In a recent email exchange with a reader on the subject of what gear to buy, he astutely noted, “I know that the weakest link in the chain is me. It's no longer easy to blame the equipment.” It takes guts to admit such a thing, once you finally have that realization. And with all this technology to harness, it's easy to let the details box us in.
For example, EM editors are often asked what the best resolution to work in is. The person asking seems creatively paralyzed by the fact that they might not be getting the best possible sound quality. They don't want to waste their time if things are not recorded perfectly.
“You should work at the highest resolution you can afford, all things considered,” I typically answer, suggesting that the computer and the amount of drive space are also determining factors (not to mention that a $99 interface offering 96 kHz capabilities probably doesn't sound as good as one costing ten times more). Obviously, that's not what they want to hear. Instead of answers, that raises more questions.
In the case of resolution, as with all aspects of recording, everyone's needs are different, and they extend to what your delivery format is. Working to picture that is destined for DVD release? Work at least at 24-bit, 48 kHz (or a multiple thereof). Glitchy electronic music for CD and MP3 distribution is probably fine at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz. If you have the disk space and CPU power to record, use effects, and mix your 32-track masterpiece at 24-bit, 96 kHz, why not do it? On the other hand, if your computer supports the track count you need only at CD resolution, go for it. We're on this planet only for a short amount of time, and we all have plenty of music to make.
Predictably, after my lecture explaining bit depth and sampling frequency, the students in my recording class want to know what resolution they should use. Many of these young people create and sell beats to each other, so they take this discussion very seriously. I almost hate to tell them what data compression really does to a file, because I know they might worry about it to the point where they lose the creative spark. “Should I even use that MP3 file my friend emailed me?” is a typical question.
“Absolutely!” I answer. “If the track is pumping, who cares? Once it's in a mix, you often cannot tell it's an MP3. If you can, then find a creative way to deal with it, like the pros have always done. ”
To demonstrate my point, I fire up the multitrack stems from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. When heard as a rough mix, the songs pretty much sound like you remember. Solo the tracks, however, and it hits you: they are nowhere near pristine. In fact, they are messy. But the producer and engineers knew how to work around the rough spots so that they didn't distract the listener from the songs themselves. Some of their gear was state-of-the-art, and some of it wasn't. They used it all and got the job done.
Obviously, before there was beat quantization and pitch-correction software, the acceptable margin of error that people would tolerate in a pop-music track was much higher. Yet today's young listeners, who have grown up on ultraedited hits, often rock out when they hear older songs that weren't digitally massaged.
Don't get me wrong: I love using pitch correction and beat quantization when it's called for. And I'm not at all interested in giving up the editing and processing power of my DAW for the tape-splicing block. My point is that we shouldn't let the quality or fidelity of our current recording system — no matter what it is — spoil our fun. If people look back at our studios 40 years from now, they'll probably laugh at the fact that we were working with “primitive” 24-bit, 96 kHz files. If we waste time worrying about our specs and not being creative, we might not leave them much to listen to.
Make music, not excuses.