When I was an intern at a recording studio in Nashville, there was an assistant engineer on staff that was a huge jerk. He was constantly and loudly running his mouth off about this and that, and trying to spitefully put people in their place.
The thing was, however, that he was legitimately a smart guy. When it came to the technical subject matter of making a record, he was an encyclopedia. And when it came to the topic of the business of recording, he had a lot of valuable experiential knowledge to share as well.
I remember at a particular staff meeting when he was furiously yelling at everyone in the room (as he often did). To paraphrase, is rant went something like this: “It’s never going to be how you want it to be. It’s not even going to be how you want when you become an engineer or producer.” And although he was ranting in order to bully people around… in essence he was right.
The key word I would interject, though, is exactly. Recording music is a collaboration with many people, all of whom bring their own opinions, biases, and life experiences. Each one of these things have played a part in shaping who they are.
So the key takeaway, and the point that my former co-worker would have probably been a little more effective in getting across, had he not been so condescending (note the mild irony here) was…
Don’t let yourself get caught up in the mindset of thinking that everything is always going to go exactly your way, when you’re a big shot who’s got a list of accolades a mile long. Because not only will it be a rude awakening when you get there, this type of mentality is a handicap that will impede your career and your success. The truth is that your ideas will always be edited in some way or another, no matter what status you have attained.
It’s an elusive matter, continually working to humble yourself to the place you need to be to best pay service to the ideas. The most successful record producers and audio engineers understand this, and have taught me through their example.
It’s not about tallying up who’s got the best ideas, and how often they are used. It’s about creating meaning and art that is worth people’s attention – worth remarking on and sharing.
If you’re like me, then you probably find yourself wrapped up in this mentality all too often…
You read an article about how someone mixed a record, or you talked with someone about a particular way to record an instrument, and the next time you’re working you begin reflecting on what you read or heard. Then you end up constantly second guessing yourself.
Now you begin to scrutinize every little thing you do in the studio – where you place a mic on an acoustic guitar, how you select gear, or your workflow for making a record in general. I do this all the time, and not with just making records, I catch myself doing this as it relates to all kinds of different daily routines.
The latest is with my mixing workflow. Lately, I’ve been catching a few discussions on blogs about the best way to approach building a mix. I recently found myself trying a couple of these techniques for starting and building a mix. And boy, did I make it hard for myself – this specific advise was not working!
That’s when the lightbulb went off. I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” There was nothing wrong with the workflow I had been using before. It actually served me quite well. But for some strange reason, I too often get in my head that I need to try something else, just because I happened to read about it a couple days prior.
Making records is a daily learning experience. But there are also a lot of instances when you need to recognize that you already know something, and move on. If you have a technique for accomplishing something that works really well, don’t abandon that approach just because someone else came up with another method.
Record like you record, not someone else. It’s easy to get sucked into the notion that the way someone else does it is better than the way you do it, just because.
If you build great mixes by starting with the drums, then stick with that.
If an EQ inserted before a compressor typically sounds best to you, then it is best.
When trying out new methods, if the new technique does not seem to improve your workflow fairly quickly, then that’s probably your indication that you should stick with your current way of doing things.
Yeah, there’s times when you can learn a better way to do it. But there’s also times when you need to be confident that the technique you already use is sufficient. To do it any other way is not necessarily an improvement (and it could make things worse).
Ever heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
It will be easier when you graduate college and get an internship at a recording studio.
It will be easier when you complete your internship, and get a job at the recording studio.
It will be easier when you have a lot of label connections, and can get consistent work through them.
It will be easier when you’re able to work with a world-famous artist, who sells a million records.
It will be easier when you’ve won a Grammy, and people will trust you and listen to what you say because you now have authority.
It will be easier when someone gives you a ton of money to capitalize a recording studio that you not only work out of full time, but also own.
Except none of these things are true. It does not simply get easier. In some ways it will, yes. But in many ways, greater success and growth brings more pressure, and higher stakes.
The complexities and challenges of professionally producing, recording, and mixing records will always be a factor in your career-no matter what your status is.
The responsibility of your success is yours, and yours alone. Don’t trick yourself into believing that one day someone is going to come along and hand you success on a silver platter. And Don’t trick yourself into thinking that once you attain a key achievement that the rest is just coasting on Easy Street.
Because then you will cease to continually challenge yourself, you will cease grow, and most importantly, you will cease to truly have fun in a life of making records [because instead of enjoying the fruits of your career now, you will be constantly chasing future contentment]
Making records is more about interacting with people than it is about anything else. Great people skills can take you the distance in a career in recording, even when you may not be the most knowledgeable or the definitively most talented person to ever step into the studio. On top of that, it’s very likely that if you have great people skills, clients will choose you over someone else who may know more, or be more “talented” than you.
When I got my first studio job as an intern, there was an assistant engineer who was a huge jerk. He knew everything there was to ever know about being an audio engineer – all the nuances and ultra technical particulars of how every piece of gear worked, the science behind capturing great sounds, how to repair broken gear – everything. But he was a jerk, and a loudmouth with poor work ethic. Clients constantly asked for him to be replaced with someone – anyone! – else.
If you’re cold and stale, do the bare minimum to get the job done, and run you mouth off every minute of the day, you’re going to be asked to leave.
If you treat people kindly, if you’re authentic, honest, and genuine, people will enjoy the work they do with you, and feel good about what you’ve created together.
Technical knowledge and production skills are important. But not nearly as important as treating people right. Of all the skills it’s important to have in the studio, none of them will provide a secure, long-term path to success like having good people skills will.
Is it that your tacks are totally isolated from each other-no bleed?
Is it that you were extremely meticulous in dialing in sounds?
Is it that every instrument is perfectly in tune?
Is it that you recorded every single part on it’s own track?
Is it that your recording utilizes 100 tracks instead of 4?
Is it because you recorded each part separately-the performance was not live?
Is it because you recorded with Pro Tools-no analog tape?
Is it because you edited every part to be perfect?
Is it because you used playlists, and kept every possible take?
Is it because you used Auto-Tune on all the vocal tracks?
I have worked on records where every track was completely isolated, and while most of the time the fidelity turned out great, there were a few times when the result just sounded kind of lifeless.
I have produced records where I tracked every part individually, and realized by the end of the project that all the parts felt “disconnected” from a performance standpoint.
It’s funny how often times we automatically assume that certain approaches to producing, recording, or mixing yield certain outcomes. Over the years of working along side many different producers and engineers in many different capacities, I’ve seen so many different ways of working. One recording engineer may adhere to a method of working that another recording engineer disregards completely, while both claim their ways to be the only way that you can create a quality product.
Everything in record making is subjective. Even the rules are subjective.
So just what is it, exactly, that dictates that a recording sounds polished?
Is it that your tracks bleed on one another?
Is it that you weren’t very meticulous in dialing in sounds?
Is it that the guitar is slightly out of tune?
Is it that you have a really abrasive snare sound?
Is it that your lead vocal track sounds sexy?
Is it because you didn’t use a click track?
Is it because you recorded to analog tape instead of Pro Tools?
Is it because it was recorded on a four track cassette?
Is it because you didn’t use automation when you mixed?
Is it because you used “old school” gear and FX during mixing?
I have worked on some records where the lead vocal bled all over the drum tracks, but you would never know it.
I have produced records which I recorded live, with minimal isolation, but the final mix sounds as polished as ever.
I have worked on records that were tracked to analog tape without much EQ, but the final mix sounded totally clear and defined.
Everything in record making is subjective. Even the rules are subjective.
So just what is it, exactly, that dictates that a recording sounds raw?
Typically, the records where I’m in the producer’s chair are recorded live, with all the musicians close enough together that they could reach out and touch one another. I do this because it ignites a special kind of energy when the band is all playing together. It also means that all the tracks bleed on one another.
There’s a fear in the recording community of track bleed. People can be meticulous about making sure all the instruments are isolated, so they don’t bleed on one another. They’re afraid that all this bleed will degrade the sound of the record, or lock them into a position that keeps them from having options later.
I love bleed. I think track bleed actually enhances the sound, as to me it’s all about what happens when the parts come together, not really the micro-focused aspect of the individual parts themselves. It’s also about the human element of recording, and track bleed helps create a sound that has more of a human feel.
But it’s all very subtle. Realistically, track bleed is very much a non-issue. Honestly when all is finished, the listener is never going to know the vocal got on the piano track a little bit, and the drum mics also picked up the guitar. All that is a layer of production that really just creates a subconscious texture.
You would be surprised what you can get away with – across all genres, and in most situations.
If the individual tracks of your recording are the single bricks which make up the house, bleed is the mortar which holds the recording together.
It’s human, it’s real, it’s organic, and it’s warm. Take advantage of it.
It happens to me every day. And you know what my natural reaction to it is? To push even harder, straining to break through. That might happen eventually, but not nearly as successfully as I’d like.
You know what really works? To walk away. Get away from the problem and, ironically, you will find the solution.
Pretty much common sense, but it’s funny how in the middle of it all our lizard brain defeats us.
But make the choice to move on anyway. You will always second guess a decision you made in the mix. Or question a vocal. It’s easy to convince yourself that there’s more work to be done-that the bass is too loud, the drums are too quiet, the mix is too thin.
And you know what? There IS always more work to be done.
You’re always going to worry about what others will think of your work. It’s the blessing and the curse of working in a field that is so public. Don’t let that fear creep in and hold you back.
At a certain point you have to detach… just enough…
Just enough that you can escape the self-doubt.
Just enough that you can care less about what “everyone” thinks.
Just enough that you can have the confidence you need.
Just enough that you can learn how to be okay with closing a project.
Because if you’re constantly second-guessing everything you do, then you’re running in place. And then you’re not growing, moving your career forward.
Then you’re a slave to what “everyone” thinks. And “everyone” will never like the records you make.
Disclosure: I am in no way connected to the Mellowmuse company, or the Auto Time Adjuster plug-in. No one approached me to write a review. This is not an advertisement. I am in no way getting any form of compensation for writing this blog post. I’m simply excited that there is a finally a tool that will allow us Pro Tools LE users to have a form of automatic delay compensation, and that this tool is inexpensive.
Here’s something I’m pretty excited about. Auto Time Adjuster (ATA). I was flipping through the latest issue of Tape Op when I came across ATA in the gear reviews section. If you spend a significant amount of time working in Pro Tools LE (like me), I’m sure you’ve grown frustrated many times when dealing with plug-in latency. The lack of automatic delay compensation in Pro Tools LE can create so much extra work and stress.
While ATA isn’t perfect, it’s definitely worth it in my opinion. Using ATA in your sessions will further complicate the signal flow, unfortunately. But that’s still not even close how complicated things can get when having keep track of manual delay compensation times, or how many samples you nudged specific regions. Save if anything changes.
No more manual plug-in latency compensation. And it’s only $49.
Take a look at the website, which has some tutorials. http://www.mellowmuse.com/ATA.html