We are in the middle of the project studio revolution. This is a time where the technology for recording is priced so low that virtually anybody can get into the game. Unfortunately for major recording studios this means struggling to keep afloat. But for the project studios it is the greatest opportunity in history to compete with the big boys. Since acquiring gear that works and can do the job isn’t really the issue anymore the subject of getting quality recordings has shifted in emphasis from gear to skills. The problem that I see is that many people new to the process of recording have many mistaken impressions about things. So I often read and hear about the woes of the novice or would-be recording engineer. Usually the story goes a little something like this.
“I just don’t get this recording stuff. It’s a lot harder than I ever expected it to be. I perform well. I mic my performance the way they tell me to in the books and when I go back to listen to myself I sound like crap. If I do happen to get a decent performance recorded then when I go to mix it it sounds like crap after I’m done. It’s like everything that I do makes the mix worse and worse. If I take time to listen to my favorite commercial releases I find that they sound so awesome. This gets me to thinking that maybe I need better gear because I can never get my guitars to sound so big and my drums to sound so alive and my voice to sit so well and be silky yet powerful and in tune and with just the right amount of reverb. My snare drum sounds wimpy by comparison and my toms are lost in the mix. My bass guitar is all over the place leaving everything sounding muddy and the entire mix is never loud enough. I’m so frustrated. I just don’t know what the secret is. My band plays well. We record like we’re told to. We bought gear that some people at the music store told us was just enough to get a professional sound. Why then are we failing? What is the big secret? Is it the microphones or the preamps or the converters or my monitors or my room treatment? What?!!”
This can be a frustrating situation indeed. I’ve definitely been there many times in the past. Now when I look back at that scenario I can’t help but chuckle a little because the funny thing about being new at anything is that you just don’t know. What’s worse than that is that you have no idea of what exactly it is that you are supposed to know but don’t. So in short, you don’t know what you don’t know. Sucks doesn’t it? I think so. The scenario usually doesn’t end with people giving up at that stage either. Usually what I see is persistent cats diving into the search in earnest for the “secret” piece of gear that’s going to make all of the difference. They go from one extreme to the next, asking everybody that they can get a conversation going with that seems like they might know anything, the eternal question, “Which piece of gear is my studio missing to take me to the next level?” The answer always at some point comes back around to a simple, “nothing really, just skills and experience.” New cats hate that answer. They want to beat the snot out of a professional whenever they are given that answer. They feel like the pros are just a bunch of arrogant asses that refuse to cooperate with a simple request. What the new cats don’t know and don’t want to accept is that skills and experience are the only things that can actually take your recordings to the next level. I’m going to go and just get it out there now.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE GEAR.
It will never be about the gear. Before we had some of the awesome gear that we have at our disposal today we had, what could be considered by comparison, crap gear that people yet found ways to get fantastic recordings out of. I’m not saying that all of yesterday’s gear is crap. That’s certainly not the case at all. What I’m saying is that when technology was limited it was skills and experience that carried the engineers of the past from the same point that everybody starts at; nothing, to that wonderful conclusion that everybody longs for; sonic bliss. But how? Well there are many answers to that question but right now I’m just going to focus on one facet in particular and that is getting it right at the source.
Having good acoustics in a room combined with quality tracking techniques to capture well written, arranged and executed performances is the foundation of quality mixes. There are no secrets here. It’s all about maintaining a high standard of quality throughout every step of the process. It’s wisdom and experience that will allow an engineer to judge what an acceptable level of quality is in a given project and it’s skills that will afford an engineer the ability to extract quality out of a recording situation. You simply cannot excel in this process without having both skills and experience.
So to me, instead of which gear to buy, the questions that are the most useful for an individual or production team to be asking at the start of any project are:
What is the ultimate sonic/artistic goal in mind that every element of the following process should coincide with?
Where are we going to record? What room will be the live room? How are the acoustics? What are the materials that make up the ceiling, floor and walls and how large is it? Are we going for natural ambiance or dry sounds?
How are we going to record each element in the arrangement? What is the desired sonic outcome for each element?
What are the proven methods to achieve our sonic goals in each element of the arrangement that we intend to use?
All of these questions reside in the realm of preparation. Preparation is the most important aspect of any professional endeavor. It’s critical to getting the production to come out the way that you intend as an artist/engineer. It’s the key to getting things right at the source. After the questions above are each clearly answered, (which will take research, sometimes extensive research if you don’t have much experience), then the production team can focus on what specific pieces of gear they may need to acquire in order to achieve the desired result within whatever given budget limitation.
If the process throughout is supported by quality engineering practices then there will be a good chance of getting good raw tracks. This will make the mixing and mastering process much easier. That’s really the big mystery in a nut shell. It’s the quality of the source material supported by proven, good quality engineering practices that ensure that you won’t go wrong with your raw tracks. If you thereafter mix them poorly then you can always pull all the faders down and try again. At least then you’ll know it’s not due to having poor quality source material and you won’t wind up chasing your tail to end up banging your head against the walls.
Unfortunately I find that many newcomers don’t want to go through the process. Let me make one thing clear. You must go through the process of researching, planning and studying to get any reasonable level of quality out of your recording endeavors. The price must be paid and the process must be followed. You can’t rush a harvest just as you can’t rush your understanding of the recording process. That’s simply the bottom line. If you think that there’s a shortcut somewhere then you’re wrong. There is no machine or device of any sort that will make things any easier for you to understand and produce quality than your dedication to the study and practice day in and day out. There are things that function as cover-ups for lack of engineering ability and understanding. Technologies such as digital room-correction programs and multi-band compression, (which isn’t intrinsically bad just something that has a very narrow practical use unless you like destroying the natural sonics of recorded material), each fall into the categories of “band-aids” for engineering weakness. Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Take the opportunity as a newcomer to learn how and why to do things the proven effective way. That will make all of the difference in your output later on.
I don’t want people to think that I don’t advocate experimentation however, I do. I think that every time you have the inclination to experiment then do so if the opportunity presents itself. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t come out good. If it does then that’s all good as well. Some of the most consistently useful practices have grown out of experimentation. That’s the soul of pushing the envelope. I am however, a firm supporter of learning the fundamentals first before going and breaking all of the rules.
So basically it all comes down to comprehensive planning, research, study, a lot of dedication and a little of experimentation along with a burning desire to get it right that makes the difference between the eternal amateur and the professional. Nowhere in that recipe is there any statement about specific pieces of gear and that’s because quite simply, it’s just not about that.