Troy - co-owner of Neologic Studios, and I were discussing his latest mix project recently and noticed a trend. It was enough to prompt an entire debate and dedicate this article to, so that’s saying something. I’ve been focusing quite a bit on the marketing and business side of the industry, sharing information I’ve learned along the way; but this one is about modern recording workflows. Here’s Troy’s take.
“It’s late at night in the mid-week and I have been itching to start mixing a new project I had just received the day prior. After importing everything into Pro Tools, my journey usually starts with the typical organization and initial listening experience. Processing and all of the creative effects are my favorite part of mixing, so I get started right away with my rough mix pass, adjusting volume and getting everything balanced.” Troy really does love processing and sound sculpting the most, but I could tell what was coming next. I let him continue.
“So far while listening to the tracks, I could tell some tracks are already compressed, and some tracks are just left raw, which is my favorite way to approach a mix. I get to the overheads and the room tracks for the drums and realize that not only were they over-compressed during recording, but they are also clipping!” As he’s telling me this I just know what we’re going to spend of the rest of the night debating.
“What the heck, right?”
I agreed, though I’m imagining which scenarios I could see this situation popping up in; and let him continue to explain the situation, “Well, it turns out that the artist and engineer thought it would be super cool to process some of the tracks during the recording process. Now, I don’t usually have a problem with that but this was just tasteless!”
Troy proceeded to show me the offending tracks and sure enough, it was blatant over compression and clipping on its way into the hardware and DAW. I too found the recordings pretty distasteful.
A few expletives deleted, he described how he envisioned the scenario of this recording probably went down in whatever studio they originated from. If you can imagine every typecast for every position, the engineer, the artist, the producer (if there even was one), and so on – rolled into one studio session, Troy certainly gave the scenario life and character. I honestly think he should write music-industry comedy because this had me grabbing my sides rolling on the ground from laughter. The situation - while preposterous a picture he may have painted, was probably rooted in a kernel of truth.
Oh, He’s pissed alright…
“I’m not knocking the artist or the engineer… completely… but there is a time and a place to track with processing, and when to capture clean audio for processing after. This is an age old question of workflow and preference that has really resulted from the era of Digital recording, I’m personally not a huge fan of this approach especially in the digital age unless,” and he put a serious amount of emphasis on the word, lingering a moment before coming back to the topic, “you have the proper equipment. I can tell you now, especially with the percentage of home-studios and small project studios out there these days, most people do not have the proper equipment.”
So let’s back up a second. He just brought up a massive number of topics all rolled into one scenario. One is gain-staging. Neither of us knew the whereabouts of this recording and how it came to fruition before it arrived at his studio so we’re obviously speculating behind the situation.
First, In any scenario where a legitimate full-service studio (of any class) is tracking with techniques that employ the use of clipping and compression baked into the audio recording as they track, we can all pretty much assume the time being spent at the studio can be afforded to spend the extra luxury time to set up properly and dial in everything to taste. But, if one thing is true of modern day recording projects – especially with indie and self-funded artists or groups, it’s that time costs money they often don’t have. That means a session can often get rushed and put pressure on the engineer(s) to pack as much actual recording time in to the session as possible with minimal setup and breakdown or time to critically listen and find errors in performance or capture that need to be redone.
Right away, the red light going off in my head with this situation is that the option to track with processing baked in immediately gets taken off the table. An engineer in charge of a session that rushed should opt for as clean a signal path with lots of headroom (by way of dynamic range) to be able to color the sound in post any which way the mixing engineer deems appropriate. Whether this was the case or not for the project Troy received is debatable.
Little Jimmy – Our favorite Recording Engineer
“Okay, I know I’m stirring up a *expletive deleted* stew right now, but think about it. People who work with an S.S.L. console will obviously want to add some of that color to their tracks because they can always readjust as they see fit. That works! They have the proper equipment, to make their record sound amazing with an amazing set of hardware. Now, look at the latter and tell me what you think.” He paused a moment to put together a little synopsis for me, and it got quite funny.
“Little Jimmy has a decent interface and maybe a preamp or two with a compressor and EQ. Little Jimmy has wants to start tracking bands too, which is always a good decision, (Samuel Adams)! He starts tracking and decides to process the snare a little too much. Yeah, it may sound good at the time while he’s tracking drums, but when it comes to the mix phase is where the proverbial cow patty really hits the giant fan of death. Little Jimmy will be frustrated and confused as to why his recordings - which sounded good enough to be excited about during tracking, suddenly leave him at a dead-stop during mixing and cannot get that “major label release sound”. His snare not only stands out too much, but is clipping. Well, looks like he going to have to either A. re-track the band, which rarely goes over well. Or B. hide his mistake by sample-replacing.”
If you’re not laughing by now, either you’ve personally been in Jimmy’s seat before, or you feel our pain. It’s really not that funny, because we’re willing to bet it happens far too often these days. I certainly got a kick out of the little story-telling session from Troy, but he wasn’t finished.
“Maybe I’m being a little too extreme? Okay, I’m sorry! Let’s make little Jimmy a semi decent engineer in a semi-decent studio with a selection of preamps and hardware. He tracks the band as he is processing the audio the band enjoys specific sounds that may, or may not bring life to the track. That effect I’m talking about is clipping. I understand that this can easily be avoided, but some people honestly don’t notice these little nuances their trinkets do until they start mixing! There are certain steps that you can take to avoid bad recording situations – and they’re pretty basic to anyone with some audio fundamentals under their belt. Yet, it seems like more and more engineers these days simply don’t understand what the heck their gear does!”
Alright, yet again he’s getting ahead of himself. Let’s back it up to the points where he’s describing Little Jimmy’s scenario. In this day and age it’s completely possible to obtain your experience and education outside of school systems and private institutes. The democratization and proliferation of modern recording and production technology has made it so easy for any individual to acquire and begin using that we’re no longer dependent on narrow channels of opportunity such as Recording Arts programs or studio internships to gain knowledge and experience recording media in any fashion. I think part of the topic Troy missed was that of audio fundamentals and proper education, or awareness.
With the mention of high-caliber recording equipment like an S.S.L. console, the cost associated with gear like this is going to limit its access to engineers in legitimate studio businesses who’ve established themselves in the industry enough to get continuous work. Unless a band hires their own engineer and the studio agrees to let the engineer use the studio’s equipment, the chances of someone without the proper knowledge of how to operate, let alone maintain and use the gear with care and consideration will be pretty unlikely. What is probably more likely, and he goes on to discuss – is how anyone can actually start to acquire recording equipment like boutique preamps and hardware, or at the very least, inexpensive clones of sought after vintage hardware, all without the knowledge of how to use them properly. I’ll state it again, this all comes down to gain-staging.
Distortion, whether it’s in the form of clipping or saturation, can be pleasing and absolutely worth the effort to capture the effect of pushing audio through the hardware in a way that causes the color and effect to become audible – but without the proper experience of when this is warranted, how it works, and why this occurs, one cannot properly accommodate the chain reaction of adjustments that need to be done to compensate. Furthermore, having a vision or end goal of the mix in mind when tracking to be able to say yes this sound will add to the value of the mix when it gets there is absolutely necessary, and that requires a lot of experience and knowledge of multiple processes along the path from inception to final product.
The Big Hoopla.
In this day and age, it’s even more critical for engineers to understand mixing. With any recording, the more intent you put behind planning ahead, and learning the fundamentals of audio will only up your recording game.
In the video production world, the turn of phrase is “shoot for the edit”. If a director is dealing with an advertising campaign, he may plan to have as many extra angles or versions of the same scene as possible and proceed to shooting each and every one of those to cover his needs in post-production, because making critical choices about which version or angle to omit during pre-production is nearly impossible until all of the elements are in-play. When in doubt, it is always better to have more than you need, and omit what isn’t necessary in post; than to not capture enough, and wish you could have captured more options.
The same goes for tracking and recording music. It doesn’t have to come down to needing more channels and more microphones and preamps to cover every recording angle, but making smart choices about how you capture so that you can maximize your potential use with the material later on. Thus, the debate ensues: to track with processing, or without.
Troy and I both had a great time discussing, and he usually gets very heated and passionate about these subjects because they’re what he enjoys so much. I advise you take what you read in this article with a grain of salt. We always enjoy comments and feedback, and helping support and grow the community of professionals! If you have an experience similar to ours, or a question or criticism, or simply would like to point out a perspective we missed, feel free to share in the comments below, and happy mixing!