Nathaniel Kunkel InSession: Why Red?

When digital workstations first came on the scene, there was so much effort put into using the methodologies and nomenclature of the historical recording

When digital workstations first came on the scene, there was so much effort put into using the methodologies and nomenclature of the historical recording arts. I mean, if you can do anything with a computer, why not make a digital corollary of the analog tool? People could understand and adapt to it quickly that way. But Studer/Neve combinations and Digidesign Pro Tools are very different under the hood. You can do so much more with DAWs than you ever could with their analog counterparts that we are seeing the move away from the interface conventions of yore. For instance, ever since the sequencer Vision was released by Opcode, the concept of a single linear recording of multiple tracks has been on its way out. They were playing multiple independent sequences simultaneously in the late '80s!

But now we are a generation of users into these new methodologies, and as Opcode found, the old nomenclatures of professional audio are no longer helping the user to migrate to the latest technologies. In fact, they can limit the scope of what we can do. In those areas where DAW manufacturers have abandoned the old terminology and assumptions, they've created options we can't live without. For instance, unlike analog mixers, DAWs are not limited to multing a signal three or four times before it gets loaded down and sounds bad. As a result, we never have to worry about being able to send a signal to 500 places at the same time.

But some of the old workflows are still with us, constricting our options. For example, why do faders only go up to +12 dB? Why is there not an option for the channel mute to also mute pre sends? Why is there not a global sync control that quantizes all play stop commands, so that when you are working the song always starts, stops and restarts on a predetermined interval of time, like a quarter-note? You would never need to find your pocket again before you dropped in.

And why is the record button red? In the old days it was because if you pressed it by accident, you were screwed. What does it matter now? (You know what should be red? The combination of command-period that aborts your recording in Pro Tools.) You can always do it again, or undo it if it never gets better.

All that being said, the new ways of working are not completely beneficial. Way back in the steam-engine days of audio, when the record button was red for a reason, we got good at doing one thing: being able to tell if something that was just played was good or not. We had to; if we tried it again and it sucked, we lost the first one. Our auditing ability was paramount to our success. If the first solo was great, we moved on. It wasn't worth the risk of losing the great one. The end result was that we were always honing that production skill. Now that muscle only gets exercised when we comp, and that is having an impact on our product. I've watched younger engineers go right past great stuff with great players because they don't have the proper reverence for what was just done. They haven't needed to yet.

You know why most kids are probably still listening to Led Zeppelin? Because those records were produced by what may have been the last generation to actually listen to what they were making while they were making it. I submit that it might make a difference.

Nathaniel Kunkel ( 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.