Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dear SNR: Paul Brannen - Learning Recording

We've been studiously ignoring the emails that have been pouring lately. But production schedules have let up a little so we're spending a couple nights on the couch with the laptop getting caught up. Today we get back to Paul who's interested in studio stuff and got in touch via the Facebook page.
Hey guys, I don't have a youtube account so I thought this would be the best way to make contact. I'm a fan of Smart to Noise's Podcast and work in the music industry as a booking agent. I'm starting to get into the audio side of things (with out much experience). I was wondering if you could discuss the importance of learning recording on your own vs. being taught from a school. Also I'm interested in any general or abstract studio concepts that seem to work best. I feel like both approaches would lead to different styles in studio. Keep up the good work!
 Being largely self taught myself I can speak in favor of that method. It may take a little longer but lessons learned the old fashioned way (tweaking the gear night after night) somehow seem to carry more weight than things you learn in class. 

I think the biggest thing is identifying your starting point. With the abundance of material in print and on the web it's easy to get immersed. But if you find yourself scrolling through the forums and still feeling lost, or read all the hot tips and still feel in the dark, you just need to back up a bit and get to the basics. On the net it can be pretty hit or miss. But if you need to get the basics down so you start to know the terms and understand some different scenarios, hit up Amazon and pick a couple books that are top rated in your area of interest.

Beyond that, having a mentor is a pretty good thing. I never had one in particular because of where I grew up. I was figuring all this out in the days when there wasn't much on the net and all I could find at the local library was books on ham radio. (I did eventually become a licensed ham and that was where I really started to understand what's going on inside an amplifier.) I was just out there gigging it, reading the propaganda from the manufacturers and taking my best shot. Any time I could get around other pros and even just listen in on a conversation I would soak up everything I could. Even if I didn't understand it I would file it away for later. That's sort of the idea behind this blog and the podcasts. Just gab about audio and hopefully people take something away that makes them want to dig in more and figure out the stuff we say that they don't understand. There are a couple really killer podcasts and blogs that would make great mentors all by themselves. Just check out the Resources link above to see the always up-to-date list.

So let's say that you know a mic cable from a compressor and you understand that a bus isn't just public transport, now what? Get your hands on some gear and get to work. You don't have to buy stuff. If you can get time on someone else's that's fine. Just make sure you don't work on stuff that's important to you or anyone else when you're getting started out. You have to make a lot of crap and murder a lot of material before you start turning out audio gold. Guys that mix in stadiums started out in dive clubs and guys that mix platinum records started out with cassette four tracks. Just build up your understanding of gain structure, balance, and file away all the tips and tricks you can. Even if all you do is grab a friend who plays acoustic guitar and have them practice in front of a mic you'll learn a ton. Just keep trying stuff.
I've been at this my whole life and been getting paid for it for a good twenty years now. I still spend time every single day trying to learn something new. The simple fact of the matter is that stuff I read online tends to go in and fall right back out again. Things I learn while working on projects stick with me forever. I can still remember the first times that I did things out on gigs. Articles that I read, not so much. So if you are reading a lot. That's good. Take it all in and maybe something will spring to mind when you hit a snag. But what's better is to take what you read about and try to do it as soon as possible afterward and really cement it in place. All you need is a laptop, a cheap USB interface and a couple mics to get started. Heck, you could make a White Stripes album that way (although Jack would prefer you do it analog!).

Probably the most important thing you can do is build up your critical listening skills. Having all the expensive gear in the world won't let you make good stuff if you've got a tin ear. People who are good at this listen to everything under the sun. That's where true innovation happens. It's all the same twelve notes. It's all kick and snare. It's all vocals. What you can do to shake things up a little is to bring a little hip-hop sensibility to a thrash metal session, or some country twang to a jazz session. But to do stuff like that you need to know everything. Well... at least be able to fake it.
As for methods, they're all good. Close mic drums, single mic drums, go track for track or get the band all in one room, every method has its place. I've found that my best work happens when I'm out of options. Sure you can read all about what large diaphragm tube condenser mics sound best on acoustic guitar, but if you lock me in a closet with a guitar and a kick drum mic I'll eventually get you the track and have something to teach you after. Don't worry about the gear you don't have. Figure out what the gear you do have can do and then figure out how to push it farther.

One last thing you can do that will help you get good answers, and this applies to all the Brethren of the Knob and Fader out there. Broad questions are really hard for an expert to answer. Try to narrow it down a bit before you open your mouth. For example, the question you asked was great Paul, but I had to be pretty general to give you an answer. Once you dig in a little and start to make some progress in one direction or another, feel free to come back with another question or two and we'll see what we can tell you.

Thanks as always to all our contributors. Your questions and comments keep us going. We may not always get to them quickly but we will make every attempt to get to all of them. (I'm still working on the one about phase relationships between speakers in a sound system. Stick with me Liam!)

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