High-end gear

I just want to say something about high-end gear. I’ll try to keep it short.

Of course there’s a difference between high-end gear and low-budget gear. Of course music made with high-end gear generally sounds better than music made with low-end gear. There is an undeniable correlation. 

However, do not make the mistake of assuming correlation implies causality. 

That means… just because good-sounding music is made with high-end gear, it doesn’t mean high-end gear makes the music sound good. 

High-end gear only makes music sound good because the engineers choose and operate the high-end gear. Top engineers choose high-end gear because it helps them get the sound they want. There’s a point that I’m making in framing that statement – it’s the engineer that gets the sound, and they get it by using the gear. The sound comes from the engineer, not from the gear. 

Maybe it’d help if I put a slightly different perspective on this. Consider freeware plugins versus expensive payware. There’s no doubt that someone could mix some professional-quality (whatever that means) music using nothing but freeware. So why pay for any plugins at all? Try flipping the question – Why limit yourself to freeware? 

We choose gear not only on the sound it makes, but on other factors too. Ease of use, precision (and limitations) in controls, design and layout, compatibility, reliability, support and other factors. 

When you’re dabbling in a home studio, some of these factors are unimportant. We expect that if we use freeware we don’t have much choice in support or ease of use. If your time is cheap, you’re having fun, and you’re learning, you don’t mind much if it takes you ten seconds or two minutes to get the right EQ curve. You don’t mind much if you upgrade your DAW (or switch between Mac and PC) and have to go searching for new plugins because your old ones aren’t compatible anymore. You don’t see much difference between your comrpessor having fifteen knobs with ridiculous ranges (and millions of settings that sound bad), or five of the right knobs and a carefully-tuned set of algorithms that almost never sound bad. 

I’m not saying these factors go unnoticed, but that if you’re starting out they’re not important. On the other hand, if you’re charging by the hour, these factors are critical. They are make-or-break. A professional mix engineer could do a mix in your studio with your freeware plugins and still turn out a decent mix, but it’d take much longer, be much more painful, and would not be as close to the creative direction. 

Another example: My first real microphone was an SM57. I’d recommend it to anyone as a first mic. It’s also in every recording studio too. Trent Reznor recorded the louder vocals on The Fragile using an SM57. Bjork’s Vespertine was recorded using an SM58 in a hotel room. Sometimes, however, low-end gear is not the right tool for the job. I bought an LDC mic when I realised I needed more top-end clarity on my vocals than the 57 was giving me. Likewise, most studios have a mic cupboard with mics ranging from under a hundred dollars to several thousands of dollars. 

In the light of those two examples, I hope the following makes sense: 

High-end gear in studios is not about high-end for its own sake. It’s about not being limited to low-end gear. It’s about being able to choose the gear that helps YOU get YOUR sound. 

…of course, you need to be intimately familiar with YOUR sound, and how you want to get there (which is much harder than it sounds). If you’re not, there’s no difference between high-end gear and freeware. You still suck. 

One final analogy: A master concert pianist will choose an expensive grand piano to practice on, because the pianist can take advantage of the nuance and expression available on such an instrument. For the pianist, there is a world of difference between the right grand piano and a crappy school upright. The pianist lives entirely in a world where controlling the tiny nuances is the very thing that makes her a master concert pianist. 

A beginner, of course, will sound like a beginner no matter what piano he plays. 

-Kim.

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