Avoid The Absolute

again, we have a picture that is not related to this post at all. Just my son having a staredown with one of our dogs. enjoy!

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase, “If you’re recording ‘source X’ you absolutely have to have ‘product Y’.” I remember an engineer telling me once that I’d never be able to get great vocal recordings on my own until I owned a U87. He seemed so confident, and so knowledgeable that I just assumed he was correct. I was also very young and naive back then. Here I am, many years later, and I’ve yet to own a U87. In my opinion anyway, I think I’ve made some pretty great sounding recordings over the years, and I’ve learned that the mic was WAY less important than the talent of the vocalist. Granted, I have used U87′s many times, but he said I had to OWN one. Score one for the good guys. :)


If you go on forums, or even join in a friendly chat about gear, you’ll hear people recording specific genres, or specific sources, claiming that you have to have that one specific piece of gear in order to complete your sound. U87′s and 1073′s are probably the most common examples of this but the list is much longer than that. So many people out there are convinced that there is that one illusive piece of equipment that will bring all things together, align the planets, save their soul, and make their mix perfect. Maybe it’s an 1176, or an LA-2A strapped across your mix buss. Maybe a vintage Neve or SSL desk to run everything through. Perhaps you need the perfect converters, piggy backing off of a clock that can rip a whole in the space time continuum. Or maybe that vocal track will finally sit in the mix, but still be present and clear, if you just grab that one last mic that you don’t own. There are so many “holy grail” brands out there that we get our eyes stuck on. We get tunnel vision, drooling over that one piece of gear for so long, that we sometimes don’t stop to ask ourselves along the way, “Do I still NEED this?”

The truth of the matter is that the person makes the sound, not the equipment. That person may be an amazing musician who has the performance of a lifetime in the studio on the right day. It could be an engineer who plays with mic placement just long enough to reach euphoria. Maybe it’s the mix engineer who just knows how to use the tools he’s been given to get the sound that’s trapped in his head. Great gear definitely helps make the job easier but it doesn’t turn the job into a “set it and forget it” experience. I’ll use my favorite analogy (I believe stolen from someone more clever than me, but I don’t remember), the Amish house builder. The Amish (which there happen to be a lot of around where I live) are still building houses and barns with all of the old-school tools of their forefathers. No power tools, or air-compressors lying about. Just old fashioned hand tools, many of which make no sense to me, and their houses are turning out just as stable, sometimes more so, than the houses built by some of the bigger contractors in this town.

Sure, if you gave the Amish a power nailer they would probably finish twice as fast and have a product that is just as good, but they don’t need it. They know how to put their tools to use, and achieve the needed results. The same goes for gear. Good gear is simply a tool, and the better the tool the quicker you can finish the job. A great mic is going to be easier to get a great sound out of (for the most part)
, whereas a cheaper mic will take a bit more massaging to sound good. That may mean having to play around with placement more, or having to tweak the pre a bit more, or doing some creative eq’ing. In the end, if you’re a decent engineer, you will find a way to make it sound good. Your house will get built.

Don’t take this as me devaluing the importance of quality equipment, I’m not. Great gear is great gear, and it certainly has it’s place. I’ve tracked plenty of projects without using a single mic that cost more than $500, and I was able to turn out a good result. I’ve also worked on projects where we were throwing up every expensive, vintage, and esoteric piece of gear we could find and we were able to turn out a good result. Again, the difference was in how easy it was to get from point A to point B. Having access to a truckload of gear let’s you choose the gear that sounds best for that source, rather than eq’ing and tweaking a track for hours to try to get it to sound right for the source.

The moral of the story is don’t get yourself stuck on that one piece of gear that will “make” your sound. It’s all about experimentation and finding what works best for you. If that’s a $100 dynamic on lead vocals then do it, and don’t apologize for it. If it’s a $50 preamp as a bass DI, more power to you. If it’s a $3000 vocal mic into a $4000 preamp, then buy it, love it, and don’t give it a second thought. It’s really easy to get caught up in the cycle of “What do I need next?” Always make sure you’re asking yourself one question, “What is it I’m trying to accomplish, and how will this help me?” Maybe in addition you can ask, “Is there any way to accomplish that with what I currently have?” You could live a long and happy life never having touched Neve, Neumann, SSL, API, or any of the other Holy Grails out there. You could also live a long and happy life having touched, or owned, all of them. Just make sure you didn’t own them, just to own them.

I’m curious…what pieces of gear have you been told that you have to have? Did you eventually get it, or them? Did it make all the difference? Leave it in the comments below.

Until Next Time
The Bearded Man

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~ by beardsandgear on September 20, 2011.

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