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How to Combat Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS)

Over the years – as an acoustic Americana artist, bass player, and electronic artist – I’ve found that there is a lot of wasted energy expended talking about gear. Don’t get me wrong… I love new gear as much as the next person, but I’ve also learned to temper my enthusiasm for a number of reasons. I’ve gone through periods of low income, where I could barely afford to put new strings on my guitars, to periods of excessive disposable income where I could purchase – on credit or outright – pretty much any gadget or gear that I wanted. Through all of that, I’ve tried to remain informed about the developments in the industry so that I can look past sales pitches. It can be exhausting.

These days I actually don’t buy much gear, partly due to financial constraints, but also because I feel like I’ve already got everything I need. I wear a lot of hats, and I rarely have time to use it all anyway.

Time with tools, not toys

Many people jokingly refer to their gear – especially new acquisitions – as “toys”. I find this a bit annoying because it degrades the overall perception of what musicians and producers do when they are creating something knew. An element of play is certainly part of that, but for those of us who make a living at this, it’s not a matter of playing with toys.

I prefer the word “tools” instead of “toys”. I can tell you what tools I use, but unless you are in the studio/room with me when I am employing those tools, you might not see how I got from point A to point B. I think the mystery of this is part of the fun, and where the element of play comes in.

Of course, just as in wood working or auto mechanics, it takes time to learn the pros/cons of new tools. That learning curve sometimes detracts from the creative process of making music. But just as you invest time and energy into learning an instrument, learning how to use gear and technology is a requirement if you want to get better at your craft.

How we use our tools matters at least as much, if not more, than which tools we employ. What separates one artist from another is their approach. Five artists could have the exact same tools, but by approaching the tools differently, they might come out with completely different material.

Sell, sell, sell

Manufacturers of hardware and software want to sell you a product. They want to produce something that has a profit margin. Manufacturers and distributors benefit from products that create buzz. They want buyers and web influencers to talk about gear, have fun, and show off their purchases. Manufacturers and distributors will often entice sales of products with the promise of “inspiration”. However, in the end, manufacturers and distributors could not care less about whether or not you actually make any music – let alone “good” music.

Once you pay for the product, a manufacturer’s mission is accomplished. Sure, you have the occasional “made for musicians, by musicians” sort of thing, and there are some great companies out there. But whether or not you create any music after the sale is really not their concern. If you have fun and tell your friends about a product, that’s great because more units can be moved.

Let’s take a basic example: Arturia Microfreak

In Arturia’s own words:

“MicroFreak is a hybrid desktop synthesizer that combines digital oscillators with analog filters, a unique flat keyboard with massive modulation flexibility, and instant step-sequencing with controlled randomness. This isn’t a revolution, it’s a mutiny.”

Who doesn’t like revolution? Who doesn’t like mutiny?

The Microfreak is a great instrument. I’ve seen it in action live, and I’ve had a chance to dabble with it in several music stores. It excels in most online reviews, even by the most skeptical of users. Many of my friends have a Microfreak, and with the v5.0 software update, it remains on the top of my list for new potential purchases, even though I have several other synths and dozens of plugins. It’s just a cool instrument. Great job Arturia, you got me hooked!

But beyond making really cool bleeps and bloops, and talking up how cool it is, Arturia could not care less about whether or not you reach some deep creative euphoria with your Microfreak and write an album that sells 10 million copies. All Arturia cares about is that you bought a unit, and that you liked it enough to tell someone else, prompting more sales. That’s the name of the game.

Did you spend hours capturing really cool Microfreak performances in your DAW? Even better. That supports the underlying idea that the Microfreak is a great machine, even if those hours and hours of studio improvs never see the light of day!

Nothing new

This commodification of gear can at least be documented as far back as 1946 with the introduction of the DeArmond Tremolo Control by Rowe Industries. Their tremolo was the very first mass-produced guitar pedal. Apparently it was used in Bo Diddley’s 1955 hit song, “Bo Diddley”. (source)

Manufacturers continue to sell products based on the hype of “signature sounds”, but the truth is that there are often so many invisible factors in record production. Saying box X gets you the sound of band Y is a gross oversimplification. And besides, why on Earth would you want to sound like band Y when you are band Z?

Do we need more gear?

I am not against innovation in sonic exploration. There are some truly amazing devices out there. I am not against companies innovating and making such devices available. Someone has to do it. What I am concerned with is the sales pitch companies use where they claim their gear will “take your playing to the next level” or “up the ante” in some way. Crappy playing through the most awesome state-of-the-art pedal is still… crappy playing.

So what’s to be done? When you find yourself thinking, “If only I had X,” think carefully about that. Reflect on what “X” really means. Think of the monetary cost, but also think of the creative and practical cost in terms of what you are trying to accomplish. Is “X” really worth it? Is “X” bringing enough value to the table to accomplish your goals? On an even more mundane level, how many more pages of manual am I going to have to dig through to squeeze the most useful life out of a device? Remember that each addition to your rig represents an opportunity cost. Time spent getting to know device A is taking time away from device B (or just practicing). It could take a lifetime to “master” even one device. Whole YouTube channels are dedicated to such devices. Do you want to spend your time creating music, or reading manuals?

There’s a time and a place for RTFM. We’ve all been there. But when the promise of an instrument exceeds the practicality of using it… that’s when I get concerned about the expectations we’ve set for ourselves as artists. I’m also not encouraged by the fact that the manufacturers have a captive audience of hungry creators who want to be on the “cutting edge.” When will we understand that we probably already have more than enough capability at our finger tips right now? When will we understand that the key is in how our original ideas are expressed even before the technology takes over?

Listeners who like a band or artist’s material from a purely aesthetic or entertainment perspective typically do not care about the technical aspects of how recordings are made. Sure, there are more technical listeners out there, including fellow musicians and production people who may be interested in the gear used on a project, but those are in the minority. So the next time you see a flashy ad about a new piece of gear that makes you feel like you aren’t worthy to create with what you already have, think carefully before entering that credit card number for the purchase.

Instead of buying new gear, work with what you have. Take an online coarse or go to a workshop about some aspect of music that will help you, regardless of the gear you use. Go to a jam or open mic and play music with real people in person to build your confidence interacting with other musicians. Building those skills will offer continued returns regardless of what you play, live and in the studio.


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.