Old School Tricks For The New Trade

Most of us record and mix on computers these days. Many younger engineers have never done it any other way. We all know the benefits of working on a DAW as opposed to the “old days” of dealing with finicky tape decks and consoles. But there are also some often overlooked drawbacks — ways that working on a computer can hinder the creative flow as opposed to working the “old school” way. Fortunately, you can bring a little old-school mojo to your DAW sessions; all it takes is some awareness of how you work.
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EARS BEFORE EYES

One of the greatest blessings in working with a DAW is also one of its greatest curses: the visual waveform. It’s great for editing, and for getting a bead on any problems with nasty transients or DC offset. But sometimes looking at a waveform is actually a detriment to the recording process. Humans are very visually-oriented creatures — unlike dogs and many other animals, we tend to trust our eyes before our ears. This means it becomes all too easy to judge the way something sounds based on the way it looks (and this certainly explains the success of some artists on MTV). Working with tape and consoles, we had no choice but to trust our ears because, apart from VU meters and the occasional spectral meter, we couldn’t “see” the music.

Many artists, and even producers and engineers, suffer from “waveform overload” and become obsessed with how the music looks — from zeroing in on every little pop or click, to making everything snap to a grid. Therefore, when listening back to a take, try turning off your computer monitor so no one can see what’s going on, or disable the waveform display (Figure 1). If there’s nothing that sounds bad, it certainly doesn’t matter if it looks bad. If everybody’s happy with the performance, you can then check the visuals for any obvious technical problems that can’t be cleaned up later . . . and if there are none, move on before the lead singer spends the next hour saying, “Whoooaaam, dude, trippy waveform!” and insists that you comp together each syllable from 27 takes.

In mixing, too, the “visual overload” can be an even bigger factor. I vastly prefer using some kind of control surface compared to mixing with a mouse, because again that takes the eyes out of the equation and leaves decisions up to the ears and hands. Mixing by feel, sometimes with your eyes closed, can really make a mix come alive as a “performance” in its own right. Sure, it’s not quite like the days before automated consoles, when the whole band would have their hands on the board doing synchronized fader moves and mutes. But using a control surface does help to restore the proper balance of auditory, tactile, and visual.

TIME TO UNWIND

Another difference between recording to tape and recording to digital is that with DAWs, there’s no rewind time. This may seem to be an obvious benefit, and for some artists, it is. Others actually welcome rewind time as a means of taking a little break and getting “geared up” for the next take. Again, there’s nothing that says you can’t do this even if you’re not working with tape. I usually just ask the artist whether they prefer instantaneous re-takes or like taking a few seconds in between, and if they don’t know, we try it both ways. I won’t go so far as to suggest that you use your DAW’s jog function to emulate the sound of tape rewinding, as opposed to going straight to a marker — but I will confess to having done this more than once.

COME ON, FEEL THE NOIZE

Very few people have ever been fond of tape hiss. But oddly enough, adding a bit of noise to the environment during a mix session can help you identify what stands out and what doesn’t. When you think you have a solid a mix happening, try just adding in some low-level pink noise (or even a “tape hiss plug-in”) to the master channel and listening back. It’ll give you a new perspective on your mix. Of course, you have to remember to turn the noise off when you’re done, unless for some reason you’ve really, really grown attached to that lo-fi sound.

In short, with a little awareness and ingenuity, it is possible to combine the strengths of old and new school, resulting in sessions that flow musically as well as functionally.