Monday, February 25, 2013

Don't Let A Machine Think For You

This is a concept that's come up before but it seems like it's high time to devote a post to it. Computers have been getting steadily smaller and more capable, as well as the programs that run on them for a long time now. To me it's pretty amazing that an RTA used to be a rack mount piece of gear that had five LEDs per band and that was all the resolution you got. For thousands of dollars you could get a more advanced machine. Now for free you can get a pretty terrific RTA on your phone. You wouldn't want to do laboratory grade research with it but it could help you through ringing out monitors if you were in a hurry.
An RTA is a great example of a tool that's overused. A lot of people seem to think that EQing a room until the RTA reads flat is a job well done. But a room that reads perfectly flat on a simple RTA almost never sounds good, for more than one reason. But this isn't an article about room analysis. It's about using tools for their intended purpose. It's also about retaining one of the greatest gifts that humanity possesses. Taste.
I think the shortest route might be to explain. I got a plugin for free during a holiday giveaway. It was the One Knob - Louder plugin. The literature said it uses a complex expansion/compression/gain algorithm to make your music louder without messing it up or adding a lot of noise. I tried it out on some dialogue one time when I was in a hurry and it worked great. But after that I shied away from it and stuck to the methods I already knew. Only having one control is a nice idea, but I'm a little leery about a complex process going on behind a GUI that I can't get at.
Eventually I sat down with it to figure out what made it tick. I'm not going to sit here and say that I could create identical results with an expander, compressor and some gain, but I could get pretty close and from repeated A/B testing I feel like I have a handle  on what's going on when I twist that knob. It's a pretty darn good plugin. It does just what it says and it's pretty hard to screw up. But it does have its limitations and now I know roughly where they are. I have a great tool that saves me time but I know when it's not the right tool and I have to grab plugins with more control to get what I need out of a track.

The same thing goes for almost anything. Even if it's a more complex plugin or device that gives you lots of control, if you're just grabbing the presets you may not be getting what's best for your project. Sure the kick drum preset on a compressor plugin might work magic but maybe I can do better. I'm at least going to give it a shot when I have a minute and see if I can't improve. Presets are a great way to pick something apart to learn it and often will save you loads of time. But if all you're doing is clicking through presets then you're not an engineer, you're not even really a mixer in my opinion, you're just an appliance operator. The same way someone that microwaving a TV dinner isn't a chef.

I'll leave you with one more example. I bought a Feedback Destroyer once upon a time. I sold it after doing about four gigs with it. At first I thought it was great, that I could toss out my graphic EQs and just let the box worry about it. But after a couple weekends spent basically arguing with the stupid thing about what is feedback and what is, in fact, a guitar solo... I sold that hunk of crap and settled down to the business of worrying about my own EQ again. 

Brethren of the Knob and Fader. You have a wonderful piece of computational equipment between your ears. With that tool alone you are one step ahead of all the technology in the world. You can write cunning programs, you can give them all sorts of information and even make it seem like they're sort of intelligent. But I don't think it's possible to give a machine taste. If they ever do come up with a machine that wonderful I would encourage the inventors to put it to good use, like replacing congressmen with it. Until then Brethren, use machines to your advantage. Use them to save your valuable time. But don't let them think for you.

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