It’s the age old question that plagues every studio owner. Partly because we all like buying new toys, and partly to make sure we’re delivering the best sound we can. We’re unlikely to come up with a definite answer, but being realistic about what makes a record sound great is an important part of making great sounding records.
So does equipment matter? Or is it all about what your best with what you’ve got?
How you use it, not what you use
There are those that say it doesn’t matter what you’re using, it’s how you use it. And that is, to a certain extent true.
As long as you’ve got a full suite of tools – EQ, compressor, delay, reverb, expanders etc. etc. then you’ve got something to cover each eventuality. Each type of processor was created to perform a particular job, so if you’ve got one of each, you can solve any problem.
Beyond that, sought after gear just imparts its own particular character or does the job in a slightly different way, but it’s doing the same job; it really is just about subtleties at this point. And how important that is is subject to much debate, and an awful lot of potential placebo effect…
Songs stand by themselves
Another point in the ‘equipment doesn’t matter camp’ is that a great song will stand by itself, no matter what gear you use to present it.
There’s plenty of oft-cited evidence to back this up: the slim collection of Robert Johnson recordings that changed popular music forever for one, the warped dictaphone tapes that comprise Michelle Shocked’s first album is one of my favourites.
As music producers and audio engineers it’s easy for us to get obsessed by our own gearlust, but for most listeners, being able to hear the melody and the words is enough to love it if it’s a great song.
The invisible ceiling
On the other side, there is a quality difference up to a point. Anyone who’s used the Sonnox limiter over the bundled Cubase limiter will know that the Sonnox just sounds better.
You can be limited by using less than high end equipment. Although the Beastie Boys are big fans of using lo-tech guitar pedals instead of high end rack mount units to get their sound, it still takes some polish from some higher end gear in mixing and/or mastering to shunt it into the right overall quality band.
This is particularly noted when it comes to in-the-box mixes which often have a tendency to sound ‘flat’, ‘thin’ and ‘lifeless’, which can need remedying at the mastering stage with real analogue gear and/or purpose built digital saturators/harmonic enhancers.
The plug-ins that do make an in-the-box mix sound bigger (like the UAD plugs) certainly don’t come cheap.
There is also something to be said for the familiarity of classic sounds. The sound of tape isn’t necessarily nicer than Pro Tools, but so many of the classic records we all know and love were recorded on tape that we’ve become conditioned to prefer it.
The irony about the current trend for re-creating classic gear is that the no-frills stock plugins you get in any DAW are actually doing the job better than the classic gear, it’s just that we’ve got used to the idiosyncracies.
The bottom line
So does equipment matter? Or is it all the engineer?
As with any question in life, it’s really not as simple as that. It’s really a combination of both. The equipment you use will make a difference to the sound you get, how you get there and how quickly. But without the right know-how, great gear is just a box of cables (or a collection of 0s and 1s).
People often say a great engineer can get a great sound from anything. This is probably true to an extent, but he’ll probably get there quicker with high-end gear and have more options about what that great sound is.
What do you think? Does equipment matter? Or is it all about the engineer?