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Monday, September 29, 2008

How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth

Thanks to Jade from OffBeatLove for the article idea

I recently went to see a great funk band perform at a big event. I've been into funk music lately and I really liked their sound; enough that I decided to buy their CD after the show. I was pleased to learn that the album contained pretty much the same set that the band played at the show, and since their set was fantastic I was excited when I put it in the CD player in my car a few days later.

Well... It was clear that it was the same band. The talent showed through, but... it was just so dull! I kept skipping tracks, ready for the next one to blow me away with some badass funkiness. Instead I got that disappointing feeling of being underwhelmed. (Now you know why I don't name the band itself!)

Why does this happen? How does a great band make such a stunningly mediocre album? The answer, good reader, is what I call conservative recording.

Let's say you're just learning how to record. You've learned all the rules of proper recording, like avoiding overloading and conventional EQ techniques. For example, you are supposed to record with a loudness threshold at just below the point of overloading (overloading causes distortion) and you are expected to keep the entire mix that way. When using EQ you are told to dampen tracks instead of boosting them whenever possible. Reverb is only for room ambiance. These and many other techniques make up what is considered 'correct' recording: methods for making music that is pleasing to listen to.

It is vitally important that you learn these rules and implement them. Understanding why these guidelines and practices have been established will make you a better recording artist. What I'm getting at though may involve a fundamental rethinking of the recording and mixing act itself.

In both the visual and musical arts, the great, respected masters have spent years learning the rules of their craft. A master painter has learned perspective, light and shadow, and anatomy techniques. A master musician and composer has a deep understanding of music theory, like chord progressions, rhythm and melody. Their status of 'master' however, was not achieved by their technical skill alone, but also from the skillful way that they bent and broke conventions in ways that surprise and move us and allow us to see the world from a new perspective. Yet they could not have achieved any of that without first learning the rules. One who has no technical skill and who simply breaks conventions will likely end up producing ugly art, and one who has great technical skill but doesn't surprise us will end up boring us to tears. Both trained skill and the creative violation of expectations are necessary to make great art.

How does this all apply to recording? Instead of viewing recording as a means of getting your live performance on tape, you should instead be looking at your recorded music as a separate kind of performance, in a way unrelated to your live one. The recording act should be seen as an integral part of the performance, rather than a means to an end. How you mix your music will affect how people enjoy it, so it should be given just as much care and attention as your playing.

Let your drums overload a bit. Crank the midrange equalizer on your guitar track in a way you've never heard before. Use effects in unconventional ways. Never be afraid to break the rules of recording to see how it sounds. The beauty of digital recording is that you can simply change it back if you don't like it.

Give your recordings some life! Do everything you can to make the recording as breathtaking as the live performance. You and I both know that this is possible, but as long as you keep viewing recording as an obstacle in the way of your music, then you'll never be able to achieve true studio greatness. The problem with the funk band was that they recorded and mixed their music very well, with great technical proficiency, but they didn't take advantage of the opportunities available to them with producing an album.

The sound made by musical instruments and human voices are fundamentally altered and weakened when recorded and played back
. You can easily tell the difference between a real guitar playing and one playing through a speaker. This is why we have studios in the first place; you can't just put a microphone in front of a band and expect the recording to sound great. You need to use the recording and mixing tools at your disposal to make that band sound incredible.

So do it. Learn the essentials of good recording, and then add the same level of passion and creativity to your studio work as you would anything else that you love do. Don't play it conservatively. Do it like you mean it, and your album will be something you're proud about.

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