Upgrade Now or Later, Part 2: The Hardware Exchange


In Part 1 of the Upgrade Now or Later series, we looked at some potential problems and rewards when upgrading software. In Part 2, the focus will be on changing and upgrading hardware, which could be analog, digital, or both. There is something uniquely satisfying about getting new hardware. The excitement tied to unboxing a glorious new THING seems to be encoded in our DNA. It doesn’t matter if that thing is a gift or a self-purchased necessity—no one had to teach us to look forward to the unboxing. Disregarding any concern for sonic differences between hardware and software, interacting with physical devices produces a drastically different feeling than interacting with virtual components. Obtaining and installing hardware upgrades is often more expensive than software upgrades, but is also generally easier to switch back.

The Big Question: Why?

Due to the expense of hardware upgrades, it’s important to identify why you want them. Will the new hardware give you functionality that you did not previously have? Will it improve your workflow efficiency or creativity? Can the added gear expand your client base? Will it enhance the sonic glory of your signal chain? Will it make you a better person? Even if the new equipment would increase your happiness exponentially, be cautious about installing it in the middle of a project. In some cases, it will be risk-free. For example, it’s not a problem to add an outboard compressor in addition to (not in place of) existing gear. However, swapping your stereo bus equalizer for a completely different EQ could be problematic if you need to recall earlier mixes to make changes. Adding more RAM to your computer mid-project might not be a big deal, but switching your whole computer could yield some unpleasant surprises. If you will be removing old equipment, keep it around for a little while. Doing so will give you the ability to restore your original configuration if you end up disliking the new gear.

The Boring Question: How?

Once you’ve decided what equipment you want in your life, you then need to figure out how to install it into your setup. This should conjure up thoughts of cables and jacks in your head. Envision that astounding, magnificent hunk of analog greatness that you want. Now, imagine it sitting and collecting dust because you couldn’t hook it up. That’d be a downright tragedy. To avoid that deflating disappointment, you must figure out exactly how the gear you want can connect to the gear you have. Do this before you place your order. Where do you start, though? Start at the connectors. If it is an external drive, does it have USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1 (Type-A, Micro-B, or Type-C), FireWire 400, FireWire 800, Thunderbolt 2, Thunderbolt 3, or eSata? If it is an analog summing mixer, does it have 1/4" (unbalanced TS or balanced TRS), XLR 3-pin, or DB25 connectors? If it is a stunning 4K monitor, does it have HDMI, VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, or USB Type-C? Do any of provided jacks match your available connectors? If not, are there adapters available and have they been proven to work?

Once you’ve won the game of “Match That Jack,” you are onto the next level: “Short Cable, Long Cable!” Decide where you intend to place the gear you hope to get. From there, what cable length would get you to the destination? If it looks like 3' would just barely make it there, 3' is probably too short. You’ll want a little extra length for device movement and strain relief. Perhaps you’d rather measure than guess. Snag a long mic cable or some string and run it where you plan to route the cable(s). Don’t forget to include extra length for movement and strain relief. Once the mock cable is in place, mark the ends with tape. Then, pull your fake cable and measure it to determine the length you’ll need.

An often-overlooked element of equipment installation is power. Step #1 of troubleshooting: Is it on? It’s an important step and you’d hate to be stopped from using a new source of audio wizardry because of something as basic as a power issue. So, figure out the power requirements for the equipment you want. Are power supplies, power adapters, and power cords included? If not, track down a compatible power solution. Next, where will you plug in the power cord(s)? Will you need extension cords and/or power strips? Obviously, having consistent, stable power is highly significant. Consider safeguarding your hardware with power protection. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) such as the CyberPower BRG850AVRLCD can protect against power surges and spikes and continue to supply your equipment with power in the event of a blackout, brownout, or sag. Additionally, a UPS can reduce noise from electrical and radio interference. Spending a little extra money to ensure the safety of your equipment may sound lame, but what is truly and thoroughly lame is losing money and time because of equipment damaged in a random power surge.

CyberPower BRG850AVRLCD Intelligent LCD Series Uninterruptible Power Supply

The Dangerous Question: What Do Others Think?

Once you've determined that bringing this brand-new bundle of joy into your life is feasible, get another opinion or two. Talk to friends, research gear reviews, gaze into a crystal ball, or consult an oracle about what you intend to do. Other people can offer valuable insight and perspective beyond your current field of vision. Asking people what they think about that fiendish thingy you seriously want to buy so hard may unveil factors and options previously unknown to you. However, there is danger in seeking the thoughts of too many people; you may drown in the tsunami of resulting opinions. So, consult other people, but don't make it your full-time job.

Hardware upgrades can be painlessly simple or frustratingly complex. To know what you're about to face, ask those few "basic" questions (Why do you want the upgrade? How will you install it? What do others think about it?). You'll be more informed, more prepared, and hopefully, more confident about your purchasing power. If you have any upgrade tragedies, successes, or advice, feel free to share them here in the Comments section.