What are the essential pieces of gear for electronic music production you need to buy? Should you invest in analog synthesizers or even a modular system? Or is it better to stay “in the box” and buy freaky Max for Live tools?
These and many more questions are going to be answered in the latest episode of Pick Yourself. Rather than telling you which exact plugins or synthesizers you should buy, I’m going to help you make the right purchase decisions in the grand scheme of things. Have fun!
The problem with buying gear for electronic music production
Honestly, I should have written this episode before Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Now you’re probably sitting in your studio with buyer’s remorse slowly creeping in, while you’re trying to figure out where to start with all the new tools you’ve bought. But here I am now, trying to help you avoid that dilemma next year.
The problem with buying gear for electronic music production is that there’s an abundance of choices floating around:
- Should you buy analog synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines?
- Is it better to buy a bundle of software plugins, a yearly subscription, or should you go for single lifetime-purchases?
- Do you need a modular Eurorack system to produce unique music?
- And what about mixing and mastering gear? Should you stay in the box or do you need an analog mixing board and outboard equipment?
I could go on and on with these types of questions. The big issue is that we’re feeling overwhelmed by all the decisions we have to make. In the end, there’s only so much money you can spend and don’t forget that there are many other areas of your artist career that you could invest in.
A lack of gear is not the reason for your lack of success
Let’s make one thing clear: Not owning that 35.000$ Moog modular system isn’t the reason why your songs aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Many artists before you have proven that with a Laptop, a pair of headphones, and a standard version of Ableton Live, you can write songs that are going to stand the test of time.
Buying gear for electronic music production isn’t going to solve the underlying issues in your artist career. It might feel like a quick fix, but it might end up in more frustration than you’ve had before.
If you’re feeling a little guilty now, I have good news: You can overcome the GAS (= “gear acquisition syndrome”) and live a happy life ever after. I’m not saying you shouldn’t invest in good equipment. I simply believe you should make conscious and strategic purchase decisions that really move the needle.
The 4 golden rules for buying gear as an electronic music producer
Here we go. I’ve put together a list of four rules that will help you decide what gear to buy for electronic music production. I’m intentionally not giving exact purchase recommendations because the market is changing quite fast and I want to share the underlying strategy of good gear purchases with you.
1. Workflow is everything
In the last episode, we’ve talked about finishing more (and better) songs. One of the most important aspects was the idea of “getting in the zone”. You’re writing your best music once you’ve entered a flow-state. If that’s where the magic happens, your gear should facilitate that. If you consciously base your purchase decision around the question “does it help me reach flow-state?”, you’re going to buy the right tools.
To me, some of the most important tools for reaching flow-state (and staying in it) are:
A fast and reliable desktop computer or laptop
If you’re not an uber-geek yourself, spend a bit of extra money and buy it from specialized audio-workstation vendors like Digital AudionetworX here in Berlin. Remember, you want a hassle-free workflow. This system most likely needs to be upgraded every five to seven years.
It’s a good idea to not pollute it with cracked plugins and illegal movie torrent downloads. I don’t want to sound like your parents but there are many practical advantages to keeping that device as clean as possible.
An audio interface with reliable drivers
The job of an audio interface is quite simple: It’s an external sound card that is responsible for getting signals into your computer as well as out of the machine into your speakers (or headphones). Since this is such a critical component, I would never ever cheap out on this. You don’t need to buy a mastering grade AD/DA converter, but I recommend going beyond the entry league.
Getting a fast audio interface means less latency which results in a better workflow. My experience has shown that you get better components and drivers if you spend a little bit more money here.
Some manufacturers try to cross-sell their external DSP plugins with their audio interface. While I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, I want to warn you that you’re always going to pay a premium for that. My recommendation is to separate your audio interface purchase decision from all the extras you get as this can distract you.
Mouse, keyboards, and midi controllers that help you work more intuitively
Take this one with a grain of salt, please. You should ONLY buy these things if you truly feel the need for it. I bought an expensive trackball mouse because I work on music full time. That means, all day long I’m clicking around in my DAW which results in quite some stress for my right hand. When I noticed the first symptoms of pain, I made that investment to protect my flow-state. It was one of the best purchases ever.
With midi controllers, it’s especially difficult. Do you really need an APC or an Ableton Push? I suggest you test them for a month to find out if they really improve your workflow. For some people, it has changed their productions for the better. Others are regretting it. My Maschine MK2 controller is lying around in a box, waiting to be sold on eBay because I found it made my workflow more complicated. My APC40 MK2 is still sitting on my desk and gets used daily. You see, it’s a very personal decision.
Furniture that benefits your health
Producing music involves a lot of sitting. Just as in any “office job”, you want to make sure you’re damaging your back as little as possible. Investing in a great chair and a solid desk is one of the best decisions you’re going to make.
Okay, I’ll admit something here: I’ve bought one of the most expensive chairs and I don’t regret it. Maybe… just maybe I paid a little extra for that silver aluminum-finish. But hey, that’s my problem, not yours.
2. The better you listen, the better you produce and mix
You can compose great music in a not-so-great acoustic environment. But as electronic music producers, we need to be able to judge our sound design (especially in the low end) so it translates well in the club.
Therefore, I believe that you should save some money for the following:
- One decent pair of speakers. Usually, two-way active nearfield monitors are a good starting point for typical small rooms. You get what you pay for here. More expensive monitors will most likely sound better. The right positioning is key for achieving a balanced sound. My friend Jesco Lohan runs an awesome blog that helps you with this.
- A pair of headphones to double-check your low-end. With this, it’s just important to know these headphones really well. So if you’re constantly listening to music on your DJ headphones, just use them and compare your productions with reference tracks.
- At least a minimum of acoustic treatment on the first reflection points. Start with broadband bass traps on the left and right walls between you and the speakers. If possible, also treat the ceiling above you as well as the room corners.
- Correction software like Sonarworks that helps you optimize the sound at your listening position.
In my opinion, being able to critically listen to your sound is way more important than using the latest analog hardware emulation in your mix or buying expensive outboard gear.
3. Minimalism helps you go deep
Less gear = deeper exploration. I truly believe in minimalism when it comes to buying gear for electronic music production. The problem is that every plugin or hardware company on earth wants to tell us that THEIR piece of gear is a gamechanger. If we don’t buy it, we’re missing out on a revolution in music production. The second issue is that plugin bundles and subscription models are priced very attractively.
I believe that you’re going to produce much better music if you limit yourself to only a couple of tools you know really well. That goes for instruments but also for mixing tools and plugins. Every couple of years, you can add some new tools to your list.
In my experience, it takes at least one year of constant exploration to really gain a deep understanding of a synthesizer. It’s easy to dial in some typical lead sound on a new synth. But what if you want to intentionally create a certain unique texture? Do you really understand all of the modulation- and routing possibilities that are at your hand?
The only mixing tools you really need
When it comes to mixing, I believe you should limit yourself even more. Here’s my list of plugins you definitely need:
- One neutral, surgical, parametric EQ
- A second, broad “tone-shaping”, EQ that adds color to the sound
- One clean and versatile compressor to control signals
- Another, more colorful, compressor for adding grit
- One true-peak mastering-grade limiter to protect your stereo bus
- Two reverbs (a convolution-based one and an algorithmic one)
- One super versatile delay
- A creative saturation/ distortion tool
Many of the tools can already be found in the stock arsenal of your DAW. Beyond that, there are amazing free plugins out there (beware, not all of them are great!). If you’re considering to purchase a new piece of equipment, make sure you test it for at least a couple of weeks before making a decision.
A short note on plugin bundles and subscriptions
Overall, I think single plugins are mostly overpriced. More and more companies are offering subscriptions now which makes a lot of sense, financially. The problem is, that this opens up too many choices. Why would you need more than 300 different mixing effects?
If you decide to go for a subscription, I would carefully calculate which other costs it replaces. If you can sell some single licenses, then it might be a good idea. Just make sure you don’t end up with three subscriptions by different companies as this is only going to drive you crazy.
The analog vs. digital debate
This is mostly a personal preference. One thing is for sure: You should never buy analog equipment only because all your peers (and a few famous producers) say you need to. This is bullshit. Plugins and virtual instruments these days sound amazing, and so does well-designed analog hardware. On the other hand (not naming names here), there are many pieces of analog equipment that sound really disappointing. The same goes for some plugins.
If in doubt, go back to the first golden rule: Does it help you reach flow-state or not? Personally, I like to use a hybrid approach. Sometimes, my Moog Sub37 helps me kick off a new idea and I love recording “non-perfect” filter-sweeps and modulations. It forces me to stay a bit off-the-grid which makes things interesting. But apart from that, I mainly use digital tools. Okay, I also have a nerdy hobby of soldering DIY-Eurorack modules, but that’s not because I think I need it to create great music.
On the mixing and mastering side of things, I’m not a big fan of the analog workflow. Recalling a session is annoying, time-consuming, and never sounds completely the same. But for other people, that workflow works better. Sonically, there might be differences, but I wouldn’t say one sounds better than the other. I know quite a lot of super-famous engineers (personally!) who have 10k$+ worth of analog equipment in their studios but rarely use it.
So don’t get discouraged by arrogant and snobby producers who say you can’t get “that sound” (whatever that is) without the expensive analog gear that they’re using. To me, this is a clear sign of insecurity and shouldn’t bother you.
4. Avoid following the latest trends
I’ve seen many trends come and go. A few years ago, Wavetable synthesis was the new big thing. Then, suddenly, the pendulum swung back to the opposite side and we saw a resurgence of classic analog synths. After that, it got more creative with the Eurorack-modular explosion. Right now, we’re at a phase were iconic tools (like the Roland TB-303) are getting rediscovered and pushed to the market in new variations.
The problem here is that as soon as one of these trends emerges, you start to hear a lot of boring music that capitalizes on that “new sound”. When was the last time you heard a TRULY original 303 line? In the nineties maybe?
Let your creative approach dictate your purchases, not the other way round
The best gear for electronic music production is the one that allows you to express your creativity in its most essential form. Your job is to explore yourself and to distill that essence. This is going to dictate which tools work for you and which don’t. If you’re naturally drawn to programming your own MaxMSP patches and route them through a live-mixer into a collection of analog pedals, so be it. If you’re all about composing retro-sounding synth lines on top of mashed-up field recordings, that approach calls for different equipment.
The worst thing you can do is to buy a piece of equipment, hoping that it will help you find out where you want to go. You can do this type of creative exploration in a way that doesn’t break the bank. Start with free tools or rentals and see what truly resonates with you before committing to a certain path.
Putting it into action: Buying gear for electronic music without regret
If you stick to my four golden rules, you’re going to produce awesome music while protecting your bank account from irrational purchases. I’m leaving you with three action steps you can implement right now.
1. Make a list of gear purchases that didn’t really move your artist career forward (looking back at them now)
- What pieces of analog gear and controllers are rarely being used in your studio?
- Did you buy plugins that you still don’t really understand, simply because they were on sale?
- How much did other people’s opinions matter in your past purchases?
2. Start observing your workflow and find out which types of tools help you get in the zone
- What makes you reach flow-state?
- What stands in the way of it?
- When considering a new purchase, start asking yourself how this is going to affect your ability to reach flow-state.
3. Make a list of strategic investments for the new year and set a budget
- From now on, never buy anything that is not on your list of strategic gear investments.
- Try every piece you’re considering for at least two weeks.
- Remember the hierarchy of importance: workflow > listening situation > other new tools
So that’s it for this episode, I hope I didn’t make you regret your latest Black Friday purchase too much.
Now I’d love to hear from you: Which tools are helping your workflow? What piece of gear really makes a difference in your creative approach? Let me know in the comments!