Do You Need That Upgrade?

This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

Black Friday will be upon us soon and you’ll be inundated with discount offers tempting you to buy while you can. But unless you’re filthy rich, “discounts” can break the bank. In fact, it may be the number one way to stay poor: spend money you wouldn’t otherwise spend on something you don’t need, simply because it’s less than it might have been.

Still, when it comes to your studio and your creative output, there are times when you need to make purchases. Around the holidays is a great time to make upgrades, not only because of sales, but because at end of the year you’ll have some idea how much room you have for tax deductions.

Generally, it’s wiser fiscally to respond to a need (or a want!) and see if you can get a great deal than to react to an offer – unless you’ve been patiently waiting for exactly that offer. But that doesn’t mean offers won’t come your way, so there are a few questions you can ask when one hits your inbox:

  • Have I been waiting for this exact thing?
  • Is there a quality issue in my studio that this would solve?
  • Is there a productivity issue in my studio that this would solve?
  • Is there something I can’t do at all without this (eg: recording vocals with zero microphones)?
  • Do I already have this functionality?
  • Is something broken that this would replace?
  • Have I exhausted the possibilities with my current gear?
  • Am I excited about this?

The first six questions here come down to practicality. You can solve many problems with resourcefulness and handywork. There’s a lot of creativity in that, but sometimes you’d rather apply your creative energy to music, so it’s perfectly alright to solve these problems with money. But you can save a lot of money, time, and space by asking these practical questions before buying. If the answer is “no but so and so says I need it”, back away slowly.

The last two questions deal with creativity.

The first – “have I exhausted the possibilities with my current gear?” means a lot. Most of us don’t read the entire manual when we start using a new gadget. We just jump in and make it make noise and as we go we get really good with certain aspects and neglect others.

This is fine – there’s no reason to use audio snap if you only use MIDI. But the downside is you may have missed something a piece of gear or software can do that you’re about to buy a whole other thing for. Your existing gear may even do it better!

Not only that, you may find that exploring an undiscovered function could lead to a bunch of ideas. Why NOT record audio and see what audio snap does? Why not explore the omnidirectional setting on your condenser? What happens if you use the sequencer on this vintage synth instead of the DAW?

It’s worth it to really get to know the ins and outs of your current rig before you add to it. You might discover that you don’t need something you thought you needed, or you may discover a different new purchase that would suit you better.

That leads into that last question – which other than pure practicality may be the only real reason to buy something new. Inspiration! Sometimes you just need a fresh something to jazz your juice! There’s nothing better than diving into a new toy – maybe a hot new analog synth or some insane, revolutionary plugin that does something heretofore not done in sound.

There’s definitely nothing wrong with that. After all, you may be a musician at heart but if you’re reading this, you’re also a recordist at heart and that’s all about playing with toys.

So, ask yourself “does this excite me?”. Believe it or not the answer is often no. As Derek Sivers, famed founder of CD Baby, has said many times, “hell yes or no!”.

At the end of the day there are a million things that everybody says you need lest you not be good enough and you almost feel obligated to buy just to keep up with the times. This is financially prohibitive. Instead, you can maintain the health of your studio with practical purchases and leave just enough room for those new toys that will cream your corn and make you make a new masterpiece.

This is the way of the wise upgrader.

I’m a producer/artist who stays just behind the cutting edge, stays efficient, and thus can afford healthy food. Ask me about it on Facebook @AaronJTrumm or Instagram @AaronJTrumm

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