Often times people wonder just what exactly is the most critical component in their signal path. I think it’s everything. There is no single element that is more important than the rest once everything is mixed together. All of the various components work together. It’s kind of like a choir of some sort, with each signal path component being an individual voice. Just like any good choir the components must work together in order to create a good whole. If a voice is out of tune or if a group is unevenly balanced together the entire piece won’t gel like it’s supposed to. This is why we have so many people saying that if you put garbage in then you’ll get garbage out. Every part matters as much as the rest of the whole. The thing that I’ve noticed that many people don’t see is that there might be more parts to the whole than one initially realizes.
For starters when a piece of music is performed there is more involved in the performance than the musicians and their gear. There’s also the room that the performance takes place in. It’s like it sings back to you. If you’ve ever heard a great performance in a great room then you are very acutely aware that the room is singing back. It’s adding it’s part to the performance. It fills the gap that is so desperately needed to make a performance other worldly. It’s as much a part of the group of musicians as the the players themselves. This needs to be accounted for when one endeavors to record any performance. Sometimes you don’t want a room to sing back. In that case you’d go for a more dead sounding space. Often times, however, you want the room to play it’s role and with that in mind you have to pick a room that sings well with the music that you are recording because it’s also going to be apart of the group.
Other members of the performance group include the settings on the actual musicians’ gear. Every twist of a knob is chiming in with it’s unique sound. Every vibration in the cabinets are adding to the chorus. It’s all singing. Nothing is silent. Even bypassed gear is singing because every circuit path has a sound to it. It might be a little one but just like a little voice it plays it’s part. Of course there’s the obvious microphones, pre-amplifiers, signal processors, converters, plug-ins, monitors, the mix room and the perceptions of the listener, but the point is that there is so much more than just that. You simply cannot isolate any one part and say that it’s the most critical because that’s the same as saying one voice in a choir is the most critical when everyone is singing.
When you mix you’re hearing everything at work. You hear the wood and stone of the walls in the performance space. You hear the gear, the performers, the microphones etc… You hear it all. You even hear your own room, your monitors, your plug-ins and outboard, everything. Everything is singing. Everything must be balanced together. You are conducting an orchestra of unusual instruments that you must make work together in the best way possible from start to finish. If a recording isn’t right then your ‘orchestra’ went wrong somewhere and you as the conductor must take full responsibility. Everything has a voice.
The most challenging thing for me in audio has been understanding this point. I had to learn how to hear everything and know how to get it all to work together. No, it’s not rocket science. It’s heart science. It’s from the center of your being and once you hear the voices of all of the constituent parts then you’ll know how the ‘chorus’ is supposed to sound. You’ll be able to approach projects with the right mindset. Everything is indeed singing.