I am the first to admit that I suffer from Gear Acquisition Syndrome, especially when it comes to recording equipment. Like many others I have an illness that sees me unable to live with spare spaces in a rack, or keyboard stands that just don’t have enough keyboards on them. For many years I was certainly one to chase that next great piece of equipment, only to find that having it made me want three further pieces of equipment to complement the last ones. You can see a pattern developing, it’s a problem. But, in the end, it’s not the great expanse of outboard gear, or how many channels your recording console has that determines how good your recording will turn out. More and more I found myself simply recording single channels, or perhaps a stereo pair, but rarely more, so a 32-input console along with racks and racks of outboard gear certainly seems like overkill. A little stocktake of my setup was needed and the result has been a better quality recording across the board.
The fear of downsizing your rig is something that many musicians and engineers share. It seems that every piece of equipment was purchased for a certain need and has developed a certain attachment with the user over time, so separation anxiety can often take over at just the mere thought of reducing your setup. But this is where a little clear thinking can be so essential. Take a step back from your recording rig and consider what it is that you actually use when you track a vocal or instrument take, and then look at what is just getting in the way. You will be surprised at how much equipment in a home studio does not get used for essential tasks, and often this is just degrading your signal path. Identify the necessities and flag the marginal equipment that could be better used in a separate application. Running your signal through additional processors that are not actually necessary is only going to add noise and take away from the tone of your recording. Yes, it looks great to have racks of cool gear glowing and flashing whilst you are at your desk, but if it only serves to disturb your signal’s integrity, it might as well be turned off and pulled from the setup.
Most of the time when tracking you don’t want to overladen your signal with too much processing as it can be to the detriment of the recording and cannot be undone. As most of us are now recording straight into the computer, it is advisable to keep your signal path from the signal source to your DAW as short as possible. If you want to go to town with processing and effects, do it in the mixing stage, when it can be undone, but try to capture the signal in its purist form to begin with. That means stripping down the signal path to contain only bare necessities; turn off the gear you are not using and remove it from the signal path, or incorporate a patch bay to allow for simple direct routing. This is a great trick as it allows you to add another piece of gear and plenty of additional cables to your rig, all in the guise of simplifying it. I know, I have a problem, but who doesn’t love a fully loaded patch bay with all the options right where you need them?
In many applications you don’t need more than a microphone, a quality preamp and an A/D converter to get the signal recorded properly. Be careful with EQ and compression at this stage, as it cannot be undone later and often serves to add extra noise to your signal. If you had to add any processing before it went to tape, a very subtle compressor would be the most advisable idea to ensure that your signal doesn’t end up clipping, but you don’t want to ride it too hard for fear of taking away any dynamic range that the performance might exhibit. When you strip it back, and remove most of the unnecessary evils along the signal path, you will find that the end result is far better, cleaner and more usable. Adding thousands of dollars’ worth of outboard gear into the signal path doesn’t make a voice or instrument sound better if it is not applied properly, and with dirty power and low quality cables it usually serves to degrade the signal more than it improves it.