I have a joke with my wife that a pair of classic shoes in her collection is a pair she has worn more than once, she usually punches me when I say it.
It's likely the same for many people and their studio gear; we like to call ourselves producers and engineers, but in many cases, we are more like collectors and curators. We amass gear as if we are in some studio arms race, buying things just in case we need them one day.
I suppose you could blame blogs like this with its flashing banners and high-quality product reviews for perpetuating the problem, because if we didn't have those things, then you wouldn't spend money on gear, would you? Really? If it makes you feel better, then keep telling yourself that, but we both know it's about as true as a 15-year-old kid with a computer saying they don't look at porn. Of course, that is entirely possible, but in reality highly improbable.
Let me be clear, buying gear is not a problem, but it is when you are doing it to make up for the real reasons your recordings don't get any better. Of course, some people just like buying gear for the pure pleasure of owning it, like Star Wars Toys or glass ornaments - if that's you then don't let me spoil your fun. However many people are spending money in the hope that the next thing is the missing part of the puzzle. It reminds me of the man in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; a rich art collector is in search of the Holy Grail only to find that it takes more than the goblet to achieve what he is hoping ... I won't spoil the plot for those who haven't seen the movie, suffice to say it doesn't end well.
I'm guessing you have read the headline to this article and are either curious where this is going, or you are genuinely interested in improving your recordings.
Some of you will be thinking just shut up and tell me what they are, how much more do I have to read, which leads me to the first thing;
You Don't Read Enough
My mother told me when I was a kid that you can never waste money on books. She believed that reading was an important part of life and it was for this reason our house was filled with books and more importantly people who read them. As far back as I can recall I read books and my parents were also reading too, books, magazines, newspapers, even the back of packets.
I'm not one of these people who thinks that the internet has made us dumber as if the web could have some moral measurement. I see it as morally neutral and can be used for right or wrong things, just like a shovel can be used to plant flowers or smash some one's head in - how we choose to use a tool is not down to the tool. So in that regard, I'm not a book snob, and if you also want to use the web to read and acquire knowledge, then that's great, its the reading bit that is important here.
I recently found myself in a rut and realised the issue was that I had stopped reading. I wrote about it on Linkedin, here is an extract.
Then it hit me like a tonne of bricks - the habit that had been part of my life since I was a kid had been neglected - READING! I had stopped reading, and in doing so, I had stopped learning. I was running on fumes, on old data, no wonder things were not as they should be.
So if you don't read or make a habit of continuously filling up the tank, then I urge you to start and make it a daily habit. I'm not suggesting you read War and Peace or the entire works of Shakespeare, but even an article a day, or dare I suggest the user manuals to some of the gear you already own.
Best of all most learning is free; there are plenty of blogs like this one that offers tips and tricks and articles to make things easier. We've even invested in a new search engine to make the job of finding things on the blog even easier.
You Don't Listen Enough
If you ever record stuff and on listening back hear something you don't like then you need to understand how all the great sound engineers in the recording industry use their ears. If you hang out with any great sound engineer, then you soon learn that they spend more time listening than they do almost anything else.
But a lot of their listening happens even before they get to the recording studio. They've spent hours listening to countless recordings and live music too, if they work in post production then they spent hours listening to how things sound in the real world. Too many of us have acquired our understanding of sound from recorded music and not from real life. Have you ever heard a real kick drum or a piano in a room? Or the reverb inside a car or a church? Have you ever listened to a rifle fire or footsteps on gravel?
By the time most of us hear music or sound FX in TV or movies, it's been so produced that it is hyper-real, which in many cases is perfect for the result, but it didn't start that way. If we only listen to how sounds end up, then we have a huge gap in our audio vocabulary.
Spend some time around those at the top of their game, and you'll find that they listen all the time, the sounds in the real world, be they instruments or natural life. They listen to music of every imaginable kind, both recorded and real. They are like sponges trying to consume as much audible learning as is possible. I joked last night on my Facebook about something I hear again and again on TV sound. I was watching the TV show 'Billions', and there was a scene in a club where someone was speaking through a microphone. As they started to talk there was a small moment of feedback, it's become a sound FX cliche, which does not reflect real life. It must be requested by the Directors and Producers because I can't for one moment imagine that every audio post guy on these shows thinks live sound engineers are morons.
It's little things like this that take a recording from cliche to the sublime, from fantasy to reality.
But the listening doesn't stop there, once in the studio then skilled sound engineers are moving mics, changing mics, even moving the gear around the room. Tony Platts talks about the time he moved the drum kit around the room until he was happy with the sound for one of the AC/DC albums. I've worked with Tony, and like all great engineers he spends a long time listening before he presses record, in his words "recording is all about listening."
You Don't Break With Convention Enough
If you have never been to a dog track where Greyhounds race then perhaps you haven't seen how it works, it's simple but effective. All the dogs sit in their cages behind a gate, and a fake rabbit comes speeding around the outside of the track on rails, then at the right moment the gates open and the dogs chase the rabbit.
The truth is none of the dogs ever catch the rabbit; it's a ruse to get them to run as fast as they can. If it were real life and it was a real rabbit, then one dog would catch the rabbit, perhaps two, but in most cases, only one would get the rabbit.
Too may of us are chasing the same rabbit. If there is anything wrong with modern recording, then it's the homogeneity of it. Cookie cutter music, made with the same techniques, all using the same 'dead cert' sounds made with the same instruments and plug-ins. It might get you a short spell at the top of the iTunes charts, or if like me you are a writer and might keep the royalty cheques coming in, but it doesn't create legacy.
No great artist or band that has lasted the test of time was conventional.
The same can be said of film scores or sound design, in fact, the movies and TV that stick in my mind are the ones that don't use the same old music and sound design cliches. Instead, they use music and effects to unnerve me and to get my attention. For example, shows like Peaky Blinders, a costume drama that used modern music from greats like PJ Harvey to help build a believable world out of a juxtaposition of the picture and sound. In this show, they use music as a narrative device rather than audio wallpaper, and it works.
We don't notice the conventional we notice the different.
Too many of us end up making the audio equivalent of wallpaper, myself included when we should take some risks and start painting with wide brush strokes of primary colour. Perhaps I'm the only one who gets bored by some of the stuff I produce? I somehow doubt it; it's like a conspiracy of silence, perhaps more of us need to start saying there's a lot of mediocre shit been produced by us so-called creative professionals and it's time to take some risks. Not like some petulant teenager piercing their nose just for the hell of it (I have three of them) but like as brave creative warriors finding new ways to tell the same stories.
After all, that's what we as creative audio professionals do, we tell stories through songs, film scores, and sound design. They might be the same stories, but that doesn't mean we can't tell them in new ways.
The more we concentrate on the story, the better chance we have of really making something outstanding. The story will inform the techniques we use, and if we've spent time reading and listening, then we have the tools to be able to bring those sounds to life.
This very thing happened to me recently; I was presented with a new product from a client I do a lot of video work for. They sent me the brief and the music, after looking at this I sent them back this email;
Thanks - are you open to me doing something a little wacky to suit the instrument and the tone?
I’m thinking of something very image-led with words and kaleidoscopes of the images…
Shall I mock up the first 20 seconds to show you what I mean?
I won't bore you with the 50 or so emails that went back and forth during the production process, those of you who do this all the time will thank me for saving you from that.
Suffice to say my decision to break with convention got the attention we hoped it would. I even got some great responses from peers such as "One of the best product launch videos I've ever seen. Congrats."
It would have been easy to take the line of least resistance and to deliver to my client another video just like the other stuff we do, it would have been high quality, but it would have been more of the same. Songwriters, composers, and producers can be tempted to do the same thing, after all of the last song, score or album was such a hit then why not simply do the same thing again? It's tempting, and in some cases, the decision is out of our hands and made by the euphemistically named Executive Producers, but if you do have a chance to influence the decision then I urge you to take it.
Money Can't Buy You...
As I've tried to outline in this article, great recordings don't depend on the amount of gear we have, it plays a part, but a much smaller one than most of us are led to believe.
Learning, listening and breaking with convention are more likely to help you create recordings you can be proud of than the gear you buy.
In our throw-away consumerist culture, there's never been a greater reason to create art that will cut through the noise, stand out, make people stop and think and more importantly live on for a very long time.