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WHY GEAR ISN'T THAT IMPORTANT (AND HOW THAT HELPS YOU)

December 1, 2017

We all like our toys. At Western Audio, we are lucky enough to have a wonderful range of different mics, amps and instruments. But today I want to let you in on a bit of a secret:

 

It doesn't matter as much as you might think. 

 

Now don't get me wrong - I know that a £2000 Neumann is going to perform better than a more affordable mic. The same logic tells us that a Neve 1073 preamp is going to beat the preamps in your audio interface. 

It's just that the difference in performance is of far less importance in getting a great sound than certain forums and personalities would admit. 

 

I'll break down why. I'm going to list the key elements in getting a AAA sound recording, in order of importance:

 

  1. Performance

  2. Room

  3. Source

  4. Method of capture

  5. Microphone

  6. Preamp and processing

  7. Recording medium

 

Notice that the recording engineer's equipment doesn't feature until number five! Let's look at why. 

 

 

1. PERFORMANCE

 

If you get one thing right, it's this. No matter how glorious it sounds, a bad performance will never elicit a response from the listener. 

I tested this when I used to teach recording techniques. I played two recordings of the same acoustic song; one with a great vocal, solid in-tune guitar and recorded with one cheap mic in a bedroom. The other was a studio recording, with big name equipment, but the performance was a little pitchy and the timing was off. It wasn't awful; it just wasn't GREAT. 

I asked the students (this was their first day) to choose which one was more professional. They ALL chose the bedroom one. 

Performance is everything, folks. Consumers are buying a SONG, not a sound. 

 

2. ROOM

 

I'm not saying you need to be in Abbey Road to get a great sound (wouldn't hurt, though!). You need the right room for the job. 

Very rarely is this an untreated bedroom. Sorry. Get some acoustic treatment, home recordists! But a small space is absolutely fine for vocals, acoustic recordings and most electronic productions. But these are all sources that we tend to mic closely, and prefer a dry and close sound. 

If we want a huge, explosive drum sound, then we need to put the kit in a room that helps this. I've experienced this first hand. I was recording a great band, who needed a powerful, spacious drum sound. The studio I worked in at the time had a very dry, 1970s vibe. It wasn't working. So we ended up moving the kit to a swimming pool! Same drums, same mics. Different room. 

Here at Western Audio we have a room that can do both. Choosing a studio that is versatile will really help you. 

 

 

3. SOURCE

 

Now we have a great performance in the right room, we can afford to get a little gear oriented. Yay! Again though, the important things aren't quite what you may think. 

Foremost, are you using the right guitar/keyboard/amp etc for the intended sound? (Notice I didn't say best.) If you want a chunky sound for guitar, you'll get there quicker with a humbucker-equipped guitar. It matters much less which brand or model, than which type of instrument. 

Eliminate unwanted noise. Make sure the instrument is in good condition! This includes singers. Make sure they are warmed up, well hydrated and comfortable. 

 

4. METHOD OF CAPTURE

 

This is really important, and REALLY simple. If you want a roomy, ambient sound, move the mic away from the source! If you want a realistic, 3D acoustic guitar, use a stereo miking technique. If you want your source to sound like a particular genre or era in history, look at how those sounds were captured and try to emulate (example: check out my video about getting a 60s drum sound). This is more important than....

 

5. MICROPHONE

 

Use the best type of microphone for the sound that you hear in your head. The difference in tone between a dynamic, ribbon or condenser mic is much more important than the difference between which model of condenser (for example) to use. There are plenty of posts out there that'll cover this in detail, and if you're reading this then I'm sure you know the difference. Simple - most suitable mic, positioned correctly. 

 

6. PREAMP AND PROCESSING

 

If you're lucky enough to have a range of preamps, compressors etc, then great! Get to know them really well on multiple sources. You'll find certain preamps work great on some things and less well on others. For example, I love API 312s on guitars, but they lack bass for kick drums. But it's a SMALL difference, hence being second to last on the list. 

 

7. RECORDING MEDIUM

 

Don't get me started. It doesn't matter! Tape or computer. Logic or Pro Tools. 44.1 or 96k. I anticipate a lot of hate for this, but:

 

RECORD BUYERS DONT KNOW AND DONT CARE. 

 

If you get the chance to work to tape, try it! It brings a totally different mindset to a session. One that I apply to digital recordings. And yes, tape has a 'sound', but if you want saturation and colour in your recording then there are so many other ways higher up this list that will get you there, and that's before mixing. 

So, just choose a medium that works for you (I use Logic X at 24/48 and it's not stopped my records selling) and focus on the important stuff. 

 

So there it is. If you're a recordist then I hope that this helps with decision making in the studio. And if you're a musician, then look how important YOU are in getting a sound!

 

Let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks for reading!

 

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