If It Sounds Good - It Is Good!
— Duke Ellington

The GAS Crisis

Your Author's personal Hot Mess home studio just over a decade ago...

Your Author's personal Hot Mess home studio just over a decade ago...

As it's Music Messe week (or Hot Messe as I call it) across the pond with all the new shiny and blinky and lusty musical gadgetry. In celebration, I though it would be a great time to talk about gear. Mostly how to avoid drowning in it...

In the Industry, we joke a lot about GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. GAS used to be rampant when a recording facility needed a bunch of hardware (and inevitably software and computers) to actually accomplish anything sound related. For the past decade plus it's been more about those computers and software, but we've all seen the resurgence in knobs, sliders, and walls full o' crap mostly because of the rise in popularity of Eurorack and modular synthesizers and manufacturers stepping up their hardware game to keep the money train rolling forward.

If you take a look at any of the major music websites (or even (gasp) print mags) you've noticed they are littered with Musos sitting in front of or noodling around with racks brimming with electronics and reams of cabling. While I admit they are fun to look at or watch, I always think the same thing when I see these: just what in the hell are they actually doing with all of that mess?

Yes, I know that I plead with all of you to be creative and think outside the box (see what I did there?), but a lot of what I see and hear from these videos and gearselfies is the same damn thing over and over again. It's 'Krell' patches, or cover tunes, or how to recreate Artist X's favorite car alarm sound using 37 different modules (mostly hand-built or customized) running through 12 different stomp boxes (again, mostly circuit-bent with unobtanium knobs), and likely recorded on cassette for double-extra bonus street cred. I just sigh knowing I could have had this done in a DAW in less time that it took for any of these people to decide which 37 modules out of the 94 in their rack they were going to use for this 'demonstration'.

It's akin to collecting baseball cards.

Yes, there are 'newbies' (and 'experts' alike) who will glean some info from these vids, but they also get the stupid idea that in order to make anything musically they have to have the lifestyle to go with the music, which means you have to have the shedloads of sonic toys just like they do.

Your. Gear. Does. Not. Make. Your. Music.

You do.

Have you ever heard the old adage that the best camera you have is the one you have with you right now? This applies to musical toys too. The best gear you have is what you own at this very moment. If I took away every musical doodad and gizmo from your studio and handed you a ukulele saying this was all you could use, I'd bet you would figure out how to make that work for what you needed to express musically.

Don't believe me? Try it. Go to your music-making zone, pick a single instrument from your arsenal (hardware or software - doesn't matter) and only use that to record a quick demo. Don't worry about anything else like effects or the latest editing techniques, just use that instrument and nothing else and record something. Amaze yourself with what you can do with so little.

Since it's Springtime, the innate desire to clean and tidy is thrust upon us once again. So it might not be a bad idea to put some of that to work on your music-making apparatus as well. Here are some tips that I've found quite effective:

Easy-peasy: Haven't used that piece of hardware in a year? Sell it or give it away to someone who will put it to use. (Bonus Karma Points!)

A bit harder: If you're like me and install every software demo and trial on your computer to try it out but never bought it, it's time to erase it all and regain some drive space and possible sanity. This goes for programs you haven't used in a while either (see the One Year Rule above). If you really want to get serious about this, reformat your whole computer and start again with what you absolutely need. You'll also get a better (faster) running computer out of the deal.

Harder still: (or 'The Nostalgia Factor') You've had some piece of gear since you were 5, or your Grandmother made it for you. Maybe you used it on a ton of projects and now it's broken but it's too expensive (or time consuming) to fix. Maybe you found it on the cheap at the local Pawnbroker and are waiting for the price to go up just a little bit more on Ebay. Maybe you're thinking about starting a museum. Like the first tip, if you haven't used it in a year, move it on to someone who will.

Intervention time: You have so much stuff in your studio that you either a) takes so much time to get everything prepped that you lose your musical ideas, or b) it's starting to look like an episode of Hoarders, then you have GAS. You need to seriously rethink what you're doing and how you're doing it. Use the picture above for inspiration. :)

Some additional thoughts when thinking about acquiring new toys:

Never, ever buy something because your fave artist uses it or you heard them talk about it somewhere. You will not sound like them because you have the same gear, nor will you achieve the same success because you're see with it.

I loves me some modular synths, but caveat emptor: it's a rabbit hole that will empty your wallet in no time (it's jokingly called Eurocrack for a reason). Figure out exactly what you want to do with a Modular before you start buying, and I highly recommend using Modular Grid to help you plan and organize. I have purposely limited myself to two small racks - one for the home studio and one to take out to gigs, and modules move from one to the other as needed.

Can you find it used? You can still find good things on Ebay, Facebook, and (shudder) Craigslist. You have to put the time into it, and you have to ask questions and obviously be safe when making the transaction. Some music shops still dabble in used gear, so check that out too.

Speaking of music shops - if you are thinking about a new toy, see if the local has one you can try out. Interwebz reviews are a beautiful thing, but just because someone (or many ones) online think it's the best thing invented doesn't mean you will. Getting your actual paws on one and trying it out will help your decision.

But ultimately, you need to keep yourself in check by asking 'does what I have already do that?' The latest Hot NAMM or Hot Messe product might be what you have always dreamed of, and the sounds it produces are the voices of angels (or devils if that's what you're looking for). But I'll wager that if you put just a little time and effort into one of those boxes or apps or plugins that you already own, you could make those sounds too, and perhaps some that shiny new toy can't.

And you didn't have to spend a penny. :)

Use and love what you have. Use it until it doesn't do what your music needs anymore. Use it until the thing falls apart, or just doesn't run because of an updated system or the repair bill outweighs getting something new. Use it until you know how to make every single sound your brain can conjure up, then push it into things you never imagined. Burn off the GAS and you'll be rewarded with more freedom to get the ideas out of you head and out into the world. So let me repeat:

Your. Gear. Does. Not. Make. Your. Music.

You do.

April 2017 Dynamics Check

Happy Dynamic Range Day!