Some people refuse to believe that they can get good, quality recordings without expensive instruments and top-shelf studio equipment. As I pointed out in Part 1, lots of hard earned money has been needlessly spent acquiring tools that are more powerful and more expensive than necessary. There is, of course, an argument to be made for the high-dollar tools, but if one doesn’t understand how to use them, where is the advantage? No one should feel as if they are too good to start out with whatever one can afford, and that goes for instruments as well as recording equipment.
On one hand, there seems to be a pride issue with many aspiring artists, and they seem to believe that they must begin with the best available gear. Many of these same people seem to be more interested in investing in the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of their peers upon presenting the equipment, rather than investing their time in learning to properly play or operate said equipment. On another note, word-of-mouth, passed on from the ignoramous to the ignorant can really destroy the reputation of a particular “less expensive” piece of equipment, or an entire brand, causing many to believe and repeat the misinformation they have heard. In most cases, these pieces of gear are more than adequate and it is the incompetency of the individual which leads to such skewed reviews.
Let us take, for example, the lowly workhorse, the Shure SM-57. As of late, it has become very chic to relentlessly hammer this microphone over it’s perceived shortcomings. Opinions are often based on the ‘reasoning’ that if something is affordable then it must not be of very good quality. “The SM-57 isn’t flat,” I heard overheard one vocalist comment. Whereas this may be true, it is also misleading. Many engineers turn to the SM-57 because of the frequency response that it exhibits. Most recording studios have a huge selection of microphones because of their particular ‘coloring’ of certain frequencies on instruments as well as vocals. As a beginner, we may be forced to rely on only one or two mics to do the majority of our recording with, so flexibility is paramount, and an SM-57 fills the bill remarkably well in applications where the use of a dynamic mic is desirable. For the record, the SM-57, when coupled with a decent preamp can work wonders. Eddie Kramer used them to record Hendrix’s guitar licks and Elton John has even sang through them and they sounded fine..and one can be had for under a hundred bucks.
Most music retailers online have specs listed for every piece of equipment that they sell, and many times there will be reviews written by others who have made the purchase and these reviews can always be helpful in helping one decide whether or not a given product will fit their needs. The main thing to bear in mind is that all of the equipment in your signal chain should be of the same basic quality. It would be as illogical to buy an expensive guitar and run it through a cheap solid state practice amp as it would be to run an expensive mic into a cheap preamp. Conversely, the better choice would be to run a cheap mic into a good preamp, but lacking this, the best approach is to split your funds equally. Remember that, unless you relish the thought of becoming a part-time technician, new gear with a warranty, is the way to go.
The end result, in any musical endeavour, is usually dependant on the competency of the user, their understanding of use of the equipment, and their abilities. I’m not too proud to admit that some of my favorite gear is far from ‘ideal’. About fifteen years ago, while working in a music retail store, a fellow came in with a matched set of two BeyerDynamics M-818s, aching to get rid of them. These were odd looking microphones, and were originally wired with 1/4″ TS plugs for high impedance use. Manufactured in the seventies, they were old, but BD has a great reputation, and being that this set looked almost new, I offered the guy fifty bucks for the whole she-bang and he jumped at the opportunity. Later, upon inspection, I determined that the third wire had been grounded on the plug, so I rewired them with low impedance XLR connectors and ran one into a $120. Studio Projects VTM-1 tube preamp. It sounded muffled and far from ideal for vocal use, but when I placed it in front of my guitar amplifier, the sound was incredibly warm with the perfect amount of ‘bite’! To this very day I use this old mic to record my Fender Blues Jr. amp.
I’ve heard some impressive work that was recorded using budget line gear. If, like most folks, you happen to be a man (or woman) of means, this becomes a necessity. The important thing to do is for one to get the gear that one needs in order to begin. If we sat around waiting half of our lives for everything to be perfect, we may very well end up getting nothing done at all. In fact, the situation will rarely, if ever, be perfect. There will always be something that keeps the setting from being an ideal one, but half of the job is getting around these difficulties and getting the job done in spite of them.
Another good way to get feedback on a particular piece of equipment is to join an online forum, many of which exist solely for musicians and budding home recordists. gearslutz.com is a website where hundreds of discussions or ‘threads’ are posted each day. I’ve seen almost every musical subject under the sun discussed on this site, and there’s never a dull moment!
Always try to bear in mind that it’s the artist who makes the music, not the gear.