December 1998
The Ups And Downs Of Upgrades
Can You Afford To Leave Well Enough Alone?

Illustration by ADAM MCCAULEY

Probably the biggest question every studio owner has to face every day--besides whether to get out of bed in the morning--is when to upgrade. Just the word "upgrade" is enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone with an investment in audio or computer equipment. By accepting that you need an upgrade, you're admitting that you're behind the times, that you're not competitive, that the investment you made just a few short years or even months ago is worthless, and that you're going to be spending a lot of money you didn't know you had. Not to mention that you're about to head into the Valley of Death By Down Time.

Not too long ago, the decision to make a major equipment change in a recording studio was relatively easy. It was sort of like deciding to get rid of an old car: If the cost of keeping and maintaining it was higher than the value of whatever you could still get out of it, it was time for it to go. If you were in a competitive market with a ten-year-old mixing board, and you discovered the guy down the street was beginning to siphon business away because he had a newer, flashier, more-LEDs-per-square-inch board, then it might be time to replace the old desk with something a little more au courant. Like trading in your old car to a dealer or selling it in the classified ads, you could always find another studio that would be happy to have your old console, or you could build a "B" room and stick it in there, and so you could recover at least a part of the cost of the upgrade.

But there are far more complex issues facing studio owners today than simply calculating the "remaining useful life" of a major piece of gear, or trying to keep up with the Joneses down the street. The concepts and buzz words of modern audio technology are much better known (if no better understood) among nonprofessionals--i.e., clients--than they used to be, and as the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Whether or not they have anything to do with their projects, some clients will insist that you have the latest plug-ins, operating systems, digital effects and tube preamps, or they'll take their business somewhere "hipper." It doesn't make any difference that they're producing a video that's going to end up on a kiosk in the middle of a railroad station waiting room--if you haven't got 24-bit 96kHz converters and a mixer with automated effects and 5.1 surround panning, they're not interested in you.

Coming from the opposite side, manufacturers are much more aggressive than they used to be when it comes to pushing stuff into customers' hands. A few years ago, the average pro audio ad said something like, "This will make your records sound better," or "This will save you time." Today, the same hype machine that has made the people in the top income brackets of the richest nation in the history of civilization feel inadequate if they don't drink the right colored soda water has been called into service to sell gear to you and me: "Buy this, or you'll be left behind by the people who are cooler and know better than you do." And getting something back for your old gear? Forget it! You're in the 28% tax bracket, so you're significantly better off donating that three-year-old computer or five-year-old reverb to a local school or nonprofit than trying to get cash for it.

But upgrading anything in today's highly interdependent studio, as I opined in one of my very first "Insider Audio" columns about three years ago, can be very tricky. When life was more discrete, trading in one compressor or equalizer for another didn't affect anything else in the studio one iota--unless you count having to re-label the patchbay. But in digital and computer-based systems, changing just one element can throw dozens of others out of kilter.

To stretch the automobile analogy a little further, in the days of discrete analog components, mastering a new piece of gear wasn't that different from getting used to a new car: After you figured out where they put the rear defroster control, found the hood release latch, set the buttons on the radio, and realized the hard way that you can't close the sunroof if you're parked on a hill in the rain, driving a new car is pretty much the same experience as driving an old one, only the potholes don't seem as annoying, the exhaust system is quieter and the world seems to go by faster. In today's studios, however, after you've changed the operating system on a computer or DAW, it might feel like the steering wheel is on backward, the turn signals open the gas-tank cover, the clutch operates in reverse, and the horn doesn't sound, it blinks. And, oh yes--there seems to be an extra wheel or three (or 3.1) attached.

Since no one company is in charge of all the components--hardware and software--in a computer, you will undoubtedly find that when you change your operating system (or almost anything in that operating system, like new sound drivers), some cherished programs will no longer be functional and will need to be replaced to remain compatible. You may need to add more RAM to support all these new versions--and the cost of doing all this can easily be more than the cost of the upgrade you started out with. Worst of all, you may have to reformat your hard disk and risk losing everything that's on there.

Even more annoying--and more expensive--is the amount of time all this takes. Down time for installing new programs and revisions, and for fixing all the things that subsequently break, has become a significant factor in many studios' budgets, as well as a nasty Catch-22 in their business strategies: If you're busy, you can't afford the down time, but if you don't do the upgrade, you'll lose business. More than one studio owner has expressed a perverse desire for business to slow down for a little while, just so they can have time to do a simple upgrade in their studio.

Ignoring the problem is no answer, either. I was once told by a tech support director at a major manufacturer that if I didn't want to deal with constantly messing around with my system, and I was happy with how my studio was working, I could "freeze time": Leave everything just the way it was, and do my gig. But after a remarkably short period of time, that is going to stop working. Not only wouldn't I be able to take advantage of any of the latest goodies that require an updated system, I wouldn't even be able to get bugs fixed--because the bug fixes are only available in the new versions that contain all the latest goodies, which needs the updated system, which requires new versions of utility software, which needs extra RAM, and so on ad nauseam. I wanted to ask him whether he was still maintaining his bug report database in Lotus 1-2-3 on a PC-AT, but I figured I knew the answer.

Since I wrote that column three years ago, the situation has, if anything, gotten worse. The pace of new technology introductions has continued to accelerate, and whatever you buy today will be obsolete--not in a year, not in three months, but the moment you take it out of the box. And if it isn't, then it will be at the next trade show, when the manufacturer announces its next generation of toys. These will be faster, cheaper and have more tracks/bits/wingdings, but--and we're really sorry about this--they won't work with what you have now. While a new automobile (last car analogy, I promise!) loses maybe 15% of its value the moment you drive it off the lot, the SuperWonderMachine you just spent a few thousand dollars on will have lost about 75% of its value by the time you get it running. Assuming that you do.

For people without unlimited sources of funds and rows of technicians to solve their problems, all of this causes fear, panic, sleepless nights and, in a lot of cases, complete and utter paralysis. How many of us have put off getting that new software, or installing a hard disk or CD-R drive, or subscribing to the next operating system, because we were terrified of getting the "wrong" product, or of what this change would do to our work schedule and our bottom line?

Fortunately, this issue is being addressed by people other than audio writers. At Mix's StudioPro98 conference in New York this past summer, the organizers came up with a panel topic called "That Dangerous Upgrade Path." Not surprisingly, because of my outspokenness on the subject (and the fact that they didn't have to pay airfare for me to get there) they asked me to moderate it. I recruited people from a number of different parts of the industry to sit on the panel and was heartened at their enthusiastic response--not even the manufacturers I asked to join me winced when I told them what the topic was.

Besides the manufacturers, we had three studio engineers and managers on the panel, along with a representative from the retail side. Next month, I'll get into what they said. I'll also share with you some rules I've developed, over the years and with the panel's help, about how to deal with upgrades in today's studio environment.

In the past year, Paul D. Lehrman, editorial director of Mix Online, has bought two new consoles, three computers, a set of primary monitors, a synchronizer, a mastering deck, a reverb, and he has installed new operating systems in three samplers. And he has changed jobs. He intends to spend the next year trying not to go broke.

These materials copyright ©1998, 2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing