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How To Get Better A's To Your Studio Gear Q's
by Dan Richards

In just about any area of endeavor, the quality of the answers — and even the qualifications of the people replying — is largely determined by the quality of the questions being asked. This article is a tool for you to migrate through the noisy, shark-infested clusterfuck of the online recording world, and to elicit qualified responses when asking questions about gear recommendations.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there is no such that as an isolated piece of gear. A recording studio is a system, and everything in it — to greater and lesser degrees — influences everything else. And the type of environment and its intended purpose are also important pieces of the puzzle.

A good place to start when considering a new piece of gear is to think about if you really need it, and if are you in a qualified place to determine that. Just keep in mind that there are so many variables, and people often think they need to fix or add something in one area, when the problem may be somewhere else up or down stream in the system.

I have made audio and recording gear recommendations to thousands of people over the years in recording sessions, online forums, phone calls, articles, reviews, and consulting work.

Here's a list of typical questions that help me qualify what's going on, so I can give input and recommendations to help someone really get what they want.

  • What kinds of projects and music are you recording?
  • What instruments are you recording
  • What kind of sound are you wanting?
  • What gear do you already have?
  • What's the recording environment and acoustics like?
  • What particular problems are you trying to solve?

  • What kind of sonic upgrades do you want to make?
  • Do you have some pictures of your studio?
  • Do you have audio samples of music you've produced?
  • What's your budget?
The list of questions — and the answers provided by someone wanting to make changes or upgrades to their studio — are going to give a much clearer overall picture. Anyone giving out specific recommendations without that kind of information is just shooting in the dark. If you post in forums, or fire off emails, either include relevant specifics or provide it at a website or a simple webpage online that people can refer to while considering your questions.

From there, you'll also want to qualify the answers you get and the people replying. Do they actually know what they're talking about? Do they have a lot of experience with recording, production, and the kinds of gear you're interested in? How do their recordings sound?

To use a more specific example of a typical gear question, let's narrow things down and zero in on microphone preamplifiers.

I'm using mic preamps as the main example here because: 1. Using the right one for the right application properly within the recording system is a wonder to behold and can achieve spine-tingling sonic results. 2. Preamps often retain a lot of their market value, and some even appreciate in value. 3. They are often the least understood link in the chain. 4. Preamps are often misidentified as a solution to a sonic problem that's occurring elsewhere in the system. 5. I've tested, evaluated, and recorded with over 100 mic preamps.

It's common that someone asking for preamp recommendations is doing so because they're not getting the kinds of sonic results they want. And preamps have become a sort of panacea — a magical cure-all for all ailments sonic.

One of the main skills — and even a type of thinking and approach — that good engineers have and use constantly is troubleshooting. And it's the skill of troubleshooting that first needs to be applied when thinking about some new piece of gear. And don't automatically assume that it's another piece of gear that will solve the problem. Work to troubleshoot where in the overall recording system that is contributing to you not getting the results you want. There are countless areas that could be the cause of you not getting that "warm" sound. It could be you just suck. Keep at it, we all did once. Or it could be that you need to tweak in areas that aren't quite apparent. Or it could be that you really do need another preamp.

It's typical of questions posted in forums about preamps, or when asking some salesperson at a gear dealer, "I'm looking for a new preamp. I want something that sounds 'warm.'" — or clean, punchy, colored — fill in the adjective of your choice.

What many people replying will not do, is to qualify the problem. And even when it is determined that a preamp would be just the ticket, you're still wanting good information on the preamps that would be the best within your budget to achieve the kinds of sonic results you're wanting.

The internet and online forums are full of inexperienced bedroom warriors who will enthusiastically recommend the few preamps they may have tried, as if to further justify their awesome purchase. Dealers and salespeople will be happy to make preamp recommendations for you, regardless of how qualified they are. Dealers are also going to carry and recommend their favorite manufacturers, and the gear that yields them the best margins. The answers you receive may or may not be in your best interests. Dealers are biased. Do they have a place in the exploration and acquisition of new gear? Sure. Sometimes. Not always.

Don't forget that there's a huge market for used gear in excellent condition. And that market is big because so many people purchased gear that they either didn't need, or down the road turned out to be something that wasn't right for them. And part of the reason the used gear market is so big is precisely because people didn't ask the right kinds of questions, thereby not getting the right kinds of answers from the right kinds of people.

There are, however, qualified people with a range of experience and knowledge who will take the time to respond to gear questions. And often a qualified person is initially going to answer your questions with more questions. And they do this because they need to qualify the problem — which may or may not line up with what you think you need. A truly qualified person will address your issues, take things into consideration, and then give unbiased answers that will lead you in the direction of you actually getting what you want.

Another thing to keep in mind when posting gear questions in forums, is that the lurker ratio is usually about 10-1. Meaning that for every one person posting there are ten others reading. So, the chances are reasonably good that you've got qualified and experienced people reading your questions. Now, the trick is — to draw those people out and get them to respond to you. And you can do that by not only asking questions, but providing the kinds of information that any qualified person would want. The idea here is, why should you expect an unbiased, qualified person to answer your inquiries, when you haven't taken the time or put in the effort to give them a clearer picture of the overall situation.

Said another way: Garbage in, garbage out.

If you want good answers from qualified people, provide relevant information with your questions.

People are not mind readers. They don't know your situation, your experience, your sound, your studio, or your music. And they don't know if what you've determined you need is even what you actually need.

Good engineers develop and evolve through the love and enjoyment of recording and making music. And part of that is talking shop; the giving and receiving of information, opinions, and experiences. And most engineers were helped out along the way by more experienced engineers, and they actually enjoy passing it on.

Consider that your questions and information you provide are the source material. Experienced engineers understand, and strive for, good source material and good signal-to-noise ratio. And if you apply that same philosophy and practice to your shop talk, you'll get much better signal-to-noise answers back.

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