Crippling Individuality With Authoritarian Engineering

Brandon Drury —  August 24, 2008

I’ve noticed that a few people have taken what I consider to be an excessively authoritarian hand against tonal creativity in Bash This Recording. I don’t like it. When the tone is clearly of “high quality” and more than capable of being a vehicle for intense music, it makes absolutely no sense to me to tell the guy that he needs to change the guitar sound to conform to YOUR personal tastes. Why should your tastes be more important than his tastes on HIS recording? Sucking any hint of individuality that may exist with modern recording tools is a terrible thing that I can not be a part of.

Just because you don’t like your snare drum as bright as the Black Album or guitar sounds to be as fizzy as Nine Inch Nails “The Downward Spiral” or bass to sound as thick as the Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream” does not mean that any of these recordings were wrong. (They were all EXTREMELY successful!) A person creating music should be free to try extreme sounds all day long. Taking away the right to crazy, unique sounds to a musician seems as absurd as denying freedom of speech.

When reviewing songs on Bash This Recording, I only check for a few things.

#1 Make sure that nothing hurts.

#2 Make sure the music is intense to begin with.

#3 Make sure there are no obvious distractions from the intensity of the song.

Beyond that, anything goes. I will never tell you to change a tone simply for the sake of appeasing my personal tastes. I eat my hot dogs with just mustard, but if you put pickles on them in your house, load it up with pickles! I’ll eat it! I think it’s fair for reviewers to say “I probably would have done X”. That is useful to the person posting the song, but telling them that their tonal choices is “wrong” is way too aggressive for me.

You Asked For It
I’m making a change in the Bash This Recording section. No longer will I allow “rate this drum sound” and “what do you think of this guitar sound?”. Let me explain.

On my list of criteria when reviewing a recording, #2 is “Make sure the music is intense to begin with”. When a guy just tosses up 15 seconds of him playing drums or guitar or whatever this was never intended to be “music”. It’s a classroom exercise at best. Classroom exercises are not music. They are science experiments. Whether they realize it not, everyone reviewing songs in Bash This Recording is looking for musical excitement and intensity. Whey they don’t find it, the brain switches to a different mode.

When you ask to get a guitar sound reviewed, you will get a few kinds of answers. The “pro-individuality” people (like myself) will say “it’s fine” (with the intent being that it’s POSSIBLE to make something great with it, but you clearly didn’t.) unless there is some major problem with the tone that is obvious even in the solo’d state. Others will this take as an invitation to answer “Would you do this?” and then go on to list all the creative possibilities for a guitar part. Someone will talk about the tone itself and how he would use a different amp. Another guy will start getting wild with chorus, delays, and eventually you’ll end up with a list of every mixing trick known to man.

All of this is done without a shred of context. Even worse, all of this amp changing, chorus, delay, and any other recommendation is made with entirely self serving intent. If there is no “higher calling” by the song to make decisions, we are doing nothing more than chasing our tails. Recording music requires an emotional connection. Otherwise, go work as the audio guy at your local news station. (YUUUCKKK!!!)

A person who posts a drum sound is really asking “Does this sound ‘pro’?” or “Does this sound ‘good’ enough?” He is looking for approval because he doesn’t feel confident enough to make a decision. Guess what! Neither do I! If we aren’t looking to make intense music, I have no idea what advice to give. Without the “higher calling” of the song giving me guidance I don’t have a clue what to do tell you.

Without the “higher calling” of the song factor, all we are really doing is sound design. If this kind of thing interests you, go out and record cars driving by, doors slamming, foot steps, etc. Personally, sound design bores me to death. I don’t see any difference between posting a door slamming in Bash This Recording verses posting some drums in Bash This Recording if neither is used to create a song. If you did post a door slamming, you’d ultimately find people who’d say “I’d like to hear more low end in the door slam” even when it’s just a door slamming sound. (Once again, arguing tonal aesthetics without context).

Lastly, RecordingReview is about going to war to make the best music possible. While I guess you could just toss up a drum recording with no context (which is kind of like training with broomsticks), I think a person only really learns about music recording war when he’s getting shot at. All these little assumptions you make about what musical war will really be like end up being mostly useless when actual combat starts. So jump in, the bullets aren’t real! The argument that you are trying to learn before you go to war doesn’t hold up. Music recording is something you have to learn on the job.

I think some people have major hang ups with actually making music. These are the kinds of people who are afraid to write a song out of fear of making a bad one or are afraid to invest themselves into their music. Get over it! If you can’t really create a piece of music, record people who can and post that. Just don’t post the drums by themselves!


Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

11 responses to Crippling Individuality With Authoritarian Engineering

  1. I certainly agree that those trying things out want to get feedback. But isolated tracks often mean nothing unless delivered in the context of an actual piece.

    Drums that sound good one way, can crush other instruments in a different mix circumstance.

    And as for guitars, as an over the top statement, its really really hard not to be able to record a guitar well enough. The real limitations of a guitar is the instrument itself and the amp or simulator your running it through. One really has to design ones band sound anyways in the context of the song. So I agree, what difference does it make if a guitar is shredding or if a guitar is mellow or severely compressed…

    Although i often have an opinion about hybrid acoustic guitar. (may they all be thrown in the ocean!), once again, what is often done is nitpicking. The bottom line is the piece and the choices you make in the piece your either engineering for a band or for yourself.

    There have been many pieces I’ve commented on, and the guidance I’ve shared in the past has to do with how the piece is working in my opinion. Sometimes something is too forward in the mix or dominating in comparison with other elements. Sometimes things were just way too busy, and sometimes the recording wasn’t that good, but worked in a goofy way.

    And there are times when things are not in tune, or played in time. Technical aspects of recording aside, the performance is the thing. And attention must be paid to having the chops IN TUNE and in TIME.

    But I digress….

    I posted way back some Analog 8 Track stuff I did. The first post I put up was a strange piece I collaborated with the Band lead who by the 10th track was willing to try some crazy stuff. While feedback was largely, “it was disorienting”, the band lead was so happy with it, he wished we took more engineering chances with the rest of the material. It was already on DAT and final mix, we weren’t going back! (pre computers!). If being disorienting was the goal, then I succeeded. So you have to look at feedback in the context of what your trying to do. So I suggest if you want feedback on a piece, you should provide about what your thought are on the piece, and what your going for. That way, those who share feedback can say, you achieved your goal or could provide advice to help you get what your looking to accomplish.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. Brandon,

    That article is going into my conversations, which is the highest form of flattery.
    Thanks a lot for taking the time to articulate what so many song-wrtiers feel, when writing music and ultimately knowing that the kick isnt compressed enough etc etc.


  3. “I’d like to hear more low end in the door slam”.

    Thanks for a great healthy laugh! :)

  4. That hot dog analogy was good. :D

    I find it’s easy for nearly anyone to say “I’d do X differently” on any recording, but in the end you just have to relax and remember that it’s not your recording.

  5. Brandon…

    Totally agree with you about the individuality thing… and I think it it actually having a detremental effect on modern music, especially Heavy Rock & Metal – the mixes of which (on many) are diabolical!! This Modern trend to have the guitars SO Loud and Bassy as to drown out Bass, Drums & Vocals is ludicrous in many cases… And all because one person emulated a bad Mix of a famous band (Metallica springs to mind!!) and it becomes the “Norm”. Glad a person in your position has the foresight to see it… BUT what do I know – I’m just a lowly Bassist!!!!!

  6. I think you’re being excessively authoritarian, Brandon. I think a lot of beginners struggle just trying to get decent levels, use a pop filter and shock mount, what does “Q” mean, why does my bedroom not sound like Carnegie hall, etc. It can be very helpful to post an incomplete snippet in order to ask a question like “What would you do to make this guitar sound …er… ‘better’?”

    In the case of a complete song, if someone wants to say “Dude, don’t quit your day job”, you ought to be able to deal with that . In the real world, no matter who you are, somebody doesn’t like you or what you’ve done. I thought you were looking for honest opinions in “Bash this Recording”

    “Post your songs and mixes up for Bashing. Songwriting, performances, recording, and mixing will all be judged.”

  7. Hell, I’ve heard many professional recordings (label releases) where I’ve thought, “Why the devil did they do that. It sounds like rubbish!” But I’m not the one raking in the dough when the song strikes a chord with thousands of people in the market.
    By the way, I think the call for “excitement and intensity” may be a red herring, to some extent. Some songs or pieces are meant to be “chilled out” to, or are written for their melodic beauty alone. A song should be intense, and evoke something in the listener, but I’d just put a caveat on the “excitement” criteria.
    You know: some songs, you’re not excited by them and they may not push any new ground, but you are left thinking, “That was just lovely.”

    My two-bob’s worth.

  8. By the way, I think the call for “excitement and intensity” may be a red herring, to some extent. Some songs or pieces are meant to be “chilled out” to, or are written for their melodic beauty alone.

    You are taking “excitement” and “intensity” to mean being on the offensive line in a football game or riding in a fighter jet.

    You are looking at a musical performance as being either a roller coaster thrill ride or a “chilled” experience or somewhere in between. There is another side that we encounter when producing vocals especially. What happens when the vocal was just flat (not pitch) or just not effective enough for the song.

    Let’s just take Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough To Be My Man”. She never wails. She never just rips into an incredibly loud vocal. She’s laid back and subdued the entire song and it’s an extremely exciting and extremely intense vocal performance.

    So when I say “exciting”, I don’t mean D-Day Invasion. I mean “the ability to convey whatever it is you are trying to convey”. “Excite” doesn’t have to be Motley Crue “Kickstart My Heart”. “Excite” means anything that makes a listener feel something. I consider Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time” to be very exciting.

    Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to record musicians who can pull this off consistently, but in my experience I have to work hard to really get a vocalist to really make me feel the lyrics and not just hear them.

  9. I just noticed this blog and I’ve already done a few reviews with your instructions “Post your songs and mixes up for Bashing. Songwriting, performances, recording, and mixing will all be judged” in mind.

    I’m kind of with rexde on this one. Like it or not, “my taste” in music and in its finer details will dictate whether I find a piece of music ‘intense’ or not.

    I’m not keen on very heavy metal. So I would probably decline to comment on such a song because, even if they adjusted this part or tweaked that part, I’m not going to be excited by the end result.

    But if someone posts a blues song and It’s nearly brilliant except i think it’s lacking a certain something, then what? Don’t say anything because it’s just a matter of opinion?

    If that’s the case then you’re only going to be dealing in technicalities – where’s the ‘spirit’ in that?

    When R.E.M’s “Monster” album came out, I heted it because i didn’t like the vocals (I guess where they were in the mix). They’re millionaire’s, and I struggle to scrape a living – so who am I to argue? But that doesn’t mean my opinion’s not valid.

    So if I post a song and you say “The guitar’s too loud”, I can accept it or reject it. I ,ight have deliberately recorded it a bit loud cos it’s my taste – but I might not have noticed it was too loud and a fresh pair of ears has come to the rescue.

    It’s your site man, but I say. Let Man A put his songs on. Let Critics A, B & C put whatever (tactful) comments they want on. Let Man A decide for himself which bits of advice to take on board and which to ignore. If man A feels discouraged by the responses then he’s missed the point of the forum, hasn’t he?

  10. I probably should have held back on this blog post. All of this opinion. The problem was I felt some people were crossing the line. Let me explain.

    Beginners are often looking for the “right” way to do something. Even if they’ve done an excellent job, it’s very easy for a smart ass with clearly negative intentions to go in and rain on his party. This is what I was speaking out about.

    You are right. The guy doing the mixing has to take criticism with a grain of salt.

    Ultimately, I should have simply dealt with the smaller issues on a one on one basis and not posted a blog / newsletter on the topic.


  11. Beethoven said its a composers job to make the listener “feel something”. Funny, you get more attention when people love you, or hate you. Remember Solierre in Amadeus (Motzart) he hated being mediocre. Its all good. (How cliche….) I could drive myself crazy.