Monday, March 26, 2012

Happy Accidents

I've written before about how good technology is getting and also how much of a problem that can be.  Whether in the studio or the venue, if you're working with a setup that's crystal clear it separates the men from the boys pretty quick because there is literally nowhere to hide.  But the nice thing about having gear that can be really pristine and transparent is now instead of fighting to make it clear you can decide to muddy thing up a bit as an artistic choice.

The perfect example is the level of recording gear available to the typical high school student.  When I recorded my first band, a second hand four track cassette machine was about three or four weeks pay flipping burgers.  Listening back to those demos it's a wonder you can hear the instruments from all the tape hiss added together from bounce after bounce.  Today you can plug into an iPod or a little digital recorder for the same money, or if you've already got a computer then for cheap or free you can get some pretty robust software and work in the digital environment with plugins and such.

But it's a two edged sword.  Those first garage recordings have so much more energy and vitality than the ones that followed where the band shelled out to go to the studio.  And that's where I'm trying to go with this post.  If you're recording something and you've finally got your home recording rig set up just like the big boys, with a separate live room and a window and big fancy condenser mics, don't forget that Mick Jagger and James Hetfield often tracked their vocals in the control room with a Shure 58. It can be hard for an artist, even a really good one to summon up a powerful performance when they have to sit perfectly still and address a really good mic.
There's a lot of little tricks you can employ that are sort of widely known and you can read all about them on the web, but most of them were happy accidents.  You can find thousands of examples of a scratch vocal or guitar track that was kept in the final mix because of the energy it had.  You can find whole albums that were specifically recorded and mixed to sound like you're in the room with the band because a producer liked the vibe of the boom box demo the band did.

Then there's the ideas you get when you're just trying to make something work.  I was recording a punk band in my garage years ago and they wanted an acoustic guitar intro for one song.  The guitar they brought had a broken pickup and didn't sound that good anyway.  So just to come up with a place holder I stuck a pencil mic on the f-hole of a semi-hollow body electric one of the guys had, and it came out with such a cool, haunting tone that we wound up compressing it and keeping it.  

Many a cool trick has been found in desperation like that and gone on to become part of an engineer's bag of tricks.  Some are kept secret, but a lot of them find their way out into the world and the more you know the better set up you are to make decisions about your sound.  For a long time if you had no budget you had to really strive to get a good hi-fi sound.  But when you have top recording artists with great gear at their disposal purposefully degrading their sound as an artistic choice, that's something really cool. Studio guys will quite often turn to tube or tape gear (or plugins to simulate them) to add a little subtle distortion and all the wonderful harmonics that can bring to the mix. Sometimes even broken gear will be pressed into use because of the unique way it shapes the sound.

So keep your eyes peeled.  A lot of times doing something stupid will just come out sounding stupid.  But you never know when you might stumble onto the next great trick.

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