[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Gary Gray.]

There is a category of gear for the home studio owner that I refer to as “Smoke & Mirror Gear.”

What I mean by “Smoke & Mirror Gear” is gear that can be expensive for the home studio owner and impressive to the average potential client. Expensive can include prices as high as $12,000 for a tube microphone, or up to $100,000 for a mixing board that fits in a home studio.

In the traditional sense, the term “Smoke & Mirrors” implies something that is an illusion, something that appears to be much more valuable than it actually is.

As you will discover, the term “Smoke & Mirrors” in this article specifically means “any gear or element in a studio which is perceived by a potential client (rightly or wrongly) to communicate professionalism and competence.” You will see how making a decision of whether to purchase “Smoke & Mirror Gear” is a good decision for you or not, and how the decision of “Go” or “No” draws a fine line between what is needed, and what is wanted – by both the home studio owner AND the potential client.

In this article, the term “Smoke & Mirror Gear” also draws a fine line (or a not so fine line) between what is fair and what is a rip-off — between the manufacturer or seller and the home studio owner. Read on and you’ll see exactly what I mean…

Case in Point: I was watching a video on YouTube this week about Reasons To Have A Real Mixing Board in Your Home Studio. What struck me as way more interesting than the video itself, was the top rated comment below the video:

“Don’t tell my clients, but 90% of the reason I keep my 64 channel digital console in the studio is so I can charge more. Seriously. I get about double what I used to charge when I just had a mouse and interface, and I basically only use a single stereo channel. A big console in my Home Studio is money in the bank.”

There are three schools of thought regarding the “Smoke & Mirrors” approach to running a Home Studio (or any studio).

  1. “I can’t afford expensive gear, and that’s OK with me, because I can get exactly the same quality recordings done for myself and/or my clients with my inexpensive gear and without spending an extra penny.” (The less experienced version of number 1 is, “I can’t afford expensive gear, but I’m saving up for it. And until I get it, I guess all of my recordings and mixes are gonna suck.”)
  2. “90% of the reason I purchased expensive and impressive gear is so that more demanding clients with money decide to use my services. I get about double what I used to charge when I just had a mouse and interface. Having expensive and impressive gear in my Home Studio is money in the bank.” (Similar to the video comment above)
  3. “I’m taking a hybrid approach (including elements of 1 and 2 above), along with researching the latest technology for better servicing my own projects and/or clients’ projects.”

I follow the third school of thought above. 

Here’s a real-life example of how I apply the hybrid approach and why:  I purchased a Shure SM7B microphone. Impressive to potential clients, and in this case only moderately expensive at approximately $400 (with a CloudLifter phantom power activated pre-amp).

I noticed that some of my potential clients were very impressed that the SM7B that they would be singing into was the same model that Michael Jackson’s engineer Bruce Swedien used for a number of Michal’s hits.

In Bruce’s own words:

 “For instance, I was allowed the freedom to make microphone choices, and nobody ever said a word. I just did it. For example, I used a Shure SM7 on most of Michael’s lead vocals — ‘Billie Jean’, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ — and boy, did that raise some eyebrows! But I love that mic, and I have six of them.”

The reason Bruce’s use of the SM7 “raised eyebrows” at the time was not because it was an awesome vocal mic. To the contrary. Up to that point it was used for years as a broadcast microphone for radio DJs. A number of people on the production team with Bruce thought he was crazy for using it.

Engineer, producer, educator and home studio savant Gary Gray is back to talk about 'Smoke & Mirror' gear home studio producers should know about.

In some respects, you could say that Bruce was using the exact opposite approach of “Smoke & Mirrors.”

When it was discovered that he chose that mic, it was more like “Joke and Sneers.” Bruce did something that people at the time thought was a step down (or more) from what a professional in his capacity should be doing. But he knew better. Bruce had the wisdom to be free of what I call “mythmaking” and “brainwashing” in the music production world. He used his ears and knew that microphones which cost 4 times more were no better for the task.

In my online Masterclass The Lucrative Home Studio on NewArtistModel.com, I go over extensively the aspect of how extensively “mythmaking” and “brainwashing” can affect anyone trying to learn the subject of music production. In fact, my personal effort of maintaining a non-biased view is one reason I did not renew the sponsorships I was receiving and why I refuse new sponsorships I’m offered. My purpose is to curate true, useful and consistently workable educational content to indie musicians worldwide, allowing them to become more capable, confident and successful in the music industry.

Most people who pass on “myths” and “brainwashing” are, in my estimation, unable to spend enough time researching thoroughly in order to sift the true from the false. Thankfully, I’ve spent over 6,000 hours and several years of researching both analog and digital recording, mixing and mastering, and have applied the findings to my own studio production work and to my mentoring with my students.

I currently work on a daily basis as a producer for The Disney Music Group, 20th Century Studios and Hollywood Records, along with signed and Indie Musician clients. I mentor and apprentice Indie Musicians throughout the world who are succeeding in their careers. So, when I present a topic of study to a student, I consider the research, organization of the subject and the manner in which I present the subject a huge responsibility as a mentor — especially with the power of the internet.

Let The Buyer Beware!

I have found that the source of most of the “myths” and “brainwashing” out there come from a very small handful of unscrupulous salespeople – which you can find in any industry. As the saying goes, “let the buyer beware!” There is a famous latin translation of these words you may have heard, “Caveat Emptor!”

What Is a Smart Strategy?

When it comes to microphones, I suggest procuring a microphone such as the Shure SM7B. When your clients find out who sang on that model mic in the past you’ll find something interesting happen. And here is where the “Smoke & Mirrors” effect kicks in in a good way, they will often-times get very inspired and their performances will improve when they equate their gear with their idols. For some people, this cannot be argued with.

Remember, the music industry is driven by passion, emotion, soul, spirit, the human element – which are all at the core of MUSIC! That’s what we do!! If a piece of gear helps bring out the best of those elements in a person, great!

The questions become:

  1. Can you afford those pieces of gear? And…
  2. Can you (or your client) recognize that the true source of passion, emotion, soul, spirit and the human element is INTERNAL, and does not reside in a piece of equipment? And…
  3. Can you (or your client) recognize that the actual and factual differences between many inexpensive and expensive pieces of gear equal little to no difference?

For instance, I am currently (and have been for 8 years) involved in daily mixing and mastering of 200 – 400 track epic recordings all from my home studio and all 100% in-the-box and digital. And these recordings are accepted by major corporations first time in, alongside recordings done in analog studios with equipment costing 100 times what I paid for my home studio. And the quality is exactly the same. 

So, if you are going to purchase “Smoke & Mirror Gear,” my suggestion is to ensure you have or can find the clientele who can help you find a return on your investment.  When I see studio owners charging more money because they have impressive gear (assuming those studio owners are delivering professional quality recordings), do I scoff and consider that not OK?

No! Not by any means. The truth of the matter is, most of those studio owners are still asking too little for a service that we deliver that creates sonic emotional miracles out of nothing! In my opinion, we deliver more magic than magic itself, and have struggled more than any doctor or lawyer ever will, and not enough studio owners ask for and receive what they are worth!

Sometimes manufacturers or sellers, on the other hand, take advantage of home studio owners by over exaggerating (using a nice term) what certain gear can — or cannot — do. Many pieces of inexpensive gear can do exactly what expensive pieces of gear can do. And those salespeople know it.

Today & The Future

Especially with the current world situation of remote work so necessary, I’ve come up with a workable strategy whereby you can take the truly important aspects of what we do and turn them into a decent income.

For instance, I have discovered an incredible life-changing, game-changing tool that has allowed me to make more money during the current situation (and will continue into the future) than ever before. This is a plug-in called ListenTo by AudioMovers.com. It allows me to stream perfect, pristine quality audio in real-time, direct to my clients and students anywhere in the world.

This is such a powerful technology that my local clients, who are not able to come to my studio, have all told me that recording with this method is “better than being there!” So, this is a new revolutionary workflow, it’s not a replacement workflow. This will hold strong well into the future.

What I do is stream perfect, pristine audio of my session straight from my DAW to my clients and students via the ListenTo plug-in, while they watch me working on my DAW via teleconferencing screen share in real-time!

It’s like being a fly on the wall while I work!

In fact, after beta-testing this workflow for 8 months, I started a new service called “FlyOnTheWallApprentice.com” where anyone can watch and listen to me recording, mixing and mastering pro sessions at any time. AND I record those sessions and have a library of videos (with pristine quality audio) available as replays. This is truly apprenticing and is the best way to learn how to record, mix and master — from the comfort of your home studio!

Summary

The choice of purchasing and promoting “Smoke & Mirror Gear” is yours. Hopefully, this article will help you decide which way to go, and more importantly, why I always say, “Use your ear, not your gear as a priority when you mix and master!”


Gary Gray is a voting member of the Grammy Recording Academy; a two-time Telly Award- Winning Producer, Arranger, Mixing and Mastering Engineer; the author of The Home Studio Bible, and creator of the online Masterclass The Lucrative Home Studio.

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