When I was in college I got the opportunity to sit in on a session with a (and I hate this word, but it’s accurate) legendary engineer. This guy recorded Hendrix, Zeppelin, etc. I was all full of nervous dorky energy. It was a tracking session, and as the day wore on I became increasingly disheartened and unimpressed. His tones were nothing special; drums just sounded like drums, and he didn’t seem particularly into what he was doing. He wasn’t having fun. I asked him what he used to mic Bonham’s kit and he said, “it didn’t matter”.
I literally think about that curt, pissy little response to an awkward, ponytailed 19-year-old audio nerd every time I put up a mic. Like, every single time. Of course, Bonham’s drums sound huge. Of course, Hendrix’s guitar sounds amazing. They were the best. That guy’s only real job was to not fuck it up. I once heard someone say David Gilmour can make a ukulele sound like a Stradivarius. Cheeky as that is, it informs everything from mic choice to headphone mixes.
I see, hear, and read so much self-serving audio exhibitionism and mostly I smile and nod rather than come off as some holier-than-thou know-it-all. But lucky for me, that’s exactly what this blog is for. When I hear stuff like “we tracked the drums with a real 47 through an Ampex tube preamp out of an old tape machine and…” – yeah, that’s fucking cool, no doubt – but I’m thinking, “was that the right call for the high hat pattern? Like did you hear any vibe or nuances you could exploit and emphasize by your mic or processing choices that would make the song sit better or groove harder?”.
See, I sound like a tool.
But most of us didn’t start recording because of U47s and tube preamps. Most of us started making loud, terrible music with our friends and it felt amazing. When we lose sight of that in the studio we’re doing a serious disservice to the musicians who are trusting us with their art.
I have singers (an alarming number, actually) who want to cut vocals with a 441. It looks like a big silver dick and usually sounds pretty unflattering. But no other mic looks like it and maybe they have fuzzy memories of seeing an old concert on TV where Stevie Nicks or Neil Young looked cool as hell singing into one. So, I can go with an expensive condenser that I know will suit their voice and the track really well, or I can let them ride their excitement and vibe with the 441 and work with what I get. In those cases, and they happen every session, I will always choose the latter. Because it’s not about me, and maybe sometimes I should just get the hell out of the way. When someone’s excited about performing you’re always going to get better source material. Maybe it’s the U47 and the Ampex that gets them off; maybe it’s the dick mic. Either way, without great source material, you’ve got shit. Or worse — mediocrity.
I look at the job of engineering as first and foremost doing whatever I can to get the absolute best performance someone can give me. If it means putting a boring mic on a guitar amp and not using any cool outboard, that’s fine. In fact, that’s great. The further we get from that feeling we had as teenagers in someone’s garage or bedroom the worse our recordings will feel. Not sound – they may sound amazing – but feel.
Still sounding like a tool, but I’m pretty sure I’m right on this one.