Sunday, November 21, 2010

Studio shopping in Beijing.

After my trip thru the states I hit Beijing hyped up to take grand master to the next level. But determination must inevitably face trials if it is to be refined... that's why we say, Hiphop and you don't stop! So it came as no surprise that my perseverance was tested soon after I returned to the Beijing hood...

Last Sunday afternoon, three days after I returned to China, my producer hit me with a text letting me know that he had a new job and needed the mic setup I'd been borrowing from him (BIG thanks bent!!)... So my home studio was disappearing :/

This setback could have slowed the movement down... But no, we kept it hopping! Monday night I chopped it up with my Model Minority brother D-One a/k/a David Fung and benefited from his research and thought, then spent a couple of hours on Google hitting up the audiophile and recording gear message boards! A lot of good options came out of the woodwork, but in the end I know that I wanted something (a) reliable (b) within my budget and (c) that I could find and get set up ASAP to continue making that good music (no kanye west [but sometimes i wish i were])!

After doin the groundwork online, I hollered at my church buddy JOSH ONG who majored in music and runs the music teams for one of the church locations in town, I knew that he would have the hookup! And he did, he had a place that he usually goes to cop gear... right near the church location, actually. And even going above and beyond, the man offered to come hang out with me Sunday afternoon and walk around to see what might be available.

When I linked with Josh at the Zhongguancun subway station, I knew exactly what I was looking for... throughout the week, I went back and forth on what I wanted to cop and how much loot I wanted to drop on it - my thoughts ranged from a super basic entry-level setup for around $100 total, to a super advanced setup that would run me around $600 (in the US where electronics are cheaper... even though they're all made in China anyways, smh).

I finally settled on a top-quality vocal mic, the Rode NT1A ($230 MSRP, only one level down from the $800 Rode NT2A adjustable mics I bought for my college studio at Yale) and a slightly cheaper preamp/audio control interface, the M-audio Mobilepre ($150 MSRP for an OK preamp but most importantly, an audio => USB interface).

Of course, knowing what I wanted and finding it could be two COMPLETELY different things. After all, in China, brand names are not only often misrepresented, but viewed as even interchangeable. Not to mention, the quality of equipment that I was looking for - in terms of reliability and brand recognition - was a cut above what you usually find in China, super local brands like ISK and Takstar. Not bad, but not something I would be wanting to use 10 years from now.... whereas, decades from now the Rode could still pull its weight.

Right around the ZGC subway station lie several large electronics markets... I'm talking multiple buildings, multiple floors, all crammed with tiny booths and slightly larger but equally transient retail layouts, 20 service workers all trying to pull you towards their shops as soon as you set foot on the floor, etc. You might have one modestly sized store selling Sennheiser headphones (super high quality, my favorite brand) right next to a tiny booth jam-packed with low-quality karaoke equipment and unbranded webcams, mouse pads, USB gadgets etc. I really wasn't looking to roll dolo through this environment so I was really happy Josh came through with me...

Anyways we linked up and walked in and asked one of the first market workers we saw where we could buy a 麦克风 (microphone), and she said 3rd floor so we walked up to the 3rd floor and saw nothing... i'm talking super simple joints, even the few microphones were the local ISK brand junk (OK for a podcast, something like that, but nothing even touching pro quality!) but that was just in the front of the floor. The more pro-level shops are in the back: with no impulse buys in stock, they don't need all that foot traffic and they can have a quieter and more professional atmosphere for buyers looking to drop more than a couple hundred RMB (~20 bucks) on simple gadgets.

Walking back, Josh and I were approached by another persistent worker, trying to draw us into his store... well we weren't going to have it but I just said "you guys got microphones?" to the worker and he said yeah, plus the store looked on the up-and-up and large enough to have good 关系 (connections) with suppliers large enough to stock good brand names. So we went in and he had me write out exactly the model numbers of what I was looking for, then went running around to various stockrooms pulling out exactly what I wanted.

Eventually they had everything I wanted out there... the Rode NT1A package with pop filter and shock mount, plus the Mobilepre preamp/Audio interface package. Haha, the salesman even asked me BOTH TIMES about the price like "are you sure you want this one? 这种有点儿贵" (This kind's a little expensive). But I told him I knew what I needed, and I was willing to pay for the quality.

But remember I said that things usually cost more in China?? Because of taxes and general shadiness on the part of foreign brands, etc. So they were asking 1850 RMB ($278) for a $230 mic package and 1380 RMB ($208) for a $100-150 preamp... ummm not cool. But with the equipment lying right in front of me, in good condition, I felt like making my move. After all, time was burning and the sooner I got my new studio setup done the better, right?? So I put my 8 semesters of Mandarin into play and bargained/cajoled the worker into hitting me with both for 3000 RMB total = 450 USD. NOT CHEAP but not expensive either, especially given how shipping the two from the US would have cost > $80 plus potentially taken weeks! AND having to go collect the package at some post office, plus the possibility of its breaking en route.

And you know the way I knew it was a decent price, the salesman wasn't happy with me after we sealed the deal! When we walked in talking about buying a high-level mic they were all getting us seats and bringing us hot water... but you know, if the staff is smiling at you and acting happy once you put the cash on the table, you did NOT hold up your end of the bargaining in this town!

We wrapped up the interface and mic in plastic bags, and i transported them back on the subway... soon you'll get a chance to hear how that new home studio sounds! By my estimates I'm thinking 10-20x the vocal audio quality.....

PEACE y'all!

BONUS FOOTAGE: I hung out with China's #1 hiphop DJ, 3x national DMC champion DJ Wordy this last week... kickin it in the studio, building on the musical level, and killing Nazi zombies in CoD! I got some footage of Wordy mashing-up, mixing, and scratching for me!

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