I was reading some back issues of TapeOp Magazine recently when it dawned on me that most mix engineers have no idea as to why they do what they do. Neither Reinhold Mack nor Bob Clearmountain were any more clairvoyant than am I regarding ‘how’ to mix. Most of those of whom I read about had no prior experience, no ‘formal’ training. Many arrived at their groundbreaking processes through nothing short of ignorance, in that they ignored the generally accepted rules and began their forray into mixing fame with the well worn phrase ‘I wonder what would happen if I did such-and-such?’ I found this blissfully enlightening, for if the utterance of the phrase is any indication, I too am headed for the Engineering Hall of Fame.
I seem to be constantly engaged in heated debates on such web forums as Tunesmith.net or Gearslutz.com concerning ‘the proper way’ to mic guitar cabinets as well as ‘proper’ compression settings and the like. It distresses me that a growing number of recordists are of the opinion that every recording technique must first be referenced in some publication before it can be recognised as valid. I am of the opinion that many of my contemporaries are selling themselves short on this point. I also believe that the onslaught of digital recording and the array of plug-ins, loops, drum samples and ‘virtual’ instruments, a great deal has been lost in a short period of time. One question which continues to pop up on the aforementioned forums is ‘why does most music suck these days?’, or ‘why was the rock music of the seventies so much better?’ To me the answer is painfully clear: Everything that was being released had it’s own sonic signature back then. Nothing could be perfectly replicated at that time whereas now, everything is capable of being replicated. Ad infinitum. It has come to the point that if a particular sound isn’t made available through the plethra of plug-ins, the sound is not achievable through any other means. In other words, we have come to rely on the options offered us rather than rely on our own imaginations. A crutch of any other colour is still only a crutch. I submit that no plug-in can offer the unique tones available to me via my home-made goat milk can extension ‘cabinet’ in conjunction with my old BeyerDynamics M818, my Boss PQ-4, and my tape vari-speeding. If I place a dozen or so BBs on top of the speaker and then tweak the PQ-4, I have a whole new sound, and it doesn’t cost anything extra!
If anyone reading this article actually believes that they can mic a cabinet with a $20 Radio Shack omni and that it will miraculously sound ‘just like’ a U67 after being processed via some software, they may also be pleased to learn that if they spray lead bricks with golden-coloured paint, bullion dealers are willing to pay them top dollar without question.
But moreover, I cannot understand why someone would prefer a ‘tube modeling’ amp when the real deal is readily available. I even saw an add for a plug-in that made digital recordings sound just like analogue recordings. One reader of my articles suggested that by mixing a digitally recorded signal onto tape, that it added the analogue warmth. This is a technique employed by many in an attempt to ‘fix’ digital recordings, as well as being an admission that there is something missing. I can only respond to this by noting that I can tell the difference between my tape sound while monitoring mixes as opposed to the resultant CDs made from those mixes. In addition, my most recent opinions concerning analogue recording are being echoed by some of the same engineers who, having been drawn into the new technology over the years, are presently rediscovering the unique magic that electromagnetic recording once lent itself to, and that suddenly their recordings are experiencing new life.
It has also become apparent while reading the posts on these forums, that the majority of the computer geeks, while being all too anxious to draw sides regarding the pros and cons of digital versus analogue, have never even spent time recording to analogue gear. These poor folks will never know just how much work is involved in the process, nor how rewarding the work as well as the search for individuality can be. Work, because convenience comes at the price of less knowledge. Rewarding, in that the ability to manipulate the medium can never be replicated because of the very nature of the medium. Those who have begun pulling their Portastudios back out of storage are the ones whose posts I enjoy reading the most. There is almost a child-like giddiness to their comments as they all trade anecdotes and discuss the latest online suppliers where chrome casette tapes can still be purchased. It may serve well to remember that, back in the Eighties, Bruce Springsteen recorded his demos onto a Portastudio, and the resulting tracks sounded so surrealistically haunting that they actually culminated into his Nebraska album. The effect couldn’t be replicated in a $150,000. studio. Of course, the album was probably a big headache for the mastering house!
Meanwhile, I am being contacted by bands and individuals wanting to buy studio time with an alarming amount of regularity. They all, without exception, point out that I happen to be ‘the only studio that they know of’ who still uses analogue gear, and their interest in retaining me as their engineer/producer for their project lies solely in this fact. Unfortunately, I have to turn them away without exception. Given my work ethic and the time involved, recording at Good Intentions would take months and cost thousands. And there’s the matter of my being obsessive/compulsive as well as a real jackass to work with.
There’s also the ‘fad’ factor that I am desperately trying to avoid. Most of these bands aren’t really certain why they want to record to tape in the first place. Many people are aware that increased tape speeds increase the musical headroom resulting in extended high frequencies, but few know that the bass and lower midrange is greatly enhanced through the use of slower tape speeds. A couple of engineers on the West Coast have confided that not only do they no longer record at 30 ips (unless the client explicitly requests such), but that they actually find 15, and more increasingly, 7.5 ips most aurally satisfying.
Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/publisher operating out of the Greater Nashville area.