I had time to kill in an airport again this week; it happens a lot because rather than miss a flight I give myself inordinate amounts of time to make sure I don't miss my plane.
One of my favourite travelling companions is BBC Radio 4, our publically funded and high-quality speech based radio station. For those who don't live in the UK or who have never experienced Radio 4 it is hard to understand what it is. For the record, it's not hours of shock jocks or phone-ins or monotone voices or the most extended podcasts in history - in my opinion, it is one of the UK's greatest assets.
Radio 4 includes everything from the documentary, news and current affairs, quiz shows, lots of great comedy and lots more. For a guy that left school with almost zero in terms of qualifications Radio 4 is where I got my education.
The BBC Radio Player enables me to listen to thousands of shows either live or from the archive.
On this occasion, as I waited for my flight, I stumbled upon a documentary (on Radio 2 actually) about singer/songwriter Nick Drake. He recorded three albums in the late sixties and early seventies. None of them did particularly huge sales figures, and he took his own life in his mid-twenties. The one-hour documentary narrated by none other than actor Brad Pitt told the story through interview, narration and with his songs.
As I listened to the show, it became clear to me why Nick Drake had received a much wider audience after his death and was recently inducted into the Folk Hall of Fame.
What stood out to me as I listened to the songs was just how incredible the recordings sounded, even though they had been recorded over forty years ago, even on a downstream of the podcast the quality sounded like something recorded yesterday.
The recording engineer was interviewed extensively during the show about the sessions, and he had done an excellent job of recording and mixing Nick Drake, so all credit to him. However often when those of us in the recording world listen to the outstanding material, we wonder how the sound was achieved, and we start to ask about the gear and the technique. Those things matter to some degree, but not as much as we think.
The reason that the Nick Drake tracks sounded so good was that Nick was good. His voice had a character, and he had the skill to convey his message through it in a way that could not be replicated, it certainly couldn't be recreated with any technique or gear.
The same can be said of drummers, bass, guitar or keyboard players and of course for any other instrument and indeed the spoken word.
I have spoken about this before; I have more guitar VIs than I can shake a stick at, I can recreate any sound of any guitarist on the planet, I'm also a reasonable guitar player. However, I've found that when I let a talented guitar player loose on my tracks, then the magic happens, in fact often without the need for a lot of gear to do so. The same can be said of any other part that ends up on my tracks; you can't fake talent.
When I once asked an engineer in the early days of my recording career how could I get the voice to sound more like Sting, he replied 'get Sting to sing it!' Tony Platts says the same when people ask how do you get the AC/DC guitar sound; he tells them 'you need his guitar, his amps and you need Angus.'
I have a studio full of amazing gear, far more than the amount used to record the Nick Drake sessions, but could I make tracks that sound like Nick Drake over forty years later? The answer is no; sadly I don't have Nick to record or the talented engineer to track it.
It's often easy to reduce our industry into the gear and the technique and we can forget the most vital part of the equation, the human factor, we do so at our peril.
This magic ingredient that may be missing from your recordings is talent!