Here at SOS we get a lot of phone calls from our readers asking for advice of one kind or another. The most difficult questions to answer tend not to be those relating to practical problems, but those that deal with equipment choices. Understandably, everyone wants to get value for money with their purchases, so a caller will often start with a nominal budget followed by the question, "what is best in that price range?". The difficulty for us is that 'best' isn't always easy to define, because a product that has the best technical spec on paper may not have the best subjective sound quality, and what seems an ideal feature set to one person may be considered sub-standard by another.
Nowhere is this more evident than in microphones. In a given price band, there are a good dozen or so models to choose from, and even if you know what type of product you want (a large-diaphragm cardioid condenser, for example), how do you know which one to buy? The technical specification will tell you the noise and distortion figures, and the frequency response curve will give you a general idea as to whether the mic is likely to sound 'bright' or 'warm', but nowhere on that paper is any description of the overall character of the sound. The problem seems to be that the human hearing system reacts to small sonic details that cannot be measured by machine, so the only sure way to make the right choice is to use the piece of gear for yourself, which I know isn't always easy when you're trying to test it out in a crowded music store, and it is quite impossible if you're buying on-line.
Some people go along to the dealer with the best demo facilities, make up their mind there, and order the same product on-line to take advantage of the lower prices. This approach is short-sighted, and if this shopping paradigm becomes the norm, the good dealers will close and there will be nowhere to try anything out.
The other issue with microphones is that different models suit different sources, so even if your mate down the road is getting great results with a particular model, you can't be sure that it will sound as good for you. Of course, I say all this every time I get a call about microphones, but at the end of the conversation, many callers still say "but which one should I buy?".
This business of matching the equipment to the user extends into other areas, most notably computers and software. "Should I buy a Mac or a PC?" is another favourite question we're often asked, and in my experience the only safe answer is to pick your software first, then choose the best machine on which to run it. However, if you are already an established user of one platform or the other, it may make sense to stick with what you know and find the software that best caters for your needs. But even that isn't a simple choice, because not everyone needs the complexity of a heavyweight sequencer package. If 'best' means the package that does the most and does it well, then you can narrow it down, but if it means choosing something that will let you record music without having to be a software expert, then the solution might be completely different.
Sometimes it's easy to help somebody make the right choice, but at other times, 'best' is most definitely in the eye of the beholder.
Paul White Editor In Chief