Tech Talk: What’s Your Reference?

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how the data our brains reference affects the outcomes of anything we do or think about. For example, those who saw Michael Jordan, Magic, or Kare

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how the data our brains reference affects the outcomes of anything we do or think about. For example, those who saw Michael Jordan, Magic, or Kareem play their best have a better appreciation of Kobe and LeBron. It’s also the reason audio engineers bring their own speakers to gigs, love the mics, consoles and outboard they do, and have their favorite sample rate—it’s all about the reference. I’ll never say no to a good reference, even if I know I’ll never hear or see it again.

How about product evaluation? At trade shows, especially NAMM, I’m often urged by manufacturers to listen to their products. For fun I always give it a go, but I always know in the back of my mind that when I get them in a critical listening environment, everything will change. In this case the room is the reference: In an environment that stays out of the way, you can make a better judgment to what’s coming out of the box.

A little over a year ago I had one of the best listening experiences of my life at Le Lab Mastering in Montreal. The studio was a Tom Hidley room resurrected from oblivion and turned into a successful finishing environment. I was on the trip with Lorenz Reichner from Recording, Larry Crane from TapeOp and Strother Bullins from Pro Audio Review. I heard things in my mixes in that room that I had not heard before or since and will always cherish that reference. We were all changed by the trip, and even if we never hear that room again, we can all put it into our list of great listening experiences.

I have a good buddy, a teacher, who would bring Beatle references into his class every day. Today in Beatle History was a linchpin of his teaching workflow that gave a valuable reference that was lost to many millennials. Whether you like the music or not, what that team of producers, engineers and musicians brought to recording is undeniably the foundation and fabric of modern music. For example, engineer Ken Scott recently turned me on to ADT (automatic double tracking), which I brought into my classroom. We took various tracks, put them through the process and the results were randomly amazing. I’ve been using guitar and studio effects since I was 11 years old, and ADT produced outcomes that you cannot come close to using a pedal, plug-in or processor. It’s not that you’re going to use it on every song or production, but to have that in your base of references is golden.

My original experience in editing audio comes from tape. Although it’s limited in scope, time-consuming and aural rather than visual, there’s something wonderful about it. I recently taught a group of students the basics of ½-inch and 2-inch editing techniques, then polled them to see what they thought of the process. Lines were clearly drawn between love and hate—about half really loved it, and the others thought it sucked. Of course, when I asked who would turn down a job at $70 an hour to do tape edits, everyone loved it. The point here, whether you like the process or not, is the lesson learned in trusting your ears. Closing your eyes and rocking the tape back and forth across a kick or snare hit, then dropping it back into that dead zone just before the initial hit to mark the cut puts your head in a Zen-like space of trust, making you one with the music. After all, no one got into this business because they thought music looked good. And while visual editing is technically better, and I do love it, I don’t know anyone who scrubs audio when editing in a DAW. While it’s eminently easier and more convenient to make digital edits, it’s like kissing through a screen door—something’s lost.

Another great reference is hearing what driving real analog tape to its limits does to a track. One at a time, I put students in the sweet spot with the ability to source select the same mix laid back to ½-inch at increasingly hotter levels. We adjusted the output levels the same amount so we’d limit the “louder-is-better” syndrome that messes up any A/B evaluation. When comparing the original with the gassed mixes, everyone immediately got it, especially when they jumped to the +6dB hotter version and were prompted to reference the snare drum over the original 0dB version. While it squashed the dynamic range and flattened the transients, it made the guitars sound great.

What’s the takeaway? You can apply this reference to tape simulator plug-ins, which unlike real tape give you the ability to play with non-linear tape distortion individually on each track. You can hit “tape” harder on guitar tracks and conversely tone down distortion on transients like snare, kick and toms. Some sim plug-ins let you flip the lid and play with bias and EQ, giving you another great set of references to play with. You’ll get more personality out of under-biasing a copy of your lead vocal and blending it in with your original than you will with a simple EQ and compressor chain.

So I guess the point of all this is to embrace the past as much as the present. Don’t say no to anything that gives you another reference from which you can make your decisions and do your work. Malcolm Gladwell argues that elite systems are based on access, and those with better access, the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimers are who they are because of their references. Just say yes!

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