Listen Before Spending

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!

As I write this, there’s a Neumann U67 tube condenser mic available online for a mere $16,000.  Obviously I want that, never mind that 16k is the highest yearly income I had over the first 10 years of my career.  There’s also a Telefunken Elektroakustik Elam 251 on sale on another site for $11,995.00!  Clearly these are must haves, right?!  Price equals performance, does it not?

Well…let me say this:  yes.  It often does.  But let’s assume for a moment that 16 THOUSAND dollars, or even 5 or 3 is a bit of a stretch in your budget.  I think that may be a safe bet.  You could take out a loan, do a lot of saving, sell off drums, guitars or kids, but…wait.  Do you need to?

Maybe not.  Even if a particular product is incredibly expensive, and even if that actually means it’s really really good, does that mean you NEED it?  It is so easy in recording (and life) to get caught up in the idea that you must spend a certain amount to get great results, but in reality, getting great results is about spending another precious resource:  time.

To really get great results, I was once told by a mentor, is really a matter of a “relentless pursuit of perfection” (he said this while making me re-roll a sleeping bag that lived in the studio).  That means spending the requisite amount of time getting things right, even before you hit the studio.  It means time spent practicing, time spent writing, time spent researching, and time spent listening.  Getting great results is a matter of effort, knowledge and that “relentless pursuit” more than it’s about gear.  Of course it’s also about gear, and the wrong gear won’t help matters, but even an expensive purchase could be the wrong one.  Finding the right gear means spending the requisite time researching, testing and listening before buying.  This means if you’re a vocalist, do some work finding out which mics work for your voice.  If you’re a guitarist, play possible guitars and test possible amps.  If you’re an engineer miking up a drum kit, test and tune the drums and the room, do some reading, and above all, give a listen to different mics and placements.  So on and so forth.

As you spend the time to really hone in on your sound, you’ll start to see very clearly what gear you need to achieve results, and you’ll be better able to focus your spending.  Even if you do have unlimited funding, knowing what actually works FOR YOU can save you tons of trouble and time.  If you’re new to the game and need direction, that’s what Recording Magazine is for!

There ARE people who have racks full of every piece of gear known to man, but unless you know right where to go, you can spend hours upon hours hunting through possible sounds, which can be frustrating (believe me!).  Even if your “rack” is tons of plugins, this is true.  I, for example, return to a relatively few plugins over and over, even though there are hundreds in my system.  Having options is nice, but there’s a point at which too much is – well – too much!  Plugins which I know will work and I have an intimate knowledge of have far more value to me, regardless of their price tag.

You may even find that a cheaper solution is actually better for you than a more expensive one.  This has happened several times for me.  When I bought my stage and studio keyboard, the choice was down to a couple.  One had more bells and whistles and cost more, and one had fewer “features” and cost less.  I could have gone either way, but I knew those “features” would distract me, and the action on the cheaper rig suited me way better.  I saved a few hundred dollars, and ended up happier with the purchase than I would have been.

Of course you won’t ALWAYS find that cheaper is better.  In fact, usually (believe it or not), prices are pretty justified.  But what you WILL find is that the PERFECT fit for a particular application is NOT always the most expensive  thing out there.  Another example:  I wouldn’t throw that U67 up as a close mic on every single tom and snare in the room (although now I wish I could try it!).  In the end, your craft is your craft, separate from your toolbox, and part of your craft is expert choosing of tools.

And just in case you think maybe all the gear manufacturers will have my head for this, let me suggest that manufacturers are much better off with happy customers, so if you’re feeling love for gear makers and want to support them, I still say, do so by buying what you really need.  Heck, you may even find that by absolutely adoring your gear, you create relationships with companies that could be very beneficial!

So instead of throwing money at every problem, do your homework, do your listening, and I think you’ll find your results are better and your wallet is happier.

I’m a producer, vocalist, pianist, writer and miserly spender.  Look for me on Twitter or Facebook at @AaronJTrumm.

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