Friday, October 14, 2011

Stop Spending as Little As You Can! Start Buying as MUCH as You Can Afford!

So I bitch a lot about setting budgets, but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in. I’m still routinely asked for what a person’s “cheapest” options are for getting a job done. How little can someone spend to, say, record really competitive auditions? How little can someone spend to get a “good” computer? Etc. Etc.

I’m REALLY tired of this question. Every time you ask someone like me that question you’re basically asking me to validate your desire to buy crap. Plain and simple. You want to buy something crappy, and want me to say it’ll be ok. You want to off-load the risk, thereby making it easier to convince yourself that it’s going to be ok, and when it’s (often) not ok, now you’ll have someone to blame...


I can’t tell you the number of frustrated responses I face when I refuse to support someone’s lowest dollar denominator line of questioning. The lengths people will reach to try and circumvent my refusal to answer would be funny if they weren’t so damn sad. “But if you WERE going to buy a really cheap piece of gear...”

Why wont I just help?
Two reasons.

First, it’s my reputation. Over YEARS of working in this field, I’ve built up a certain amount of “capital”. My reputation means something to people, and that means my opinion is valuable. Any content, repair, purchasing, writing, editing, or producing question asked usually involves some degree of risk, and my knowledge is seen as an asset to arriving at a solution. The more often I am wrong, without the ability to properly correct my mistakes, the less valuable my currency becomes.
By validating someone’s purchase, I may as well have recommended it in the first place. I refuse to have people walking around complaining about the gear I’ve “endorsed”, so I refuse to write up any kind of “booth in a box”, “recommended list” or other one size fits all solution.

Second, and more importantly for you, the “cheaper” solution often costs more in the long run.

Take USB mics. They take the place of interface and mic. You have NO flexibility for fine tuning the sound to your environment. To improve the quality of your recordings, you have to change that environment. So, for that uber-convenient “I Just Plug It In and It Works” $100 mic, how much time are you going to spend troubleshooting echo, room noise, etc? How much money are you willing to throw at room treatments (and so help me if I hear one more person say they’ll just throw a blanket over their head...)?
Maybe in your room you don’t need a condenser, and you’ll sound fantastic on a dynamic? Maybe the electrical sucks in your building and that dynamic is a no-go so you need a shotgun?  
Surprise! Asking “How little can I spend?” Is almost ALWAYS a sure fire way to end up spending more than you need to, and wasting more time than you should, over the course of your career.

Let’s talk tech for a second.
The question of computer shopping has come up again recently from a couple family members and friends.
“What’s a good computer? I don’t want to spend a lot...”
First off, no system is JUST the brand. You can not compare a “Dell” and a “Mac”. That is nonsense, and no amount of marketing should ever convince you otherwise. You HAVE to sort by priorities, what the computer will be used for, and prices within different levels or tiers of systems. We would never directly compare a Ford Fiesta and a Bugatti Veyron as serious options for the same consumer.

[Quick tangent, I keep encountering this mindset that one brand (often Apple) is somehow objectively better than another. This is most often encountered by someone who ran a dirt cheap computer into the ground over years, comparing that old system to a REALLY pricey new system. Last time I personally encountered someone saying “Mac was better!”, they had recently gotten rid of a four year old, originally priced at $400 Dell, and replaced it with a brand new $2500 iMac...]

Now why shouldn’t you just buy the cheapest machine a company has to offer? Well having worked retail, those really aren’t “real” systems. They’re usually designed to get someone in the door so they can be upsold. Should you buy that system, you’re almost guaranteed a horrible, slow, buggy experience. As software becomes more and more demanding, the hardware will have a harder time keeping up. The components used will certainly be chosen for cost, will probably not be very rugged, and will be more likely to wear out sooner.
Things like processors and power supplies are critical. Under powered processors need to work at maximum for longer periods of time to accomplish tasks. This wastes electricity and produces extra heat. Running hot will reduce the lifespan of any tech.
Same with a cheap PSU. A power supply delivers a certain amount of electricity to the guts of your computer, but it has to pull MORE current from the wall to do so. The closer it gets to running at maximum, the less efficient it becomes. Older units could sometimes be as low as 50% efficiency, which means for every watt used by your computer a watt is wasted. The less efficient your PSU is, the higher your electricity bill will be, and the more heat will be belched into your home as waste.

So that’s the problem with lowest dollar denominator thinking. It feels good in the moment, like you’re getting a deal, like you’re “saving”, but usually it’s hurting you in the long run.

What’s the alternative?

I like to call it the “How much can I buy for...” method of gear acquisition. There’s one simple trick to it.


See if you set that budget, then you can make informed purchasing decisions based on getting the most bang for your buck. You can make better choices about where to scimp on one area, to support buying a higher quality piece somewhere else. It should also help prevent you from drastically over-buying in one area, as it should force you to sit down and consider your entire chain or system, unlike those people who put $800 video cards into their $700 desktops, or people who put U87’s in their closets (but yours probably sounds great in there, no really, it’s those OTHER people’s mics in closets who don’t sound as good).

Come to me with a budget, even a low one, LIKE ANY SANE SMALL BUSINESS OWNER WOULD, and we can chat. We can explore some options, and come up with a purchasing solution.

Ask me again what’s the least you can spend, and I can’t promise I’ll be able to refrain from punching you in the face...


  1. I run into the same problems when dealing with my family asking about computers. Next time, I'll just direct them to this post! Thanks for taking the words out of my mouth, sir!

  2. Thanks Rebecca. I'm sure it's a common complaint among tech savvy folks. Hope it helps!

  3. LOVE your rants, Audio Juan. (And as soon as we untangle the rats nest under my desk... it'll be time for you to help me install a whole bunch of "not cheap" Digidesign gear!)

  4. How did I miss this? GREAT, GREAT, GREAT!

    Adding your blog to my blogroll.

    Dan Friedman

  5. Your "quick tangent" exactly parallels my sister and her husband: I've been keeping them going with old/used stuff for years because of their budget constraints. They recently came into some money and immediately went and spent thousands on new Mac stuff and are rubbing it into my face how much better it all is. It's enough to give a gopher the heartburn.

  6. Tell me about TimBer.
    Family always knows how best to rile us up.
    Oh well, just quietly enjoy a victory any time they cant do something simple, like watch a blu-ray...

  7. Thanks Juan! Very helpful! Thanks for tellin' it like it is!

    1. An interesting take on the old adage: "You get what you pay for."

      But thecrux of your argument is more powerful and works for services as well as products. For example, quality controls add enormous value but are often the first thing sacrificed to cut expenses and lower cost.

      The biggest area for abuse is the lowest bid mentality of corporate and government buyers. But that is a whole different blog post (or book).

      Well done.


    2. You don't lie. I have a few stories from my DOE days...

  8. I feel your pain. That is why I try to use goal oriented shopping, not budget. My budget is often "ballpark" or more an ideal price. If spending $10 more would get me more value, I want to know. That is a hard concept when talking to sales people for advice. They seem to ignore the budget, either see it as a hard cap OR a starting point to up sell you.

    So, that is the best wireless lav mic system I can get cheep to pair with my Zoom H4n? :)