The perils of modern music making, part 1: Too much too young

mic stand and cross of tape on the floor
X marks the spot on the floor of Sun Studios

I’m aware that I’m going to come across as a curmudgeonly old fool, but to paraphrase Bill Hicks, I am so that’s how it comes out. By way of an apology, modern music making technology is wonderful, brings significant benefits to musicians and is helping to make the world of music as healthy as it has been for many a decade.

There are however some pitfalls.

The first is a question of sequencing. Not in the sense of programming synth parts but the order in which tools become available to musicians in the course of their career. Just about every computer-based music making software package comes with a bewildering array of potential from plug-in effects and processors to the ability to create virtual mixing desks of bewildering complexity.

This potential certainly creates value for money. Logic Studio is selling today for £408 and would allow me to create a virtual studio that would cost me hundreds of thousands of pounds to recreate using real gear. I’m going to sidestep the question of how accurate an analogue this studio would be to the real world version for now, but it would be close enough that the gap in price is staggering.

This is good and is part of the reason that there is an explosion of independently produced music available to listen to and a large supply of musicians cutting their teeth by themselves. The good is not the whole story though there is a problem with this sudden acquisition of potential.

The problem

Back just after the flood when I started making music this computer flimflammery didn’t exist. If you wanted to record your music you needed to record it on tape and multi-track tape players were expensive not to mention mixers and all the other required gubbins. In practice this meant that my first experiences of being recorded and then recording happened in very low-end studios with little equipment. In some ways this was a good thing.

I had to learn to make the most of what was available. In practice this meant mic placement, level monitoring and performance. There was no fix it in the mix solution. Mixing was for level adjustment, a bit of eq that generally made things worse and sometimes a bit of reverb if the noise that would add was worth the compromise.

I am delighted to have left that world behind but I am glad to have spent some time there. I learned a lot about those basic techniques because that was all I had in the toolbox. If you’ve only got a mic and a line mixer between a performer and a tape machine you’ve got to make the most of those tools.

The second positive was that additional tools were introduced progressively. I was helping out in a studio of the mic, mixer and 4-track type when they got hold of a DBX compressor. That was an exciting day. We spent hours trying it out, figuring out what every control did and what we could make that little black box of joy do.

Better studios were discovered in a pretty progressive way too. I wasn’t talented enough to be parachuted into the Hit Factory or its like. I worked in progressively better equipped studios getting to work with progressively better gear. This path increased the complexity gradually and this is important.

My beef with modern recording software is that once it is loaded on your computer you are walking through the doors of the Hit Factory and diving in. Your worries aren’t do you have a compressor but will you select a Fairchild 670 or an EMI TG12413. You are a swine in excrement. What could be wrong?

There is nothing wrong with the potential. The problem is it is impossible to restrain oneself from using all this stuff pretty much out of the gate. This makes it hard to concentrate on the fundamentals of recording music. With yards of menus of plugins it is all too easy to focus on them and forget about the musician, the mic and the recorder. Getting this chain right doesn’t guarantee a great recording but getting it wrong almost certainly stops you from making one.

I would urge you to take a trip back to the ‘70s and ‘80s and make some recordings without using anything except for an instrument, mic and the simplest desk configuration possible. If you can get good results with those tools adding in the rest may help.

I would argue ultimately that the less complexity involved in recording and mixing a piece the better, but that is just my taste. Learning to cope with a limited toolbox is a great exercise though. Remember that some great recordings were made with a band, a single mic and a disc-cutter. Simple gear is no excuse for a poor track.

The image X marks the spot… by Leo Reynolds is used under a Creative Commons License

Published by

Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.

  • Mikeypeters

    PJ Harvey – 4 track Demos
    ZZ Top – First Album
    Johnny Winter – Live, and
    Leo Kottke – 6 and 12 String Guitar
    Many fine albums were made without even overdubbing. Many other fine albums have been made with all degrees of gimmickry. I'd hate to lose either.

  • Absolutely, I don't want to see the end of music that stretches music technology to breaking-point (and occasionally beyond). The potential comes so quickly now. I wonder if I would have spent the time to learn the fundamental skills I acquired decades ago.

    Modern software just comes with so much stuff that I wonder if anyone really learns how to use all the bits. I guess I'm saying I would rather be the master of a few tools than an apprentice with many.