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Educate Your Ears

Published May 2004

One of the most frequent types of question we get here at the SOS office concerns the choice of equipment, and it's evident that a great many people don't have enough experience of the available products to judge what is good and what is less so. Perhaps more seriously, they don't have the experience to know what's good enough to meet their needs. Obviously it's part of our job to check out equipment and give our honest opinions, but interpreting them can still be difficult if you haven't already listened to a wide range of alternatives in that same area.

Synthesizers are probably the easiest instruments to evaluate, because you can take a trip to your local music store, cruise a few presets and then compare the sounds with other machines they have in stock. However, it's much more difficult in the case of, for example, microphones, where you need quiet surroundings, reasonable acoustics and plenty of time to make any kind of meaningful comparison. If you've only ever used a dynamic mic before, you will probably hear a noticeable difference whatever capacitor mic you try, but comparing one capacitor mic to another is less easy in a shop environment. And if you don't have the chance to try out quality gear at all, you may not even realise what you are missing — you might decide that your dynamic mic is fine as it is, simply because you've never heard anything better.

Another area where it pays to be aware of how equipment sounds at different ends of the price range is reverb. Hugh Robjohns and I have done quite a few Studio SOS visits now, and while many of the people we've met seem happy to spend a lot of money on computers, monitors and instruments, they usually end up mixing using a host-powered reverb plug-in or a budget hardware box. When you're in a position to hear all the different reverbs available, you soon realise that the native reverbs that come bundled with the majority of sequencers simply don't cut it. Cheap reverbs sound gritty, they clog up your mix and they don't create a natural sense of space. Compare a cheap plug-in with even a mid-priced hardware reverb or a DSP-assisted reverb running on a plug-in card, and you'll hear a huge difference. And now that we have a new generation of convolution-based reverbs, both as hardware and plug-ins, we are experiencing another quantum leap in quality. However, if you never hear 'the good stuff', you're less likely to be aware of the shortcomings of your own equipment or software, just as you never realise how bad your eyesight is until you put on your new spectacles!

You don't need to buy the best of everything to make good-sounding records, but if you can identify the areas where you need to lift your game, and by how much, it will help enormously. You may also discover that in some areas, once you get past a certain price point, you have to pay a lot more money just to get a small increase in quality, so a mid-price solution could make more sense than buying the very best.

The reason I'm banging on about this is that I've spoken to a few colleges and music stores, and suggested they host the musical equivalent of a wine-tasting evening, where you can go and listen to the difference between a dynamic mic, some budget Chinese capacitor models, a few mid-priced mics and perhaps a high-end Neumann. The same goes for reverb and EQ. If this seems like a good idea, then why not suggest it to your local music shop?

Paul White Editor In Chief