How Well Do You Know Your Gear?

I recently watched a video of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks showing off their home studio. As you can imagine it’s pretty swanky. You could say it’s in a shed at the end of their garden, and that would be true except that their shed is nicer than most people’s houses and it is packed full of lovely instru­ments and recording gear.

Susan is inter­viewed and asked why they have mostly vintage gear. The instru­ments are mostly older; the console is a Neve but they record to a DAW of some kind. The standard answer would be some waffle about vibe and/or mojo. She doesn’t go that way though. Her response is that people know how to use the older gear well. It has finished devel­oping and you can learn its tricks while modern gear is changing fast (partic­u­larly in the realm of software) so keeping up is hard.

This resonated with me as I am in the process of switching to a new DAW and it is driving me bonkers. There are lots of great new things to excite me, but they also distract me as I spend hours playing with the new gegaws. There are also moments of desol­ation as I find that a feature I relied on is no longer available to me. Perhaps the worst aspect is the change to my workflows. This is something that I didn’t think about that much before switching but this has had the biggest impact on my work by far.

Specific Knowledge of Specific Gear

There is real value in specific knowledge of specific gear. This is a reason that electric guitarists are often associated with specific instru­ments. Jeff Beck can make most guitars sound good, but his facility on a Strat set up for him is prodi­gious. Peter Green’s grasp of his Les Paul allowed him to get stunning tones from his unusual version of the guitar, whether his guitar was that way by design or accident.

It is much harder to master a gamut of gear. I wonder how this will affect the Axe-Fx gener­ation? The gear is amazing and it really suits some players. I have seen Annie Clark put on a stonking show using it and Dweezil Zappa relies on it for his Zappa Plays Zappa project. There is a rabbit hole there though. Choices can be dangerous.

This applies to recording too. I have heard recordings of drum kits done with a pile of SM57s that sound great (despite the mics being better hammers than mics) and recording where the full glory of a mic cupboard has been deployed sound like warm diarrhea. The differ­en­ti­ating factor is knowledge of the tools employed. If you know what you are doing with an SM57 you can accom­plish great results. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Once you get into the realm of consoles and outboard things get even more convo­luted. This is a big problem in a decently equipped studio and in the virtual world of DAWs it is overwhelming. What preamp, what EQ, what compressor how to route the signal, what busses to route through and so on. With a screen full of menu options for each choice where do you begin and how do you cope with the inevitable doubt that just around the corner could be the perfect gizmo for the task?

Squeezing Your Instrument Dry

Any instrument you spend hours playing on a daily basis can lull you into thinking you know what it has to offer. I think for most of us, and certainly for me, we find a way we like to set our instrument and then we just leave it. It is great to have a standard tone and to know that well, but you might be missing out.

When I was in secondary school we were taken on camping trips in state parks in the US. These were big spaces with lots of possib­ility to roam. One lesson we were taught was when finding a camping spot for the night always spend five minutes more exploring the area just in case there is a better spot just around the corner.

This holds true for instru­ments too. Perhaps backing off your tone pot a touch will give you something inter­esting. Perhaps picking closer to the finger­board will allow you to play a particular phrase more dynam­ically. Even a change in posture while playing can open up previ­ously unseen pathways.

These are all small adjust­ments that are very easy to make. What if you look a little further? In terms of fretted instru­ments, what if you play a passage in a different position that normal? What other scale shapes or even just range of notes are now available? What about playing louder than normal? Does that open up possib­il­ities? Or quieter? Can you hear new things?

Extended techniques are out there too. Look at what a player like Jim Campilongo can do with a Telecaster and a Princeton amp. He has a very inventive approach to his playing and he has developed a powerful and unique voice. In part he has been able to do this by focusing deeply on a limited set of tools (one kind of guitar and one kind of amp).

Just for one practice session why not try to find the outer limits of your instrument’s tone. I am using electric guitar/bass as my model but the mindset could apply to any instrument I think.

If you are a Strat player have you spent much time playing on the middle pickup by itself? What kind of tones can you get from it? The second tone knob only effects the middle pickup. What happens if you roll it all the way off and then switch to the neck pickup with the tone open? How do the tones compare? Can you come up with a line that uses switching between the two tones?

Even if you are a P-bass player can you get some different tones from your bass and amp? What do the extremes of your amp’s tone stack do? How bright can you go? Does that open up possib­il­ities with harmonics? If you normally play with a mid-scooped sound what about trying a dramatic low-mid boost?

I haven’t even mentioned pedals yet.

The point is there are lots of options we don’t normally think about. We find a decent looking campsite and we live there forever. What if Shangri-La is right around the corner? If not that there might be five other equally good campsites that would be nice to visit depending on mood or who is coming to dinner.

Recording for Result

Old farts like myself tend to go on about the old days when all we had were recording studios made of physical bits and bobs. The ones I used to work at usually had a limited amount of mics, pre-amps, compressors and even console channels. There was seldom any choice. Just having a tool was a plus.

This isn’t a diatribe at younger people intended to make you feel guilty about the tools available to you. The modern world of audio technology is brilliant. One of the best things it has to offer is choice. It is a dangerous gift though.

I can spend far too long wondering which EQ to use on whatever track. In the end the difference in result they will give me is minimal. The differ­ences converge on interface more often than not. There are occasions where something specialized will be useful, needing really tight Q on a notch filter for instance. When that is the case the choices are often simple. Having a go to tool and knowing it backwards is a great thing for you and whomever you are recording.

Methods and Workflows

Steve Albini reportedly said, “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up.”

He’s talking about an album. 50 minutes or so of recorded sound mixed and ready for mastering. This is in the context of recording in a commercial studio that you are paying for. The idea holds for working in your home studio too. Spending too long on any work too often sucks all the joy and creativity out of a project. If it takes too long to reach the end you can forget why you started the journey in the first place.

It helps greatly to have a standard method for each stage of the song/album making process. Deviations from the path are fine. If you have a path you at least have a frame of reference for your excur­sions and you can return to the path if you find yourself mired in shit.

I think this approach has benefits even if you like being immersed in merry chaos. Sometimes the chaos becomes less merry. It is good to have a route out. Also working from some set methods can free you up to put your creativity into more fun things than trying to find those audio files or figuring out which mic is connected to which input.

In practice in the world of DAWs much of this is about setting your prefer­ences and creating some template files to work from. This goes back to the earlier point about knowing what all the possib­il­ities of your instrument are. In the same way it is good to know what all those settings in the prefer­ences of your DAW mean. Some of them might be useful for you.

If there are things you find yourself doing every time you open a new project, you really should see if you can deal with them in prefer­ences or at least in a template file. Some folks always change their rulers or counters. You can set things up so projects open with everything how you want it. This just makes life easier.

Templates are great too. You can set up different ones for whatever types of project are common for you. Perhaps things like,

  • Songwriting
    • One channel for a mic, one for an electric guitar (or a softsynth piano) and a drum machine
  • Sound design
    • A selection of mono and stereo audio tracks with rulers set for time (rather than bars/beats)
  • Band recording
    • Channels set for drums, bass, guitars and vocals with a reverb and delay bus

There might be other things you use most of the time too like metering and or compression on the master bus. Why not have that there every time you open a project?

Methods not Madness

Methods are more ephemeral but boil down to, find a way to do something that works and try that first. Every time. If it’s a good method, it will work most of the time and if it doesn’t work you at least have a reference point to judge your excur­sions from.

For instance, if you are trying to get a good bass drum sound and your standard compressor and EQ setup isn’t working you have a (wrong) thing to judge. With a tangible thing that is failing you can evaluate why it is failing. Perhaps the compressor can’t attack fast enough or doesn’t have the knee to sound smooth enough. You can then go to an altern­ative that can do those things better. In my exper­ience working this way gets me to a good result faster than creating everything from a blank sheet.

The same applies to recording something. If you have a few mics you could use go with one that works most of the time first. If it works great. If it doesn’t think about why it doesn’t and you can make an informed choice on which one to try next. It is great if you can have some other tools in your box. Being able to whip plans B through G out quickly is a great way to save even more time.

Knowing what your tools can do will make your life (and your results) much better. Different pulgin effects can have very different inter­faces. Knowing what each control does and how they interact is very helpful indeed. That sidechain section of your compressor you never use, perhaps it might be good to have a look at that and see what it can do. If you always use a low-pass filter in your EQ to control the low end perhaps having a go with a low shelf would work better in some situations.

Separate Experimentation from Work

Build your palette of methods separ­ately from making your music as much as possible. I find giving myself an hour or two now and again to play with my gear and see what I can do really useful. Doing this while I am making my music distracts from the goal of the process. I just lose my way.

Ways that can be useful to exper­iment are,

  • A/B different plugins for the same task
  • A/B different setting on the same plugin
  • Mix up the order of the signal chain
  • Experiment with bussing and parallel processing
  • Enlist someone to help you do some blind testing of results

If you latch on to something that works save the settings (with a descriptive name) and/or make notes about what you did and why.

Slow Down

In the digital world of huge possib­il­ities, it is all too easy to get caught endlessly chasing perfection. A solid good enough will do most of the time. I have found that the biggest benefits come from better performance and writing rather than signal chains and processing. Spend your time, or let the person you are recording spend their time, where you can get the greatest benefit.

Musicians have been trained to be voracious consumers of stuff. New stuff is exciting. Like Susan Tedesci says though, knowing how to use an old tool really well is more useful than having more tools you don’t really under­stand.

Digital gear is not tactile, but in my mind I can see wear marks on the EQ knobs of some of my favorite plugins. I know what they do, I know where I can find good results (most of the time) and I can spend my time making more useful decisions that have a bigger impact on my output.

In the end it is all about the sound that goes into someone’s ears. The tools you use are just part of a whole sea of choices. The commercial world of DAW and plugin devel­opment will keep presenting us with newness. If you keep up with them you will never really know your gear. Perhaps it’s time to stop updating?

About Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at
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