When talking about studio equipment for recording and mixing there is a saying I like a lot.
“In audio, there are two types of fool. One says, if it’s new it’s good. The other says, if it’s old it’s better.”
In actuality there are only the right tools for the job. Sometimes this is new kit, sometimes this is old kit and mostly it’s a mixture of both or simply what you can get your hands on at the time. Technology has leaped and bounded these past 10 years and the cost of equipment next to the quality it yields is unsurpassed. It should be almost impossible to get a bad recording from the technology but the technology is only one small part of the process.
What do we do, as recording and mix engineers, when the talent is lacking? Either in writing or performance ability. How far do we go to not attach our name to a tarnished project and fix what was once virtually impossible to fix? True, we could simply decline the project to start with, but things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes we are committed and we find ourselves in an ever tangling web of audio misfortune. Have we moved into a world where everyone is told, and believe, they can do whatever they want and always succeed? Trying is commendable, as is working at it and working hard, but there comes a time when sometimes you should realise that this isn’t the path for you, and, sometimes I think that the very sharp double edged sword of formal education is becoming more of a hindrance than a help. People are being brought up by the ‘X’ Factor ethos. Unfortunately, this does not translate, or work in any way, in real life.
When I was growing up, the only affordable means of recording at home, or an introduction to it, was the 4 track cassette recorder. They did many things other than allow you to make multi track recordings. Because of the track count limitation you had to think about the song in its entirety before you even began. The arrangement and parts, the sound, blend and effects that you virtually always printed to tape. Because you bounced 3 tracks onto one and then kept going to squeeze every ounce of track count out of those little machines, one mistake in arrangement or bouncing volume would dictate that you had to start the whole thing over again, from scratch. It was an amazing and unforgiving learning curve. They had little more than High and Low fixed band EQ and we often only had one or two microphones and those were usually an SM57 or SM58 but we made some amazing recordings with those little machines and learned so much about song writing and construction, layering, forethought, mic placement, technique and arrangement.
To go beyond this we had to seek out a commercial running studio and beg/annoy/blackmail our way in to continue our journeys. Nothing came to us and, unless you were very rich, there was no education courses. I hounded a local studio and just kept turning up, offering to make the coffee, run to the shop, clean the equipment, anything to be allowed into sessions. For the first year, you were not allowed to touch the gear and you never spoke unless the engineer, producer or band spoke to you. What you did was watch, listen and learn so on that glorious day when the engineer said “Can you patch the dbx160 across the kick and snare?” You just did it. You didn’t ask how because you’d been paying attention for a year. You just did it. The point is, you had to go and seek it out most vigorously. You had to want it very badly and if you were asked to do something and you couldn’t do it, you’d probably be out.
Education is a good thing especially with the diminishing of small to mid sized commercial studios. It’s extremely difficult these days to do what I did or even find the opportunity to do what I did, but luckily, general education has caught up somewhat but there is a price. So what happens when 15 kids sign up for the 2 year course and after the first 6 months only 5 of them are turning up regularly and handing in the completed assignments? Easy, you do what would have happened to me in a commercial studio. You tell them to fuck off, don’t come back, you’re wasting my time, you’re off the course (and hence, out of the studio). But this is general education and your establishment gets money from the government for those students to be on those courses. The people above you, the ones that don’t teach, are telling you that under no circumstances can you boot anyone off of the course. Under NO circumstances. Why? Because the educational establishment lose the money. And the kids know this. So you end up with 5 decent eager students and 10 that you HAVE to get through the course even though they don’t turn up and have no real talent for the subject. Great.
They’ll spend more time drinking than they will studying their craft and with todays technology of unlimited track counts, Melodyne and a bunch of experienced lecturer’s who have to get them through their course (Or Else!) they’ll learn nothing about song construction, arrangement or anything that we learnt on those little 4 track cassette recorders. Their parents are assuring them they are ‘very special’ and ‘talented’ when we’ve all heard mating cats sing more in tune and their philosophy is ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ when they don’t realise that Rock ‘n Roll isn’t the ability to get pissed every night but the ability to do something great with a talent. Any talent. Seb Lester, the calligrapher, is Rock n Roll, check out his work, it’s amazing. Usain Bolt is Rock ‘n Roll. He ran the 100 metres in 9 seconds. It took me 10 seconds to watch him do that. Rock n Roll, all the way.
Rock ‘n Roll isn’t doing what anyone can do at any time, i.e., get wasted in a bar at every opportunity. If that was true then you could go to any park in any town and find a corner of lounging Rock ‘n Rollers who will usually, also, ask you for any spare change. If your hands are on a beer glass more than they are on your instrument or mixing console then quit. Do it now. Couple this with the fact that even out of your 5 eager students, 1, at best; will maybe have some talent, it can become quite depressing.
So what do we do with mediocrity? We fix it. We make it sound awesome and in doing so we perhaps help water down the next generation of artists and engineers because we turn their half ass’ed efforts into something that is pretty decent and all because they have the attention span of a TV commercial or the ability and want to retain information on par with a nest of tables. We simply can’t justify lowering our standards and putting out a sub-standard record. We will do all we can to make something that will have an emotional connection because what is the point of music without an emotional connection? We can’t help it, that was what we were brought up to do. That was what brought us to this stage in the first place. There will, thankfully, always be people coming through with the passion and the talent to uphold and surpass standards, and thank fuck for that. But it is becoming more diluted and when a student who has been studying the subject for 3 years asks you what the difference is between an aux and an insert, your heart and spirit drops. You answer them as best you can because you really want them to grasp the concepts you worked out on that ancient cassette deck. You really want them to pay attention to what you have done with their music so perhaps a little light will burst into life in their head and an onslaught of hard work and talent can surge through. That’s what you hope.
It’s odd to think that the amazing technological breakthroughs are probably most to blame for the majority of the mediocre work being done or the depth of knowledge being missed out by a crucial part of the process: Mentoring. We need proper mentoring back and we need to be way less lenient. The marriage of talent, technology and education is not one made in heaven. It needs a lot of work, a lot of hard work, and you need to be prepared for that.
Title image by Seb Lester http://www.seblester.com/