It seems my venture into the reality of ordinary life in last week's article was too scary for some readers, preferring that I write as if none of us ever go down the shops, eat, sh*t and sleep. It reminds me of an incident that happened many years ago when a friend and I bumped into a guy we knew who was trying to make it in the music industry. He was one of those people who already acted like a rock star, sans the actual career. Anyway, we asked him what he was up to; he responded that he was on the way to a gig having just met up with a label and next week he was flying to LA for a session. As he walked away, my friend turned to me and said "do you think he ever just goes grocery shopping?"
In some ways, that's not got much to do with this week's musing (depending on your point of view) but in another way it does, and that is this, with recording and mixing context is everything.
There seems to be a proliferation of posts that appear in forums, on Facebook, in fact anywhere where one can post a question, and they go something like this "What's the best microphone?" or "What's the best compressor?" In fact, just fill in the blank to the question "What's the best X?"
The only reasonable answer to a question like that is "For what?"
You see when it comes to any part of the process of recording or mixing context is everything, which in some ways renders the "best" question completely invalid.
What is the best microphone to record a voice?
Is it speech or sung? Male or female? What type of genre? And then you need to get even more specific and try microphones to see what suits the voice you have in front of you. I remember an occasion when I went into the studio to overdub some vocals from a live recording I had made. We tried some mics, which included all of the usual suspects like a U87, 67 and TLM103, we eventually found that an SM57 was best for the task, the other microphones were too clean and did not allow the vocal to sit naturally in the rest of the recording.
Of course, there are well-tested methods for specific drum, guitar or bass sounds for example, such as a Fender Strat for Funk guitar, or an AC30 for a Brit guitar sound, but we need to guard against the painting-by-numbers approach to recording. Who wants homogenous sounding tracks? Without stating the bleeding obvious isn't it the differences that make a song unique?
It's not just recording but also mixing where the same question is asked, in many cases even more so; it seems to some that you can record any old way and then magically fix it in the mix. I'm not a proponent of this thinking, getting things right as they hit the proverbial tape makes for a much more cohesive, satisfying and dare I say an easier final mix stage.
But we have endless questions asking about the best EQ/reverb/compressor ad nauseam, again the only reasonable/sensible response is to ask for what application?
Over the last few years, I've tried to cull the massive amount of plug-ins I've acquired, many as review products that never get removed later. I just checked my iLok account, which does not contain all my non-iLok plug-ins and that has 555 licences in it. One might think that is OK and a great way to keep one's options open, but in reality, it has more of an effect of confusing most people. Perhaps someone (if they haven't already done so) should come up with an application that moves your unused plug-ins to another folder if you don't use them after a preset amount of time.
However, I've not managed to get the list down to one plug-in for each area of treatment. I do have my go-to favourites which on most occasions will do the magic, but sometimes I need to try another. A couple of weeks ago I had an interview I was cutting, and the dialogue was all over the place, I reached for my trusty plug-in, but this time it just wasn't working. I eventually landed on using something else, in fact, something I had never used before.
The question is will this be the leveller plug-in next time? Perhaps, but perhaps not, I may go back to my original weapon of choice. Context is everything.
This article is an appropriate moment to talk about how essential real bricks and mortar stores are. If you are serious about finding the right gear for your studio, then find a good recording store where you can go and demo speakers, microphones and a host of other equipment before ordering. Some online retailers offer returns, and that may work better for you, but buying gear that you haven't auditioned is unwise. Amazon and other similar online retailers may be convenient, but I'd recommend finding a dealer who carries a good range of recording gear and who you can create a long-term relationship. Over time they also learn what equipment you already own and your taste and can help you with growing your studio gear.
Buy the right equipment for the task and it will pay for itself a hundred times over.
So I end this week I end my musing with a plea, remember that context is everything. Asking what the best microphone is without qualifying the application is as sensible as asking what is the best meat for a meal you are cooking for some guests. Are they even meat eaters? Do they have any religious beliefs that may prevent them from eating certain meats? Do they have allergies?
And the next time you find someone asking you 'What's the best..." the answer is of course "The best for what?" And of course don't forget a lot of this comes down to taste.