A Guide to Conscientious Studio Downsizing

It’s a generation — 21 years — since the release of Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, the album that arguably kicked off the transformation of the recording industry. No. 13 on New Music Express’ all-time best-seller list, most of the music heard on all 33 million copies of JLP, including the vocals, was recorded to ADAT. It was a first for a record of that magnitude and most of it was done in Glen Ballard’s home studio.

As both business models and production paradigms changed, many large studios closed, and the resulting flood of great used gear dovetailed with the advent of online marketplaces. But there was still music — and money — to be made, and the smaller, more economical "project studio" was born and thrived. So, if you're trying to run a tighter ship, what’s the best way to keep the least and get the most?

Need vs. Want

As many gearheads admit, the bright lines of need and want border a large, gray area."

Figure out what you need, then sell the rest. Easy, right? But, as many gearheads admit, the bright lines of need and want border a large, gray area. Need, per se, was not the reason much of this stuff was acquired. Creativity requires options, and new things are so shiny.

Parting with a hand-picked collection of gear is fraught with emotional as well as practical issues, and assessments of future needs are often tinged with some degree of wishful thinking and always with risk. But the most relevant needs here are related to finances and future goals rather than pieces of gear. It’s much more like making a business plan than making a record. On the bright side, the principles involved are scalable. They apply to “spring cleaning” as well as to major changes in direction.

Make the Tough Decisions

While the odds are that most people selling significant amounts of pro audio gear would rather be conducting the Philharmonic than an MBA-style analysis, suiting up for a due diligence exercise is less painful than it appears.

This process can be boiled down to three challenging questions and two simple arithmetic problems.

  1. How much money does the sale need to generate?
  2. Realistically, what type of recording work does the future primarily hold?
  3. Choosing only from currently-owned gear, what pieces would be in a hypothetical one-channel “desert island” signal chain, covering as much of the recording process from mic to master as possible, given present inventory?

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Caution: Math Ahead

Using “sold-for” prices from sales websites along with the Reverb Price Guide, estimate the resale value of your complete inventory of gear, including items like vocal booths, power, mic stands, cables, etc.

  1. Subtract the re-sale value of your desert island signal chain from the total inventory value obtained from your online research.
  2. From the result of the first math problem, subtract the dollar amount the sale needs to generate. If this works out to a negative number, stop reading and call your accountant.

With a gimlet-eyed assessment of future needs in mind, use the dollars yielded by the second math question to “buy back” the minimum amount of keeper gear that makes the desert island signal chain functional enough to hit the record button. All the gear not on the buy-back list are candidates for sale, and will generate the dollar amount needed from sales, or more.

Some important caveats apply: space considerations may dictate the sale of certain items; many people with enough work history and gear and experience to contemplate a desert island chain already have items on both “should be sold” and “must be kept” lists. Future work projections also can mandate “for sale” signs. Even if an 80-channel Neve board is on the keeper list, due diligence can help find gear that should be sold. It can also pay off when considering categories and specific pieces of gear, rather than a hypothetical “money chain.”

Elimination Round: Mics and Preamps

With some notable exceptions, microphones tend to be more application-specific than other types of gear. Thus, the kinds of recording no longer on the agenda may carve out a list of sales candidates. If two mics are similar in quality and application, the more versatile is usually more likely to make it to that desert island. An often-cited yardstick for mic versatility is the off-axis test, the maxim being that better mics sound better with off-axis sources.

Microphone-preamp pairings are frequently used to create a specific sonic signature. These hand-in-glove relationships may also make some decisions seem inevitable. On the other hand, downsizing provides the occasion for reconsidering where to get “color” in the signal chain. Preamps characterized as “neutral” generally do not neutralize the character of a microphone, and may unlock some mic-preamp pairings for economy.

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Outboard Overboard

Similarly, the necessity of eliminating some — if not many — options among compressors, limiters, EQs, reverbs and other signal processing units may help spark a radical re-thinking of their roles.

Making better and more extensive use of complex outboard gear you already know, and that is most versatile, is another strategy. The steep learning curve of an intriguing but unfamiliar unit may be a welcome or unwelcome challenge on your desert island.

Special Case: 500 Series

Could your desert island chain be made entirely from your 500 series gear? It’s unlikely, but perhaps not an unfair or irrelevant question. 500 series modules tend toward specialization. Combined with their attractiveness in the current used pro-gear market, they make strong candidates for sale for financial as much as functional reasons.

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The Laundry List

Many other categories of pro gear are essential links in a record-ready signal chain: A/D and D/A converters-interfaces, monitoring, computers and software, control surfaces, summing and traditional mixers, electrical power and other infrastructure items. For many, instruments and backline gear are also necessities.

Each category of pro gear has its own logic for inclusion or exclusion, informed by the needs of individual situations and preferences. The added benefits from this kind of scrutiny include getting reacquainted with your gear, so listings are specific and relevant, as well as confirming that it’s functional.

About the Author:

John Glenn
John Glenn

John Glenn does audio, video, web development and voiceovers in Brooklyn, NY. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Open Society Foundation and the National Association of Broadcasters. His work has won Cine Golden Eagle and Telly awards, and gold medals at the National Educational and Houston International Film Festivals.

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