I know. It sounds disgustingly simple. Just buy some instruments. If you don't feel like buying them, rent them. Kidding, it's not THAT simple, it's just close to being that simple.
First of all, you need to know what kind of results that you are looking to achieve. What kind of instruments do you really need? Are you going to try to do everything by yourself or are you going to be working with a band? Are you looking for a raw or a finished sound? Are you recording rap or rock or MOR (or all of the above)? Answer these questions and you will know what direction you are going when purchasing instruments.
Second, do you want to buy your instruments new or used? Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Third, what are some accessories that you think that you'll need?
Let's start with the first part. What kind of instruments to buy. If you are working by yourself, then I strongly suggest buying the following items:
- A synthesizer or a sampler with a sequencer built into the keyboard. The nice thing about a keyboard with a sequencer is that it usually has enough stuff in the works to eliminate the need for a drum machine. Another nice thing is that a sequencer allows for the overdubbing of 8 different instruments or more. A keyboard with a sequencer is basically a band in a box.
- A separate data storage unit. This can be a personal computer with a MIDI port or a data storage unit made specifically for music dumps. Some really cheap two track sequencers also act as a SYS-EX storage system. (SYS-EX is short for System Exclusive data dumps. A data dump for your "ACME 101" drum machine can only be read by the "ACME 101" drum machine. The "ACME 101" SYS-EX file cannot be read by any other machine because the file excludes all other systems, hence, "system exclusive".)
You want a separate storage system because there is no way that your keyboard memory will hold all of your songs. Even if it did, if the keyboard system crashes (and my keyboard software crashes ALL of the time) you lose all of your work and will have to start all over again.
Obviously, this is not the answer you are looking for if you are working with a band. If you are working with a band, chances are that you already have your own instruments and amps. If not, then you have to buy the instrument of your choice along with an amplification system. (Like, duh.)
In either case, you are probably going to want as much information as possible before you buy even one thing. There are two good sources of information that are generally accurate. The first is musician periodicals. (Keyboard, Guitar and Electronic Musician are three magazines that immediately come to mind.) The second is music instrument retailers.
Musician periodicals provide reviews, ads and information on all sorts of stuff like instruments, mixers, sound reinforcement, amplification, data storage and more. Musician magazines also have lots of cool tips on how to play, record and promote your music. The really great thing about these magazines is that most of them can be found in your library. It is a good idea to look at as many recent issues as possible in order to get a feel for where the market is at. It is also a good idea to look further into back issues because back issues can contain information on older machines, which is good if you are looking to buy used gear.
Musician magazines also help you get a feel as to what you really need. You may figure out that state-of-the-art technology is really too advanced for what you are trying to do and that older, "out-of-date" equipment will suit your needs just fine.
Music instrument retailers provide a great opportunity for hands-on experience with music equipment. You may also find that some of the store staff may have inside tips on the equipment you are looking to buy. Although you should always take what the sales staff tell you with a grain of salt (sales staff will almost always try to steer you toward the most expensive item in the store), they can, on occasion, provide some insight on possible instrument problems. (I remember once a clerk had told me to stay away from one of their fastest selling keyboards, he said that the keyboard had huge problems with its sequencing computer. I later ran into someone that had bought one of the same keyboards, the keyboard owner said that his keyboard wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit.) Retailers can also give you what the magazines cannot, the actual sound of the instrument.
Always, always, ALWAYS, (Get it yet?) absolutely ALWAYS check out new gear FIRST!!!!! You may find that new gear is much more affordable that you thought it was. New gear has a lot of advantages that used gear does not:
There are two different ways to buy new gear:
Local retailers can provide great service and immediate response in the event that you have problems with your new instruments. Local retailers provide a sense of security to customers due to the retailer's proximity. The down side of local retailers is that it usually costs more than mail order due to sales tax, overhead and other things. Local retailers can also be hard to bargain with. Their shelf prices are usually non-negotiable.
Mail order is not for everyone. It takes guts and gall to go the mail order route, but mail order offers a lot of advantages that local retailers cannot provide.
First and foremost, all mail order companies worth their salt will negotiate on their prices. If they don't negotiate, you don't waste your time with them.
Second, in most cases, there is no sales tax on mail order goods. When buying a $1500 piece of equipment, a 7% tax can really add to the price.
Third, it's all done on the phone. Retailers can intimidate you into buying stuff you don't need because they can usually tell if you are inexperienced in buying musical instruments. It is a lot harder to intimidate someone on the phone because the caller can just hang up if they feel belittled. Even the wimpiest of pushovers can become super hagglers over the phone.
As you can probably tell, you are in for my doctoral dissertation on mail order purchasing. It is my forte. I have been able to knock off up to 40% of the retail price on brand new equipment by using mail order. It's great!
Like I said, mail order is not for everyone, I have had to return equipment through the mail and it is not a pleasant nor is it a cheap experience. But overall, I have had huge success through mail order purchasing and I recommend it to anyone that has a desire to get the best prices around.
One thing to remember about mail order is that businesses do NOT sell at a loss. Do NOT feel bad for pitting companies against each other for the best price, it is the American way of doing business. Any company that DOES sell at a loss won't stay in business for long.
I suspect that most of the music mail order business is drop shipped directly from the manufacturer. This way, if a retailer makes even one dollar on a sale, they've done it without having any overhead expenses. Retailers that drop ship can go to rock bottom prices and still show a profit.
Another important point to remember is that you have no reason to buy from a company that offers to "match" their competitor's price. If you wanted to buy at the same price as the competitor, you would have never called a second company.
Mail order works is like this:
I get a couple of recent issues of different musician magazines and find all of the mail order companies that have 1-800 phone numbers and I write down the numbers on a separate piece of paper.
I then write down all of the questions that I might have about the instrument and the companies that I am calling. Questions like:
(Instrument = "unit".)
I make my phone calls to the mail order companies and keep track of the prices that I get quoted. I tell the companies the prices quoted to me from other companies and I see if the company that I am currently calling can beat the price.
I also often ask the same questions about the product until I am sure that everything checks out. I will sometimes get, "Well, this unit is glitchy sometimes." and I ask the next company if they think the same thing. You can get a lot of information this way.
Another benefit of asking a lot of questions is that each subsequent company that you call thinks that you know more about the unit in question than you really do. When you sound like you know what you are talking about, sales people treat you with respect and are more likely to give you a better deal. You also LEARN a lot this way. This is how I learned the finer details of things like MIDI dumps, RAM cards, quantizing, sequencers, etc.
One great thing about doing all of this stuff first is that you can stop calling people if you decide not to buy. No one will be in your face about it.
But the BEST thing is that it gives you supreme power when buying:
You will find that you can often buy new equipment with a warranty and all for about the same price that you can buy the same equipment used. The reason that used equipment costs so much is that most used equipment was bought at a retail outlet at the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price. The buyers did not go through mail order and therefore paid a higher price. They paid 30% - 40% more for their new equipment than you would have. They think that they're giving a great deal when they knock 30% off of the price they paid for their equipment. Little do they know that you can beat their price hands down and buy yourself brand new stuff through mail order!
Oftentimes, you will find that musicians will not come down on their inflated prices. Oh, well, some people are just stupid. But other times they will knock off another 30% in order to make the sale. Here are tips on buying used stuff:
Well, that's it on the equipment scheme. This information is by no means comprehensive. The best way to learn about this stuff is to go out and actually do it. By "do it" I mean get on the phone and make some calls. I made calls on equipment prices at least one year before I actually bought something. There's nothing wrong with getting some practice before making a purchase.