The basic premise is this: You’ve got an idea in mind, and you want to share it with others. In this case, it involves sound.
For amateurs and pros, alike, the personal studio has become a laboratory for sound-related ideas, where we capture fragments of musical inspiration and work them into a cohesive form of expression. Being able to work on our music at any time in our very own creative environment gives us the freedom to develop ideas over a longer period of time and in a much more affordable way than ever before.
The down side is that we can put off making decisions until the later stages of the project, which allows the original concept to develop and change—for better or worse—over time. But it can also lead us to prolong the project indefinitely as we exhaust all of our options in the pursuit of perfection. By then, that original spark of creativity we had at the beginning will have long disappeared.
Because it is so easy to let all of today’s technological innovations distract us, it is more important than ever to start with a goal in mind—in this case, a concept for the mix—that we can work towards, rather than simply following the bread crumbs of inspiration and hope they leads us home.
To do that, I’ll begin with a look at what it means to create a mix, focusing on some of the historical limitations in recording technology that led to innovation. Then I’ll suggest ways we can impose creative limitations on our work to take our work to greater levels of expression.
BALANCING LESSONS FROM THE PAST
Making a record without having the final results in mind is a relatively new concept. In the earliest days of recording, when the technical options were primitive by today’s standards, a great deal of skill was needed to translate sound into a physical form because the person operating the recording device was, essentially, creating the final mix (as we refer to it today).
Before electrical recording, sound pressure waves were directly translated into a physical medium such as wax formed around a cylinder. As musicians played or sang into the large, open end of a conical horn, the fluctuations in sound pressure of the music activated a diaphragm at the other end. A sharp device attached to the diaphragm moved sympathetically to engrave a track into the spinning wax cylinder.
To hear the results of the recording, the wax cylinder was spun and a sharp object (again, attached to a diaphragm at the small end of a conical horn) followed the pattern of the engraved path and translated it into fluctuating sound waves, which were amplified by the increasing dimensions of the horn.
Miraculous as it was at the time, the technology is extremely low in fidelity by today’s standards because it could only capture a fraction of the dynamic range and frequency range that acoustic instruments are capable of producing. Nonetheless, the problems inherent in the format were addressed in very creative ways in order to produce the best possible results.
For example, the more dynamically subtle orchestral instruments, such as bowed strings, were placed closer to the recording horn than the brass and percussion so that they could be heard. Moreover, inventions such as the Stroh violin altered the instrument’s tone so that it could be more easily recorded, in essence, mechanically EQ-ing the bowed string’s sound by attaching a metal resonator and horn to a solid wooden body. (To hear what a Stroh violin sounds like in a modern recording, check out the Tom Waits album Alice.)
This kind of forethought insured that the orchestration (e.g., the mix) would be balanced, with the voice and instruments heard at the proper levels relative to each other (yet audible against the background noise of the recording and playback apparatus).
An interesting aspect to consider about such low resolution media is that it didn’t necessarily capture the subtleties of the room in which the recording took place. In fact, the majority of early recordings were made in whatever space was available, considering the number of players and style of music. Spaces ranging from hotel rooms to ballrooms and theaters were used, as well as outdoor settings when the instrumentation required it. Of course, the recording environment did play a role in the sound that was captured, if at the very least due to the effect it had on the musicians and their instruments. However, the most important spatial cues would be well below the noise floor (if captured at all).
The advent of electrical recording in the mid 1920s significantly increased recording resolution and, therefore, considerations for the recording environment become more crucial. It is around this time that studios were increasingly being designed with recording in mind. Opened in 1931 in London, the main recording room at EMI Recording Studios (now called Studio One in Abbey Road Studios) was built to accommodate a full orchestra as well as a sizeable audience. Most importantly, the acoustics of the room included a decay that blended orchestral instruments in a musical way, providing a more realistic concert experience to the record buyer than ever before.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
One of things to learn from analyzing early recordings is what it means to create a balanced sound. The most influential classical, jazz and pop recordings of the early to mid 20th century were recorded and delivered in mono, and in some cases captured with a single microphone. Before the advent of multichannel recording, the instrumental blend was achieved by the physical placement of the singers and instrumentalists within a room in relation to one or more microphones, which were balanced (e.g., mixed) to a mono signal during the recording process.
Notably, the microphone choices were few compared to what we have access to today. Preamps and balancing desks were either designed by the engineers themselves or built specifically for them. Yet, consider that these mid-century studios were designed to capture sound with the final mix in mind. The technology to re-record a single part to correct a bad note or deal with a mediocre recording by “fixing it in the mix” didn’t exist.
Even with the advent of magnetic tape as the primary recording format, which gave engineers the ability to splice different takes together, the recording process was still done with a concept of what the final result would be. That meant making creative choices during the recording process and sticking with them.
One tried-and-true method for enhancing creativity is to incorporate some limitations. With a nearly limitless number of options available for music making today, setting boundaries for yourself not only keeps you from getting distracted and overwhelmed by options, but it also challenges you to problem solve in ways that will help you increase your skills.
Although the Beatles were limited to the 4-track tape machines available in Abbey Road Studios when making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they significantly increased the number of elements they could include in each song by synchronizing two of these machines together, as well as mixing certain instruments on the same track.
For example, on the song “With a Little Help From My Friends” the tambourine and bass parts live on the same track, something we would never do in a DAW because we don't have to, and of course we want to have individual control over each of the instruments in the mix. But in that particular situation in 1967, it was likely the only choice available due to the strict limitation in track count.
What’s ingenious about pairing the bass and tambourine on a single track is that, because the instruments are at the opposite ends of the frequency spectrum, the engineers could alter the balance between the two at a later time using EQ. At the time, even that adjustment wasn’t trivial—it involved a custom, outboard equalizer that handled a specific frequency. Nonetheless, it was a clever way to overcome the track limits of the recording format.
A MEANS TO AN END
Another inspiring way to creatively utilize limitations is to visualize the final mix and work toward achieving it. For example, as you start a new project (whether it’s a song or an entire album), imagine how you want the final result to sound. The challenge, of course, is to not spend so much time fussing over the recording chain that you lose those first sparks of inspiration. Rather, you want to have something to work towards as you develop the piece, instead of relying solely on luck.
Having the discipline to commit effects as you track will make this approach even more fruitful. In other words, avoid giving yourself options that you plan to address later: Make decisions now, live with the results, and let them inspire you further.
Seems simple, right? But maintaining the discipline to follow through and record, say, the main rhythm guitar part of a song with the effects is a powerful commitment.
THE WELL-TEMPERED MIC COLLECTION
One of most important creative decisions in the recording process is the mic choice you make for each instrument. The concept is obvious to anyone serious about recording, and many of us work hard to find mics that match our specific needs.
It is also easy to settle into a tried-and-true way of using our mic collection: After spending so much time and money to find that special microphone that translates our vocal qualities perfectly, why mess with success? The good news is, once you’ve discovered and settled on that perfect setup, you can always go back to it.
The professional engineer, however, is not always interested in capturing the full frequency and dynamic range of an instrument or voice. Rather, a mic is often chosen based on where it will situate the instrument in the mix. The main goal is to capture the sounds that fit the song at the source. When it comes time to mix, the engineer should be able to pull up all the faders and hear a decent blend, without having to rely on much additional EQ. The less they have to fix, the better.
Of course, in modern music production, there is always going to be some kind of signal processing involved, if only for creative reasons. But capturing tones with the final result mind will help you increase the quality of your recordings.
RECONSIDERING THE MIC
Here are some examples of working towards the mix to help change your expectations of everyday mics.
When it comes to recording a snare drum or guitar amp, the traditional choice is a dynamic mic, such as the ubiquitous Shure SM57. In the right context, this moving-coil-based transducer captures the sound we associate with both instruments without much additional processing needed.
On the other hand, if you’re recording a grand piano or acoustic guitar track, you might start with a condenser mic in order to capture the tonal subtleties of each instrument in a way that a dynamic mic (with the greater mass of its moving-coil element) cannot. However, it’s this very aspect of a dynamic mic that can make a piano and acoustic guitar sit perfectly in a mix.
If strummed acoustic guitar will play a strong rhythmic role in the song, a strategically placed dynamic mic will provide a chunky mid-range tone while rounding out the transients and compressing the sound in a way that requires little post-production processing. Similarly, if you’re looking for a classic rock-and-roll piano vibe, a single dynamic mic will deliver.
Of course in both scenarios, you can augment the setup with mics that capture more of a full-range sound to give you additional options, later, but this goes against the challenge we’ve setup. So, stick to your guns: Find that one killer sound and work with it.
Microphone polar patterns are also worth exploring beyond our expectations. For example, a condenser mic with an omni capsule makes an excellent choice for tracking acoustic guitar, though you might think it’s unsuitable if other instruments are playing in the room at the same time. However, an omni pattern doesn’t create a low-end boost due the proximity effect when you place the mic close to a sound source. Simply tuck the omni in tight on the guitar and the unwanted environmental sound will be less of a problem than you think, especially when you hear the open, pleasing sound quality an omni pattern provides in comparison to the pinched qualities of a cardioid pattern.
A common complaint about modern music is that it all sounds the same. We can all point to the classic albums we love that have a unique vibe and imperfections that make an artistic statement. If that’s an aesthetic element you want to pursue in your own recordings, it’s important to approach the creative process in a way similar to your favorite artists.
I don’t mean simply in terms of the gear itself (unless you have the budget to invest in things like analog tape and vintage mics). I’m suggesting an examination of the way artists in that era worked, such as making and sticking with musical choices throughout the recording process due to whatever limitations the technology imposed at the time. Depending on the era in which they worked, it’s likely to impose very demanding (and exciting) limitations.
For example, let’s say you have a jazz group and want to re-create the vibe of John Coltrane’s classic album Giant Steps. That means gathering the band in a decent sounding room, using high-quality microphones that fit the specific instrumentation, getting the proper balance between the players, then playing tunes from beginning to end with an ensemble sound in mind, as you would on stage: No overdubs allowed. It should go without saying that you’ve already worked up the music to the level that its ready to be recorded.
Keep in mind that some of the most memorable recordings got their vibe from the limitations of the studio where they were made. In many cases, the options for adding reverberance were limited to the physical dimensions the facility, itself (e.g., tracking rooms, echo chambers).
In certain eras, a studio’s imprint was such that astute listeners could identify it based on the sound of the recording, with cues given by the timbre of the instruments, the quality of the reverb and echo, and other production elements. Consequently, if a recording artist wanted a certain sound, they booked that studio, that engineer, and that producer.
The same thing happens today in the world of popular music, where the team involved in making a hit (which may include several producers as well as a recording engineer and mix engineer) is tapped for whatever special magic led to previous successes. Those producers and engineers who are able to find something new and exciting are no less in demand and their personal stamp is just as important as the work of producers and engineers over the last century.
The workflow may be modern, the fundamental challenge is a classic one; successfully translating an artistic concept into music.