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.

Out of sight, out of mind

The easiest method to deal with this is to remove the distraction. Turn off your monitor(s), hide your applic­ation so you can only see the computer desktop or set your screensaver to a black screen and activate it. When folks are listening to the track they won’t be seeing your faders or metering try to listen as they will.

To a lesser extent visual feedback can mislead you while editing too. Just because an edit looks good doesn’t mean it is good. You still need to check it. I know it’s hard to stay focussed patching together a vocal comp with hundreds of edits but it is important to do it right. One little click in there that you don’t spot can drive you crazy at mixdown. Even if the pretty roller­coaster waveform looks right jog through it and make sure. Speed only counts coupled with accuracy. Anyone can bodge it.

This might all seem obvious but I have fallen into these traps myself and cost myself time going back and sorting it out. I have also seen people I have been working with get sucked in and cursed the time lost chasing phantom problems. Make sure you’re in charge of the technology. You don’t have to use everything all the time.

As I grumbled about in part one of this series of harangues, make sure you know what all the fancy gizmos and gadgets your software comes with do. Part of that is knowing when to use them.

The image StudioV3 Tube Preamp VU Meter by SugaShane is used under a Creative Commons license.

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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