The Pareto Principle is also known as the 80-20 rule and states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. This principle is sited extensively in economics, for example, 80% of collective wealth is held by 20% of the population. 80% of sales revenues come from 20% of clients. It’s not an exact science, but remarkable how often it works. This got me thinking about audio production and the almost endless amounts of equipment available to us and the wide variations in their price. If one piece of gear costs three or four times as much as a similar piece, is it three or four times better? As far as I can tell, the answer is almost always no. In fact, by spending 20% of what a big budget studio spends on similar components, you just might be able to get results that are 80% as good. That is if you’ve got the skills.
The good news here is that almost anyone can make high quality professional recordings without breaking the bank or going into debt. Professional quality audio equipment can be had today for much less than in the past. Much of this price decrease in recent years can be attributed to the shrinking cost of production in Asian factories and increased demand. To be clear, I’m referring to sound quality not build quality. Build quality still has room to grow, but it is improving. There are also improvements to technologies and a bustling clone industry that puts out some surprisingly accurate copies of vintage components for a fraction of the price. So let’s take a look at a few examples of like pieces based on current prices.
Big Budget Studio buys a Lynx Aurora 16 $2,995
Little Guy’s Bedroom Productions buys a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 $499
Big Budget Studio buys a Neumann U87 for $3,199
LIttle Guy’s Bedroom Productions buys a Studio Projects C1 $249
Big Budget Studio buys a Neve 1073LB $995
Little Guy’s Bedroom Productions buys a Golden Age Pre73 $349
Big Budget Studio buys a pair of Genelec 8050A monitors $4,298
Little Guy’s Bedroom Productions buys a pair of Yamaha HS80M monitors $698
Software – DAW
Big Budget Studio buys Pro Tools 9 Native $599
Little Guy’s Bedroom Productions buys Reaper $40
The list could continue on and on… This will surely infuriate lots of folks, especially the ones who’ve gone all in on the top level products. But before you type that hate letter, understand that I’m not trying to say that a pair of Yamaha HS80Ms sound like a pair of Genelec 8050As. They don’t. What I am saying is that if you really get to know your monitors and you are listening in a decent environment, you can get results that are at least 80% as good on the Yamahas. A/D – D/A converter technology has gotten so good over the past few years that it would likely take an experienced audio professional to hear the difference between a Lynx Aurora and a Focusrite Saffire. A Studio Projects C1 doesn’t sound exactly like a Neumann U87, but if you’re working with a great vocalist and you know how to properly mic her, you will get at least 80% of the way there.
So the playing field has been leveled to some degree and the bar is higher than ever. For most of us it’s not worth paying three or four times more for a 10% – 20% gain, but if you can afford it there are compelling reasons to do it. Individually, one top level piece of gear is not going to make a noticeable improvement to your productions, but when you start adding many small gains together it can give you that 10% – 20% overall improvement and bring your productions to a higher level. Still, having all of the finest gear in the world won’t get you a top level sound if you don’t know how to use it properly and if you don’t put in the time to learn the craft. It’s people who produce great audio, not equipment. So don’t worry about the brand name on your equipment or think that you can’t get a professional sound because you didn’t max out your credit cards on gear. Put up some acoustic treatment in your listening area, learn good mic techniques, read up on signal flow and practice, practice, practice…