Why Is Audio Gear So Expensive? (Especially Synths)

Source: Wikipedia

People do everything in their power to acquire equipment for their music-making passion. But why are the price tags so intimidating?

Compared to regular computer gadgets, pro audio gear is indeed costlier and for seemingly no apparent reason. In this article, we will be attempting to solve this mystery once and for all and explain what makes music production equipment distinct from other regular electronics.

So Why Is Audio Gear So Expensive?

Audio gear often requires meticulous engineering and research to design and manufacture. On top of that, high standards of the professional audio community require equipment to be built using high-end internal components, some of which are custom-manufactured or of limited availability.

The table below shows some common reasons why studio gear cost so much:

Studio Gear
Why it is expensive
Details
Audio Interfaces
Build Complexity
The vital part of most audio interfaces is the preamp. Premium preamp chipsets require expert engineering to pull off the low noise, high sensitivity input with the flat frequency response they provide. Having multiple preamps multiplies the price. And to top it off, manufacturers use grounding, filtering using custom-built capacitors, and other methods to eliminate noise, increasing the cost further.
Studio Headphones
Accuracy
Open-back headphones for mixing require a perfectly flat frequency response, open spatial feel, and comfortable headbands. Similarly, if you take closed-back headphones for recording, they are designed to avoid any sound leakage. Both require an extensive level of research, engineering, and accurate manufacturing to achieve.
Studio Monitors
Accuracy
As with headphones, studio monitors also combine profoundly detailed development with ideal material to achieve flat, noise-free sound reproduction.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Development Time
A DAW requires years of development to become anywhere near useable as the famous ones we see in the market. For example, Steinberg introduced Cubase in 1989, and the current version we see has over 32 years of development in it. Not to mention the painstakingly created virtual instruments, charges incurred in recording samples, and so on adding on to the price.
Condenser Mics
Research
A dynamic mic has a diaphragm with a copper coil attached to it, which increases its weight. In contrast, a condenser mic has a very lightweight diaphragm assembly giving it much more sensitivity. However, this also means that the research poured into creating bigger diaphragms for wider frequency response while still maintaining high sensitivity adds a lot to the cost of production.
Analog Synths
Components & Build Complexity
Analog synths create sounds by manipulating electric voltage. A chain of analog synth components (oscillator to filters) can only produce one sound at a time (monophony). So, eight individual sets of analog component chains are required to make the sounds at once for an eight-note polyphony synth. Hence, it is easy for the price to skyrocket when it comes to analog synths.

But now, let’s explain it more further:

Why Do Premium Synths Cost So Much?

Synths are a culmination of many kinds of individual gears we know of, from guitar pedals, sound systems, etc. For example, a synth could have multiple sound generators, filters, effect circuits, amplifiers, storage chips, and so on, each with customizable parameters. This complexity raises the price.

Let’s have a look at some other reasons:

  • Technology

The technology used in a synthesizer dramatically affects the manufacturing cost. The most expensive, value-wise, is analog synthesis, of course. Modular synths are also high priced for their unique design, where you can disconnect and reconnect individual components in any order you like. Digital synths are relatively cheaper because they can provide the same specifications that ridiculously complex analog synth offers with far fewer components.

  • Demand for Analog

A question worth persuing is if digital synths are easier to build, why don’t we see more of those? Well, despite having similar specifications (polyphony, oscillator waveforms, etc.), digital synths are actually using a sort of single-cycle wave sampling. This means that if you play a frequency higher than half the sample rate (24kHz for a sample rate of 48kHz), there will be artifacts or even distortion, which is called aliasing. Analog synths don’t have this issue. So, the demand is prominent for fully analog or hybrid synths than digital, and manufacturers produce what is demanded.

  • Research

Teams of expert engineers and technicians are employed for years to develop innovative, intricate synth blueprints. And this does not come cheap.

  • Cost of Components

Most of the electronics we use do not have analog components anymore. So, manufacturers have all moved on to producing digital parts and components. Therefore, synth manufacturers might even have to develop the internal components themselves to build analog or hybrid synthesizers. Not to mention how analog synths require duplication of the entire component chain as many times as your target polyphony, pushing the price even higher.
Aside from analog synths, premium digital synths also require high-speed processing power to avoid aliasing. This increases the price as well, albeit we do get very advanced features like wavetables, numerous oscillators, granular synthesis, highly customizable effects, etc., with such synthesizers.

  • Exclusivity

Then, of course, we have synthesizers from a memorable era or popularized by renowned artists. Moog, for example, is a brand embraced by bands such as The Doors, the Beatles, and so on. Hence, people regard their products highly even today. Similarly, vintage synths such as the Prophet 5 are expensive for their historical fame and relevance.

Do I Need Expensive Audio Gear To Make Music?

No, you don’t need expensive audio gear to make quality music. Some expensive gears are plainly for niche workflows, some for live performance, and some for skipping steps, such as using a high-end mic with plenty of air boost to avoid too much EQing in post.

What we must understand is that just because something is costlier doesn’t make it automatically better. In mics, synths, effect plugins, and so on, the difference between entry-level gear and high-end gear becomes lost in the final mixed song, especially to the general audience.

Similarly, while more expensive speakers/headphones are generally better, it doesn’t mean that working with cheaper alternatives is impossible. Bigger studios require perfect flat frequency response only because their workflow involves using multiple headphones/speakers between several people. So, it’s paramount that each person involved can work with another pair of speakers just as well as they did with the ones they are used to. This doesn’t apply to a home studio, as you alone will be the one working with your setup.

So. in many cases, the choices you make for your audio gears are solely based on your preference and budget. While you do need bare minimums like an audio interface, good headphones, and a DAW, owning controllers, monitor speakers, expensive interfaces, and hardware synths are purely optional.

Quick tips to help you decide what you need:

In this section, we will be talking about various audio equipment and what kind of each, if any, you need.

Basic Gear:

  • Audio Interface

Audio interfaces have preamps and professional converter circuits for minimizing latency while maintaining audio quality. They also let you utilize higher sample rates. The preamps are needed for using microphones or guitar pickups. However, there are interfaces with only one preamp or multiple. For starters, you probably only need one input at a time. The second thing you want to look for in a preamp is low noise [check signal-to-noise (SNR) – more is better].

  • Studio Headphones

You want a flat response and comfort when it comes to headphones. We recommend open-back headphones for mixing, mastering, and general music production, which let the sound out into the room, giving you an expansive spatial feel and less strain to your ears. And for recording purposes, look for sound leak-free closed-back headphones. Semi open-backs are great if you have the budget for only a pair.

  • DAW/Software 

You can get started with a free DAW, or you could invest in a paid one. Most have bundled instruments/effects, which is excellent for some. However, if you specialize in a specific genre, it could be best to find a cheap, blank-slate DAW and add your plugins. Also, check out trial versions to see if you prefer the workflow.

  • Instruments/Microphones

If you intend to play an instrument, then it is, of course, an essential gear. It could be a keyboard, a guitar, and so on. If you wish to record acoustic instruments or vocals, you will need a microphone. Look for flat frequency response in a mic as well. Some mics have more than one diaphragm to create multiple polar patterns. For starters, you are okay with one diaphragm, i.e., cardioid pattern. Better or more diaphragms increase the cost.

Optional Gear:

  • Studio Monitors and Room Treatment

If you add monitors, you will need room treatment. For a relatively smaller room, 3-inch to 5-inch speakers are great. For large ones, you will need 8-inch speakers. Look for flat frequency response with the widest bandwidth (ideal low-end ~50Hz or below at -10dB).

Specs of Yamaha HS5 studio monitors
  • Hardware Synths

Refer to the previous section to understand hardware synths, which are entirely optional additions. If you are an enthusiast with a low budget, consider digital synths or a cheaper, monophonic analog synth.

  • MIDI Keyboard Controllers

If you are familiar with the keyboard or wish to learn it, midi controller keyboards are great. They help you record much quicker and easier. And with faders and transport features, mixing, and production, in general, become a breeze.

  • Guitar Amps and Sound Modules

Neither is necessary for music production. Only consider if you are an enthusiast or play live.

  • Control Surfaces

Unessential for music production. Consider if you record bands and need handy, live controls.

  • Amplifiers

Irrelevant for active monitor speakers or headphones. Vital for passive monitor speakers.

  • Analog Effects

These are also optional additions. If you don’t have an audio interface with many inputs/outputs to connect the effects, they are of no use for you. Consider if you play live or if you are an enthusiast.

  • Mixing Consoles

Of little use at home studios, mixing consoles are generally used by large studios, where many inputs, outputs, and built-in effects are required.

Conclusion

We hope this article helped shed some light on why audio equipment can become so ridiculously expensive. However, despite the consensus about the price, we can also see that it is certainly possible to produce music without breaking the bank.

In every kind of equipment involved in music production, there are multiple options or multiple tiers. Understanding the causes behind the pricetags also lets you know what problems you may face with your gadgets. For instance, learning the sound of your speakers/headphones is a must. If your headphones do not play bass loud enough, you must learn not to turn up the bass to compensate. Instead, try using an EQ on the master to modify your headphone’s frequency response while playing your favorite song. Then, turn the EQ off when exporting your song. Such workarounds allow you to produce astounding results even with a basic set of gears. 

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