Maybe it’s because I was recording sound long before there were DAWs, automated mixing consoles and plug-ins that replace tens of thousands of dollars/pounds/euros of outboard equipment, but it seems the way I record runs counter to how audio schools preach you ought to record. I happen to think they’re wrong and they’re getting sterile performances from the musicians they record, as a consequence of their method.
I also think they’re turning mixing into drudgery, as they try to wring magic out of mundane performances by throwing effects plug-ins at them.
Audio schools teach that it is best practice to capture every recorded part as dry and clean as you possibly can, in the DAW, unadorned by outboard treatment, guitarists’ effect chains or even room colouration. The theory goes that this gives you the most options, when mixing. The problem is that all you’ve done is deferred your sonic creative decisions to the mixing phase, when you already have enough decisions to make just to get the balance right. When you also have to make each recorded part sound good, you can overwhelm the mixdown phase of the project with issues I believe you should have resolved earlier. This can lead to paralysis and despair.
The dirty secret is that the application of plug-ins, no matter how expensive, can’t turn every dry signal into a wonderful sounding one. There’s more to it than that. They also can’t turn a lacklustre performance into a vibrant one. Suspiciously, if you record dry and clean, many of the performances captured sound bereft of spark and life. Why might this be?
My theory is that musicians respond to how good their instrument or voice sounds in their headphones, while tracking. If they sound fabulous, they play fabulously. They have an inclination to draw inspiration from their god-like tone and play or sing accordingly. Take all of that away from them and their sound is about as compelling as a lab experiment. Sure, you might capture a very faithful recording, giving yourself a blank slate to work with during mixing, but you’ve squashed the life out of it. The recording is sterile, but also horribly emasculated. It has no balls. You’ve mutilated the music. This does not serve the song.
Because I usually wear both the producer and engineer hats, when I record, my way of working may be idiosyncratic, but I think it has much to recommend it. My first instinct is to get the sound I imagine in my head before I print anything to a track. That comes down to getting the instrument in tune and producing the sound you want, in the room. Next comes mic choice and placement. The signal I’m going to record has to sound tolerably close to the one in my musical imagination before I even attempt to capture a performance.
I also use a channel strip plug-in on the input, to tweak the sound so that what I hear in the monitors (and what the musician hears in their cans) sounds as near to what I want it to sound like in the final mix I imagine in my head. I’m already trying to envisage how it will sit in the mix, before I’ve even recorded the part. When I hit record, I know the musician will dig what they’re playing and raise their game to that higher standard, but that I’ll have a part I won’t need to change much, when mixing.
Here’s my insurance policy: I also take a split before the guitarist’s effects chain, a DI from the amp and a pre-channel strip feed and print those to tracks to the DAW too, while I record the fabulous-sounding track. I don’t use these in the mix unless I have to. They’re safeties. That way, if my imagination is imperfect and I find myself backed into an unanticipated corner, when mixing, I can reconfigure the signal chain, starting from progressively cleaner and unaffected versions of the same track. The important difference, though, is that even the dry prints are of a fabulous performance, made possible by the outstanding sound the musician experienced while tracking. The key is to capture great performances. Those serve the song.
The other option made possible by my method, at mixing time, is to blend the fabulous-sounding track with its dry or re-effected twin. This allows you to either clean up some of the colouration, or add another hue.
The big advantage of trying to build the mix in your imagination, before you record, and of committing to capturing the sound you want to eventually hear in the final mix, as you record each part, is that mixing requires fewer decisions. You start with stems that are already close to what you wanted to hear in your conception of the mix you had in your imagination. Half the work is already in the can, before you even start trying to obtain a balance.
Another important advantage of my method is that if you’re not sure how you want the instrument to sound in the mix, you can try different options, while tracking and print those too. You can attempt different creative options while the musician is available to record parts and respond to different sonic treatments. There is no rule that says everything you print to a track in your DAW has to appear in the final mix. That’s what the channel mutes are for.
So far, I’ve not painted myself into a corner. If the sound I envisaged won’t sit in the mix, I have clean, dry safety copies to reshape and mould. When I wasn’t sure which sonic treatment I wanted, I can compare them at mixdown, to see which one works better. I can even blend the two, or create a composite from the two different sounding performances. It’s a very flexible, fast way to mix. The point is that, even though tracking takes longer, mixing is a more satisfying experience. I claim this is what serves the song best.
When it comes to making music, early commitment often pays dividends, whereas indecision can ruin the music. DAWs make it easy to give yourself escape routes for when your early commitment was in error, but the more you do; the better you get. You find yourself resorting to the clean, dry prints less and less. More often, you find yourself nailing the sound you imagine in your head early and smiling more, when mastering.
Give it a try.