You Don’t Need Expensive Music Gear

If you’ve surfed YouTube in the past couple of years or so you have most likely noticed a tidal wave of gear reviews from various musicians and enthusiasts, including both mega-popular and relatively-unknown YouTubers.

On the Tube, you can find your favorite artist or producer pumping up a hype new piece of gear in an endless stream of videos, and watch as the droves of musicians jump on board buying up the new amp modeling device, extended-range fanned-fret guitar, overdrive pedal or drum sample software.

Somehow it has become the thing to film oneself with a treasure-trove of high-priced guitars, amps and outboard gear. Look at all that sick gear! This guy must be an amazing musician!

For real though, I’m not hating on anyone.

Although, intense levels of biblical envy begin to roil when I see 16-year-old kids filming themselves in a room full of gear that costs more than mine and my wife’s cars combined—a spanning, custom-made studio desk is crowned with a 52″ 4k display fed by a MacPro, while Adam S2V studio monitors stand sentry on either side, and columns of racks bulge with hardware like the UA Apollo 8 Interface, Power Conditioners, Antelope AD Converter, Kemper Profiler, Ax-FXI & II and what looks like a flux capacitor.

What the hell do your parents do for a living, kid!?

If your home project studio isn’t at the very least as good as this, just quit!

So am I jealous? Sure! But I also know that I can’t allow my lack of such superfluous (although sexy as hell) gear stand between me and creating great music (and neither should you!).

The more time I spend worrying about the gear I don’t have, the less time I spend getting better at playing guitar, honing my mixing skills, or developing my songwriting talents.

There are some pieces of equipment that are essential to having a functioning home studio. There is gear out there that can radically enhance your productions and may be worth saving for. And then there is non-essential, luxury gear.

A Car is a Car

Let me make an analogy.

Hopefully, you have a reliable car, like my geeky $15,000 2011 Kia Soul. Something like this gets you to work every day, it has working AC, is pretty good on gas, totes the kids back and forth to school, carries you all across the state-line for a trip to the beach, perhaps. Without a good, solid car, you’re not getting very far out there.

The guy across town is driving a convertible Mercedes Benz Coupe. He’s using this $80k+ luxury car to do all of the same things you are doing in your Kia Soul. However, if he really wants to, he can open it up on a deserted road to nearly 160 mph in maybe 3 seconds flat. He can drop that top and pick up hot babes, as well.

Not to mention, that Benz is shiny, sleek, sexy, warms your ass while you drive, has a built in GPS and features all of this other non-essential stuff.

You mad, bro?

Benz’s get you to where you want to go a little faster and with a lot more style than a Soul, but if you’ve ever driven in North Metro-Atlanta, you know some of the worst drivers are in Benz’s (and especially Audi’s)!

What I’m getting at is this—having high-end gear does NOT make you a better musician, engineer or producer.

Many of these YouTube entities with rooms full of thousands of dollar’s worth of gear are no better than Joe Somebody playing his heart out through a half-broken 20-watt Fender practice amp.

A great, self-produced musician and personal friend of mine, Claudio Cataldi, exemplifies someone who has only the bare essentials in terms of gear (a couple of guitars, an amp, a microphone, a violin), but possesses a huge amount of heart, authenticity, skill and artistry. He’s released multiple albums on his own and through an indie label, and gigs regularly. Lack of high-end gear hasn’t slowed his creativity down!

I’ve also listened to and personally known professional audio-engineers who have made years’ worth of stellar mixes using stock DAW plug-ins and small studio monitors.

Passion, a strong work ethic, creativity, insight, humility and understanding what you’re doing make you better at your craft!

Good Quality Essentials

Some music gear is admittedly cheap crap. Not to mention gear can get old, obsolete, and malfunction. Don’t expect a problem-free cross-country drive in a busted-ass Ford Pinto!

You need to have good solid gear that is essential and that you can squeeze a lot out of for many years to come. Hopefully, my future articles can help you make good studio investments.

The tipping point between entry-level, potentially amateur-sounding gear and something solid appears to be around $250-$550 USD, and as a matter of fact most of my instruments, monitors, amp, bass etc. are in this range.

This is my current set-up as of May 2018. The most expensive item in this photo is the 2015 iMac! Every other thing retails from $15 to $550 (max) each, and I get a lot out of all of it.

Beyond $500 for a piece of gear or instrument, the difference in quality as a function of price begins to narrow. A well-made $350 guitar hasn’t much of a difference in sound or playability from a $500-$1000 axe, in my opinion. Just watch some of the guitar shoot-outs by Anderton’s Music on Rob Chapman’s YouTube channel.

If you can afford a Benz without jeopardizing your finances or your children’s college funds, then why the hell not? Go for it! Most of us, though, are not shopping with such a budget. We may not ever achieve the gear-topia we see so many times on popular YouTube channels.

Speaking of YouTube, Ola Englund is hands-down one of my favorite YouTube stars in the world of metal and music. Apart from being a guitarist in some gnarly bands, he catalyzed his start to fame and built the foundation of his YouTube career producing gear reviews and sick guitar play-throughs for his channel.

A few other shredders like Keith Merrow were doing the same sort of thing at around the same time, in addition to writing their own music. Once other music people learned you could blow-up with ‘gear reviews’, ‘unboxing’ and general teaser-type content, a legion of guitarists, producers and hobbyists began to post about any piece of flashy gear they could get a hold of (Amazon’s no-questions-asked return policy, eh?).

Anyway, Ola says some very interesting things at around the 11:38 mark in this most recent “home studio tour” video. It appears he has streamlined his set-up to having damned good studio essentials.

This is a guy who could probably get his hands on any piece of gear that he wanted, and yet he has pruned his set-up to cut out the fat, and keep what is rock-solid and gives him his characteristic sound.

You don’t have to spend your life’s fortune on gear, you just need to invest in what is essential to getting your sound.

Some entry-level gear and instruments are admittedly little better than toys.

When Gear Does Matter

Many characteristic genres of music were inspired by gear.

For instance, when hair-metal was big and Eddie Van-Halen was breaking new sonic ground by helping to design the hi-gain Peavey 5150 amplifier, you would have had to buy this rig to sound even close to as good as he did. In the dawn of the 90’s, the spanking-new 5150 that had that Van Halen sound was most likely the price equivalent of a good, lightly-used car. Such an amp helped to usher in a harder-driven metal and hard-rock sound in the 1990’s.

More recently, the tight, snarling, massive distorted guitar tone of the djent movement (and other modern-metal sub-species) was largely influenced by and dependent on extended-range 7 or 8 string guitars as well as Fractal Audio’s Ax-FX modeling unit. The Ax-FX is steeply-priced because it has an “out-of-the-box” sound that is instantly recognizable and damned hard to recreate using anything else. I certainly wouldn’t mind owning one, and if you’re absolutely seduced by this tone and this inspires your art, it would definitely be worth investing in!

On another note, dubstep was defined by wobbling bass synths and colossal sawtooth leads that were often times presets (or alterations of) found in pricey software synths like Native Instrument’s Massive. If you’re a synth-nerd and like playing with LFO’s and sculpting a sound from saws, triangles and sines, you could probably recreate these sounds with stock VSTs. For everyone else, you’d be cracking that piggy-bank open to procure Massive or a similar soft-synth, because that is the sound that inspires you and gets you pumped about writing music!

Money Better Spent

In 2017 my company paid me a ‘global performance bonus’ of $2000 USD on top of my normal annual bonus.

Immediately, I thought Kemper Profiler and I should keep this a secret from my wife (always a losing idea, by the way).

But then I slowed down and considered smaller, perfectly-good and essential things I could probably spend that on, and not just music-related. I was proud of myself for being a responsible adult, although I had bitter, tear-soaked visions of the Kemper Profiler sitting regally atop my desk.

In what other ways could you put a chunk of money to good use in your home studio? You could get several little gems for the price of that high-end piece of gear. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head:

Already got all of that stuff and that wad of cash is just burning your pocket to ash? Take a vacation and gain some perspective on your art, recharge, refresh, and enjoy life.

Don’t need a vacation? Ok, fine, get the bloody piece of gear! Don’t come crying if it doesn’t live up to your expectations or produce unparalleled feelings of joy within you.

We can all fall victim to wanting more, to thinking we aren’t good enough because we don’t have this flashy thing or that sexy thing.

We may even wrongly think that all we need to do to get that ‘pro sound’ is to throw lots of money at our home studio, when in reality the $30 spent on Mike Senior’s book will take you very, very far—much further than a stupid, ugly, Kemper Profiler (*sniffle*).

What is your own project studio set-up like? Are you decked out with high-end pieces of gear or are you keeping it simple? Let me know in the comments!

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on the bitter roost and commented:
    A good, well thought out post that fits in nicely with my last post.


  2. Reblogged this. Love the post, and I can definitely relate. The car analogy is pretty spot-on. Us less-fortunate musicians/producers can at least buy the metaphorical equivalent of stand-alone seat warmers, at least. Every time I’ve had friends and colleagues bring up “needing” to have super expensive gear and only record at 32-bit/192kHz or whatever, I try to remind them that so many of the great metal records from the 90s were done essentially on ADAT machines running at 16/44.1 and mixed though a modest Mackie console or some such, and they still sound awesome. Thanks for the good motivation for small recording enterprises! Cheers!


  3. Ben Prusinski says:

    Agree- in fact now you can use affordable low cost software or even open source things to create and produce music on a cheap laptop. Quality of cheap guitars and amps and synthesizers has really improved 1000x as well compare to 20 years ago. I think people with money have G.A.S.- gear acquisition syndrome and rush out to buy gear because of famous musicians who have expensive stuff in their studios instead of focusing on the core basics first.


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