10 BUYING TIPS FOR INSTRUMENTS & PRO AUDIO GEAR
1. Take your time and think about it. The decisions you make on the spur of the moment will be the ones that come back to haunt you. The musical instruments and audio equipment you purchase today will be with you for many years to come, after all. The more time you devote to researching the various options, the more likely it is that you will be satisfied with the decisions you make in the end. It’s amazing how many people make large purchases on the spur of the moment, convinced they require a specific piece of equipment but not knowing enough about it to realize that it will not perform as they anticipate. Investing the necessary time and effort into major audio equipment decisions will save you a great deal of heartache in the long run.
2. Recognize your true requirements. There is no such thing as a piece of equipment that fits all. It is unlikely that you will require a 24-track recording interface if you are a singer/songwriter who wishes to record your next project at your home studio. If, on the other hand, you plan to supplement your income by recording demos for local bands, you’ll quickly outgrow even the most expensive 8-channel interface available today. Is your computer capable of running the software you’d like to run on it? Is that amplifier going to provide you with the range of tones that your music and potential customers require? Will a stable keyboard workstation or a flexible virtual instrument rig provide you with greater satisfaction? If you can identify your current and future requirements before you begin looking for equipment, you will be significantly ahead of the game.
3. Select the most appropriate tool for the job. Now that you’ve determined your requirements, it’s time to determine the specific type of equipment that will be required. Consider the following scenario: you want to improve the quality of your recorded vocals. After doing some research, you come to the conclusion that you require a compressor. But what kind of compressor are we talking about? High-end models with controls for every parameter are available, as are straightforward models with a single knob, and everything in between is available. The only way to be certain that you are purchasing the appropriate equipment is to thoroughly research all of your options. Sweetwater’s Buying Guides are an excellent place to begin your search.
4. Technical specifications do not tell the whole story. Despite the fact that manufacturers of musical instruments and accessories are fond of touting impressive-looking specifications, it is your responsibility to separate the benefits from the fluff. Although they are vastly different instruments, the majority of people (including non-guitarists) intuitively understand that both a $99 Strat knockoff and a $1,500 Fender Custom Shop model can be described as a “alder-body electric guitar with three single-coil pickups.” When it comes to studio equipment, the same concept holds true, but the technical nature of the specifications can be misleading. For example, even if a low-cost audio interface boasts a 24-bit/192kHz sample rate and a frequency response ranging from 10Hz to 30kHz, that doesn’t guarantee that it will sound good. Do not rely on specifications to tell you everything you need to know; instead, rely on your ears and credible audio professionals to guide you.
5. Don’t spend all of your money on a single piece of equipment. In the world of professional audio and studio equipment, it is easy to become obsessed with a single piece of equipment. Perhaps you’ve read somewhere that a well-known engineer swears by a particular preamp or compressor in particular. However, no single piece of equipment can guarantee high-quality sound or excellent recording results. Every component in your signal path, from the instrument you play to each and every component in your signal path, influences the way your sound is produced. An all-around “good” system, rather than a mediocre system with one or two high-end components, is preferable in most cases, as a general rule.
6. You get what you pay for in most cases. It is expensive to purchase professional audio equipment for the same reason that your grandmother’s refrigerator has been running for 50 years. In order to manufacture studio-grade equipment, each component must be meticulously constructed from high-quality materials and built to extremely tight tolerances. These components have been designed to provide consistent performance over a long period of time. When you purchase professional-quality equipment, you are not only getting better sound, but you are also getting equipment that will typically last five times longer than budget-friendly options. It’s as simple as this: invest now for better results later on, and save in the long run.
7. Begin by looking at your system from the outside in. It is always preferable to start at the ends of a system and work your way in, as this will result in the most noticeable improvements. From your instrument or microphone to your studio monitors, your recording system is comprised of several components. These are the elements of your setup that are the most important. However, even if your system is comprised of excellent preamplifiers, processors, plug-ins, and other critical components, you will be disappointed with the results if your instrument sounds bad or if your recordings are not accurately reproduced by your listening system.
8. Invest in a good set of studio monitors. One of the most common mistakes that people who are just starting out in recording make is to use high-fidelity speakers as monitors. Hi-fi speakers improve the sound quality of music by boosting the low and high frequencies. As a result, when mixing with high-fidelity speakers, the midrange will be overemphasized by default. Because of this, any other system that plays your mixes will find them to be unappealing. Studio monitors, on the other hand, have a frequency response that is nearly flat. It is essential to have a good pair of studio monitors in order to hear your music accurately. This will allow you to create mixes that will sound good no matter where they are played. Consider purchasing a good pair of studio monitors and some basic acoustical treatment before you begin working on your project in earnest. While delaying other purchases may be necessary, the time you spend using your monitors to rediscover your favorite albums will have a significant impact on the music you create in the long run. (This holds true for both headphones and speakers.) If you want accurate mixes, you should use flat response headphones, rather than consumer-oriented hi-fi headphones that will boost bass and mess with the accuracy of your mixes.)
9. Invest in high-quality cables. Cables are treated as an afterthought by far too many people. To put it bluntly, the quality of your cables has a significant impact on the overall sound quality of your system. Metal connectors and adequate shielding protect your signal from radio and electromagnetic interference, which is present in poor quality cables. Even a single faulty cable has the potential to degrade the sound quality of your entire setup. If you spend a lot of money on high-quality equipment and then connect it with low-cost cables, it’s like putting bargain-basement tires on your brand new Ferrari.
10. Seek the advice of a qualified expert. No amount of research, education, or word-of-mouth advice can ever compare to the value of first-hand knowledge. Consider speaking with an actual audio professional before you make a purchasing decision.
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