Recording Technologies

We are officially back in the studio, which means lots of coffee and intense focus. At this point in my musical career I feel relatively confident in my studio expertise that commenting on the technology and process. Recording music really is a process.

If you have never recorded music you might be surprised to know how inexact a science it is. You go in trying to find sounds that are vague ideas to say the least. The parts of the songs that you thought would sound really great end up being completely wrong. Even though you practiced like crazy and you tune before every song, you still end up being sharp because when you play with one finger you’re actually pulling it sharp. Don’t even get me started on trying to get actual sounds.

In terms of technology, recording is surprisingly simple. The most important pieces of equipment are the compressors. This is not limited to actual rack compressors, but include anything that squashes sound. A nice tube mic going to tape sounds good because they are two sources of fantastic analog compression.

Compressors are also the reason why digital recording is a serious viable option. Without good natural compression before writing the bits, you get super clean sounds that just don’t sound very good. The compressors manage to take the sounds and make things listenable.

The analog vs. digital debates in my opinion come down to compression. First off a compressor does just what its name describes, it takes the sound wave and sets limits on it. Sometimes the limits are based on volume but that limit can be relative or absolute. Compression gives you distortion and overdriven tone. The twang of a guitar sounds the way it sounds thanks to compression. It is how acoustic sound becomes digital and why old records feel warm.

It is interesting to know that it is often the sum of small changes that make things sound good. At the same time starting from extremes is usually beneficial. People say a tube amp sounds best when loud, but I would go so far to say that for recording, the first step is to turn everything up all the way. It can feel pretty scary pushing an amp and speaker hard, but it also allows for the most natural sounds. The physical constraints of the material become important at extreme levels so the overdive sound you can get is actually the natural limits. In some ways I think it is a carnal sound that actually taps into whatever part of a person that is still wild and wanting to survive.

The quest to find that carnal greatness is what recording is really about. The general idea is to capture what makes the music enjoyable. Likewise, the goal should also be to remove that which is distracting. All the little details in a song add up one way or another. A single drum hit or lag in a instrument can ruin a song. While the tones and sounds need to be carnal, the actual performance needs to be flawless. When I say flawless, it doesn’t mean every beat is exactly the same.

Instead, it means that the way everything works together is correct.

Transitions lead the listener and the song flows.

In terms if making things flawless, this is where technology excels. It is insanly time consuming to get everyone in a band to play a perfect take at the same time. There is the execution where no one makes mistakes, but there is also the performance which is when everyone plays together just right. In lieu of perfect performances, software can make all the difference. You can push or pull the drum hits to match perfectly. If the second verse is played better than the first, just copy an paste. There are automated tools for syncing a track to a grid, but the more subtle editing can make a good enough performance make the cut. The time saved is literally money saved.

The thing about recording now is that it takes so little to try it out. Garage Band is a great piece of software. We demoed our tracks at almost every practice and would record things when experimenting. Paying attention to the mic placement gave us halfway decent results. Garage Band even seems to do a good job mimicing a the compression of tape, so when the volume gets too loud, it breaks really nicely.

Ok, I’m done brain vomiting. I need to head back to concentrating on every single note my wife is shredding on guitar!