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Patterns, Patterns, and More Patterns.

 

The following excerpt comes from MIXERMAN Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record

Rather than look at tools such as virtual amplifiers and reverb units, loops, and synthesizers as technical devices that you need to learn how to manipulate and program, view them as modules that you can mix and match based on what happens to work best.

Surely some of you will take umbrage at that suggestion. Break my Art down to modules?

Yes. How is that any different from music?

I can promise you, over the course of thirty years of making records, this concept will manifest itself naturally and automatically, and there’s nothing that you can do to prevent it. Nor would you want to try. Music, and the recording of it is all about patterns.

Patterns

Pardon the digression, but this is an important concept that I need to address, and this is as good a time as any.

I–V–vi–IV
I–vi–IV–V
I–V–vi–iii–IV–I–IV–V
I–V–♭VII–IV
I–IV–V–IV
I–vi–ii–V–I

Those are all common chord progressions that can be found in thousands if not hundreds of thousands of songs. They’re also patterns.

Surely, you’ve heard of court vision. An expert basketball coach who operates at a high level with decades of experience can see the entire court all at once. She can see how a play is developing, and she knows what every player is doing, and why they’re doing it, on both sides of the ball as it’s happening. Meanwhile, you or I see the girl with the ball. The ability to see everything at once? That kind of vision has everything to do with recognizing and processing patterns.

If you’ve ever gotten really good at something, like a video game or a card game or any kind of sport, then you understand patterns. Of course, if you ever took a music lesson, you’re also familiar with patterns. You started learning them on your very first lesson.

What’s the first thing you learn when you take a piano lesson? Scales. What’s the first thing you learn when you take a guitar lesson? Scales and chords. What’s the first thing you learn when you take a drum lesson? Paradiddles

Patterns. Patterns. And more patterns.

The first patterns in any new activity emerge quickly. As you progress, simple patterns combine to make larger pattern modules that help provide you with a wider view. As you continue to practice, new patterns emerge, which make even more composite patterns, which become a series of aha milestones along the way to mastering a skill.

We learn patterns through repetition. And although there are some people who seem to possess an almost unworldly natural talent that accelerates the learning curve, repetition is still a requirement. You don’t become great at anything without repetition. That includes music and recording too.

This is why I’m so insistent that you build your record from the ground up with intent, and that you stick to that discipline throughout your early records. It will force you to discover the most important patterns, that is to say, the musical patterns, because then you will think in terms of your music and not in terms of your recording.

You can become good at something rather quickly. All the other levels take time. Just when you think there are no more levels you hit a new one. Eventually, you become so good at something, that it doesn’t even look difficult anymore because it’s not. But there’s only one way to get to there. Practice.

There’s a reason why it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something. It takes that kind of time to sufficiently familiarize yourself with the patterns. As someone with probably around 60,000 hours of recording, mixing, and producing experience, and tens of thousands of hours of writing experience, I can tell you, the discovery of patterns will never cease. But you have to be able to see those patterns, and that takes time and repetition. Lots and lots of repetition. There’s just no way around that. Because it’s not your ability to solve problems that gives you an edge as an expert. It’s your ability to quickly recognize solutions that makes you valuable. A newbie could solve any production problem that I could, given enough time. But then that just amounts to practice, and that would be the point.

Patterns allow our brain to break down a lot of information into modules. For instance: An arrangement comprises six musical functions–bass, harmony, rhythm, melody, countermelody, and response. Frequency can be thought of in four major bandwidths—low end, lower midrange, upper mid- range, and high end. Panning decisions become nearly binary—a part either goes in the center or on the sides. A four-piece horn section or a quartet of strings provides harmonic movement as a single unit. A drum kit with two kiks, two snares, five toms, a hi-hat and ten cymbals makes up one drum part, which fits perfectly into a stereo image. Layers of keyboards create a single textured part. Stacks of harmonies blend to become one chorus of singers. Five percussion instruments make up a percussion section. There are four microphone types with their own unique general characteristics—dynamic, LDC, SDC, and ribbons. Reverbs can be broken down to four types—plate, room, hall, and gated. Distortion is applied for edge, obfuscation, clarity, or sustain. Compressors shape tone, control dynamic range, and control low-end response. Contrast is effective for manipulating emotions, and forward movement. Certain chords call for certain resolutions. Song forms are basically comprised of some combination of the following sections: verse, chorus, pre-chorus, post-chorus, intro, outro, solo, and bridge. Patterns upon patterns upon patterns.

And I don’t have to sit and think for a long time to type out that list. I mean, you’ll have to take my word on this, but those patterns literally just flew out of my fingers because I have been through them so many times, and because record-making seems so simple to me now. And why not? Every production breaks down to just three critical elements:

The song, the arrangement, and the performances.

And where it comes to evaluating the overall effectiveness of those three elements, I need only answer in the affirmative to three questions.

Are the song and the production in alignment?
Does the track make me move the way that I should?
Do I find it difficult to stop singing the song?

If the answer to all three of those questions is yes, then I’ve made a Killer Record. The same goes for you. But I’d be remiss were I not to point out, those questions get awfully difficult to answer if you don’t absolutely adore the song. Read them again with that in mind.

All of this, the patterns and the pertinent questions themselves is why I urge simplicity. It’s why I suggest simplifying mic techniques and arrangement techniques down to their core. An acoustic guitar requires one mic. An electric amplifier requires one mic. A bass guitar amplifier requires one mic.

A piano requires one mic. And sure you could record everything in stereo if you like, but that will have no bearing on your success other than to retard it. Because you’re trying to do too much with what is likely your biggest weakness. And surely some of you will argue that you must address your biggest weakness, to which I would say, we already are–by simplifying things down to their core. To simplify things isn’t merely an exercise. It’s a path to success.

It’s easy to imagine that experts employ all kinds of complicated recording techniques as they get better at their job. The opposite is true. I don’t overthink anything on the recording side. In fact, I try not to think about it at all. And there’s no doubt, that I can think far less about recording things because I’m so familiar with them. But if I go out of my way to simplify a process that I’m so familiar with, then why on earth wouldn’t you?

And yes, a big session with lots of mics in a big room, that complicates matters tremendously, and it requires space and equipment and experience, which is why even I hire a studio and an engineer for those times. Not because I don’t have the skillset to record in that environment. But rather because, as the producer, if I’m allowed to focus on the performance, the arrangement, and the needs of my Artists, then everything comes out better.

I’m not one to finish a record based on the clock. If the record isn’t great, the record isn’t done. But there is a budget, both in terms of money and in time, and we can’t pretend they don’t act as limiting factors. The fact of the matter is, you can only spend so much time on a piece of Art before it’s dead. And believe me, you can kill Art with love.

When it comes to mixing, I suggest mixers mix fast–as fast as possible– because fresh decisions are good decisions, and the longer it takes to mix the track, the less fresh you are. The same can be said about producing your record and even writing your song. Surely, there are amazing records that took longer than they should have, but those would be exceptions. Certainly there are Artists who must grind out every detail in the most painful manner possible—also the exception. Most great Art comes out of us like an unexpected vomit of creativity.

Over-thinking, over-processing, over-arranging, over-producing, over-singing, over-playing—these are all maladies that weaken a production. But what happens when we exchange under for over? Under-thinking, under-processing, under-arranging, under-producing, under-singing, and under- playing? None of those even exist. I’ve never heard anyone ever utter these sorts of criticisms in regards to a musical production. The only “under” term I’ve ever heard is underdub, and that’s the process of removing superfluous information due to over-production!

There’s no doubt about it. It’s way easier to do too much than it is to do too little. Therefore, the discipline comes in keeping things simple, not the other way around. Let me say that again in another way. The discipline lies in doing less, not more.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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There are currently 64 out of 64 five star reviews on Amazon. Larry Crane of TapeOp raved about it: “I think I’ll be buying cases of this book and handing it out as people enter my studio.” Why would a studio owner/ recording engineer (and publisher) give a book on recording to his clients? Because the more his clients understand about recording, the easier his life becomes. That’s why.

Pick up a few copies for the Hollidays and give them out to your musicians friends and clients. People love this book!


Patterns, Patterns, and More Patterns.

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Referencing Sound and Snowflakes

From my latest book Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record, I discuss the pitfalls of referencing sound rather than music. There are currently 64 out of 64 five star reviews on Amazon. Larry Crane of TapeOp raved about it: “I think I’ll be buying cases of this book and handing it out as people enter my studio.” People love this book!

The Hollidays are coming. Pick up a few copies and give them out to your musicians friends and clients. But only if you want them to appreciate you for years to come.



Referencing

Whereas referencing music is a great way to learn about music, referencing sound is great way to confuse the living shit out of yourself. The reason? There is no consistency in sound. Were I to select 20 records from the past 50 years across the genre spectrum, their sonic makeup would be all over the map.

Technology pushes the sonic trends. In the seventies and early eighties, records were pressed to vinyl, and you couldn’t push the low end ag-gressively without the needle jumping out of the groove. In the mid-eighties CDs took over, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that mixers like myself started to really push the low end. The late-nineties until the mid-tens were all about loudness. And today the low-end curves are off the charts as streaming sites now reward the delivery of dynamic tracks over loud ones. A reasonable dynamic range leaves us more space for the low end.

I always find it fascinating when someone claims a record from the eighties as their best sonic reference. The EQ curves from that time were atrocious, and many of those records were remastered in the aughts to be loud. As a result, not only do they have insufficient low end, they’re often loud to boot. This reference translates how? I listen to records from my youth and wonder where’s the beef?

Consumer playback systems typically boost the low end considerably. Beats headphones push them beyond reasonable limits, and these days the boombox has been replaced by a brick that acts like a subwoof-er. Yet, despite this, young producers push the low end almost beyond reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I’m right there with anyone and everyone that wants copious amounts of low-end information in their production. Clearly, people can’t get enough of it.

I say it all the time. Low end is what separates the men from the boys in this business. To mix with a robust low end that’s in control and doesn’t completely overwhelm your production takes some practice. If you’ve mixed anything at all, then you’re probably familiar, because most of us push too much low end when we start out. Which brings up a salient and important question: how the hell do you avoid pushing too much low end, if the expectation is ostensibly a production with too much low end?

It’s all about control.

You can push the low end in your balances, so long as you contain it. Low end sings when it’s contained, and it consumes when it’s overly dynamic. So, you can push as much low end as you like, so long as you have the space for it, and so long as you keep it under control.

There’s no way around it, you just can’t compare the EQ curve of an old record to a new one. You can reference the song and the arrangement based on how the track makes you feel. But sonics? Even if you were to limit your references to just the past three years, there will be a stunning variance in tone that makes it difficult to figure out what’s acceptable. The reality is, any and all of it is acceptable.

For starters, the instrumentation and the key will both have a signifi-cant influence on the overall EQ curve of any given production. Drop-C is an outrageously dark key in which the bottom note of the guitar is C2 which sounds at 65 Hz, and the bottom note of the bass is C1 at 33 Hz. That’s really low. You just aren’t going to get a light bright record out of a drop C presentation. So, if you’re referencing tracks in Drop C against tracks in the key of A, you’re going to come away with the impression that your record is dark.
It is dark. You recorded it in drop C. That would be the reason to record in that key.

Genre will also have a great influence on the overall EQ curve of a record. An R&B track can’t rightly be compared to a rock production. The rock track is heavy in midrange and often light in the low end. Conversely, the R&B track is typically light in the midrange and heavy in the low end. As a result, the rock record will sound small in comparison.
Were you to go out of your way to find tracks that are similar in nature, the sound of them still can’t be compared. Even the feelings they evoke can’t be compared. Every record is unique in the feelings it causes, and our mood often dictates what we want to hear. If your record sounds good, it feels good, and if it feels good, it sounds good. That evaluation must be made in the isolation of the record at hand.

Rather than to concern yourself with whether your record sounds good in comparison to other records, you need only consider whether the record makes you move and sing in the appropriate and intended manner. If you can’t get yourself to react to your own record, then you have no earthly shot at getting anyone else to react to your record.

The best way that I know to momentarily shatter my own confidence in regards to how a record sounds is to start referencing how other tracks sound. And I do it. We all do it, and I’m telling you, the only good that comes from it is a day or two off. Once I put myself through that frustration, I’m clearly exhausted, and I’m ultimately forced to seek some distance.

We evaluate sound because we deal with sound. The punters don’t care about sound; they only listen to the music. You would do well to do the same, and at all times.

Referencing a record for tempo, feel, arrangement, even process decisions, can provide you with some useful information that you can mimic on your own production. To reference the sound of your production as you near the end of the process will provide you with nothing useful. How could it? Despite the similarities, the sonic makeup of any given track will be as varied and unique as the crystalline shapes of snowflakes.

My friends, comparing snowflakes is an exercise in futility.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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Referencing Sound and Snowflakes

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Mixerman Talks to Your Audio Solution Podcast

Join me with Niclas Jeppsson on his “Your Audio Solutions Podcast.” We discuss “Mixing, Money, Reactions, and the Value of Music,” among other things.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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Zen Pro Audio Carries Mixerman

Great News! Zen Pro Audio has recently added Mixerman Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record to their inventory

And for just $19.99!

People love this book.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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Zen Pro Audio Carries Mixerman

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By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Mixerman, Owenby Cove Rd., Asheville, NC, 28803, https://mixerman.net. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact
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Mixerman RULES for Making Killer Records

When I set forth to write Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record last year, my goal was to really take the emphasis off of the gear, and place the focus like a laser beam on the music itself. The fact of the matter is, we all have a limited collection of recording gear, some of us more so than others. But at this stage of the technology, what you have isn’t nearly as important as how you use what you have.

As such, it should be no surprise that my list of Rules for making Killer Records today hardly focuses on gear at all. I do mention monitors, but only as they relate to the room. It’s the headphones that are the big problem today. I understand that some people just have to use headphones. But what I don’t understand is why anyone would try to do it using the stock output jack from their interface. Those are usually equipped with horrendous converters. Like worse than ADATs. Worse than the Panasonic DAT recorders. And that probably doesn’t mean much to many of you reading this, but those kinds of lousy converters can really get in the way.

The good news is, your interface itself likely has totally usable converters on the outputs. Converters in general are hardly worth thinking about these days. It’s not like when I was coming up when shitty converters could really fuck up your day. Not because the finished product was somehow unlistenable. You wouldn’t know it. Rather because shitty converters made my life more difficult, and that’s what you want to avoid.

This list that I call MIXERMAN RULES for Making Killer Records isn’t in the book, but it does follow the prescriptions laid out in the book. Consider it an addendum for now.

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MIXERMAN RULES for Making Killer Records

1. The song and composition matter most.
2. The arrangement is the production which is the mix. They are all one and the same.
3. Amazing performances cannot be ignored.
4. The song, the arrangement, and the performances define the sound. Focus on those. Not your gear.
5. If you can’t hear it, you can’t adjust for it.
6. Your monitoring includes the room.
7. Use headphones as a last resort, and with a dedicated converter/amplifier. (Nearly all headphone jacks employ horrendous converters that can actually get in the way).
8. There are no presets that work universally. Despite this, when starting out, you should use presets.
9. Do. Don’t think. Definitely don’t overthink.
10. Keep It Simple, Stupid
11. Have fun!
Enjoy, #mixerman

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Mixerman RULES for Making Killer Records

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