They say you can’t have too much of a good thing, and at the moment anyone making music using a computer will never have had it so good. Modern DAW packages come loaded with just about every effect you could wish for, at much higher quality than a project studio could have imagined a mere ten years ago.
Unique, sought-after processors are available in plug-in form for a fraction of the original price of the hardware units, and the ease with which the techniques of studio maestros can be recreated means there’s really no excuse for a bad mix any more.
But the more I watch demonstrations and listen to material, the more it feels like we are being spoilt by the luxury. While productions are undoubtedly getting better, they are also tending to sound more ‘the same’ than ever before. In a way, by having the best of the best available at our fingertips, we’re missing the character which having to improvise brought to recordings.
First of all, I want to make one thing clear – I’m not one of those exponents of anti-fidelity, obsessed with using cheap, nasty equipment as some sort of musical statement; just that there’s value in everything. Consider the humble studio reverb. Most project studios would start off with an entry level unit that would get used on just about anything. Something like an AlesisMidiVerb or Yamaha SPX. You’d have to bounce drums through it in order to free it up for use elsewhere, and if you needed to use two at once you might have had to jury rig a spring reverb from a guitar can to make up the numbers.
When you could afford it, you’d buy a better reverb, but your original unit would still get used, maybe as a snare reverb or backing vocals. Now, compared to modern convolution reverbs or even high-end DSP processors these units sounded pitiful – grainy, 12-bit algorithms with truncated tails bearing little relation to any real ambience and in many circumstances forcing you to commit to a sound just to free up the unit. But often it’s these limitations, both sonically and by the fact that you couldn’t infinitely tweak as you built a mix, that added a unique character. What could be termed a mistake or a failing became the seed of an identifiable sound.
Fastforward to today, and this is a thing of the past. Modelling has arrived and everyone is on a mission to have an emulation of classic hardware, but the units that imparted a character are unlikely to ever be replicated. The trouble is, there are very few ‘classics’. Case in point: the compressor. Hundreds of different compressors have been made by different manufacturers at different price points over the years and have contributed to the sound of countless recordings. Yet it seems like every time you turn around, there’s another 1176 plug-in or LA-2A; buss compressors and EQs based on Solid State Logic consoles; reverbs from the very best spaces on the planet, or sampled directly from the flagship processors.
As the quality has improved, the variety has decreased. And with presets, the studio techniques of pioneering studios are recalled, without any experimentation whatsoever, sometimes including whole signal chains. Need to make your dance mix pump? There’s a preset for that. Want the John Bonham drum sound? Click, there you go. What, then, is ever going to make your production sound different from everyone else’s?
If your quest is for original-sounding production, then you’re going to have to get creative with the tools. Impose some restrictions on what plug-ins you have available. Remember, a top-spec studio may have formerly only had a couple of Urei compressors, so it was important to find the best way to use them. Experiment with the basic plug-ins that come with your DAW. Commit to decisions and don’t be afraid to try compromise, for example sending guitars and backing vocals to the same reverb. Because right now everyone has access to the same tools and the chances are the best way to make your mixes stand out is by not doing what everyone else is!
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