Use Technology, But Don’t Let It Use YOU

There’s a lot of talk in the recording world about computers ruining music. I’m here to tell you that PEOPLE ruin or make music. A computer allows you to do a ton of things to the audio it contains. You can slice, dice, chop and puree your sounds into almost anything. But, should you? Should you let the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) superimpose a grid and then move each and every chord, cymbal crash, and syllable to the metronomically “perfect” spot? In a word, NO. BUT, that doesn’t mean that you  shouldn’t use some of those ‘modern conveniences.” A great take with an issue or two can now be made right with a few mouse clicks. And why not? You can now have that one extra track that used to mean erasing something to make the space on the reel of tape.

An advantage of using a hard drive as a recording medium is that, for a fairly small investment you can get a TON of recording time. In comparison, a single reel of 2” tape offers about 30 minutes or recording time…if you run the tape machine at its slowest  speed. If you choose to run the tape faster (for less noise)you cut that number in half. And that’s just how the machine deals with distance. Depending on the model of tape deck, you will have at most 24 separate tracks on which to record audio. Older machines offered even fewer. The Beatles, for instance, made most of their records with 4-track machines. They would fill up four tracks, and mix those to one track (yep that’s right, one MONO track) of another machine, leaving them 3 empty tracks. Once that tape was full, those 4 tracks were again mixed back to the first machine. Each time adding tape and mixer noise, and each time losing a generation of sonic quality. In comparison the 2 Terabyte recording drive that I use has several YEARS worth of recording projects from many clients. I paid a little over a hundred bucks for that drive. A reel of 2” tape runs around $350 (for a half hour of 24-tracks).

I’d like to give a few examples of how I like to combine the old school with the new in the studio. I still like to record people playing together for basic tracks. Drums, bass, guitars and keyboards are recorded at once to get a take (or takes) that have a feel we all like. By using a computer, we can do a bunch of takes, all right in a row without having to decide, “That’s not good enough, let’s record over it.” I don’t have to get up and change reels; we can just keep capturing takes. Musicians LOVE this. The feel in the rooms is focused on playing rather than worrying, “Is there enough tape?” Let me tell you, that is quite freeing after many years of knowing there were 3-4 reels to track on.

I made a conscious decision to record Sara Quah’s Taking Me Back in Pro Tools. Part of  that was budget-consciousness and part was workflow. When cutting things like vocals its nice to never worry about having enough space on the multitrack. You can record several takes onto one “track” using something called Playlists (other DAWs call it other names, but it works the same way). I can set up a vocal track, get levels and signal chain happening. I usually use some sort of great sounding analog compressor after the microphone and preamp. This gives me color and tone along with dynamic control. THEN I can let the singer sing to their heart’s content. I make some notes as we go, and offer coaching along with ideas for the next take. After there’s a great take or three, it’s very easy to paste different sections of different takes into a master track used for the final mix. I do this a lot with vocals, solos, and other overdubbed and added elements. On tape I need an empty track for each of these takes, and another for the COMP  (composite), which I have to perform with mute buttons and a master “road map” telling me which track number goes to the comp part at any given moment. In addition to that, I’d lose a generation in the process.

In a DAW I can make certain things happen every time I play them, even before I’m in the mixing process. For example, we might record a couple of different backing vocals (like Hi, Mid and Lo), but then experiment with using bits and pieces of the different parts during different sections of the song. I can quickly draw in where different parts are muted, and save that with the project. Then the next time we are working on that song, I don’t have to try to remember those things; I can focus on recording whatever we are working on that day. Those mutes will happen, and I can think about the task at hand.

When it comes to mixing, there are so many options that are instantly recallable. Normally I mix in a very similar fashion to what I do on a mixing console. In fact, I still use the console so that the tracks come out of the computer individually or in groups. Before I got my DAW, I mixed first with hands on the console in real time. Often I’d need band members lending their hands to help with tasks I couldn’t physically pull off. Then I got a console with automation. That automation ONLY worked on mutes and fader  volume levels. Even that was great in comparison. Now in the DAW, I can plan for everything I might consider in the virtual domain, and those settings will repeat each time I run the song. It’s quite wonderful, from a creative standpoint. Clients love being able to make change weeks after a mix, which was expensive and time consuming in the past. Having the mixing console in front of me still allows me to integrate analog and digital outboard gear, and as I use these items, I record their output back into the DAW so they are still right there the next time I open the project. Because of that, I can using the same piece of gear in different ways on the same mix. That was rarely an option in the past because there wasn’t usually enough space on the multi-track tape to record those signals.

What I am saying is that if you let the music and the musician’s personality guide your decisions, the computer is both your friend AND the music’s ally. If you let the computer rule the session then art and authenticity have a good chance of being compromised.

See all of Tony’s posts HERE.

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