The perils of modern music making, part 2: Blinded by the light

backlit circular VU meter
Don't stare at the pretty lights!

Music is a sonic medium. As obvious as this is it can be easy to forget when faced with the rich visual environment of modern music creation software. This is, mostly, a good thing but as a card-carrying grumbler I feel compelled to spin a cautionary tale of this land of milk and honey. Don’t let your eyes rule your ears.

Visual feedback is great. It has saved my fat fundament on many occasions knowing that the vocal track is coloured blue and the guitar green and being able to see where the bridge starts from looking at the waveform when I’ve been too lazy to set a marker. The problem comes when you stop listening because you are drunk on visual feedback.

Back in the mythical olden days, when music grew on trees and fell into your lap if you had a nap in the park, this was an issue too. We had VU meters or PPMs in broadcast oriented studios. Even just a twitching needle could be more hypnotic than Dr Mesmer’s glass harmonica. I confess I have spent many hours looking at twitching needles, flashing LEDs and even rotating tape spools when I should have been listening more carefully.

Too much eye-candy

Nowadays there is much more to look at. The very features that aid inputting audio merrily scroll by on playback, virtual faders dance up and down, SMPTE counters tick by and software metering has brought class-A visual distraction to the desktop as well as the dubbing theatre. How can you not stare?

On playback there are two big problems with this. First, it’s just distracting and if you’re feeling a bit tired or a bit bored with the tenth time through the bass and drums checking for timing issues (can those guys actually count?) your mind can wander. Mine does anyway. Secondly, the visual feedback can influence what you think you heard or might hear. If the meter says it’s fine, it must be fine… Right?

The trick is mono-tasking. If you’re listening to the playback then just listen to the playback. Try to use your ears only. If you hear a problem, some clipping or a drop-out, go back and use the meter to check it. You can always bang in a marker to flag up the spot. All those wonderfully beguiling visual tools will be waiting for you whenever you need them.

Those tools can mislead your ears too. Flying faders are big offenders here. If you’re watching the desk, or virtual desk, dance along with the track seeing a fader dip really low can kid your ears that channel is to quiet. It must be too quiet, it’s so low. The big point here is it doesn’t matter what anything looks like it only matters how it sounds. Continue reading The perils of modern music making, part 2: Blinded by the light

Is Two-Track Recording The Best Method? Not Always But Sometimes

Image, Studer Tape Decks, by bORjAmATiC used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Image, Studer Tape Decks, by bORjAmATiC used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

I’ve got myself embroiled in a discussion in the LinkedIn Music Producers group about whether Pro Tools (and digital multitrack recording in general) is a retrograde step in terms of record production. The seed of the discussion is a quote from Joe Boyd in the September issue of Mix magazine,

You could say that 2-track recording is the purest form of record making. Four-track, 8-track, etcetera, through the present limitless expanse of possibilities on Pro Tools have all been steps backward in terms of making recordings that will endure the test of time.

At first scan this is not something I agree with in the least, but Joe Boyd has made some extraordinary records with the likes of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and 10,000 Maniacs so the question deserves at least some consideration.

Two interesting streams of argument have developed in the group,

  1. Have the incredible capabilities of digital recording and editing lead us to record in ways that compromise the ultimate quality of the recordings we produce
  2. Have we used these techniques to create (or facilitate the creation of) a culture of poor and lazy musicianship

In the first case the crucial question is what is “better”. I think that the answer to this can only be seen in the light of what is to be recorded. There isn’t a single best recording method and in my opinion choosing the best method to capture a particular group of musicians is one of the key tasks for a producer. The same methods will not work for a string quartet as a trance band. “Better” at the very least must be defined by context. Continue reading Is Two-Track Recording The Best Method? Not Always But Sometimes