Adding to your gear; expanding or lusting?

Right, I had a few issues with the blog this week (some articles from the past got re-published due to a mistake on my part), but now I can finally present the tips I promised in my previous post. The real previous post that is…

Gear lust

Gear lust is a well known phenomenon in synthland. It basically refers to admiring certain software or hardware so badly that you eventually decide to buy it even though you may not really need it, or worse; don’t even have much use for it. Its not so much about your environment or other gear; its simply that you really really like this stuff. Nothing wrong with that; you can always sell the stuff once you grow tired of it, right?

Well, not always..  Some software will be fully linked to your setup, and not every company out there allows you to transfer your license to someone else. There are even companies which will charge you money when you want to transfer your license. In these kinds of situations ‘gear lusting’ can become an expensive hobby really fast. Nothing wrong with that if you can afford it or manage to avoid these loop holes. But still, it is a waste one way or the other…

So… This article will try to avoid the lust and only focus on the expansion. I’ll be trying to give you some tips and tricks on issues you may want to look out for before you decide to actually pick up a new soft synth or other daw. Sometimes a little planning and plotting, as well as previewing, can go a long way. It might be a little boring, but at the very least it will save you some money. And with the prices people often charge for music software I think that might be a good thing too…

To me the whole process of building a good set together comes in a few specific steps:

  • Build a good foundation; have something to fall back to when required.
  • Dare to invest; a solid foundation should be able to support (most of) your needs.
  • Become (well) familiar with your gear; tools don’t make the professional.
  • Plan your expansions; are you expanding or simply making things easier on yourself?
  • Try replacing the expansion(s) with your basis; dare to go crazy sometimes…
  • And never, never, forget: this is about you not about others. What works for them doesn’t have to work for you. Even though some may try very hard to convince you to believe otherwise (some examples follow below).

I’m well aware of the cliche’s in there, but that’s just the way it is. SO, to kick things off…

Building a solid foundation.

My story starts at the very beginning; when you picked up some new gear to work with. Some people will claim that you can’t possibly do everything in a single DAW. No, instead you almost need a program for every individual task you have to get the best of the best…

“Recording should be done with a professional environment which also has a good sound engine, so you obviously want Cubase, but putting your work together and slicing a few things up can be best handled by Reaper because of its small size and versatility. But obviously Reaper is waay too cheap to be even close to having what it takes for some good sketching. You really need Ableton Live as your sketching tool, nothing beats its session view. But when you’re ready to mix down your work you obviously need to move into Pro Tools because that’s simply more professional. You may want to add some external sounds and effects to your material, then you really need to get Komplete to have as many sound material as possible. And when you are finally done its time to put it all into Cubase again but don’t forget to pick up the Ozone plugins so that you can process and master your work. And while am at it Cubase has a really dirty sound engine, when you’re doing loops and dance beats you should put those into Fruity Loops, now better known as FL Studio. But as good as it is, it really isn’t good enough to process your end material for putting it on CD. For what you want you really need the latest Samplitude, don’t forget to grab the Pro version; otherwise you won’t be doing any professional work, now will you ?”

For those of you who read the last paragraph and tend to wholeheartedly agree with the bias there then I think you may not going to like the rest of this article. Because quite frankly I consider the previous part one of the biggest pieces of nonsense I’ve ever put together in quite some time now

There is nothing wrong with looking into other ways to do stuff, but the moment you’re reaching the scenario I described above then I think you’re not even coming close to slightly touching the potential which the several products have to offer you!

Laying a good foundation basically boils down to finding an environment which simply feels good to you and provides support for those tasks which matter the most to you. It doesn’t really matter what environment this is; as long as it is something which feels natural to you and which allows you to do those things which are important to you.

For example…  I was looking out for a software synthesizer which would allow me to create good presets, record my work, tweak my work and if possible would also be capable of processing sounds in general. So when I came into contact with Live I discovered something which work flow felt natural to me from the start. That was good enough for me since this is a hobby. Next was the synthesizer aspect; that got filled in by getting the Suite version which included all the available software synthesizers.

But that doesn’t mean that Ableton Suite is the “mother of all solid foundations”. Bull..  I can well imagine that people who are fully into playing real instruments and recording and processing their material may very well be much better off adopting a DAW like Reaper instead of Ableton Live. Or for those who simply cannot get used to the workflow of either program maybe Cubase provides the better solution…

There is no easy, all problem solving, solution here.  The most important aspects however are all aimed at you. You need to feel comfortable and relaxed, you need to enjoy working with the program and most of all you need to be able to make the program your own.

Dare to invest.

As soon as you found the program which you really like and which you can imagine to be using for years to come it also becomes important to dare and set it all up. There is no bigger frustration, in my opinion that is, than to run into limitations in the longer run…

For me this meant investing more heavily into Live by picking up ‘Max for Live’. I considered that to be a very important expansion which would allow me to make Live do whatever I wanted it to.

Once again; the way you’re expanding really depends on you and you alone. I can imagine people who adopted Reaper to decide that the personal license isn’t going to cut it so they might consider the professional license instead in order to legally use Reaper for commercial purposes. People who find themselves drawn towards Cubase may very well be better off picking up Cubase instead of the more limited Essential or Studio versions. And so on…

But the bottom line really is that once you found something to your liking then you shouldn’t hesitate to get the best you can which fully suits you then and there…

In my opinion this has nothing to do with “gear lusting”, but everything with your foundation. When you’re starting out its extremely hard to imagine what kind of stuff you’ll be doing with your gear in a few months time. When all goes well you’ll be expanding your knowledge and expertise. As such your demands on your gear will also change. And it is most likely that the demand will only expand as you get to learn more about it…  Why risk running
into a wall in a few months time ?

Get to know your gear; become familiar with it.

From one cliche into the other ?  Perhaps…

But in many cases in which people start looking for “better” solutions I think the reality is that they’re looking for easier solutions. In general DAWs are very well put together programs. Whether we’re talking about a 700 Euro environment like Ableton Live, a 600 Euro Cubase environment or a 150 dollar Reaper environment… None of these environments should ever be underestimated.  And the only way to do that is to make sure you get to know what you’re working with.

And believe me; a price tag means absolutely nothing in the synth world, which is exactly what makes it so exciting (in my opinion anyway).

For example…  The cheapest environment of the ones I mentioned above provides capabilities which neither Live nor Cubase manage to pull off out of the box. And not just some “simple” tricks; instead some features which may very well extend your work flow in very drastic ways.

In the end its really an issue of knowing your stuff.. If you don’t know your own gear, how do you expect to make well considered decisions on whether you should expand or not?

Another example…  Some time ago Live 8.2 was released and it even came with an exciting new feature; the Amp and Cabinet sound effects. Developed by Softube, Ableton Live finally had its first real guitar amplifier effect. An effect which has never been heard in Live before… ever

But is that really so?

An old preset made by Dennis DeSantis.Please listen to this mp3 file.  Its a very small set of keystrokes I recorded using my “Rubber band” instrument rack which I created some time ago (you can download it on the download page of my website).

Now please listen to this mp3 file. Be careful; it is rather loud…

Do you know what you’re listening to ?

To make it even more confusing please try this mp3 file as well.

The last two mp3 files are obviously distorted, and it sounds as if its all done using some kind of Amplifier effect, right?  Although one sounds overdone the other is a little more subtle so to speak.

Would you believe me if I were to tell you that one of those “Amp” effects is in fact an effect rack build by Dennis DeSantis and dates back to Live 6.0 ?  So, how new is our beloved Amp effect really within the context of Ableton Live ?

Oh; and don’t take my word for it, obviously..  Check out Dennis’ livepack here on the Ableton download page. Don’t worry; it maybe dated but its still perfectly usable with Live 8.

As said, if you don’t know your own gear, then how do you expect to make a balanced decision on how you might put some new gear to good use ?

Plan your expansions.

And finally we reached the most important part of the post…

While it obviously is a lot easier to simply buy whatever you’d like this will certainly burn up a lot of money which could most likely be put to much better use…  When you see something you think is interesting to have the first I’d do is carefully check it out and see if it somehow fits into what you already have.

If this involves changing your current work flow entirely I think you should really ask yourself if its worth it.

First of all; what is it about. Is this about expanding your possibilities with your current gear or is this about making specific aspects easier on yourself ?  And if that is the case; how much easier ?  But most of all; is what you want to do really hard or impossible to do in your current environment, or is it simply something you’re not fully familiar with yet ?

Mastering effects, by Dennis DeSantis.A very hot topic when it comes to DAWs is mastering.  Now, personally I think its best to leave the mastering to be done by someone else; someone who will also listen to your material in another way than yourself.

But for the sake of this example; many people are convinced that mastering is a process which is impossibly done within Ableton Live.

Now, I’ll be the last to say that Live is the best choice when it comes down to this, but impossible ?  Here is yet another screenshot, this time from another audio effect rack made by Dennis DeSantis (its part of the same livepack I mentioned above).

So if you thought that the default mastering effects which come with Live weren’t enough then why don’t you give these effects a test drive?  I think you might very well come out surprised, some of them are pretty well put together in my opinion. Especially when you take into considering when they’ve been setup.

So do you really need the latest Ozone mastering VST suite or might it be possible that Ableton Live itself has already enough tools within its arsenal which can also get the job done ?

And speaking of such readily provided effect suites…  If we all would be picking up such tools to “properly” setup our audio material, then where exactly would the uniqueness factor remain ?  Wouldn’t it be more likely that your material simply ends up within the big mass of “home mastering engineers” and loose whatever special touch it might have had otherwise ?

And so I think the most important aspect of expanding on your gear is a good dose of planning.

Say you’re a Reaper user, it is your main DAW; you mostly use the sequencer and some of the many freely available VST instruments which are to be found on the Internet…  Then I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the latest Native Instrument 50% discounts got your attention and you decided to use that for expansion.

Just as much as I can see people who fully adapted to Cubase or Live Suite not caring for a 90gb expansion even though they could use some new sounds and effects. I can see those people skipping a full ‘Komplete’ expansion, but aiming lower for a Komplete Elements bundle for example.

That is the kind of plotting I’m talking about…  And as far as preparations go; one very big advantage of these times is that most software companies have put the manual(s) for their software products online, freely accessible by anybody.  A bit of reading can get you a long way..

Replace your basis with the expansion for a while.

Obviously the main idea behind an expansion is to actually build up on whatever gear you already had. But dare try turning this around for a change. Try performing some common tasks which you’d normally do in your main DAW, but this time try filling the gap(s) with your latest expansion..

It maybe a silly thing to do, and obviously sometimes it might not even be possible at all. But the main thing which matters here is that you’re actually trying to extend on the stuff you can do with your expansion. Experimenting, playing and making mistakes; those really are the best ways to learn and discover.

The biggest problem which I always face is that it is sometimes very hard to come up with something new to try ou
t. And that’s where I came up with this idea…  Are you normally heavily using Operator or Thor and did you pickup a new synthesizer lately? Then now maybe a good time to try and get the same stuff you’re used to from either one out of the new gear. You may come close or you may even fail horribly. But at the end you will get a better grip on your new stuff.

Never forget that it is all about you, not the rest of the world.

This comment basically goes two ways; the things which work for you don’t have to work for others. As such its not unthinkable that you manage to pull things off using your equipment which others may deem to be impossible or maybe even a silly thing to do. While it obviously never hurts to look into how other people solved or manage certain issues you should never allow yourself to be persuaded into doing stuff you don’t want to.  If it works for you then who are we to tell you otherwise ?

And finally, the most important part.. What works for others doesn’t have to work for you.

The best example for that is in my opinion the Yamaha demonstration movie of their MM6 synthesizer workstation. If you never saw this video before then I’m pretty sure you’ll get carried away in the enthusiastic way in which the host demonstrates the extensive features of the MM6.

However, the trick here is to listen and very carefully watch what he’s doing. For example; when he’s showing you how you can use presets for the several specific musical genres pay close attention to the way he plays the keyboard. Notice how he’s basically using a totally different playing technique with every different genre ?

I think this performance is very impressive, yet this is also what makes it look so easy. And that brings us back to the main topic again. He makes it look so easy; but does that automatically imply that you can do the things he does as well ?  All of them ?

Well, I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.  And if this video by any chance did convince you to buy a Yamaha MM6 I’d really appreciate some feedback about it

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