Zen Recording

From Zen and the Art of Recording:
© All Rights Reserved


Anyone who is familiar with my writings knows that I do all that I can to avoid discussing technical information beyond the very basics. There’s a very good reason for this—musical decisions are of far more consequence than technical ones. However, in preparing to write this book, I realized there’s just no way around it. Recording is an art that requires some measure of technical understanding.

This was especially evident on the Internet, where I found literally hundreds of posts asking how to set the attack and release times on a compressor. Many posters just wanted to know a preset that they could use for a particular source, which ignores a fundamental principle of what we do—listen.

As humans we are exceptionally good at recognizing patterns. Only an idiot savant could pick up a Rubik’s Cube and solve it within the first few minutes. For the rest of us, we must learn how to solve the puzzle, and if you experiment with the toy long enough, you will eventually pick up the patterns that will help you solve it.

Music also has patterns, as does recording music, and you will come across recognizable patterns over time that will help you to streamline the decision process. But before we’re able to recognize patterns we have to see them in the first place, and in the case of recording, we have to hear. This requires you to develop and fine-tune your hearing to the point that you trust it above all other senses.

The good news is that you’re already familiar with musical patterns, you just don’t necessarily know it. I could play three notes in such a way that most all of you will sing the next note in the series without prompting. If you play the notes C, up a fifth to G, and down a minor third to an E, most all of you will sing an F. That’s because the resolution of those notes forms a recognizable pattern. Scales are patterns. Chord progressions are patterns.

There is no doubt that we are far more comfortable with our sight than we are with our hearing when it comes to evaluating information. I’ve brought up this example before, but the original Star Trek theme sounds completely different when you’re not viewing the main titles along with it. The whooshing of the Enterprise flying past is far more obvious sans the picture, mostly because it seems almost random in nature.

When we discuss sound we often use terms that relate to our other senses, such as warm, dark, brittle, bright, like ass, transparent, etc. These are all feeling terms, which makes sense since the whole point of music is to evoke an emotional response. We tend to use feeling terms to describe sound because music and sound are inextricably attached.

Frequency information is often viewed more within the purview of the recordist than the producer, but this would ignore the fact that frequency relates directly to musical notes. Therefore, arrangement decisions can be made based not only on a part, but how all the parts work together within the frequency spectrum. Beethoven didn’t have EQ—he had to create frequency balance and contrast through his instrumentation and arrangement choices alone.

Tone is also often viewed within the purview of the recordist, but good tone requires good performance. As a producer, I listen to tone as an indicator of performance. As a recordist, I first need to pull a tone that inspires a performance. The musician is therefore an integral part of the tone. Which would explain why some people can make an instrument sing, and others can only make it sound. A musician who makes her instrument sing feels the sound as music, and that in turn will often evoke a reaction from the listener.

There was a time when a recording session required a designated engineer—one whose only job was the capture. These lines have been blurred significantly over the years, and more often than not, the recordist is operating in some other capacity, either as a musician, artist, or producer. And if you’re the chief engineer at your own studio, then you are likely a Default Producer—a role we will discuss in more detail later.

…when you’re recording music, your first allegiance must be to the music, performance, and production. Not the recording.

These days I operate as a Producer Recordist, which means I’m performing two operations that require my full attention. That’s impossible. Fortunately, many processes that I must perform as a recordist are nearly automatic, which allows me to prioritize the musical decisions.

Given the realities of recording today, it is often best to simplify the capture process, so as to allow you to concentrate on what’s most important—the music itself. That said, I can only simplify things for you so much, as there are still technical considerations that can’t be ignored. Stereo miking alone, done improperly, can cause auditory anomalies that will weaken the overall impact of a recording. The good news is, once you learn the sound of negatively interacting microphones, you will become virtually allergic to it such that it becomes difficult to make that kind of mistake in the first place.

There’s a reason why recording is so difficult. The thousands of tiny decisions that you make all day long are subjective in nature. This requires some modicum of self-confidence. If you don’t believe that you’re an adequate arbiter of what’s good, or more accurately, what’s effective, then your first reflex will be to leave yourself as many options as possible. Taken to its extreme, tonal decisions are often left in flux with the idea that you can make it all work somehow come mix time. Or worse yet, you’ll leave all those decisions to a third-party mixer such as myself.

I’m more than happy to make those decisions for you as your mixer, but this will likely lead to some surprising results, as you will have provided me with no clear indicators of intent. If all that you supply me are the DI’ed electrics on a guitar-driven track, you leave me with nearly infinite possibilities. When it comes to a successful recording, it’s far more effective to limit me as a mixer than to leave me so many options that I have no idea what you were trying to achieve. And if you’re mixing it yourself, I’m not sure why you would want to go out of your way to make the job more difficult.

There have been several scientific studies over the years revealing just how difficult a time we have when we are presented with too many options. Our brains are built to choose between A and B. Given the choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream, a selection is relatively easy to make. Given the choice between 30 flavors, you will likely find yourself nothing short of overwhelmed.

This is no different in recording. If you leave yourself every option imaginable, you will only manage to overwhelm everyone on the session. I personally find an overabundance of options so overwhelming that I often ask someone from the team to “produce” my dinner for me. Perusing a menu full of options as my brain is subconsciously sorting through dozens of recording decisions can make a simple dinner selection tantamount to making a choice with potential global repercussions.

Since every decision in recording affects the next, everyone on the session can quickly find themselves confused, as there is nothing concrete to work on. You can’t know where your recording is at if you’re not willing to commit to both musical and sonic decisions along the way.

Those times in my career that I was working purely as a recordist, I was able to focus my creativity on recording techniques alone. This allowed me to geek out on sound rather than performance, as I had a producer who was in charge of that. I sought to apply my daily observations of how sound travels—especially how it reflects, as parabolas and long corrugated drain pipes can be used to harness and direct sound.

I’ve also spent an enormous part of my career ignoring creativity where recording technique is concerned. Whatev. I’m trying to make a record, I’m quite possibly behind, and I don’t have time to be creative in how I capture until there’s an obvious problem. That doesn’t mean I sloughed off the recording. It means my creative energy was best served elsewhere. Such are the pitfalls of working as both producer and recordist simultaneously—at all times one is suffering.

The good news is great performances usually result in great sonics, so long as you put the effort in to pull the appropriate tone in the first place. In fact, I can always tell when I’m in the wrong mindset as a producer, because I desperately want to touch shit. Balances and tones often fall apart as a result of performance issues. Good performances tend to manifest as good tone. And bad tone is inconsequential in the context of a poor performance. In the recordist’s mindset, I will first notice the bad tone, and in the producer’s mindset, I hear the bad performance. Make no mistake, if you pulled good tones before making your take, you would do well to keep your hands away from all knobs—virtual or otherwise.

It’s natural to reach for knobs when you’re just starting out, especially today, because the tools available for mangling tracks are far more powerful and plentiful than ever. And while that may seem like an advantage, in many ways, you’d be far better off learning how to record with a limited supply of recording gear rather than an overabundant one. Limitations force creative adaptation, which is an exceptionally good skill set to have in this business.

Meanwhile, as the price of entry into the digital world of DAWs and plug-ins has come down considerably, analog compressors and microphones still require significant capital investment over time. Which means your initial investment into recording will provide you enormous power to mangle, and limited power for accurate capture. That’s a bad combination, as it promotes all the wrong habits when it comes to the art of recording.

This book is about recording music, so just about everything I present to you will be from that perspective. And when you’re recording music, your first allegiance must be to the music, performance, and production. Not the recording. Even as a designated for-hire recordist, you must often put the needs of the music first and foremost. Recording technique is nothing more than a means to an end—to capture a performance.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you abandon creative recording techniques. Quite the contrary. I encourage it. Especially if it’s on your time. The more skills you develop, the more effective you are in the studio, and experimentation is a great way to learn new things. As a producer, I give my recordist the latitude to get creative with technique. Believe me, I’ve gone down a great many four-hour (and longer) rabbit holes in search of a tone that lasts all of five seconds in the context of the production. And even when this sort of Science Experiment ends up unfruitful, it’s rarely a waste of time. Unfruitful ideas often lead to useful ones, and there is almost always something to be gleaned from your failures—even the little ones.

Anyone who has acted in some capacity as my recordist knows that as the producer, I will often grab the closest mic, even if it’s not the best mic for the job. That may seem strange. I mean, I’m a seasoned recordist, yet as the producer, all of that falls to the wayside? That’s right. Because as a producer-for-hire, I have to constantly consider time, and the closer the mic is to my performer, the sooner I can start recording them. The best recordists will protest my choice, and I will often acquiesce, so long as I can record my performer in relatively short order.

There’s a natural push and pull between time and creativity. Time restraints push us forward, as creative forces pull us back. A balance must be achieved between the two, regardless of whether you have stupid amounts of time, or far too little. Frankly, given the choice, I’d choose the latter. An unlimited budget removes time pressure as a tool for pushing the session forward.

Recording an album without time constraints requires the kind of discipline that would prevent most of us from attempting it in the first place. I’m not talking about the discipline to work. I’m talking about the discipline to finish. I know several musicians who have been remaking the same album for over a decade. Needless to say, you’ve never heard of them. What’s worse, the more time it takes, the more pressure there is to deliver something worthy of the time. We’ve all heard about great albums that took a week to make. But how many great albums took 10 years to make? I can’t think of one. Nothing can live up to the inherent hype of that. Great art is made with intent to its completion. No album requires years to make.

Art only exists if it’s been completed. A finished work is a clear expression of an artist’s intent. Conversely, a work in progress has no intent whatsoever. How could it? How can we determine the artist’s intent from an unfinished work? The prima facie evidence of intent can only be found in a completed work, one in which no excuses can, nor should, ever be made.

If you’re the kind of person that has trouble finishing things, then you would do best to curb this tendency if not eradicate it completely from your recording personality. One album does not a career make, especially if it’s never done in the first place.

I’m a big proponent of aggressive recording techniques. I advise that one records with intent towards a finished product, even when you’re just learning, partly because it promotes good recording habits, and partly because it’s the most effective way to quality. One of your more important duties is to keep your artists and musicians in the right mindset—inspired.

Given the opportunity, I want to make my decisions along the way, and record towards a vision. If I want the cymbals distorted, I record them that way. If I want the guitar to swim in a spring reverb, I choose an amp with a good spring and record the tone that way.

Of course, this methodology has its pitfalls. Sometimes you fuck up, and bad. When that happens, you’ll surely curse me. To which I say, I can’t save you from your bad decisions, nor can I prevent you from making them in the first place. That’s also kind of the point. Working aggressively creates good decision-making habits that will benefit you in the long run, no matter how badly you might fuck up in the short run. When you record aggressively, you will make mistakes. That’s okay. That just means you’re doing things right.

Working aggressively will force you to think about the end game. Believe me, you can record with intent, and still leave yourself some wiggle room, and we’ll talk about how throughout the book. But there’s really no better way to overcome the debilitating effects of fear than by operating in a fearless manner. A phobia of flying I can understand—irrational as it may be, death is a possible consequence. To date, and as far as I know, there have been no documented reports of death by bad recording and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. So what are you worried about? Your reputation?

Well, you should be worried about that! But not at the expense of learning how to record well in the first place. If you approach recording with trepidation, if you worry about doing things the wrong way, you’re going to retard your improvement. I assume you’re reading this book in order to advance your skills. Recording aggressively with intent is the best way to accelerate the learning curve.

As a pure recordist, your job is to capture sound. If you record music, your job is to capture sound as it relates directly to music. If you’re both musician and recordist, then your job is the same, it’s just that your musicianship is considerably more critical than your recording skills. As a performer, you’ll have far more to do with the quality of a track than you ever will as a recordist, that is, unless you’re getting in the way.

You really have to to work in an assiduous manner in order to fuck up a recording from a technical standpoint. Oh, it can be done, and likely occurs on a daily basis, but that’s often a result of trying too hard. You want to simplify the recording process, not make it a chore. Once you get your instrument to sound exactly the way you want it in the room, recording becomes as simple as placing a mic in a way that best and most accurately represents the tone.

The tone of an instrument in isolation is almost irrelevant. Your tones must work together to form one coherent recording, and I can provide you with the key to success in this regard. Think musically! Don’t think sonically. Don’t think technically. The moment you start to think in musical terms, your recordings will improve a hundredfold.

I’m not a technician, not even close. So if you’re looking for a book about recording that focuses purely on the technical aspects of electronics, then this is not the book for you. In fact, none of my books are. I record music, and therefore, I’m a student of music first and foremost.

While we must discuss a number of technical realities where recording is concerned, I can assure you, there will be nothing in this book that can’t be conceptually understood by anyone with an interest in recording. For the most part, we will discuss the art of recording in terms of both musicality and practicality.

Zen and the Art of Recording is the third book in my ongoing Zen and the Art of series. The digital versions (Kindle, eBook) contain loads of supplemental videos. You can purchase any and all of these books HERE.

If you’d like to discus these concepts further, join me and my knowledgable friends at Mixermania and The Womb Forums

Be sure to read my newest book! #Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent – a satire of the Modern Music Business through the prism of US Politics and vice versa.

Recommended Posts