Zen and the Art of Recording
© 2014 All Rights Reserved
The Recordist’s Tools
If you read the Internet audio boards, you’re probably familiar with the countless debates over our tools and their relative importance to the recording process. We’ve already established the gear is far less important than the performer, instrument, and room. But “less important” doesn’t necessarily mean unimportant.
You can’t record a sound being emitted in a room without a microphone of some sort. You can’t record without some form of recording and storage medium, whether that’s analog tape or a DAW. You can’t run a DAW without a computer. You can’t monitor what you’re recording without speakers. And you can’t do any of it without electricity.
Therefore, you can’t record without technology, which means your tools have some bearing and importance to the process. Yet, despite this rather obvious flaw in the argument, the Internet abounds with neophyte recordists who are absolutely convinced that gear has no bearing whatsoever on the ultimate quality of a record.
Yes, a compelling performance will certainly transcend any recording technology. Does that mean we should all go back to ADATs?
It should come as no surprise to you that I have no shortage of confidence when it comes to my engineering capabilities. My multiple books on the recording arts shall serve as prima facie evidence of this. Yet, there have been times in my career that I have literally been rendered artistically impotent by subpar gear in a fucked-up critical listening space.
Is the cheapest mic pre available going to do your recording harm? According to some on the Internet, no. According to me, absolutely. That crappy mic pre that comes stock with your digital interface will compound your recording with unintended distortion that isn’t all that musical in nature. There’s no getting around the “tools” part of this. The large preponderance of this book will address source and capture techniques, but your tools can, and will, affect the overall quality of your recordings. That’s not even debatable. Yet here we are.
Then there’s the numbskulls who insist that gear means everything to their success as a recordist—a claim that often leaves one to ponder the definition of success, given that it’s an argument typically raised by weekend warriors who have never made a record of note. This is an equally delusional position.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. We’ve already established that there’s a bare minimum of gear required in order to record. Therefore the technology must have some bearing on the recording process. We can’t perform our job without it. So just how vital is quality gear to a recording? It depends on the function of the gear.
While you can make a record without a single compressor or EQ, converters are a requirement for digital recording and reproduction. Your converters are directly responsible for the overall audio quality, making them one of your more important gear considerations.
You certainly can’t record a voice without a microphone or a microphone preamp (although you can amplify the mic with a compressor if you really like stupid amounts of line noise on everything you record). And while it’s true you can build an entire instrumental album using prepackaged loops and MIDI instruments, the moment you want to record an acoustic instrument, you’ll need a mic and a preamp. We use these tools in order to convey our music and art to others; therefore, they have relevance to the process.
We have a wide array of choices where our tools are concerned, many of which perform the same basic functions in slightly unique ways. Our recording tools can run anywhere from ridiculously inexpensive to prohibitively expensive. Supply and demand principles are alive and well when it comes to recording gear.
There’s no doubt that a well-maintained vintage Telefunken ELAM 251 is an amazing microphone. Is it $24,000 good? Probably not. If money was of no consequence, a 251 or two would surely be worth owning. Do my recordings suffer when I don’t have that mic available? Of course not, and neither will yours. But I sure am happy when I see a 251 on the studio gear list. That said, just because I have a 251 available on my session doesn’t mean it’s the mic I’ll use in any given application. Circumstance could make the $100 Shure SM57 the far superior choice.
There is no doubt the source has the most impact on the quality of your recordings. But our tools surely play a role. Once the source is right in the room, our job is to capture it in the best way possible. Mics, preamps, EQ, and compressors allow us to shape the tone in the most compelling and fitting manner possible.
Notice I used the word “fitting” in conjunction with “compelling.” There’s no such thing as good sound or bad sound. There is only sound as it works relative to music. So I’m not making an abstract subjective determination of what good sound is. If the overall sound is effective and fits the record, then that’s good sound.
By the time you deliver the final product, the sound should be so interwoven with the production and the song that it’s unnoticed. Much like dark matter, good sound should be invisible other than how it pulls on those within its sphere of influence. A sound itself is of little consequence. It’s how the sound affects the musical presentation that should be of primary concern.
At any given time in your career, you will have access to a finite collection of gear. You can only use the tools available, or that you can creatively (and legally) acquire. From a creative and musical perspective, there is nothing limiting you from making a great record other than your skill. From a technical perspective, there are certain tools that can and will limit that skill set. Your abilities only serve to maximize your results relative to the gear available.
It can be a bit overwhelming to explore the sea of recording gear available, both vintage and new, especially when you consider the expense. So how the hell do you decide what to purchase when you don’t really have the experience to choose wisely? You could go on the Internet and ask a bunch of strangers, most of whom are likely in a similar position to you. Or you can provide yourself some basis of comparison. I recommend the latter.