I set out to write an article about the gear I selected for the mix room. It turns out that describing the thought process involved in putting together a mix rig is not only complicated, it also can get seriously boring. After collapsing face first into my laptop keyboard a few times while writing, I took a step back. While applying some coverup to the QWERTY prominently displayed on my forehead, I thought about the universal problems we all face when adding or upgrading gear. I’m going to dig into this topic, then return with the actual gear and tech-nerdery in the next installment.

If you’re fairly gear conservative (the “use-what-you’ve-got-until-you-hit-a-limitation” mindset), you’ll always have a pretty clear idea of why you’re upgrading or adding something, which makes life a lot easier. However, as soon as you decide to move forward, you’re faced with a series of bewildering apples-to-oranges comparisons. Sometimes there’s a product that exactly meets your needs, but often it’s a process of evaluating confusing compromises. It only gets worse as you learn about features that you didn’t realize you needed until you discover them during your research.

Unless you’re in a position to spend an unlimited amount of money, you need to whittle down your priorities to prevent your head from exploding. You also need to understand that your gear budget is also your education budget.  We’ll come back to that at the end.

I bought a preamp!

People often ask me what [interface/mic/DAW] they should buy. I’d say one out of every ten times I’m asked, I actually have a specific answer. That’s because I’m being asked a specific question. Otherwise, I usually respond with more questions. Until we’ve bought, used, sold, upgraded, and rearranged a few studios, we don’t always know the right questions to ask.

My advice usually goes something like this: buy something you can comfortably afford, and buy it from a place you can easily return it to. Then use it like crazy. If in the first month, it constantly crashes your computer, sounds like nails on a chalkboard, or gives you hives, take it back and get something else. Otherwise, hang on to it.

In a year or two, you’ll know if you like it.

I’ve made carefully researched terrible decisions, and fallen in love with gear that I hated six months later. I’ve also bought things for no other reason than an intuitive zing, and been thoroughly satisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you encounter something you love right away and you love it forever. That’s awesome. But to navigate the messy gray area we often encounter when investing in equipment, it’s helpful to take a look at the decision making process itself. The following are a few general categories of thinking that I’ve found influence decision making.

Shoot ’em Up

This method involves demoing various products, or doing “shootouts” to pick a favorite. With this method, you’re looking for something to impress you quickly. Sometimes, a clear winner emerges and you can buy with confidence. Other times, you can end up eliminating a few choices, and choosing from a narrowed playing field. There are also times when you simply end up with a bunch of good choices, all of which are slightly different in pleasing ways.

It’s like being at Ben and Jerry’s, deciding what flavor to get. After sampling Chunky Monkey, Cherry Garcia, and Steven Malkamus’ IndieLicious, you pick one.

When you’re buying a single cone, this is clearly a strong method for flavor selection. But how about if you’re moving to a cabin in the mountains for a few years and you have to buy enough ice cream to last you the entire time? Then things get a little more interesting. No matter how many flavors you try or buy, it’s impossible to predict exactly how you’ll enjoy them over the coming years. Some flavors you might love at first, but get tired of quickly. Others might grow on you over time. One flavor you might find totally bland and uninteresting until a friend shows you the right cookie to pair it with, at which point it becomes something you can’t live without.

Moving beyond this analogy, there are lots of real world examples. What’s the best mic for your home studio? Unless you know exactly what you’re recording, and the preamp you’re going to be recording with, shootouts are of limited value. Whatever you get will probably be great at some things and less great at others. For the less great things, you’ll learn to compensate. Then, you’ll eventually get a mic that’s great at the thing the other one is ok at. Then, a year later, you’ll discover that with a different preamp, the original mic sounds great on stuff it used to fail at! And so forth.

No one ever got fired for buying IBM  

If you were a corporate purchasing manager a few decades ago, IBM was the computer company that your boss knew of and trusted. If you went for a less known company that offered better technology at a better price, any problems those computers had would be blamed on your stupid decision. If you bought IBMs that ultimately had the same problems, that was just the cost of doing business.

In the highly subjective world of audio, we all have various “bosses” floating around. For example, in a commercial studio, the clients are often the boss you’re concerned about. “I don’t like the vocal sound. Is this mic a Neumann? Get me a Neumann.”  You get the idea. There could be 20 reasons the vocal sound hasn’t gelled yet, but while you sort that out, you also need to make sure you don’t lose the confidence of the client.

The really tricky part is that sometimes the bosses are just floating around in your head. There is no question that I have sometimes bought gear out of a psychological need to give myself an approving pat on the head for owning something so unquestionably professional. The benefit I’ve received from these decisions is that I just focus on my skills and forget about the gear (“If it doesn’t sound good, it must be my fault!”) The pitfall here is that the “classic” status of gear needs to be carefully vetted. It’s easy to end up spending a lot of money just to impress yourself.

So, how to vet? Well, obviously you can demo it and make your own impressions, and you can also allow the experts to weigh in…

Four out of five dentists 

There’s a lot of information out there. There are a lot of intelligent professionals willing to share their experience, and a lot of cranks who should probably attach a breathalyzer to their cable modem. There are also lots of talented folks out there playing shows and making records who don’t make a big deal about their process and equipment, but if you dig a bit you can find some real pearls of wisdom.

Trust me. I’m a professional.

Some folks don’t think you should listen to other people. The argument usually goes like this: “Don’t base your decisions on other people’s opinions. Listen for yourself and decide. (Trust me. I’m an expert.)”  Thanks, dude. Like most things, the trick lies in keeping your cool and using some discernment.

For example, let’s say you’ve never bought a MIDI controller before and you’re trying to decide what to buy. You definitely want to use it for live performance with Live. After reading about a thousand pages of feature comparisons involving price, form factor, bus power, rotary encoders, touch sensitive knobs, faders, drum pads, programmable multi-colored LEDs, and software editors, you decide to find out what a few of your favorite artists are using. Aha – a couple of them use the same thing! This may be an excellent place to begin.

Of course, there is always someone who will tell you that that particular thing is overpriced garbage and that anyone who buys one because so-and-so uses it is a chump. Don’t listen to this guy. If you’re getting into an area where you don’t have much experience, you have to start somewhere. If someone is on the road 200 days a year with a particular controller, there’s a reason. If it’s ultimately not the right one for you, you’ll figure it out.

I read a lot of posts and use the “olympics” method of throwing out the judges highest and lowest score. Ignore anything that seems to be unbalanced vitirol or favoritism, and over time you discover a broad consensus. Not a consensus that any particular thing is definitely the best, or definitely right for you, but if it’s well-regarded for it’s value, build, and overall quality.  When factored in alongside your particular workflow and feature needs, this can really help narrow the playing field. If you’re getting something to learn on over a year or two, buying something with a broad consensus of quality means it’s less likely that you’ll lose your shirt if you decide to sell it down the line.

OK, so what to make of all this?

The magic decoder that everyone can use to make sense of this mess is to understand that whenever you’re buying into a field where you are not already an expert, you’re buying education. As my life partner, musical collaborator, and animal psychic April White put it: “People are willing to spend a fortune on education without batting an eye because, well, it’s education! You can put it on your resume. But real-world experiences and mistakes are legitimate education, and teach you things that academics don’t.” This simple but essential truth is easy to forget when the pressure is on to make decisions.

I really struggled with a few decisions until I realized I was going back to mixing school. A very specialized school where I’ll learn new things about high-end conversion, analog summing, and monitoring. Even if I made missteps that cost me a few thousand dollars over a few years, I’m scoring a major bargain. Because most missteps aren’t even really mistakes. They’re just things learned over time. If I decide to swap out any of my major purchases in a year or two, it will be because I’ve come to new understandings about what works best for me. And that’s knowlege that’s hard to put a price on.