Is it the Equipment or You?
How Upgrading your Home Studio May/May Not Be the Answer
10,000 hours is the supposed minimum needed to master anything. However, who’s to say you can’t cut that time down in half by simply upgrading your software and hardware. Plenty of people give testimonials on how adding a new plugin or preamp changed the quality of their mixes and production drastically. You can’t say that going from a stock synth in Ableton to Nexus 3 won’t change the quality of your production. But what if I told you that you really don’t need any of those upgrades and all you needed was that additional 5,000 hours. You could learn sound design from scratch, create different effects chains, and you may even go as far as printing stems of your track just to import them into another DAW for another sound. Either option is totally fine, but which one should you be choosing?
The Equipment: Let’s say you take a young kid that’s never made a single record before and put him in Steven Slate’s studio pictured above. You give him a YouTube playlist on how to use every single outboard gear, inbox plugin, sound pack, drum kit, and maybe even basic music theory for him to learn the piano with. How long, or difficult, do you think his journey to becoming a top tier producer would be? He has every tool and resource to make about any record he can imagine. From RnB to Power Metal, he can make anything and it would sound like it came from the multimillion dollar studio from which it came from. Now we both know that wouldn’t happen. By the time he got to the 10th YouTube tutorial he would be so overwhelmed he might catch an anxiety attack. He wouldn’t know how to operate any DAW, really. The drum kit wouldn’t make much sense to him, he wouldn’t what to use to mix let alone understand what mastering is. In this case, he’s dead in the water and may even give up.
On the Flip Side, put a ten year producer in that same room with all of his experience and you’ve turned him into a budding superstar. He already has a workflow, templates, trained ear, and proficient at an instrument. In about a year, his sound and skill level would jump so much you’d think the music was being made by a different person. For this guy, a multimillion dollar studio may mean big success.
The Person: Now let’s say you have that same producer who’s put in the work for ten years. He’s gotten some production credits, created a name for himself in his local city, and even has a photobomb with David Grohl. However, in this case he can’t upgrade anything for the next five years. Is he still going to be as proficient as his fellow producers who will continue to upgrade their equipment along with gaining more experience? While he’s using nothing but stock plugins and one compressor of his choosing, his friends are using the newest Kontakt libraries, UAD plugins, Apogee Duet 3, Neumann U87, and a 2021 iMac. They’re all full time and within six months, sonically, they’ll pull so far away from him that they’ll start to make him sound old. No chance he’s catching up, or will he?
Let’s say this same producer decides to get innovative and compensate for not having a budget. Instead of getting Kontakt libraries he learns a new instrument and sound design. Instead of UAD plugins and an Apogee he dives deep into audio engineering. Instead of a 2021 iMac, he learns to carefully print everything and store them. Problem solved right? Maybe not. While he’s learning these skills that will definitely propel him and sustain him, he’s missing out on projects. The other guys have already increased their workload because word has gotten out that these guys can create anything, and fast. While our producer has to take another six months to learn how to keep up they’re building their businesses. Plus, I’m not sure if you can emulate a $700 mic using a $100 one. I’m going to say it’s a safe bet that no matter what tricks our producer has that he’s not gonna compete.
All in all it really depends on what you as a producer will decide to do. Some will lean heavily on new plugins while others will decide to master what they have before moving onto anything else; and they may decide not too. My recommendation has always been to do a combination of both. You’re going to need to upgrade at some point but you will need to master what you have first. I assume that just about every producer only uses 12% to 20% of the equipment and plugins they have. Nothing wrong with it, but there’s still a learning curve that most of us have to hit at some point. Experience will do that for us because we all get a little curious and start clicking around. Just make sure you do so before heading over to Sweetwater.
Having a budget doesn’t necessarily beat skill. Being a master doesn’t necessarily beat access.