- Published Mar 16, 2013 in In The Studio
- Read time: about 3 minutes
In part three of producer Derek Chafin’s series on recording basics, Derek explores the concept of working with whatever you have - including that grey matter between your two ears - to get great sounds from your studio.
“Give me a cassette deck and an SM 57 and I’ll make you a record”. AKA “It’s the tune, stupid”. There’s something about this quote I like to keep in mind. It has a kinda “who ha” “tough guy” attitude but there’s some subtlety to it and truth. Get too into the technical and you can risk taking the emotion out of the music and the truth that sonics are secondary to the tune itself.
Of course the better the sound, the better chance people will give it a listen - or multiple listens - and will more fully understand what you are trying to communicate. Some of the most influential and loved songs aren’t that far off from this quote and the gear that created them. It builds in the idea that the limitations are to be embraced. Lots of our “sonic hooks”, the sounds we want to hear over again - and add to our attraction to a song - are just really messed up sounding. It wasn’t just what Hendrix played or the tune that captivated, it was that wild Univibe sound pouring over you like a waterfall that you might not be safe standing under; the snap on Ringo’s snare drum that pounds in the beat and has an almost punk quality. Ugly and beautiful at the same time.
Sometimes it’s upfront and others affect you without you consciously being aware. The list is truly endless. There’s no “can’t” once you make friends with your limitations and use them to your advantage.
What’s that mean?
If my mic selection is limited then I’ll embrace the low fi quality and make sure that the song has that to its bones – minimal overdubs, lean and mean. I’ll make the ugly even uglier until in its twisted anguish it’s transcendent. Know what your parameters are, what is possible and what will not be, and you’ll make a song that will punch through with a direct message.
The same can be said of the individual players. Know what you have and what you don’t and push to get as much or more as you can without jumping the shark and making the whole structure or vibe collapse
For those of you who love crunching the number – all my praise and admiration. You are the technical that makes the whole thing work. Some people are cinematographers and others set designers: just different and creative in their own way.
Get really into tones and you are probably leaning towards being more an engineer. Caring less about this and really working to make the song punch though with its arrangement and you are more on the producer’s side. Love mic’ing and getting great tones? You may be a tracker. Love blending frequencies and balance? The way a reverb trails and dips into the mix? Well, you might be a mixer.
But the reality is that, with the way we make music now, you’ll probably have to be all of these. Knowing a little more about the technical will only help you communicate and also do what you hear in your head. Try not to be proud of not knowing but interested in bearing through what might not be interesting in order to get what you need done. You might even find it gets more interesting the deeper you dive.
Some love for the tools you use isn’t a bad idea. It’ll also make things go much faster. I love the process but not more than achieving the result. Want better music then know both side – the artistic and the technical. Most importantly, know the parameters and limitations, and then go unto and make a beautiful noise.
“Give me a cassette deck and a SM 57” indeed.