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.
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 Beats headphones push them beyond reasonable limits, and these days the boombox has been replaced by a brick that acts like a subwoof-er.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.