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Getting Your S*** Together
(Applying the 80/20 Rule to Equipment)
By John McKay
The one thing (besides your ability to play) that will heavily impact your live and studio work is your equipment. Do you have a weak link in an otherwise strong chain? To find out, just take a look at your gear. Is there a piece that fails more often than everything else? Is there a cymbal that you don't like to hit?
It's important to be completely honest with yourself and your bandmates. If you have one piece that sounds terrible, you can bet that your fans will remember that more than just about anything else. Everyone remembers playing with "that guy with the terrible snare drum". So how do you insure that you're sounding your best, without taking out a second mortgage?
Use the 80/20 Rule! The 80/20 rule (otherwise known as the Pareto Principle, after Vilfredo Pareto, the 18th century philospher who first observed that 80% of the wealth in a society is held by 20% of the members), is basically the observation that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. In the case of equipment, it means that replacing one terrible component can have a tremendous result in your sound.
Let's use the guitar rig as an example. Following the signal chain, we have:
pick>strings>pickups>wiring (swiches and knobs)> cable>effects>cable>amplifier>speaker cable>speakers.
Any one component can cause significant sound problems. The systematic way to approach this would be to test each piece, asking yourself, "Does this piece work 100%? Does it cause sound problems? Is it more trouble than its worth?" If it's not functioning perfectly, add it to your repair/replace list.
After you've gone through the whole set-up, you should have a list of items that could be replaced or repaired. While each item affects the sound differently, a bad cable can cause as many problems as a bad amplifier. A bad cable, however, is infinitely cheaper to replace. So, listing your items from cheapest to most expensive, we might have:
- Battery (distortion pedal) $2
- Cable $10
- Pickup $75
- Amplifier $400
Now, if you're playing a top dollar guitar and you've checked all of your gear, but are playing through a $25 Peavey from a garage sale, you may just have to step up and buy a new amp. But generally, replacing things like cables, strings, and batteries can have a major impact on your sound, for very little cost. 80/20.
The same applies for drummers, bass, keyboard, etc. One bad component can wreak havoc, and ultimately, it costs almost nothing to fix.
Similarly, if there's one part of a song that causes trouble every time you play it, you need to deal with that. Either practice it until you're proficient enough to hit it correctly every time, or change the part. Ignoring it is just going to make it a focal point, and not a good one.
Making these small corrections can have a very positive effect on your performances, your confidence, and the impression you leave with your fans. Think of it like a sculpture; you're just chipping away the pieces that don't belong.