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The Intelligent Person's
Guide to Buying New and Used Gear

This page can save you from making huge mistakes that could cost thousands of dollars

by Rich the TweakMeister

old dusty gear

My goal is to give you the straight truth as I see it.  I've spent years scrimping and saving for music gear and I know how it is! 

How important is it to you have great state of the art gear?  U know, the kind the big studios have.  I can't answer that for you, but will pose some questions you might ask yourself that should help.  On one hand, the gear does not write music, you do.  Yesterday's state of the art gear is relatively inexpensive.  It's often not hard to find a keyboard, mixer, hardware sampler or specialty synth module that retailed for 2 grand 10 years ago going for 300-400 bucks.  Older budget gear can be had for often under $100.  You have to work within limitations if you go this route, but few people, other than synth-heads and music fanatics are going to be able to tell if your bassline came from a $3,000 Korg Triton or a $75 used Yamaha TX-81Z.  (In fact, the latter, which really can be had for about $75 used is often the bass module of choice for techno-artists). 

Yet much old budget gear is very frustrating to use, especially the early digital stuff, like that TX81Z.  You'll be limited.  Limitations are not necessarily bad.  Today we are rather unlimited.  Limits force one to think of work-arounds and alternate ways to get an audio result.  Some well-heeled composers actually place artificial limits on their process to keep them thinking (Such as, this piece will only be 4 note polyphonic, or only use piano, etc.)  Another thing to consider is that older "retro" gear has a certain lo-fi coolness to it.  You might be surprised, if you were able to poll some of today's famous electronic composers, that many of them use the same gear they have been using since 1989!  In the right hands, even older, average gear can make great music. It is your interaction with the machine that makes the good buzz.  The bottom line here is do you really need state of the art gear?  No.  But you'll work a little harder if you resurrect the relics of the 80's and 90's.

The latest gear is friendlier than ever, easier to play on.  In modern keyboards for example, you will find hundreds, even thousands of instruments all tweaked and ready for your specific applications.  If you want drums for Techno, DnB, Hip Hop, Country, Orchestral, you'll find them all in the box ready to go.  In the early days of midi, we had to work hard to get those sounds.  And modern gear sounds better than ever.  Its quieter, should have no hisses and hums, usually has good support online with free patches and even operating systems you can download.  Also, new gear is more reliable than old gear.  You've got quite a few years before you have to start worrying about power supplies dying and battery backed Ram failing. Finally, manufacturers have learned a thing or two about ergonomics (ease of use).  Some of the latest gear is the result of 2 decades of R&D by manufacturers and the effort really shows. 

Once you decide that you want new or old gear you are still not out of the thick.  Inevitably we have to make choices of the quality and price of the gear we want to purchase.  For example, with keyboards, the decision between a flagship Fantom X vs. A Yamaha MM6.  It helps to think of going to work in your car.  Do you want a smooth riding Lexus or will a little Chevy do?  They both will get you there.  But one has a very sexy luxurious feel and the other has less of that.  Do you need to spend $1200 on a premium Great River ME-1NV pre or will the preamps on your $45 Behringer XENYX 502 Mixer cut it?

Don't let the bug bite too hard.

Especially with mics, preamps, compressors, and reverbs you will find budget stuff that is garbage, budget stuff that is acceptable, mid range stuff that is good and high end gear that costs 30 times the budget gear, but gives you stellar results.  One thing to keep in mind, is that hi end gear often requires more high end gear.  I mean, your not going to run a $2,700.00 Neumann U87 mic through your old radio shack disco mixer you found in the alley.  Nah, you'll need at least an excellent pre amp and pristine a/d converter to go along with that.  This is just to say that as you approach the high end of gear, the whole studio cost starts going up astronomically.  Those with deep pockets can ignore all this and just get the best. But with shallow pockets like most of us have, ya gotta keep things from breaking the bank.  

Can it be done with budget gear? 

Good question!  Depends on who you ask.  The best answer I've heard so far is:  "You can get 90% of the way there with the right budget gear if you know how to use it.  I used to say 80%. However, the recent few years have brought such tremendous advances to sound quality that the heavy line between pro gear and home gear is getting thinner. 

But it's that upper 10% of quality that you pay dearly for.  Of course it is that 10% that distinguishes truly professional production, the sensuous air above the vocal, placed in a beautiful, near black reverberant space, the crispness of the tortise shell pick strumming acoustic guitar, a warm yet distinct bottom to the bass that feels good in your gut, a stereo image so alive you'd swear you were there!  I'll talk more about this later, but for now let me just say there is a definite threshold to ultra quality sound.  To get to higher sound quality you must have great preamps, converters, monitors, mics and an excellent sounding room. 

Tweak Sez: Only buy racks after you have the gear to fill them.  Having unfilled racks in the studio will tempt you to get gear you don't need or to get cheap gear you won't like.

large product image

 To get to that last 1% of sound quality you will pay oh so dearly for qualities of sound that 998.5 of 1000 people will never even detect.  Oh, I could go on... But, in today's music there is also a shift away from production values and a new focus on the intent and vibe of a piece.  Great music, even if made on some crap cassette 4 track, will win more hearts than a professionally polished 24 bit turd.  If there is a cosmic joke to it all, that is it!  The great song wins every time!  Hey, you don't have to agree.  I drive Chevys and my mileage does vary.  But by tweaking your gear, setting all the levels just right, and focusing on your music instead of your gear, you can do great things :)  And as time goes on you can, carefully and thoughtfully, stair-step your way to better sound quality with each piece of gear. 

 

Buying your first piece of gear is not easy. 

Especially when you are new to the game. You are usually spending a big sum of money and you don't want to make a mistake.  Every choice you make charts the direction for future choices, so there are an often overwhelming number of variables to consider at first.  After you get going, it's more like putting together a big puzzle. It helps to know what you want the overall effort to become. So do you want your studio to become?  A pro studio? (i.e., for recording full bands) delivering cd master recordings.  A project studio? (recording electronic synths, samplers and maybe a few live players when needed, but at a level of quality that meets TV/film standards)  A home MIDI-electronica mainly software studio with maybe 1 or 2 live mics? A guitarist/drum box based multitrack demo/songwriting studio with mics, direct boxes and some FX?  Just a little hobby studio for fun, nothing hard or complicated?  Or a not-a- studio- just-want-to- make-music (fancy that!)  All these options are cool.  But they are all different puzzles with different pieces.  I did a "system guide" page to give you some ideas here.

What stinks in here?  Oh no, it's G.A.S! 

Uh Oh, its G,A.S

The #1 disease among studio types is G.A.S, which stands for Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  This is where the studio jock buys more and more often mediocre gear.  Rather than work on their studio skills, the recipient of GAS just buys more gear, often because a salesperson told them to.  The antidote is an attitude.  Never buy gear unless 1) you know what it does and what its limitations are, 2) you know how and why it will improve your sound, 3)you are certain of its compatibility with your rig and already know how to hook it up and 4) you have scoured the internet to look for reviews and advice on the piece.

Redundancy. 

Something is redundant when it is repeated ad nasueum, that is, so many times that you want to get sick.  You might recall your old English teacher writing in red all over your paper "redundant!".  English teachers often write "redundant" when someone repeats the same thing in different words until you want to puke.  If I wanted to be really redundant, I'd write 5 more variations of this sentence--I'd talk about English Teachers who barfed over all their students final exams; I might even use the word redundant redundantly and hope you'd never notice. Then you would write all over it in RED. Tweak that is redundant, man I am sick! Lol, roflmao, yo!  Gear is redundant when you end up buying the same feature over and over on different pieces of gear.  Then one day you finally realize you have 29 bad sounding preamps, 12 samplers you will never use, and 5 recorders.

 

The worst, thousand dollar blunders

is the newb that goes out and buys a computer sequencer and a multi-track recorder only to find out, uh, they do they same thing.  Or they buy Cubase and Sonar and try to get them to work together.  Slap!  Or they get Sound Forge and Sonar realize these applications don't work at all on a Mac.  At the store they say "So Solly Charlie No Return Software!" Slap!  Slap!   Or the ultimate mistake-buying- a MPC 5000 (which is a digital audio/midi sequencer/recorder in a drum box format) and Logic and Cubase (software digital audio/midi sequencers/recorders) to help with their Multi track recorder (which can also record MIDI).  Then you show up on my forums and ask "Can NE1 HOOK Me UP??!!!"  Hmm, you are a candidate for a free lobotomy later on in the guide.  See the EQ page for details.

Of course the true Tweakhead Geniuses can make these work together and may have reasons for wanting to do it, but newbs have no business trying to run more than one recorder.  Learn one first. The recorder you choose, whether it be a muti-track, computer sequencer or MPC4000 or MV8800 is the most far reaching decision you will make. Consider that choice carefully. 

i/o disasters.  

All of these can be avoided by knowing what you have.  You have a 2 input soundcard and want to record the whole band where everyone has a track.  So you get a 24 track mixer and hook it up to realize you still only have 2 inputs.  Duh.  So you get a 18 channel audio interface and go "Now I've got it!"  But you failed to realize that 10 of those inputs are digital (ADAT) and NONE of your gear will connect.  So next time you look on the back and see an RCA connector just like the one on your turntable.  "Ah time to slap me ol' vinyl around!" But wait, what's that buzz?  You just plugged your analog RCA out into a digital s/pdif input.  And you know, the significant other is going to have a field day with you when s/he finds out you can't get your new $5,000 mixer/interface to even make a sound.

Finally, samplers are abound in many pieces of gear.  Do you need a hardware sampler if you have Kontakt3?  Not really.  Does your keyboard have to have sampling if you have another sampler?  Nope!  How many drum sampler plugins do you need?  One.  The point is to simply observe what you are paying for.  Are you buying features you already have? 

Return Policies. 

Many music stores offer a 30 day return policy.  This is a great thing in stores like zZounds, that make it real easy.  But always check on each item to make sure it is covered.  Software and microphones are typically excluded.  Many people run into trouble with software because they did not understand what they were getting or they mis-read the recommended requirements to run the software.  Don't assume when something is "PC compatible" that it will run on your old clunking consumer computer you bought in 1995!  Forget the minimum requirements, look at the recommended requirements.  If none are stated then assume you need double the minimum requirements.  Never buy anything software if you cannot meet the stated requirements. 

Manufacturers PC vs. Mac biases. 

Say you want to buy a soundcard.  All your PC pals say its great, but alas, you have a Mac.  You go to the store and look at the box and is says "Mac compatible".  Should you bite?  Not yet.  Go to the manufacturers website and look for drivers.  If you see a whole page of PC drivers from 1995 to the current year that's cool.  But if you go to the Mac page and see just one entry for a driver written in 2001, run for the hills.  Stick with companies that are majorly focused on your computer platform, your operating system, and if possible, your motherboard and CPU.  Its true, some soundcard drivers refuse to work well with some chipsets on some motherboards.

There are often hidden costs of "inexpensive" gear. 

Manufacturer's marketing dons discovered a new technique in the mid 90's.  You buy a basic box for 700 bucks and get it home to find out about all the great options available.  You want a digi out?  No problem, lets add $410.  You want the expansion card that lets you move a knob so the sound goes whoop whoop?  Add another $250.  Oh! You wanted the mango shmango hump-me-all-night bay-baaay dance sample set?  Well, if you pop $375 for the oboe and clavinet expansion card, we'll toss it in FREE! (of course, if you get the oboe card, your gonna need the french horn and tuba card too.)  :D  Ok, I'm getting a little wild and whacky, but there some "interesting" marketing practices going on.  Most major manufacturers, Yamaha, Korg, Alesis and Roland for example, are very up front about their expansion schemes and do sell a great product that works just fine unexpanded.  But!  For example, if you buy a Fantom XR Rack at 1400 bucks can you resist filling all 6 SRX slots at $250 a card?  I personally, would not be able to resist.  Price for me is $2,900 with 1400 down and the rest on "layaway" ;) Is a maxed Fantom XR at $2900 a good thing? No, it's an awesome thing! Perhaps one of the greatest hardware modules on earth.  A million musical dreams in a box. See U in line at the Burger Palace on dollar night.

Dude! Horror stories of the UnResearched! 

I wish I did more research!You just bought a 24 channel digital mixer at a great price and laughed all the way home. You thought they made a mistake at the store on the price so you didn't ask many questions.  Now you are ready to wire it up and only see 8 inputs on the back.  Ummm, where' the other 16?  You see two mysteriously empty slots on the back for expansion board B, and C.  They are at the store, for $500 each.  And you realize you will end up paying about $1,000 more for your digital mixer.  Moral of the story, the price of a piece of gear equals the base unit PLUS all the add-ons you think you will need. Remember B+A=$  So factor that in.    

 

The Vapors of the Ware. 

"A software upgrade is underway which will add 45 new features and is scheduled for release in Q3 next year".  Don't bite.  Buy the machine for what it can do today, right now.  Otherwise what you are really doing is this:  "OK, let me pay you now, even though the machine isn't really finished yet, and I trust you will finish it so I can start playing with it next year." Pay now, play later. Sucker.  

Shure SM57LC Cardioid Dynamic Microphone
The SM57 is a cardiod (unidirectional) dynamic microphone with a contoured frequency response of 40 to 15,000 Hz, perfect for clean reproduction of vocals and instruments.
List $146.00.
Don't worry, it's WAY cheaper!  

Tweak advises: Great price on the classic all-purpose studio mic of all time.  Good for instruments, vocals, drums, amps, and its practically indestructible. This has a standard XLR connector and does not come with a cable

Blood on the Edge of the Sword. sword

Oh yeah, rule of thumb borrowed from Computer Tweaks.  "Never trust anything at revision 1.0".  Of course, the industry is hip to that.  When a piece is released, its usually at 1.1.  It's really 1.0 in disguise, and will be finished around 1.3. Fortunately, the music gear industry moves slower than the computer industry.  Products usually enjoy a 3-5 year shelf cycle, even longer if they are successful.  It's ok to wait a year after release and get the finished, mature, stable product.  

 

Time Out!  Is there a best time of year to buy gear?
Yep!  It works sort of like the car industry.  The new models come out in September and October so in July, August and early Sept. is a great time to make a deal.  But not on all gear. See, musical instruments have a 3-7 year lifespan on store shelves, so it helps to know what is blowing out.  How do you find that out?  Hehe, you come back to TweakHeadz and participate on the boards and we'll let you know.  Basically, you keep an eye on NEW gear to see what is replacing what.   Check out my Hot new Products page from time to time.  A true product blowout does not last long.  Usually a few weeks and all the old stock is gone

Kill me with Features Gear. 

FX box A has 4 knobs and does one thing, lets say, delay.  FX Box B has 4 knobs and does delay, chorus, reverb, panning, sampling, vocoding, harmonizing, phase shifting, exciting, amp distortion, ring modulation, noise gating, compressing and costs half the price!  Box A has a luxurious sound.  Box B sounds harsh, annoying, tinny, digital.  Features look good on paper, but don't always sound good in music.  If you buy cheap, you may end up buying again.

There are other variables too!  Cost of service?  What about Upgrades?  Will it still be worthy in 5 years, standing up to future, more powerful gear we can barely imagine? This is particularly an issue with software.  Assuming computers will continue to become more powerful, the software packages of today are bound to pale compared to successive generations.  The risk here is of being orphaned.  This is when a company drops a product line to develop another one, usually based on their ability to make a better profit.  That's business.  If you see a software company doing that, best to steer clear, and go with products that have a giant user base that makes it profitable to keep the flag flying.  

Tweak's bottom line is sound. I've said it before, and I will again, these variables start to fall in place when you focus on your sound coming out the speakers.  Great sound never goes out of style.  Analog, 12 bit or 24 bit is not as important as the sound you perceive and its ability to evoke your creativity. Consider that, and the headaches of which gear may ease up a bit for you.

Fun Stuff

Pictures of 270 Home Studios
10 years of Namm Show Highlights
History of TweakHeadz Lab
Gear at TweakHeadz Lab
Philosophy and Music
The Showroom
Gifts for Musicians
Metaphor and Your Song
Tweak's Music
Add a Banner to your Site
Basic Music Theory
How to Make Money in your Studio
Famous and Inspiring Quotations
The Final Exam
Test Answers
Vocalists at Tweak's Lab
Studio of the Future
The Newbie Guide
Another Site Map
Building a PC for Music (old)
Why we Think Today's Musc Stinks
Transformation in Dance Music
We Used to Make Money on MP3.com
About TweakHeadz Lab
Tweak's SEARCH Engines
History of Home Recording

 

 

 

 


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