I’ve been involved with a discussion over at the Harmony Central Forums yesterday and today. The thread started with a question about the advantages of getting a higher-end audio interface. The original poster owns an M-Audio ProFire 2626, and wants to know if he should get something with better converters.

While you should be careful not to get sucked into the “buying new gear will solve all my problems and bring about world peace” cycle, it’s still important to think about the sound quality of the equipment you own. Like I wrote many times in the 12 Home Studio Necessities series, a lot of times you get what you pay for

But not all the time. 

Dinner and Gear

At some point you can spend more money and not be able to tell a difference. For example, last night my wife and I celebrated our three-year wedding anniversary. We went out to a nice restaurant for a fancy dinner. We spent a good amount of money, but it was well worth it.

What if we doubled the amount we spent? Would it be twice as good? Possibly. What if we doubled it a few more times? Then would it be worth it? Eh… At some point the more money we would spend on the meal, the less food we would get. We’d get those tiny little “fancy” portions you see on the cooking channel. Sure it would be tasty (I hope), but I know I’d still be hungry afterwards, and I’d probably feel like I wasted my money.

What does this have to do with your home studio? Well, there’s this concept in economics called the law of diminishing returns. I’m no economist, but the basic gist is that there’s a point in every business model (or home studio) where the more you invest into it the less return you get from it. You’ve reached this point when you invest twice as much and get a minimal improvement.

This concept came to mind while I was reading the thread on Harmony Central, and here’s a portion of my response:

There tends to be a point of diminishing returns with higher-end gear. For a while, every time you spend twice as much money you get something that sounds twice as good. A $100 mic sounds better than a $50 mic. But it’s hard to say definitively that a $6,000 converter is better than a $3,000 one. It becomes more subtle as you go.

As long as you don’t have a really poor interface, you may get a more noticeable improvement by buying nice preamps or microphones, or studio monitors. While going from the ProFire to an RME may sound better, keeping the ProFire and grabbing a few nice pres and mics may make a much bigger overall difference in how your recordings sound. Then you can always upgrade your converters to that next level down the road. 

So What?

My point is this: When you’re evaluating your home studio, whether it’s your recording equipment, your guitars, your computer, or even the lamp in the corner, focus on what will produce the most noticeable results and improvements.

Buying a new converter when you’re using a $20 Radio Shack microphone isn’t going to be a good investment. Likewise, buying gear that’s only a little bit better than what you already have can be a waste.

Remember, as I wrote in my article on Gear Acquisition Syndrome, it’s all about the music, not the gear.

Check out the whole thread over at Harmony Central –  Advantages of “higher-end” audio interfaces? It’s turning into an interesting debate on converters.

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  • I always like the follow-the-signal rule of thumb when it comes to upgrading. When upgrading, start at the outside and work your way in. First, get a good musician, then put him/her on a good instrument, then a good amp, then a good mic, then a good pre-amp, then good converters, etc, etc, etc. Obviously you want to have some minimum quality you hit at every point in the chain, but if you have $500 to spend, upgrade your converters before you upgrade your plug-ins.

    • Yep! Each component of the system needs to make sense. A $200 cable with a $100 microphone is silly. So is a $2,000 mic with a $5 cable.