Mindset. Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Welcome! I’m happy to report Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record is currently available! To celebrate, I would like to share with you the Intro to the book in installments. Your overall mindset is crucial to manifesting a Killer Record. Sometimes the best strategy is to keep things simple.
You’ve probably noticed the cover of this book is modeled off a US Army Field Manual. Much like a Field Manual, this document is meant to provide you an enormous amount of practical and useful information in a relatively compact package. Unlike a Field Manual, it’s intended to be somewhat entertaining. At the very least engaging.
I can assure you, dryly explaining signal flow and gain staging is neither entertaining nor engaging, and you’re not going to get a whole lot of that kind of nonsense from me. Sure, I’ll address both of those wholly technical considerations, but let us not forget that the goal here is to make a Killer Record. Not a technically perfect recording, whatever the hell that is.
Now, I recognize that it’s quite possible you don’t want to make a Killer Record at all and don’t understand why anyone would. Perhaps what you want is a Phat record. Worry not. I can help you with that too! Or maybe you want your record to be wicked. Or awesome. Dope, stellar, righteous, super, super-duper, bomb, epic, kick-ass, unmotherfuckingdeniable. It doesn’t really matter what word you choose, these terms all describe the same thing. A record that moves you.
Clearly, some of those descriptors will resonate with you more than others. After all, we identify with certain expressions based on our culture, our location, even our friendships. When you think about it, it’s no different with music. Some music resonates with us. Some doesn’t. And although the manner in which we describe our favorite records can vary greatly, we do have one thing in common. We’re musicians. And as such, we record music.
Let me repeat that. We record music.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, most musicians I know, and I assume most that I don’t, seek to improve their engineering skills. If you spend any time at all on audio forums, the trend is obvious. Musicians everywhere mistakenly believe they should think like recordists. Perhaps because that’s how you improve your recordings.
It’s not really. In fact, the headspace of a recordist is literally the last place you want to be in when you’re recording music. Strange, I know.
As someone who has operated as a professional recordist at the highest level (the $1000 per day kind), when you’re recording someone amazing, when you’re recording someone who understands how to project confidence and perform with artistry, you literally need only to set a mic in front of that amazingness and make sure that you’re in record when it matters. Yet, when you’re capturing something particularly atrocious, you’ll have to muster every bit of your experience and creativity in order to deliver what we can ostensibly refer to as a halfway decent recording.
Right. So, as a recordist or an engineer, if you merely avoid fucking a record up you’re a genius. But if you bring it miles ahead of where it was, you’ll be judged as wholly mediocre.
Which begs the obvious question: Why would anyone want to be a recordist? Because going from the thankless job of musician to an even more thankless job, with no chance of fame or the corresponding perks is somehow forward movement? Nearly every recordist I know is either a frustrated musician or a roadie who wanted more out of life. This is what you want to strive for as a musician? To be a recordist?
Look, I’m not saying there’s no merit to being a recordist, or even an engineer for that matter. But the main purpose of the gig, done properly, is to keep technology out of the way of the performers. The recordist concentrates on all the technical bullshit, so that the rest of us can concentrate on the music. Yet, like every other job in this industry, it has been elevated in importance beyond reason, despite the complete erosion of the position. These days, you’re far more likely to record yourself than to hire a recordist to do the job.
Anyone and everyone who has ever spent any part of their career as a designated recordist can tell you without equivocation, that the quality of a recording is based purely on the artistry before them. If the artistry is great, the recording will be great.
Notice I used the word artistry and not musicianship. Whether someone is a great musician or not is somewhat irrelevant. U2’s The Edge was no virtuoso back in the early eighties when they put out Boy. But he sure understood how to convert his limitations into strengths. That’s what artistry is. Understanding how to use the resources around and within you in order to make a statement that moves people. Art can be technically ugly and artistically beautiful at the same time. In other words, you don’t have to be a great musician to make a Killer Record. You just need artistry.
It makes far more sense for a musician to think like an Artist than to think like a recordist. As such, your artistry is your musicianship. And whereas recordists focus on how the music sounds, Artists and producers focus on how the music makes them feel. After all, that’s how Music Fan judges our work, by how it makes her feel. So, if the listener feels the music, why then would we ever concentrate on the sound? Because if the music makes you feel a certain way, then there’s a good chance it’ll make the listener feel that way too.
The thing we have to keep in mind is music is inexorably attached to sound. Yes, you can have sound without music. But you can’t have music without sound. Therefore, if you get the music right, if you arrange the parts such that they work together in balance and push the listener forward through the track, it’s going to sound good too.
I operated for many years as both producer and recordist. As such, I began to realize that anytime I was antsy about the sound during a take, it was actually a performance issue. The take didn’t sound good because the music wasn’t being performed well, and no amount of knob twiddling or fader riding could fix that.
Surely, when you first open up a haphazardly placed mic it can sound horrible. There is a process after all and we’re going to go through all of that. But once you’ve pulled your tones and you’re happy with them, barring some weird electrical anomaly or perhaps a bumped mic, what could possibly cause the sound to change other than the performance?
Oh, I know. The drummer played way harder once he was making a take.
For anyone with a little seasoning, that’s predictable.
Hitting the skins harder will certainly change the timbre of the drum, which will produce less overall tone. The drums will also be louder, which means the mic preamps are hit with more signal, same with the compressors. And yeah, one possible solution to the problem is to notch down the mic pres, which will also address the over-compression. But not only is that the least simple solution, it’s a technical evaluation that only serves to ignore the more likely possibilities.
For starters, if the drummer is hitting the drums harder than usual during a take, her performance can stiffen. This will often manifest as sonic degradation, even when you inherently understand it as a performance issue. If the drummer is doing anything outside of her normal practices, the performance very well could suffer. Notching down the mic pres isn’t going to fix that.
There’s no doubt that you need to understand how to get a mic into a mic preamp into an EQ and a compressor. You also need to understand the basics of how all those operate. And you can use these tools to mangle and to manipulate your tones to some degree. But if the initial rundown of the track sounds better than the early takes, this is a performance issue far more often than not. A bad performance can, and will, cause the sound to fall apart.
Still don’t believe me? If I bring super cellist Yo-Yo Ma into a world class studio, and place a good mic in front of him, he will sound amazing. If I immediately bring in Ma-Ma Yo—a first year cellist of questionable talent—and ask her to play the same song, with the same cello, in the same place, it will most assuredly disappoint.
What changed? The player and therefore the performance.
Logically speaking, if a poor performance can cause the sound to crumble, then to address the performance is to address the sound. Admittedly, when you’re in the act of setting up a cheaply built microphone that’s distorting both at the capsule and the preamp, it becomes a little difficult to keep the focus on the music. That’s what mantras are for. Repeat after me:
May all of my recording decisions be musical ones, and all of my technical decisions practical ones.
Say that three times. That should fix it!
Okay, so unfortunately, a mantra alone isn’t going to do it. You’ll also need to understand some recording things in order to keep the technical process out of your way. At least now, going forward, you no longer need to feel pressure to become a great engineer. Really, you just need to learn how not to fuck things up. The best way to accomplish that? Keep it simple.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
It never ceases to amaze me how many people wish to complicate recording. Take acoustic guitar. For whatever reason, this seems to be the instrument that musicians and would-be recordists are most interested in overcomplicating. Before you know it, there’s two microphones on that guitar in the hopes of capturing every nuance of a secondary strumming guitar part–one mic on the bridge to get that lovely honkiness, and another on the 7th fret (or some-odd nonsense) to pick up the brilliance. Which may seem like a solid strategy, until you consider that the player shifts as she plays. That’s problematic.
Mics in close proximity to a relatively small instrument, such as an acoustic guitar, don’t have enough distance (and thereby time) to produce a proper stereo image. To make matters worse, the guitar sits in your lap and, therefore, isn’t stationary. Which means those two mics will interact audibly and negatively any time the player shifts her body or her guitar. Once combined as a mono signal, there will be obvious frequency cancellation and comb filtering. And if those two mics are panned out to the sides for stereo? Not only will the image shift and frequencies cancel, the sound will swirl uncomfortably around your head due to what we call phase coherency issues. That may all sound like gibberish at the moment, but once you understand what phase coherency issues sound like and how they occur, you will likely seek to avoid them.
You complicate matters significantly when you place multiple mics in close proximity to a relatively small and shifting source. And sometimes that’s necessary such as in the case of an acoustic guitar/vocal capture. But overall, we want to simplify matters. Not complicate them. A faux stereo acoustic guitar on your production not only complicates matters, it offers no real advantage. So, why on earth do people do it?
One reason is that young recordists can’t fathom an asymmetrical image. The horror! Sorry, but to seek symmetry in your sonic image at all times is a ridiculous distraction, one that completely ignores 50 years of precedence in stereo record production. Aggressive hard panning is commonplace in music, as is an asymmetrical image. These are not things to fear.
Rather than to attempt to capture an acoustic guitar employing a two-mic technique that I don’t recommend to the most seasoned of recordists, you would be far better off to consider precisely what you want that part to accomplish in your arrangement aside from symmetry.
Is the acoustic guitar part meant to provide the driving rhythm for the track? Is the part meant to fill in the low-mid frequencies? Is the part offering countermelodies? Musical call and response interjections? And what of the player? Do you have the right player for the part? Even if it’s you? Would another player make that part pop more appropriately for the production?
You can spend your time recording in fancy ways if you like, but it’s your musical decisions that affect your record most significantly. Seemingly sophisticated recording techniques are nothing but a distraction.
It’s an acoustic guitar. If you record it with one mic, it will still sound like an acoustic guitar, and no music fan on earth is going to question the decision to record an acoustic guitar mono. All that matters is how that acoustic guitar works within the production. And if it’s the featured instrument? I would just point out that a vocal is a featured instrument in most musical productions. How often do you hear a stereo vocal? I’ll answer that. Almost never. If you want a stereo image on your featured instrument, either record the room stereo and balance it with your close mic or introduce a stereo reverb to your mono capture. In the case of vocals and guitars, the stereo image is best derived from the space around it, not the instrument itself.
There was a ton of information packed into all of that, and if you’re relatively new to recording, some of it may have been difficult to follow. By the time you finish this book, not only will it all make perfect sense to you, you’ll know what all of it sounds like too. How? You’re going to open your DAW and we’re going to try some things so that you can hear what happens for yourself. That’s how. At the moment, we have a bit more to discuss.
The Intro will continue in a few days. If you know you’re going to order the book, then go ahead and order it now. The links are below here. And remember, sharing is caring.