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PAR Editorial: On The Importance Of Gear

One regular client from my studio days, a superlative golden-eared producer/engineer, had a plethora of exotic analog outboard gear that he married in to a digital workflow. Then one day, he put the whole lot on eBay. He said that while he could discern differences between the hardware and the latest software versions of the devices, the differences were so minute as to be insignificant. In a full mix, he said, any differences were completely insignificant, as they were not audible in that context. None of his artists had any complaints about the transition, nor did the labels paying him for his services.

That same engineer undertook an exhaustive evaluation of analog to digital converters to mate with his DAW. Some of the devices under test ran north of $500 a channel. At the low end was a converter package that ran south of $30 a channel. Converter semiconductors have gotten very good. With care in circuit board design and clocking, and with quality analog circuits on the inputs, A/D performance is possible at that low end that beats out the onboard converters in very expensive digital recorders of decades past. As with his outboard, my friend said he heard performance differences, and the more expensive converters won critical listening shootouts. Yet, when the various packages were used in tracking, the differences were imperceptible in a mix.

I’m not out to discourage high-end gear sales, but to offer another perspective on the bold statement made on PAR July/August 2014’s cover, “Why Gear Doesn’t Matter.” [Read PAR Technical Editor Lynn Fuston’s editorial here: —Ed.] Of course, gear does matter, or my engineer friend wouldn’t have chosen from a variety of microphones and mic pres for his recordings. He wouldn’t have employed even the digital emulations of his discarded hardware. But his experience does suggest that the value of gear must be considered in a larger context.

If the performances being captured have no emotion, all the gear in the world isn’t going to get a listener’s toes tapping. With the right technical and aesthetic chops, and a moving performance, a good engineer will make the most of the tools available. Now, given their druthers, they’ll still opt for the good stuff, it’s just not what makes them good.