Around the clock and around the globe, in forums like gearslutz.com, harmony-central.com and countless others, the international community of musicians and audio engineers engages in a psychologically dysfunctional cycle of fabulous consumerist indulgence on one hand and its corresponding negative phase – didactic, moralistic reproach and shaming – on the other. The subject is the gear that musicians use to perform and record, and the rhetoric runs hot: what sounds best and most authentic, who used what to get which sounds, who is full of wisdom and who is full of crap and what gear you need to have even a shot at making it in the profession – for the word “pro,” here as everywhere in the world of music, is among the most toxic and inflammatory.
Iconic gear of the past (Neve, Telefunken) and expensive boutique clones thereof are fetishized beyond all reason. Affordable tools available at Everyman prices are mocked into disgrace (except for everyone’s stash of under-the-radar sleepers and keepers, which are fetishized beyond all reason). Crazed appetites are born, nurtured to hysteria, satisfied and reborn here, often seeded by the MI (musical instrument) professionals who roam freely under their aliases. In the anonymized world of the Internet forum, authority is fluid and suspect. Practically anyone can stake a claim to it, but you’d better put your “flame suit” on when you do.
As the gear debates and hyperbolic spasms verbiage rage on, the dour Eeyores invariably show up to debunk each instance of hype-gone-wild with a finite set of shopworn truisms: “It’s not the gear; it’s the ears, man;” “Four tracks was enough for Sir George Martin;” “Just stick a 57 in the grill cloth and play something good. Done.” And this one most of all: “You guys should try actually recording some music for a change instead of posting about gear on the Internet all night” (said the user “AudioMan” with the post count of 14,321.) “The silverface Brauschnuften TL 252a is the warmest, punchiest unit out there. There’s really no substitute,” writes the user “ProSoundz.” “Buy mine,” she adds. “Steve Albini likes it.”
It’s a disease and there’s a name for it: GAS, Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I have it. It can be managed but not cured. The GAS epidemic seems to be due in part to the high-speed meme traffic of the Web and in part to the low cost of Asian manufacturing and the democratization of the once-specialized professional art of recording. All computers (and many phones and tablets) are recording studios in potentia that, in terms of bandwidth and power, quite surpass the one in which Queen recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As a result, musicians are inspired to learn recording themselves and save the money that would have been spent on studio hours for other necessities, like hiring a publicist to get Noisey to preview their singles and videos.
Whether this is killing the industry or creating new ones, who knows? David Lowery, maybe, and that’s about it. Meanwhile, the average musician (who 30 years ago had a four-track cassette deck for a sketch pad and not much else) is accumulating quite a pile of perfectly adequate recording gear: computer workstations, converters, preamps, microphones, near-field monitors, sound treatment and more. We learn by trial-and-error and by consulting the aforementioned forums, where discussion inevitably trends away from the drudgery of methods and techniques and toward the glittering Grails of gear: what gear you positively need right now if you want to be a serious player. But always remember, folks: It’s the ears, not the gear.
Kudos to the Hudson Valley Musicians’ Collective (HVNC) for recognizing the GAS epidemic and doing its part to promote sanity and responsible consumption with a workshop on microphone technique, to be held at the Tin Roof in New Paltz on Saturday, January 9 at 2 p.m. Your guide will be New Paltz’s Rick Birmingham, a veteran live-sound engineer who has worked with everyone from Dave Brubeck to James Brown, as well as a local studio owner and a pretty badass multi-instrumentalist with a keen interest in Turkish music. The premise here is getting more out of the gear you have, rather than getting more gear that you really don’t need or know how to use. Birmingham argues that microphone choice and placement have more to do with the sounds you get than any factor other than instrument choice and performance. He’s right.
Birmingham’s presentation is the one next up in a series of workshops organized by the HVMC, a collective that hooks prospective students up with teachers, hosts monthly jams (first Wednesdays at Caféteria in New Paltz) that bring students and teachers together in performance situations and develops community-focused musical education programs like this one, regarding technical, musical and business/career-related topics. Following Birmingham’s microphone workshop, the next workshop features the great keyboardist and synthesist Neil Alexander speaking on electronic music tools and techniques at the New Paltz Rec Center on Saturday, February 20.
Admission to the microphone workshop costs $25, but the scale is sliding, so show up anyway. Tin Roof is located at 51 Elting Avenue in New Paltz. For tickets as well as for more information on the Hudson Valley Musicians’ Collective and its many innovative initiatives, visit https://hvmusiccollective.com.