Hello! Here are some ideas and tips that I think could help you make better decisions while buying audio equipment.
Think long term
I like to see any piece of gear as an investment so I try to choose products that are known for being robust and durable. There are always cheaper options out there but I don’t mind paying a higher price if I have a better guarantee that the equipment is going to last for longer and be more reliable.
In order to determine durability, a good hint could be that the manufacturer offers a longer guarantee period than legally required and/or a good reputation among veteran users (some detective work in audio forums is a must). It is also a good sign when a product is manufactured in Europe or the US, although this is not very frequent and doesn’t guarantee a higher quality necessarily.
Buying higher end gear is particularly relevant for audio since electronic components are quite important in determining quality and life expectancy. The use of cheap plastic instead of more durable components like metal is also commonplace and something to avoid, specially in field equipment.
Something else to think about is that durable gear is usually well known in the industry and may give clients some extra confidence to hire you before others.
On the flip side, you can’t always afford to buy higher quality equipment and sometimes you may need to opt for entry level gear. This can also happen when you need an specific thing for a gig and don’t have time or money to find the best possible option. In those cases, well, you probably need to bite the bullet but in general my advice would be to wait if you can. Flip more burgers and sweep more floors. Once you have enough to at least access the mid tier, go for it. In my experience, those investments will pay off. Ten fold. You need to spend money to earn money.
I bought a Tascam HD-P2 in late 2011. I chose this model because of its reputation and quality. To this day, I still use it as my main recorder for sound effects. It has also accompanied me through features films and documentaries, on snowy cold exterior days and crazy hot Seville summers. It has never failed or died during a take.
I am not saying the HD-P2 is perfect. It only offers two microphone inputs, the pre-amps are not ultra clean (but they quite good for their price range) and the powering options are limited. Nevertheless, it served me well throughout my first years working in audio, it gave me confidence and allowed me to get a huge return on my investment.
Save on the features you don’t need
I think this is key. Don’t get dazzled with fancy stuff that you are never going to use. It is important that you think about the features that you actually need and then look for the best option the market has to offer.
Of course, in order to do that, you need to know what your needs really are, which is the tricky part. Do you prefer more channels or a higher resolution? Bigger memory or longer battery life? If you know what kind of specific work you are going to do, this is going to be easier to decide. Try to narrow your needs and priorities.
I recently bought a Sony PCM D100 because I wanted to have something portable to record on the go. This recorder is quite expensive (for a handheld device) and doesn’t have XLR inputs which for me is a big issue. But the thing is my goal is to have something really portable so I can record in situations when a big rig would be cumbersome.
So I am losing the XLR feature in exchange for great quality of audio, battery life, internal memory and construction. All of them features that are essential if I’m going to use this on the go.
Avoid audio elitism
Sound is something that can be objectively measured but, nevertheless, the way we experience it is quite subjective. People apply all sorts of descriptions to audio like “silky”, “airy” or “muddy”. I’m not saying these are not useful or that these don’t describe real properties but sometimes I think we get caught up in these terms too much.
This problem is twofold. On one hand, sometimes people are so ready to justify their purchase that they start to hear mystical properties in a piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes we can actually really tell the difference (in terms of clarity or timbre profile) between two pieces of gear but it is so small that it’s only noticeable while soloing and/or A-B testing. If the final consumer is probably not going to tell the difference, is it really that important?
Don’t get me wrong, I still think that audio quality should be a priority but usually when investing in equipment the very expensive stuff gives you diminishing returns. You need to really expend a lot of cash to get from the professional to the “elite” level. Maybe you don’t need to.
So yeah, choose quality but don’t get crazy. Beware of mystical claims and 20K€ cables. I honestly think that if we forced people to take blind A-B tests comparing decent gear with very high end equivalents they would be amazed with how close they can be.
Your sound is as good as your chain’s weakest link
Before buying a new fancy microphone, maybe stop for a second and think about the small stuff. There is always something outdated or in a bad condition. Maybe it would sensible to improve on those weak areas first.
Sure, you don’t need fancy solid gold cables but get yourself some decent ones. Another good example of this could be battery management. If your gear uses batteries of any kind, invest in good chargers. I recommend you get familiarized with the stuff that video and photography folks use. Smart chargers are a great option since they have independent charging cells and programs to keep batteries healthier.
Audio cases (I like Portabrace) are also a great option to make sure your equipment is safe while traveling or on location. I bought my Tascam HDP2 with a Portabrace case and it’s really a worthy investment. The velcros work like the first day eight years later.
Balance Risk and Personality
Some people are more risk averse than others and this is something you need to take into account. In my case, I don’t feel confortable rushing things or spending large sums of money so I try to avoid doing those two things at once. If you are similar to me, remember that at some point you have to take the leap and is going to feel uncomfortable. But that’s good. That’s what they mean when they say “Is good to step out of your confort zone”.
If, on the other hand, you tend to rush things, well, take it easy. It may help to give yourself some time to make sure to make the right decision. Sharing your situation with friends or colleagues may help too, you’d be surprised by how much better you can see things when you articulate them out loud and get feedback.
Personally, I don’t like to buy second-hand stuff because I feel like I’m taking a big risk but if you are confortable with that, it’s definitely an option. It helps if you can check the condition in person and knowing the seller is ideal. If you are buying online, using sites with a reputation system is a must. Other than that, second-hand is a risk that may pay off or end up in disaster. So ask yourself: how much more money am I willing to pay to get peace of mind instead?
Reviews are spooky
Any piece of equipment that is reasonably popular is going to have some scary reviews. That’s the nature of the polarized online world: people only bother giving 1 or 5 stars, so there isn’t much nuance. Having said that, reviews are still a valuable resource when used with caution.
My approach is to focus on quality rather than quantity. Sure, you can found many reviews in Amazon nowadays but I would prefer to check audio forums or specialized stores first. You can also check reviews for a product on online stores that you are not planning to use. If you are in Europe, B&H and Sweetwater are great. If you are in the US, Thomann is a fantastic source.
Other than that, your best bet is to join and participate forums like Gearlutz. With time, you’ll get to know people there whose opinion would probably be more valuable than a random Amazon user.
Limit your tools
Scarcity may sound like a bad thing but I think you can learn a lot from it. Limiting yourself to a small number of tools forces you to be creative, try new things and of course you will master them. Is hard to do that if you have too much stuff so my advice would be to really make the most of what you have before buying something new.
For me, a good example of this is audio libraries. If you already have a decent amount of sounds, there is probably a lot you can do with them. Doing sci-fi or fantasy sounds, for example, will force you to experiment with what you have around in terms of recording gear and plugins and you will learn far more than if you just buy yet another library.