Buying the right music equipment can be a difficult and stressful process. Most of us have spent countless hours agonizing over gear decisions, and the mistakes we make are frustrating at best and painful at worst. Here are 10 useful tips to help you avoid common gear-buying pitfalls and make the most of your budget.
1. Take your time. The hasty decisions you make are the ones that will come back to haunt you. After all, the musical instruments and audio gear you buy today will be with you for years to come. The more time you spend researching the available options, the more likely you’ll be happy with the decisions you make. It’s incredible how many people make major purchases on impulse, convinced they need a specific piece of gear without knowing enough about it to realize it won’t do what they expect it to. Taking your time and doing your homework on major audio equipment decisions will save you a lot of grief.
2. Know your real needs. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all gear. If you’re a singer/songwriter hoping to record your next project at home, you probably don’t need a 24-track recording interface. However, if you’re hoping to subsidize your income by recording demos for local bands, then you’ll quickly outgrow even the nicest 8-channel interface. Can your computer really handle the software you’d like to run? Will that amp provide you with the range of tone your music and potential clients demand? Will you be happier with a stable keyboard workstation or a flexible virtual instrument rig? If you can identify your present and future needs before you start looking at gear, you’ll be far ahead of the game.
3. Get the right tool for the job. Now that you’ve established your needs, it’s time to figure out the specific type of gear that will get the job done. For example, let’s say you want to improve your recorded vocals. After a little research, you decide you need a compressor. But what kind of compressor? There are highly sophisticated models that have controls for every parameter, simple one-knob models, and everything in between. The only way to be certain you’re buying the right gear is to learn all about the available options. Sweetwater’s Buying Guides are a great place to start.
4. Specs don’t tell the whole story. Music equipment manufacturers love to tout impressive-looking specs, putting the burden on you to sort out the benefits from the fluff. Most people (even non-guitarists) intuitively understand that both a $99 Strat knockoff and a Fender Custom Shop model can be described as an "alder-body electric guitar with three single-coil pickups," even though they are completely different instruments. The same concept applies to studio equipment, but the technical nature of those specs can be misleading. For instance, even a cheap audio interface may boast a 24-bit/192kHz sample rate and a 10Hz–30kHz frequency response, but that doesn’t mean it will sound good. Trust your ears, trust credible audio professionals, but don’t trust the specs to tell you everything you need to know.
5. Don’t blow your budget on a single piece of gear. It’s easy to become fixated on a single piece of professional audio or studio equipment. Maybe you’ve read somewhere that a famous engineer swears by a particular preamp or compressor. But no one piece of gear alone will guarantee quality sound or excellent recordings. From the instrument you play to each and every component in your signal path, the way you get your sound depends on your entire system. As a general rule, it’s better to have an all-around "good" system than a mediocre system with one or two high-end components in it.
6. You get what you pay for. Professional audio gear is expensive for the same reason your grandmother’s refrigerator has been running for 50 years. Each individual component used to make studio-grade gear is painstakingly constructed from high-quality materials and built to extremely tight tolerances. These components are engineered to perform consistently over a long lifespan. When you buy professional-quality equipment, you don’t just get better sound; you get gear that will typically last five times longer than budget alternatives. Invest now, get better results, and save in the long run – it’s that simple.
7. Approach your system from the outside In. The best way to make the most noticeable improvements to your system is to begin at the ends and work your way in. Your recording system starts with your instrument or microphone and ends with your studio monitors. These are the most critical parts of your setup. You can have great preamps, processors, plug-ins, and other essential parts of your system, but if your instrument sounds bad, or if you can’t accurately hear the music you’ve recorded, you probably won’t be happy with the results.
8. Invest in studio monitors. The most common mistake made by people new to recording is using hi-fi speakers as monitors. Hi-fi speakers enhance music by boosting low and high frequencies. Therefore, when you use hi-fi speakers to mix, you’ll naturally overemphasize the mids. This will cause the mixes you create to fall flat on any other system. Studio monitors, on the other hand, have a flat frequency response. A good pair of studio monitors will let you hear your music accurately, allowing you to make mixes that will sound right, no matter where you play them. Before you start recording in earnest, invest in a pair of quality studio monitors and some basic acoustical treatment. Even if this means putting off other purchases, the time you spend using your monitors to rediscover your favorite albums will have a profound effect on the music you create. (This is also true for headphones. Get flat response headphones and not consumer-oriented hi-fi phones that will boost bass and mess with the accuracy of your mixes.)
9. Don’t skimp on cables. For too many people, cables are an afterthought. The fact is the quality of your cables can have a significant impact on your overall sound quality. Good cables feature durable metal connectors and proper shielding that protects your signal against radio and electromagnetic interference. Even one bad cable can cripple the sound of your entire setup. Investing in great-sounding gear and then hooking it up with budget cables is like putting bargain-basement tires on your brand-new Ferrari.
10. Consult a qualified expert. No amount of research, education, or word-of-mouth advice can compete with experience. Before you buy gear, take the time to talk to a real-world audio professional.
Founded in 1979, Sweetwater Sound is one of the world’s largest dealers in music technology and professional audio equipment. Sweetwater’s Sales Engineers include musicians, audio engineers, and technical experts who work one-on-one with customers of all experience levels, providing buying advice, and helping put together software- and hardware-based systems that fit your needs.