InSession: Compression Is Like Salt

Mixing and cooking require similar skill sets. Grammy Award-winning engineer Nathaniel Kunkel explores the many crossovers.
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Nathaniel Kunkel

The holiday season is in full swing, which means it's time to start cooking. I love to cook, and I have the same passion for cooking as I have for mixing. I've noticed that the two passions have many correlations. But I'm not alone in this finding.

Doug Sax once said to me that mixers were like chefs. Some use lots of salt, some use none, and many cover the vast ground in between. Each of these practices can result in fabulous food. But what if you are used to eating food with no salt and all of a sudden you eat something really salty? Gross, right? It's similar with audio. When you are used to hearing recordings with plenty of dynamics and you hear one that is really compressed, it sounds broken. Unless, of course, it's part of the sound you're looking for — and it works.

Then you're a genius.

It's all context. Take blackened fish, for instance. The proper way to blacken a fish is to partially burn it, which is not a normal thing. But in the context of the spice and the meat, it works like a charm. Much like tremendous distortion and/or ridiculous compression — contrasted against other textures, these flavors can be very powerful.

Simple can also be powerful. A slice of fresh tomato, some fresh basil, and a pinch of good sea salt: very different, simple ingredients, and a very good combination. Just like how a Wurlitzer organ, a jazz drum kit, and a thrilling vocal performance can be as compelling as a big band.

Complex is also wonderful. Compare a fruit salad to an orchestra: the ingredients are so much greater than the sum of their parts, offering limitless combinations and massive differences in the compositions as you move each element around. On the other hand, one can clearly see that an 80-piece orchestra consisting only of Wurlitzers might not be that appealing.

(I am still searching my soul for the musical equivalent of suspending fruit salad in Jell-O molds. I am sure it relates to '80s reverbs, but the exact correlation eludes me.)

Perspective — and the loss of it — is much the same in cooking as it is in mixing. I can be cooking a pasta sauce for hours and not be happy with it. My wife will breeze through the room, taste it, and add a pinch of one ingredient, and the whole thing will be perfect. Ugh, that kills me. I do all the work, she is the genius.

Just like when your producer walks in to a mix you have been struggling with for hours and tells you to turn up the vocal 1.5 dB and print it. Then he turns out to be completely right and the mix fixes itself right in front of your eyes.

We can get into a rut just as easily when we mix as when we cook, making the same three breakfasts, the same four lunches, and the same ten dinners that we always make. It is so easy to do. The hungry part of you overpowers the artist, and before you know it, you are a Top Ramen eating machine. It's much like the mixers who never touch their outboard gear, or the arrangers who always load the same keyboard sample and drum-loop library. When you are good at your gig, you can get away with simply doing what you always do and never challenge yourself to go further.

But in my opinion, that makes for boring music and boring eating.

For me, the new frontier is phyllo dough. I have to figure out how to make that stuff rock without using butter. So far it seems an impossible task. I'm going to try some desserts with it tonight — right after I finish this mix.

Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine, and comedian Robin Williams.