While home recording has become much less costly in recent years, there are still some expensive items on most people’s wish lists. So how do you work out what to splash out on when budget is an issue? My approach has always been to look at the recording chain as a whole to identify any weak links, and that goes all the way from the microphones and the recording space to the monitor speakers and the control room acoustics. There’s no point in throwing money at an area that’s already being let down by something else further along the chain. We have had cases of readers asking whether switching from a £$2000 mic preamp to a £$3000 mic preamp might reduce the boxy overtones they’d noticed, when the real weak link was the acoustic of the recording space. In that instance, a couple of duvets would probably have made a far greater improvement.
Assuming that you do know what areas need updating, how do you put a value on things? I have a mental formula that puts length of service on the top line and price on the bottom, where length of service is estimated either on the mechanical longevity of the product or, in the case of anything remotely connected to computers, how long before it is rendered obsolete by platform changes or shifts in connectivity protocols.
In most instances, analogue devices with jack or XLR connectivity will have the longest projected lifespan, and those built using discrete components that can easily be serviced come out on top. For example, a microphone can last for a lifetime with little or no servicing and high-quality analogue outboard can usually be fixed if there’s a problem — unless it relies on very obscure valves or toxic components that are no longer legal. Items that use surface-mount technology are still a reasonable bet as long as they are modular, but budget gear that uses this technology all mounted on one large circuit board is a much tougher proposition, and a repair may cost more than the thing is worth.
Then we come to hybrid analogue/digital products such as audio interfaces, where there’s always a risk that either driver support will dry up or the connection protocol that they use will become obsolete. You can bet on a few years of relative safety, but when it comes to computers, the future is a very murky place. The same applies to software, some of which can be very expensive. All the big names update their software to keep pace with computer evolution, but no company lasts forever and some of the smaller companies inevitably fall by the wayside. Even larger companies occasionally withdraw support from legacy products because it simply isn’t cost-effective to keep it up. Then there are those that charge for every update, so that has to be factored in too.
It can sometimes be difficult to retain perspective with studio purchases, but ultimately you have to ask yourself, ‘will it really affect the sales of my music?’