Starting your gear collection
There are many ways to start in the world of synthesizers and electronic music. First you could simply scrape all your savings together and just go for some of the ‘big’ or better known brands. You can’t really go wrong here, but a little preparation can most likely save you time and money in the longer run.
So here I’d like to sum up some points which I consider to be important issues when it comes to starting a gear collection of your own.
Note that my main focus will be aimed at synthesizers / DAWs in general.
#1 – There is no right or wrong!
This is in my opinion the most important point of all and also what makes the ‘world of Synths’ so appealing to me. When it comes to building up your gear then there are dozens of different ways to approach this and all of them have their own advantages and (possible) disadvantages.
What counts however is the end result, what that result is depends entirely on your goal. For example; are you planning to play ‘live’ before an audience or are you more of a ‘studio type’ ?
Always keep in mind: What works for others doesn’t have to work for you!
#2 – You’ll want some keys.
No matter if you’re planning to work only in a studio or if you’re actually going to perform live on stage; you’ll want a decent set of keys. Even if you don’t know how to play the keyboard (yet?).
Why is that, you ask ?
Well, simple… An electronic keyboard is basically the universal way of providing your gear with input. And although you could easily use a computer keyboard to play a few notes there will be plenty of occasions where that simply won’t work anymore. For example if you’re working in a computer program (‘DAW’) and open an extension (‘VST’). More than often will that render your computer keyboard useless for note input unless you keep the main program active. An electronic keyboard on the other hand…
There is a large variety of ‘keys’ to chose from and once again keep point #1 in mind. It doesn’t matter if you pick up a full blown synthesizer, a mere MIDI keyboard controller or perhaps an electronic keyboard which also has MIDI support. What matters is that the keyboard has a good feel to you.
I do recommend to make sure that your keyboard has ‘Touch response’ or ‘velocity sensitivity’. In other words: the harder you strike a key the louder the volume of the sound will become.
#3 – Pick a main environment.
I think you’ll get the best results if you pick what I’d like to call a ‘core’ environment and put it into the centre of your production. It doesn’t really matter if this is hardware or software, as long as you feel it is the right tool to use for making your music or sound designs (or whatever it is you’re aiming for).
The reason why I’d focus on 1 ‘main’ environment is because most synthesizers (whether they’re hardware or software) are quite extensive, and it will take you a lot of time to learn. And even then you’ll discover that despite all your gained experience there are still new tricks and approaches to discover. So having something to centre your attention on can really help in that process.
#4 – Diversity is key.
Now this may look a bit odd if you just read point #3 but always keep in mind that there is no universal solution which solves everything. Every DAW and / or synthesizer will have its own unique features and therefore also its own advantages and disadvantages. While this isn’t a problem perse it can be very beneficial if you have more alternative ways to achieve your goal when making music or designing a sound..
My environment involves around Ableton Live. I picked this up because of its own unique workflow (session view vs. arrangement view) and its extensiveness (signal routing, using VST extensions, instruments, etc.).
Now lets say I want to take the sound of one instrument and apply some FM modulation using a signal from another instrument.
This simply cannot be done within Live, but the extensive routing scheme of Reason on the other hand does allow for such scenario’s. Yet Reason is a semi-locked down environment; it doesn’t support VST extensions for example.
SO what one environment ‘lacks’ can be filled in by the other.
#5 – Invest where it counts.
If you’re beginning to build a collection then get ready to spend some money; some of the gear out there can be quite expensive but you’ll have to start somewhere. Note that if you have all the money you need then this is obviously a moot point. But if you don’t…
I suggest to carefully weigh your options every time you decide on expanding your gear. If you do then this is where a little planning can go a long way.
When I started out with DAW’s I finally knew after 6 months worth of preparations (seriously!) that Ableton Live would be my main environment. I purchased an APC40, Ableton Suite 8 and then had to make a choice. I really wanted an extra sound engine because I learned that the sound engine was the heart of a DAW. So different engines; different ways of producing sounds thus extra diversity.
Komplete was out of my budget and seemed like overkill anyway, I didn’t like the other DAWs I tried so I ended up deciding between Reason which had intrigued me from the start (even though I disliked the interface a little at first) or Max for Live (‘M4L’).
I ended up with Max for Live because it seemed the right choice, even though I didn’t knew anything about it apart from what the intro movies and some forum posts learned me. But it expanded on my core environment and added some diversity to the setup as well.
Only later did I realize the real impact M4L had; it has actually helped me to learn a lot more about sound synthesis in general, but that’s a different story.
Investing in diversity
Sometimes it can really add up. After I picked up Reason 4 I eventually decided that Komplete Elements 7 would make a very good extension on my sound (I picked it up during one of Native Instruments discount periods).
These days Reason 6 provides extensions for its environment as well; these are called Rack Extensions. While this is all good stuff, the price for such an extension can be a little steep.
But then diversity can come into the picture. Because I owned Komplete Elements 7 I was entitled to an upgrade for Guitar Rig 5 Pro; and since Native Instruments had a ‘50% discount summer sale’ the pricetag for that was very decent.
Although it is a little bit of an unfair comparison you could argue that for the price of one ‘Rack Extension compressor’ I managed to pick up on several at once. Bundled with a large collection of other effects and sound utilities as well.
It’s not an issue of one approach being better than the other. Its simply a matter of getting the most value out of your investment. Why settle for one if you can have many, while you can be sure that you won’t have to worry about quality standards?
#6 – Dare to invest!
This is a bit of an extension to point #5 but important enough to mention separately… Once you’ve gone through all the points above, found your core environment, got a good set of keys and you know which way you want to go then its also important that you dare go the extra mileage.
A few common questions: “Should I get Ableton Intro or the full version of Live?” or “Reason Essentials is a third of the price of Reason, is that worth it?”.
If you’re serious about pursuing your goals, whether they’re hobby based or professionally meant then you should seriously consider to get as much as possible. The start of your collection will always be an expensive one.
But if you don’t dare to invest now then its very likely that this will come to ‘haunt’ you later, usually resulting in you paying even more over the longer run.
And there you have it!
Please keep in mind that these tips are not to be picked up as a set of “fail safe rules” which will ensure a big success. Also keep well in mind that the examples I gave here only reflect on my personal situation; I’m merely trying to explain which factors made me decide on getting the stuff I have now.
But most important of all; I think that whatever you do you should consider keeping rule #1 into the back of your mind at all times.
That cool looking salesman demonstrates how you can get huge sounds out of the synthesizer you always wanted to have while telling you that you can’t do without this? The demo sounds and looks awesome. But just because he can make it sound huge; does that automatically mean that you can do the same?
Better yet: are you sure you can’t achieve the same results by (for example:) simply picking up on a DAW such as Reaper, then adding a few free instruments and effects to it (such as the TAL collection for instance) ?
Anyway, I hope these tips can help to plan and decide on what you want or need to expand on your gear collection.