Cutting The Clutter: My Year-Long Rig Reduction Regime

We audio engineers are notorious for having, collecting and bragging about our rig—our ever-growing and oh-so-precious kit. Producers smile confidently for the camera against a chaotic backdrop of racks, stacks and jacks that somehow indicate the value and depth of their expertise. I found myself “too defined by my belongings,” wanting to do more with less, and so I began a journey of rig reduction about a year ago. The goal? To reduce choices in the studio, shrink the kit, force quicker decision-making and increase quality.
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I hear futurists theorize that tomorrow's adults won't place so much value on having belongings. They say our borderline-hoarder mentality has become passe, tacky and self-destructive, and that too much stuff creates greed, confusion and indecision.

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The thing is, we audio engineers are notorious for having, collecting and bragging about our rig—our ever-growing and oh-so-precious kit. Producers smile confidently for the camera against a chaotic backdrop of racks, stacks and jacks that somehow indicate the value and depth of their expertise.

I found myself “too defined by my belongings,” wanting to do more with less, and so I began a journey of rig reduction about a year ago. The goal? To reduce choices in the studio, shrink the kit, force quicker decision-making and increase quality. Previously, I've always taken on a “get one of everything” mentality, hoping to never utter, “I can't do that” to a customer. That was the right course for the first two decades, but recent times left me with a seemingly ever-smaller room crowded by stacks of questionable gear. Indeed, I had an answer for any question, but certain pieces would sit for years at a time between queries.

The purge started with no-longer-desirable compressors, neglected noise gates, specialty guitar amps and “project” instruments. I would suggest that everybody try this step; it only hurt me for a minute and then I was soon feeling somehow lighter, freer and roomier. I did disappoint a few clients who missed the more esoteric options (e.g., my Roland JC-77), but they got over it quicker than I did.

The next phase did hurt: losing the console. After years of maintenance, upgrades and mods, I found myself leaning on the DAW more and on the console less, so I knew what had to be done. The fear of long-held work habits being discarded was considerable, but I felt that total recall had somehow become more important. I switched to analog summing with better converters and found the transition to be briefly rocky, but it ultimately won me over with improved workflow, recall and sound quality (as well as my clients with long-running projects that spanned both rigs).

There's a side effect to all this though, and I'll bet you saw it coming: the urge for plug-in mania!

Yep, take away a gearhead's tools and they'll instinctively replace them with newer and fancier models. Hoarding plugs is much easier anyway: They don't take up much more than drive (and iLok) space, they're typically more affordable than their hardware versions and nobody knows you've got an illness (at least until they see your pull-down menu of plug choices that would reach from ceiling to floor if only your monitor was that large). So far, I've mostly resisted and largely stuck with my favorites, but the constant stream of new offerings always beckons.

The other factor that has eased my transition from “too much” to “just enough” is modeling. Certain desirable pieces that regretfully snuck out of here can be invited back in virtual form—and even in that somewhat diminished state, they still manage to please. Models also help alleviate “acquisition anxiety” (what if I never do find my very own 1972 pre-CBS Model 2-S w/ titanium transformers?) because you can always buy the virtual re-creation and prevent meltdown—your meltdown, or the client’s.

So far this “fewer choices” thing seems to be working okay. People expect big rooms to have a smattering of all the classic gear, plus some modern top-shelfers, whereas producer's rooms and project rooms are expected to reflect their owner's tastes with a more specific rig. It does put quite a demand on the key pieces you actually keep, so you may find some crucial upgrades in order (converters, your “money channel” and L/R bus processors, in particular).

So, fellow engineers, producers and those whose rooms are bulging with teetering stacks, dusty amps and scratchy pots: will you give “rig reduction” a shot? I'm telling you it's a lot like getting a needle in the arm: You dread the thought of it, but once it happens, the pain is quick and not as deep as expected, and before you know it, you feel great and foolish for even worrying.

Repeat the rig reducer's mantra with me: “I will keep what I use, I will sell what I don't and buy what I really need.”

Once the pit in your stomach goes away, you'll be glad for the fresh start and your clients will admire you for it, too. Then again, that's just me; if you've downsized and realized you blew it, I'd like to know about it. We all would, actually, so please share your knowledge below in the comments, won't you?


Rob Tavaglione is the owner/operator of Charlotte NC’s popular indie music production studio, Catalyst Recording. Follow Rob’s audio adventures on Twitter: twitter.com/robtavaglione