The Sublime Beauty Of Cheap, Old, Dinged-Up Gear

Some things can be used, and used hard, without worry.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I really do think that classy gear is a good idea in the general case. I think it sends a very important signal when a band walks into a room, and their overwhelming impression is that of equipment which is well-maintained and worth a couple of dollars. When a room is filled with boxes and bits that all look like they’re about to fail, the gigs in that room stand a good chance of being trouble-filled. In that case, musician anxiety is completely justified.

In the past, I have made updates to gear almost purely for the sake of “politics.” I don’t regret it.

At the same time, though, “new n’ shiny” equipment isn’t a guarantee of success. I’ve had new gear that developed problems very quickly, but more than that, new and spendy gear tends to make you ginger (in the timid sense). You can end up being so worried about something getting scratched up or de-spec’d that you forget the purpose of the device: It’s there to be used.

And that’s where the sublime beauty of inexpensive, well-worn equipment comes in. You’ve found a hidden gem, used it successfully in the past, will probably keep using it successfully in the future, and you can even abuse it a bit in the name of experimentation.

Case Study: Regular Kick Mics Are Boring

I’ve used spendy kick mics, and I’ve used cheap kick mics. They’ve all sounded pretty okay. The spendy ones are pre-tuned to sound more impressive, and that’s cool enough.

…but, you know, I find the whole “kick mic” thing to be kinda boring. It’s all just a bunch of iteration or imitation on making a large-diaphragm dynamic. Different mics do, of course, exhibit different flavors, but there’s a point where it all seems pretty generic. It doesn’t help that folks are so “conditioned” by that generic-ness – that is, if it doesn’t LOOK like a kick mic, it can’t be any good. (And, if it doesn’t COST like a kick mic, it can’t be any good.)

I once had a player inquire after a transducer I used on his bass drum. He seemed pretty interested in it based on how it worked during the show, and wanted to know how expensive it was. I told him, and he was totally turned OFF…by the mic NOT costing $200. He stated, “I’m only interested in expensive mics,” and in my head, I’m going, “Why? This one did a good enough job that you started asking questions about it. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

Anyway, the homogeneity of contemporary kick mic-ery is just getting dull for me. It’s like how modern car manufacturers are terrified to “color outside the lines” with any consumer model.

To get un-bored, I’ve started doing things that expose the greatness of “cheap, old, and dinged up.” In the past, I tried (and generally enjoyed) using a Behringer ECM8000 for bass drum duty. Mine was from back when they were only $40, had been used quite a bit, and had been dropped a few times. This was not a pristine, hardwood-cased, ultra-precision measurement mic that would be a real bear to replace. It was a knock-around unit that I had gotten my money out of, so if my experiment killed it I would not be enduring a tragedy.

And it really worked. Its small diameter made it easy to maneuver inside kick ports, and its long body made it easy to get a good ways inside those same kick ports. The omni pattern had its downsides, certainly. Getting the drum to the point of being “stupid loud” in FOH or the drumfill wasn’t going to happen, but that’s pretty rare for me. At an academic level, I’m sure the tiny diaphragm had no trouble reacting quickly to transients, although it’s not like I noticed anything dramatic. Mostly, the mic “sounded like a drum to me” without having to be exactly like every other bass-drum mic you’re likely to find. The point was to see if it could work, and it definitely did.

My current “thing” bears a certain similarity, only on the other end of the condenser spectrum. I have an old, very beat-up MXL 990 LDC, which I got when they were $20 cheaper. I thought to myself, “I wonder what happens if I get a bar-towel and toss this in a kick drum?” What I found out is that it works very nicely. The mic does seem to lightly distort, but the distortion is sorta nifty. I’m also freed from being required to use a stand. The 990 might die from this someday, but it’s held up well so far. Plus, again, it was cheap, already well used, and definitely not in pristine condition. I don’t have to worry about it.

Inoculation Against Worry Makes You Nicer

Obviously, an unworried relationship with your gear is good for you, but it’s also good in a political sense. Consternation over having a precious and unblemished item potentially damaged can make you jumpy and unpleasant to be around. There are folks who are so touchy about their rigs that you wonder how they can get any work done.

Of course, an overall attitude of “this stuff is meant to be used” is needed. Live-audio is a rough and tumble affair, and some things that you’ve invested in just aren’t going to make it out alive. Knowing this about everything, from the really expensive bits to the $20 mic that’s surprisingly brilliant, helps you to maintain perspective and calmness.

The thing with affordable equipment (that you’ve managed to hold on to and really use) is that it feeds this attitude. You don’t have to panic about it being scuffed up, dropped, misplaced, or finally going out with a bang. As such, you can be calm with people. You don’t have to jump down someone’s throat if they’re careless, or if there’s a genuine accident. It’s easy to see that the stuff is just stuff, and while recklessness isn’t a great idea, everything that has a beginning also has an end. If you got your money out of a piece of equipment, you can just shrug and say that it had a good life.

Have some nice gear around, especially for the purpose of public-relations, but don’t forget to keep some toys that you can “leave out in the rain.” Those can be the most fun.