This fact seems obvious, yet it surprises many when they hear it: In the beginning, people who wanted to make recordings built their own gear to meet their needs.
I was reminded of this while reading Sir George Martin’s frank autobiography All You Need Is Ears (St. Martin’s Griffin). Early on, he introduces Oscar Preuss, the head of Parlophone in the early ‘50s, as someone who started his career as a teenage apprentice engineer, making “diaphragms and needles for the early types of phonograph, including the old cylinder machines, because in those days the engineer who did the actual recording used to make his own machinery.”
Clearly, knowing how your gear works increases your chances of getting the best results. Am I stating the obvious? How many drummers have you recorded who know how to tune their drums?
The topic of, “What does this thing actually do?” comes to a head at the end of every semester when I discuss the concepts of mixing and mastering with my students as they finish their final projects. They often have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the difference between the two processes—“Why can’t I just put Maxim on the mix bus and call it a day?” So we step back and review the tortured progression of recording technology and why this division of labor currently exists.
Context Is King
Even within an Introduction to Pro Tools class, which would typically only cover the main features of the program and its keyboard shortcuts, there has be some historical perspective given; students cannot effectively use the product unless they have an understanding of why we do things a certain way. They need context.
So, we look at examples of how instruments were balanced since the dawn of the recording age, and how, over time, the componentry gradually evolved in such a way that we could capture and play back the full frequency spectrum and dynamic range of sound.
As a demonstration of acoustical playback (and to reinforce Sir George’s quote), I conduct a simple experiment using a turntable and a handful of old records. I take an ordinary sheet of paper from the laser printer and place one of its corners into the groove of a spinning disc: Instant speaker! It’s a crude example, but it gives the students an idea of the physicality of the technology.
From monaural recording and playback, we move to stereo and examine how engineers explored the concept early on. This leads to a discussion of the limitations of playback formats and the kinds of compromises you have to make to accommodate them.
Remarkably, these topics aren’t just for beginners. I recently attended a Recording Academy event at Michael Romanowski Mastering, where several dozen professional musicians came to find out what mastering engineers actually do. It was a real eye-opener.
People in all aspects of the music biz have surprisingly little knowledge about anything that happens to music after it has been recorded. One could argue that this is the reason so much modern music sounds the way it does, despite the best intentions of mixing and mastering engineers.
Knowing what to listen for on the technical side is a critical skill that all musicians should have. If they don’t know what the mastering engineer is doing to their music, how are they going to know what questions to ask, what to listen for and, ultimately, figure out how they want the final product to sound?
In fact, one of the revelations that I heard attendees mention was that it was okay to ask questions about the results of the mastering job. Once they find out that it’s not “magic” and “voodoo” but about subtle adjustments, they realize that they can have a say in it, once they know what to listen for.
Although you probably don’t want your artists looking over your shoulder while you work and asking you to add 2 dB at 4 kHz, you do want them to care enough about the music to carefully audition the results on reliable playback devices so they can make informed decisions about the project at every stage.
I’m not advocating that all musicians need to acquire the skills and equipment to record, mix and master their own music. As with publishing and copyright, these are aspects of the profession they need to understand in order to see through the BS and to protect themselves. Ultimately, technology shouldn’t get in the way, but it is interesting to see how priorities can be misplaced.
I recently overheard a discussion between a well-known producer and younger engineer about the former’s use of active monitors. The producer liked these particular speakers because they were portable and provided a consistent sound when visiting various studios. The engineer, clearly eager to impress, outlined the number of compromises in sound quality that have to be made when an amp is enclosed in a speaker cabinet.
Unfazed, the producer simply pointed out that the fact that the monitors were internally powered didn’t stop his artists from recording great music.