So You Got A New Toy:
4 tips to get the most out of new gear
The Holidays are upon us! For those musicians out there that may be gifted (or gift themselves) with new musical equipment, here is a quick runthrough of things to do with a new piece of gear to best put it to use.
Read The Manual
The first step I take for every single new addition to my collection is to read the manual. I know, I know, this is not a particularly exciting point to kick off with, but this is the most important thing that you can do to start getting in the headspace of new gear. In most cases, manuals are really well written, and it makes sense - developers and manufacturers want you to be happy with the thing you've bought and they're handing you a booklet on how use it best.
Here are some specific things to look for in manuals:
Guitars and Basses
Pay special attention to setup instructions. Even the best guitars will feel horrible if the strings are sky high or if it isn't intonated properly. If the guitar is coming pre-set up, it's always worth double checking if you need to make any small adjustments. Otherwise, you risk getting two months in feeling lukewarm on your new guitar only to realize that an action adjustment is all it needed.
Look for information on navigation and signal flow. Modern keyboards tend to pack a ton of features into them, and the first thing I try to understand is how to access all of them. On workstation style keyboards, learn how to find all the patches you want, learn how to set up keysplits, learn how to set up combinations of patches, and learn how to add effects. Each keyboard workstation will have a slightly different way of doing all of these things and I promise you - the answer is in the manual. On heavier synthesizers, you typically don't have to deal with as much navigation, but you should be looking to understand the signal flow of the synth. Learn what order filters and envelopes are applied, and if that order can be switched . Learn how to change destinations for your LFOs and what order effects are applied.
Understanding what polar pattern and frequency response your microphone has is the most important first step. If you're new to microphones, you'll want to learn some about the different category your microphone falls in (dynamic, condenser, ribbon etc.. ) and how that affects how you take care of it and what gear you'll need to go with it. For example, you'll need a preamp or interface to supply phantom power to any condenser microphone for it to work at all, however that's not a concern for other microphone types, and could even damage older ribbon mics if you do apply phantom power to them.
With pedals, there are some really important logistical things you'll need to figure out first, such as what power supply you'll need. Next, read about what each knob controls - most knobs will be labeled with familiar terms like "gain" or "tone", however some more boutique pedals go for more unique and colorful terms like "squish" or "wrath" are a bit less intuitive, so those are good things to read up on. Often times there will also be suggested settings to try out which are normally good starting places when you're completely fresh to a pedal.
Yes, these count as effects pedals, but as far as manuals go, you're going to have a lot more to read with multi-effects units. The first thing I'm looking for when unboxing a multi-effect unit is just how much can it do. It's happened to me multiple times that I've been looking for a new piece of gear that does a certain thing, and a friend will mention that a multifx that I already own can absolutely fill that role. Above that, look for how programming your device works. Multi-effects have notoriously bad interfaces full of strange abbreviations and borderline nonsensical proprietary nomenclature that the manual can help shine some light on.
Amps vary widely, but with an amp I'm looking at the top and back panels and learning what every knob controls and how each input and output varies - most of these will be recognizable terms, but every now and then you'll see something out of the ordinary that's worth checking out. If you notice there are two inputs, find out which one you want to be using and when.
Comparatively, drums are going to have a pretty compact user manual. What I look for first in drum manuals is information about tuning the drum, and also if there's any recommended ways to store or transport the drum to make them last as long as possible.
Do some diagnostics
Before jumping straight into a music making session with your new toy, do a diagnostic session. On a new instrument, this could be playing a piece that you're very familiar with to see what feels or sounds different from your old instrument (fun fact: in classical music this is the idea behind a toccata). Play sustained notes and listen hard to how the quality of the sound changes as you move knobs on your instrument. For effects, try to isolate variables. Start with just the new pedal into the amp, then listen as you change parameters. Then if you're using multiple pedals, add in pedals one by one. Play around with how the sound changes if you change the order of the pedals. On keyboards explore the different patches and start finding the ones that feel like they'll be useful to you and start learning how to fine tune them. For microphones, do a shootout against your other microphones and do some critical listening on how each of them varies.
This step can look very different based on what gear you have and what gear you're adding, but the general idea is always the same. Before you start playing music where musical ideas and tonal ideas become linked, spend some time focusing on just the tone alone.
Watch what others are doing
Especially for more popular gear, there are likely to be online resources talking about how other people use that piece of gear. Youtube tutorials and interviews, magazine articles, and blog posts are all amazing resources to see how people with more experience with the gear are using it. Using other people's trial and error to your advantage is a fantastic way to catapult yourself forward in your knowledge with the gear.
This point does come with a few caveats though!
People on the internet can be, and frequently are, wrong. Just because someone says something in a forum post does not make them correct. Use a healthy amount of skepticism when reading blog posts, reddit comments, etc. Average users can have valuable input, but if someone is telling you to use something in a way that seems like it isn't intended to be used, be very hesitant.
Don't get lost in the internet! Watching other people use gear to learn their tips and tricks hits diminishing returns very quickly. I typically limit myself to seeking out 2 or 3 sources before I go back to using the device myself to try out some of the new ideas.
Get To It!
Commit to your new gear
Jump in and start spending time with your device! Even if you love your other guitars/keyboards/pedals/whatever, make your new piece of gear your daily player for the next few weeks to really learn the ins and outs of it. Be critical of what it does well and what it doesn't. Think of your current musical needs and how this new device fits in. Does it open new creative options? Can it make your live show more reliable or smooth out transitions? Is it best fit to keep in the studio but may not be a good fit for live use? Music is deeply personal and how you use your gear may not be how everyone else plans for you to. Use this introductory period to plan how to incorporate this new gear into your previous set of gear.
I hope these few points can help you jump in and get to creating with your shiny new toys! As always, if you ever need guidance on how to best use your new gear, bring it into the School of Rock and myself and the other gearheads will gladly revel in the joys of new gear with you.
Wishing everyone a happy, creative and safe New Year!