Sounds Okay — How to Shop for Tech

Sound Devices portable MixPre-6 II field recorder at work in the wild.

Maybe you’d like to learn how Hollywood films are edited for audio.

Or maybe not.

If you insist, you can check “Sync Tanks,” a long article by Elisabeth Wise that describes the excruciating efforts film companies make to ensure that each tiny sound is just right.

From where I’m standing, audio production is a black pit.

I once worked as a tech writer/editor for a Silicon Valley company that was bidding on an enormous federal contract related to television broadcast standards. Whenever my contact person talked about audio, I felt like sticking my fingers in my ears. He had a doctorate with a specialty in audio technology.

I know zilch about audio tech, yet I just ordered a digital audio recorder that’s way smarter than I am, the Sound Devices MixPre-6 II. It’s top gear and cost $955 with tax and shipping.

Why did I spend so much on an audio recorder? First, because I didn’t actually buy it for myself or by myself. The recorder will serve three organizations I deeply believe in: Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California; Ananda Sangha of Palo Alto, and the Ananda Community of Mountain View. Big thanks to those who donated generously!

Also, because, after 45 years of recording on devices with the technical sophistication of cow flap, I’ve had it.

Audio bag on a Hollywood movie set. (Click to enlarge.) He’s recording with the legendary Sound Devices 744T.

Why did it take this long? I’ve been a professional photographer for 47 years. I should know better.

If there are two things I’ve learned, it’s that (1) Inspiration is always more important than gear. And (2) Great gear matters.

Oh, and (3) Great gear isn’t always new. Or expensive.

Here’s my advice: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS GET THE BEST GEAR FOR THE JOB.

Your gear can be super simple, but if it isn’t the best, you’ll never be completely satisfied. This principle applies to everything you keep around you: husbands and wives, dogs, cats, cars, reading glasses, running shoes, cameras, toothpaste, and sound recorders.

The single exception I can think of is phones, but I’m on the phone no more than two minutes a month, so why would you listen to me.

Take my camera gear. (If you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.) I own a several-generations-outdated Canon 6D full-frame body. Not because I can’t afford something pricier, but because it has image quality that is every bit as wonderful as the current top models, at least for my purposes.

Where I never skimp is on lenses. (Caution, tech ahead:) I have the Canon 24-105 F/4 L IS USM lens. It’s a so-called “kit lens,” the implication being that it’s kind of crummy. But it isn’t; it’s magnificent. I also own the Canon 135mm F/2 L IS lens which is expensive, at $1000 new — I was lucky to find a 2017 copy on Ebay for $700. It’s the best portrait lens ever made, and it serves me admirably for stage events as well.

Simple super gear is the bee’s knees. It should be so good that you hardly notice it after you’ve been using it for a while.

(4) The best gear is not always the most popular. Great gear has a strange way of  hiding from public view.

When I needed to choose between audio recorders, I found a zillion websites that touted the Zoom and Tascam brands. Of course, approximately 98% of those sites said exactly the same thing — they listed the features, often copying them from the manufacturer’s literature, or from other people’s reviews.

Maybe the author had actually touched the product, but not always. Can we all raise our voices and chant: “Affiliate Links!”

You can usually eliminate these sites from your consideration with a glance at their tortured names: audioexpertinsights.com, etc. (I made that up.)

Another tip-off: list-based posts almost always indicate affiliate gimcrackery: “Top 115 Audio Recorders in 2020!”

The pro sites have real names: soundonsound.com, transom.org, abekislevitz.com, etc. They present long, thoughtful, well-informed, independent, professional insights.

Perusing the Amazon customer reviews is another great way to get the inside dope — you’ll learn about the battery door that falls off the day after the warranty expires, the recorder’s hissy sound floor, the lack of customer support, and so on.

I’m not picking on Zoom. Zoom makes some truly fine recorders — the H6 and F6, for example. But most low-end audio gear does seem to have its weaknesses.

That is, it seems, with the grand and notable exception of Sound Devices. Oh, well, okay, SD’s products aren’t actually the cheapest, but they are making pro-level gear at an unprecedented low price, and they have an outstanding reputation among the audio pros.

Frustrated by the one- and two-star Amazon reviews of the less-expensive Zoom and Tascam products, I eventually found a handful of articles and videos penned by real-life actual working audio professionals who couldn’t say enough good things about Sound Devices.

Why is Sound Devices relatively unknown except among the audio pros? Undoubtedly because its gear starts at $650. And because they’re selling fewer copies, they aren’t going to bring an avalanche of cash into the purses of the affiliate link crowd.

Sound Devices is one of the great hidden brands in its field. Until about ten years ago they were making sound gear for the feature film industry; their stuff was used on the Star Wars movies, LaLaLand, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, Game of Thrones, and many others.

Thus my pithy advice: no matter what type of product you’re shopping for, keep looking until you can identify the hidden brands of excellence. They will cost more, but you won’t suffer buyer’s remorse.

By the bye, when it was time to order the recorder, I found Sweetwater, a seller that can hardly be described as “hidden,” since they’re the world’s largest online music store. But, just like Sound Designs, they are golden. They make a big deal of taking care of their customers, and they deliver. Within 30 minutes of placing my order, a Sweetwater “sales engineer” called to thank me and ask if he could answer my questions. Later, when I requested by email that he double-check the shipping method, he responded within ten minutes. My order was packed, labeled, and out the door to FedEx within an hour. Highly recommended.

(No affiliate links were used in the making of this article.)

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