I often have students, colleagues and Facebook friends ask, “What is the best mic, speaker, headphones, interface, etc., I can buy?” Since my job is to review hardware and software, learn about new technology and teach it to others, I should be the perfect guy to ask. My answer is always the same: Buying something of quality is always cheaper, even when the price tag is higher. Your gear defines your future. If you buy the best, you’ll work with better clients, build a better reputation and warrant charging more for your work. If you buy something based on price alone, you’ll grow out of it, sell it at a great loss, then buy what you should have originally and lose money in the process. You say you don’t have the upfront money? As you’ll read below, making the smart buy doesn’t always mean the price is dear.
Start by basing your purchase on workflow. For instance, if you have a small overdub room and can best accommodate vocal and single-instrument recording, you’d want the best single- or dual-channel preamp and mics for the job. It makes sense. And if you need to grow, high-end gear is going to maintain its value if you need to sell and move up.
Sometimes the best buy means venturing out of your comfort zone. I built a small mix room for myself this year, and as a grand experiment, I bought a PC from Rain Computers. Being a longtime Mac guy who’s never owned a PC, this was a stretch, but I wanted the best and Apple hasn’t upgraded their towers in years. My workflow is mixing (no tracking, so latency is not an issue), and Rain makes a purpose-built, rackmount audio computer perfect for the job called the ION Studio. Even with the learning curve, it has been a great experience. In the last six months with my rig, I’ve used and learned a lot about 64-bit applications like Nuendo and Sequoia, what they offer (more access to RAM, for one) and how to troubleshoot in the Windows OS. Bonus: My ION has more features and is priced $1,400 less than my dream Mac.
Being a glutton for audio punishment, I’ve just upgraded my ION Studio to the ION AFX. It sports six 3.2GHz Intel processors with 12 virtual cores, 16 GB RAM, a 240GB Solid State Drive (C:), 1TB mechanical drive, USB 2 (8), USB 3 (4), 2 eSATA ports, NVIDIA GeForce graphics card with 2 DVI outs, 6 PCIe and 1 PCI slot. This new box has already changed my workflow and saved me money. The ION Studio was noisier than I liked, so before the upgrade I was going to buy an isolation box. The AFX is liquid-cooled, and when I first turned it on, I had to double-check that it was running—the AFX just saved me large dollars on an isolation system. The Solid State Drive is faster than any experience I’ve had on any computer. Plug-ins instantly pop up when I let up on the mouse, seek and playback is super fast, and booting up any app is startlingly quick.
How about all the other gear that falls on our wish lists? Most manufacturers have higher-end lines, and that’s a good place to start. And then there’s the power of a brand. But as important as a name is, it’s not the best way to make a decision that’s right for you. For instance, does making a great buy mean staying away from a particular brand? Not at all.
If there’s one trend over the past 10 years, it’s that gear has gotten better and cheaper across a wide range of manufacturers. At the extreme, take the company that many have loved to hate: Behringer. They built an empire on inexpensive audio gear that, to put it nicely, “closely resembled” gear from other companies. Now with the purchase of Midas, those bets are in question. I’ve had the new Behringer X32 console around for review (see Brandon Hickey’s take on p. 86), and it is excellent. Fit and finish, sonics, features and price are all shockingly good and best in class. The company has just put $50 million into a facility expansion in China, has publicly promised to base X32 upgrades and features on user feedback, and at NAMM 2012, extended its warranty to three years on registered gear. These steps call for a second look at any preconceptions you (or I) have about the company.
Here’s the bottom line: Quality first, not price, is essential to building a career, maintaining clients, building your cred and having the best experience in your work. After all, we all got into this for one reason—we love it. We live for it. And when we work with the best gear possible, we get a chance to make magic.