I’m creating this quick blog to address a phenomenon that occurs all the time with beginners in audio engineering land. I did it too a SHORT decade ago. This blog is in response to the few thousand threads I’ve seen over the years where a new guy will post a clip of a non-drummer beating on some drums and ask you to critique the drum sound. (It also applies to every instrument as well.) I’m going to illustrate why this is pretty much impossible.
Here we go.
First off, what makes a good recording? The answer is simple. A great song that the engineers and musicians didn’t screw up too much. (I believe the whole point of engineering is getting the hell out of the way of where the music is supposed to go…..even if that means ultra-mangled, ultra-processed, ultra-edited, and “ultra-fake” music in which the engineer has to be entirely proactive).
We can get into the details of what constitutes an engineer “screwing up”. I guess the best analogy I can think of is when the guy holding the camera in the naughty movies films the wrong stuff or you can’t see the stuff you want to see as well as you want to. Focusing on a guy’s nut sack is a case of “bad engineering”, for example.
If lyrics are important, make sure the damn things are loud enough to make them out clearly. Songs that tell a story fall to pieces when you can’t hear the damn story! When stuff is out of focus (boxy, boomy, etc) it’s hard to “see” what the artist originally envisioned. The solutions for these sorts of things aren’t always simple, but anyone with an opinion and at least one ear can AND SHOULD form an opinion about they like, no matter where they are in their engineering quest.
What’s All This MUSIC Talk?
The more you mic a guitar cabinet and the more you put a compressor on a bass guitar, the more you realize that engineering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In other words, the skill of engineering ONLY works with some kind of intense emotional thingy behind it. Otherwise, it’s just some noise making electron flow. BOOOOORING!
Let me illustrate.
Take a minute to record the sound of a door closing. We’ll pretend we are making a movie and we need some foley (background sounds). Toss your “best” mic two feet away from a door, hit record, and shut it. Take a listen. Does the door sound excite you?
It probably sounds exactly like a door to you and unless something went wrong (poof of air caused wind noise, the mic was backwards, etc) it probably sounds exactly like a door closing. If you were to analyze this, you’d say, “Yes, it sounds like a door”. If I were to ask you how you would improve it, most of you would be a little confused. If I told you I wanted a better door sound , how would you try harder?
For the life of me, if I’ve got a door sound that doesn’t sound too dull, too bright, too ambient, or too boomy I’m probably not going to think of a way to improve it.
Hint: To you ultra-beginners, I can just see you guys automatically reaching for the compressors, equalizers, and (god forbid) exciters. It’s as if these gadgets are “sound quality knobs” and all you have to do is turn them up. Not going to happen. Those only work when you have a specific problem to solve…..except for the exciter. Those don’t work on anything.
This is where it gets interesting.
I don’t know if there are “good” and “bad” door sounds, but there are wrong and right door sounds. Imagine the door sounds in a Vince Vaughn comedy.
I’ll give you about 30 seconds to ponder.
(If you are drawing a blank you are on the right track.)
Now imagine the door sounds in a horror movie. Jackpot! I immediately think of the slow, eerie, squeaky door slowly closing or maybe the slamming “boo” type of door sounds when a haunted house decides to fight back. I even imagine a certain ambiance on those doors.
Of course, the door has to be closing at a certain speed (the performance) and it has to have the right squeak (selecting the right instrument) and the movie can’t blow ass (the song).
When these three things are present, you can just slap a few mics up and call it a day, for the most part. There are times when the engineering is part of the instrument. Distorted vocals, gated reverbs on the snare, etc all are part of the creative process for maxing out the song. However, these are used entirely for cranking up the emotional intensity.
I’ve encountered guys who will mic up a guitar with high gain, palm mute the low E, and then ask if it sounds good. As long as there are no OBVIOUS problem (all that stuff mentioned above – too bright,too dark, too boomy, too ambient, etc) we really can’t comment. It is what it is and if there is no creative emotional context to go on, that emotionless guitar track may as well be a recording of static from the TV, the noise coming from a fridge, or a door closing.
The “Best” Vocal Sound
When we think of certain great vocal sounds, you’ll find the only reason they are great is because of the context in which they fit in. An ultra-airy chick vocal like on an Enya-type production would sound flat-out bad on dudes from 2 Live Crew or Henry Rollins. Everything that sounds angelic on the Enya thing will sound like these guys have spitting problems. In fact, you may wonder if they have some kind speech impediment!
This immediately shows that engineering is chasing whatever the music is demanding. That’s why fizzed out Nine Inch Nails sound awesome on The Downward Spiral, but would sound stupid on a Cranberries song….(or not!). That’s why Power Station drums and 70s Fleetwood Mac drums are not interchangeable. Neither would work on the other’s music, but on their own they work pretty damn well.
The longer you do this, you’ll find that there are a whole lot more ultra-dark vocal sounds and a whole lot more ultra-bright vocal sounds than you ever thought possible. You quickly realize that you screwed up in thinking there was a “good” vocal sound. There isn’t and there never will be. This applies to all instruments. You get the idea.
I Could Go On
I could go on and on and on about this sort of thing, but I already have. This is just one example of probably 832 issues that the beginner has to face in this whole home recording thing and that’s specifically why I created Killer Home Recording. I’d like to think I covered all of these issues in Killer Home Recording so you can cut through the bullshit and skip straight to Level 4 (whatever that is) and focus on the stuff that really matters.