Ok, so maybe I was just attempting the same shocking headline play that sucks me in to meaningless lists… nevertheless, if you are someone who enjoys working in the audio / music world as much as I do, you may indeed find some of this moving you to tears.
As a pseudo-professional in audio, I get to work in an array of capacities in the audio and music environment as well as getting to work with a wide variety of people. From volunteer sound teams at churches to professional producers demanding perfection, each client and experience has taught me a great deal. Since you are reading this, it would stand to reason that you will also be a part of this community that pines to make things sound “good”. I thought it might be nice to share some of the insights and lessons I have gleaned along the way in the hopes that wherever we go, we will hear sounds sounding their best. As always, please feel free to add to this list if you have another tip that will move us to tears…
1. “Good” is relative.
From the very first time I watched the sound guy at my church manipulate the music to the first listening parties I had for my recording classes, everyone has a different idea as to what sounds “good”. We hear it every day on the radio or on albums we listen to. We hear it at different music festivals and concerts; different engineers manipulating the waveforms to reach an end-goal that sounds good to them.
Why does engineering on the Mumford and Son’s album sound different from Phillip Phillips? Both are a neo-folk; both are guitar driven; yet their engineers tracked and mixed them differently… and you know what. THEY BOTH SOUND “GOOD”. Learn what sounds “good”. Listen to your peers and especially to your client and/or intended audience, and work to achieve that “good” sound… and just know that there is a variety of “good” opinions out there.
2. Science isn’t everything.
Yes, it’s helpful to know how long it takes the low frequency wavelengths to form. Yes knowing the Robinson Dadson curves give you some great insight. Yes understanding the logarithmic decibel scale is a great tool- but you know what is more important… your ears. Trust your ears! Or if you don’t trust them yet, train them so you can trust them!
I have seen too may sound guys (myself included) trust in what is “supposed” to work rather than what does. So 67hz is where that kick drum is supposed to be beefy? Well, try it out and see if it helps. Maybe that kick drums beef is closer to 75hz? I’m supposed to sweep those mids on the vocals? Maybe that vocalist has a unique character in those frequencies. Use the science as a tool, not a rule.
3. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (gross).
Gross metaphors aside, there is more than one way to do things, and there is no “right” way to get it done. I have watched sound guys spend an hour tweaking a GEQ on the mains before sound check. I have watched guys ignore the GEQ until after they have established sounds from each instrument. Some guys will start with getting their drums perfect in the mix. Others will focus on vocal sounds first until they are just right. Everyone seems to have a slightly different process… and you know what… more often then not, the final products all sound great!
4. Know the sound you are working with. Speak the language.
If you are working with music, know music. If you are working in theatre, know theatre. If you are working with speech, know speech. And don’t just stop at those generalizations. If you are working with a jazz client, learn and know what sounds and techniques people are enjoying in the jazz genre (especially your client!). Be able to speak to them in their language too! When they ask for more sax at the “head” know what they mean. If you are working with a classical player, be able to speak to them about the various nuances of dynamics or the intricacies of sonata form. If you are working with a rock client, talk to them in terms of verse, chorus, solo… know when the solo is coming up so you can push that lead guitar a little harder without them asking you to.
If you can speak to them in their language, it makes the process of sound making a team effort. Studying music has been an invaluable asset to me in the audio production world.
5. Treat your craft like a musical instrument.
You as the engineer are just as important to the sound as the instruments actually making the noises. Just as you would not have the music without the performer, so the performer would not have the music without the sound engineering. There should never be a “set-it-and-forget-it” mentality at any level of the mixing processes. Keep your hands on the board, listen to the sounds being made and make your art! Adjust, tweak, effect. Be a part of the sound just as the performer is. Play your instrument!
6. Live sound and studio sound are similar, but different animals.
Obviously the live sound engineer and the studio sound engineer have very similar jobs. While much of what they do does overlap, it is important to know what techniques can be shared and which are more successful in each setting. It is also important to know that just because you are an expert at one, it does not make you an expert at the other. In the studio, I like to mic an upright bass with a ribbon mic or large diaphragm condensor near the bridge, just off the F-hole about a foot away and a small diaphragm condensor mic higher up near the fingerboard. I have had some success with this in the recording environment… however on the live stage that setup can cause problems. Those mics are quite large and gaudy and will surround the player with annoying visual “noise” (which not a problem in the studio). More importantly, those mics will get a ton of bleed from surrounding mics and cause all sorts of audio problems. However, I have had great success placing one dynamic mic around bridge level to get a great live sound… which in the studio doesn’t quite get the same nuances of the instrument. Each discipline can help inform the other, but one size does not fit all.
7. Don’t be a jerk. Fight the stereotype! Be nice!
Without fail, when I am meeting a client or performer for the first time, they often step lightly or completely avoid us sound engineers… this is mostly because it is common knowledge that sound guys are jerks! I am not sure if it is an inferiority complex or a sense of superiority, but for whatever reason, many sound people are just plain mean. Be a part of the solution.
Many people will want to work with you (EVEN when you make mistakes) if you are enjoyable to work with. Engage with them about their art. Encourage them in what they are doing. Let them know you are on their team and speak to them with tact. Be a team and make great sounds together!
8. No, you don’t know everything…
There is a good reason I didn’t title this “8 rules about audio that proves I know it all and you don’t”. Why does Pat Metheny still practice his guitar? Why does Yo Yo Ma still take time to rehearse? Because we are forever learning. We will never be “there”(wherever “there” is). You will never KNOW anything. My professor in the recording studio taught me a lot simply by the way he interacted with his students. He didn’t always TELL his students what to do, but often asked HOW they accomplished the sounds they achieved.
Don’t ever pretend you know it all; you don’t.
Learn from those around you.
Help each other.
Enjoy other peoples work.
In the words of a tremendous drum professor I know, “Dig and be dug”.
– Gordon Van Gent
Creative Director of Sounds