The commercial mass media are driven by money. This is not an accusation so much as it is a fact of life. Advertising revenue is the lifeblood of the media, which means that their survival ultimately depends on getting you to buy something, and their success comes from getting you to buy as many things as possible. Of course, anyone working in a retail store is there to get you to buy as much as possible, too. I briefly was contracted as a manufacturer’s rep for a major maker of computer printers, and that job ended when I made the mistake of telling a customer in a store that they did not need to buy something. I guess I just never learn, because here I am, about to tell you that there are toys that you don’t need to buy.
A few years back I had a fair amount of money that I could spend on equipping my studio. I spent some thousands of dollars on a variety of stuff. Looking back, I am amazed by how much of what I bought either became obsolete or ultimately just was not necessary. At one point I developed an ambitious plan to build what I called my Road Rage Recording Rig. Even though it was to be built around my DAW, I originally thought that I would need to fill 4 12-space portable rack cases with equipment, which would include not only converters and mic preamps, but also equalizers, compressors, a recording device or two, and a fairly extensive patch bay.
As the software in my DAW improved and I learned more, the big Road Rage Recording Rig idea was sidelined by my developing concept of the Incredible Shrinking Studio. Part of this was driven by the limitations of the space available to me in my house. Two moves ago, I found myself frustrated by the amount of space taken up by my 24-channel Mackie 8 buss console. As nervous as I was about not having a big mixer in my studio (I first learned on the big analog consoles and tape machines, so that’s what I was used to), I finally realized that I didn’t really need that great big control surface in my way. I was already using my trackball and keyboard a lot more than the console when I was mixing, to the point where most of the console was not being used at all. The main part of the board that I still used was the monitor control section, so I sold off the board and built myself a small custom monitor controller. Suddenly my control position was a lot smaller and more manageable.
Fortunately, I never had the money to buy the 2nd, 3rd and 4th road racks or the gear I planned to fill them with, because over time I learned that most of what I intended to buy was simply not needed. I had to struggle to leave behind the strategies I learned for analog recording. You see, back in the bad old days we had to fight tape noise. This often meant recording with EQ and compression going to tape. At first we did the same thing with digital recording, partly out of habit and partly because at first we were still concerned about hitting the A/D converters hard enough without overloading them.
I finally got past this when I handled sound for a couple of local stage musicals last year. I ended up using my DAW setup to handle the live PA mix for the shows as well as recording them. I did not have enough outboard compressors and equalizers for all inputs, so I went with a rig that was stripped down as much as possible. All of the converters, preamps and such fitted into a single 6-unit portable rack. I used the record level meters in my DAW when setting mic preamp gains, and once I had everything set up to avoid clipping I did not have to worry. Any noise concerns came from before the converters anyway, so adding outboard compressors to the front end would not have helped.
If you have the right hardware and software in your DAW, it is amazing how little else you actually need. You still need preamps, converters, and monitor control (including cue feeds) of course, not to mention microphones, but that’s about it. For the most part, you do not need any other outboard gear. You do not need outboard compressors or EQ, because you can do all you need in those areas with plugins inside your DAW.
Now, I am well aware of the reputation of compressors like the Fairchild 670, the Teletronix LA-2A and the Urei 1176, and the lure of things like vintage Neve console EQ modules. There is no doubt that the sonic “flavors” imparted by these “magic boxes” are attractive to many, and I have used all of these myself in the past. However, there were both hit records and great sounding recordings that were made before any of these were available, and many fine and successful recordings have since been made without them. If you can afford to own (and maintain) such toys, and they give you the sound you want, fine. However, the idea that you must have exotic toys like this to make great recordings or to produce hits is a myth. The engineers that made great recordings with these tools had to learn how to use those tools to shape the sound they were after, and today it is possible, if you choose the right DAW setup and learn how to use it, to make great recordings entirely “in the box”.
Most of us have to live within limited budgets, so it is important to spend your money where it will do the most good. Once you have your DAW put together, it is most important to be able to clearly and accurately hear what you are doing, and to cleanly pick up the sounds you want to record. Make sure that you have accurate monitor speakers in a room that is acoustically set up as well as you can afford, then concentrate on getting the best available microphones, preamps and converters. Don’t feel that you need exotic outboard compressors, equalizers or other processors unless you don’t have to worry about your equipment budget.