Over the weekend I received a message from a friend’s band that their new single had been released on iTunes. Ever the good supporter of the local scene, I of course checked it out immediately, and was left somewhat confused.
The best I could come up with by way of description was that it sounded expensive. I couldn’t tell you what the song was like musically because there was an enormous production in the way. The main thing I noticed was that this sounded a lot like a big label modern rock release but unfortunately very little like the band that I know really well, having seen – and even gigged with – them more than a dozen times.
I’m not so naive or idealistic to imply that all music needs to be an accurate representation of real instruments in real spaces. Creating the impossible is as much a joy of music production as it is with film making – a chance to create something captivating that could maybe never exist in the real world. I do wonder, though, if we have become so used to processing every signal that the notion of accurately capturing the sound of an instrument is in danger of becoming a lost art. It seems odd that at one end of the production chain most people are aware of the need to be able to monitor accurately. If your speakers flatten the sound, you won’t hear mistakes; if they add a ton of bass, you’ll be producing bass-light mixes. But at the other end of the chain, it doesn’t seem to be important. We get bombarded by products that actively colour the sound – mics that add ‘shimmer’ to vocals, preamps that add ‘warmth’, plug-ins to simulate the effects of tape or desk circuitry on the signal path.
The essential recording ethos
When I first started producing music, an engineer friend took me under his wing. Highly opinionated on many aspects of recording, he had one essential piece of equipment that I have adopted. It was a plastic chair, and whenever he had a session, the very first thing he would do was spend five minutes sat out in the live room with the band, listening to what they sounded like in the room. His recording ethos was always: no matter what the final result you’re trying to achieve, a good engineer should always be able to capture on record what they hear with their own ears. You can tweak to your heart’s content in order to achieve the desired result after that, but if you can achieve this starting point then you’re on to a good thing.
Furniture aside, I have my own favourite piece of recording kit – the AKG 414 mic, and for the same reasons. The first time I used one with a vocalist, I was astonished to hear the same voice I heard in the live room coming from my speakers. It dawned on me that I had become so used to the sound of a voice as it sounds through a microphone coming out of the speakers that I wasn’t listening for accuracy any longer. Not only that, I was even processing without listening, applying compression and EQ because that’s an accepted signal chain on a vocal, without ever considering whether it was necessary.
Virtual processing plug-ins
One of the biggest advantages of modern DAW software is an almost limitless supply of virtual processing equipment in plug-in form. A traditional analogue studio might be able to afford a few choice pieces of outboard and would have to use them sparingly, but now we can strap 1176 limiters and Pultec EQs on as many channels as our computers can handle. The downside is that we now wield these tools almost indiscriminately, using a compressor when we could adjust a level, simply because it’s no longer a limited resource. And like a lot of users, I was reaching for presets rather than listening to the effects of the controls. The sound of processing was overshadowing the sound of my music.
I don’t doubt there will be people reading this and thinking “rookie mistake”. But I wonder – how much time do we spend investigating the other aspects of the signal chain? How many people compare multiple audio interfaces for conversion accuracy before making a purchase? On both input and output? When I switched from an ageing Digidesign 001 to an RME Fireface, I was amazed at how much I hadn’t been hearing on playback, let alone how much had been missing on capture. There are probably a few people starting to wonder now, I’m guessing. So let’s go a step further. How many engineers have listened to multiple DAW systems to see which software sounds the best? Does something recorded in Logic sound different to something recorded in Cubase? And, if so, which is more accurate?
At every step in the chain there is potential for the signal to be changed, whether it is by the sound of the converters or the algorithms used in recording software. And each step away further removes you from being able to recreate the original sound. In other words, even without processing the signal in any way, what goes in is no longer what comes out. Consider any piece of software which claims to be able to automatically time stretch or pitch shift your audio. In order for this to happen automatically, the software must be analysing for transients and computing a stretchable map. In other words, you’ll always be listening to processed audio and it is impossible to process digital audio and leave it unchanged. The same is true if you use a valve preamp to warm up a bright microphone. And what about any monitor controller you may have – are they altering the sound before it even reaches the speakers?
I would encourage anyone who is serious about recording to critically evaluate every link in the recording chain. Prism established the credibility of their converters, like the Orpheus interface, with world-class engineers comparing the sound they knew best of all – the full bandwidth sound of tape hiss! They considered their converters ready once no discernable difference could be detected by the best ears in the business.
For the rest of us, I’d suggest playing a CD you know really well through your speakers. Then play it through the converters of your audio interface and see if it sounds any different. Then record it into your DAW and play it back again. What about now? Are you getting out what you put in? If you’re hearing a difference somewhere along the chain, then maybe it’s time to consider an upgrade…