a Grammy and indulge in whatever female companionship that includes. To my knowledge, I’m not aware of any other Grammy Winning artist who is doing it (supposedly) all by himself and doing it for less than I’ve spent on patchbays.

The Point: The tools are no hindrance to prime time success anymore.

This, if nothing else, is strong evidence that the sky is the limit for a creative person with a few tools that purists wrinkle their nose at.

The Impulse Problem
Recently, I downloaded the Lexicon PCM90 impulses. I compared them to the real thing which I bought in Jan 2012. I A/B’d them and vastly preferred the real hardware. This was a red flag. I setup some A/B tests that I could conduct myself blind. Oops. I couldn’t figure out which was which.

Impulses have made hardware reverb boxes obsolete (at least if you don’t need to tweak the presets). This is just another example of the need for $5,000 in hardware (not to mention cabling and such) being mostly replaced by some 1s and 0s.

The Great Exception
The one thing that screws everyone up in home recording land is that some gear simply solves problems. Some gear has a sound that fixes stuff without sounding like it fixed stuff. EQ often sounds like someone duct taped a problem.

I loved that $200 ADK S51 mk2. I remixed a song I tracked with it on lead vocals the other day. No EQ needed. I like what I got. I liked what I got better than a whole lot of mics I’ve paid 5x as much for. It was a little bright, but the Distressor took care of that. I knew going in the one thing about the mic I wasn’t in love with could be shifted in the right direction with the Distressor. The Distressor is a high end tool, but I used it in that case, not because it is “high end” or “great”, but because I knew it had a solution to my problem.

If I didn’t have the Distressor, I maybe could have done it with UAD Fatso Jr. I hate to just list expensive stuff, but that’s all I seem to have anymore. BLA! I’ve got a feeling there is a free solution out there in freebie VST land, too. At least there should be.

Just this week I noticed this same problem only different. I’m trying out the new ADK Thor and AKD Odin mics. (By far, the best bang for buck in recording land that I’ve encountered!) I used them as overheads and didn’t knock any top off (a great feature on these mics is their switches that change the character of the mic). I was used to my $2,000 pair of Gefell M930s which are very smooth…maybe even a little dark. My normal work flow is to use the UAD Studer A800 “drum buss” preset to brighten up the drums as a whole. With the ADK mics in flat mode, the extra top end was too much with this preset. I got around it by routing my close mics to a “Close Mic Buss” where I applied the UAD Studer A800 and then routing that buss to my “drums buss” where it combined with the overheads effectively letting the overheads bypass the brightening effect.

In other words, the ADK mics were absolutely fine on overheads. No issues at all. I just couldn’t treat them the same way I treat my Gefell tracks. Which is better? Neither. It’s a non issue, but it’s the kind of thing where a person may rob a liquor store or not pay his tax bill to get the Gefells thinking it’s worth the risk. It ain’t!

Conclusion

– I’m not hearing an obvious difference in recordings I made before and after my enormous investments in high end gear speaking collectively.

– Different tools require different solutions and these solutions are often the main reason why X high end gear and Y high end gear gets pushed so hard. There’s almost always another way to skin that cat.

– If the sky is the limit when using relatively inexpensive tools like $200-$800 guitars and $200 synth plugins, what do we gain from the old school, expensive tools? How much should we sacrifice to use these old school tools?

– The pressures of real life (dental plans and uninsured motorists) make the financial question a priority to everyone I know.

– It’s time to hold every gear purchase accountable for its $$$. We can all think of fun tools that cost $2,000. When would a $1,000 tool be half as fun? When would two $1,000 tools not smoke one $2,000 tool? In a world where digital options hold water, hardware had better do something SPECIAL.

–If I could do it all over again, I’m positive I could do it for WAY less the price, make the wife/kid happy, afford the real house, and my recordings sound just as good/bad as they do now. More importantly, I wouldn’t be dealing with the IRS and I wouldn’t be nearly as stressed out as I am right now. What’s that worth? I could focus on a smaller quantity of tools I’d have at my disposal and therefore I’d be better at using them.

Regardless of how good an API is, it is not worth missing your estimated tax payments, your kid’s soccer game, or skipping health insurance. If you can’t afford all the necessities first, save for a year, and then buy your outlandish toy.;)

Brandon

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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One response to Skimping On Life To Buy Pointless High End Recording Gear

  1. I really enjoyed this article, it not only was mentioned in a funny way, it had an honesty that left me feeling fried. Now when I have GAS, instead of recording and improving my skills and having fun….I think of this article and realize maybe practice will make my closet recordings sound better than seeking a PreAmp to fix me, or an A/D converter to fix my crap recordings….maybe we just need empty boxes sometimes to plug into and then can imagine the empty box will help improve my skills and room acoustics. I could start a company called Vintage Boxes and make empty boxes with vybe of the vintage classics used in pro studios….all one needs is the box and a dream. maybe some reefer would help too…

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