-Reprinted with kind permission from author Frank Wells, editor of Pro Sound News magazine June 2013 issue, Vol.35, No.6, Pg.8. (Added to Power of Prog July 13, 2013.)
From the Editor of Pro Sound News: Seeing The Small Picture
“Ponder how many of the recordings you love best are based on simple arrangements of honest, if imperfect, performances.”
“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art,” said Stephen Webber, channeling Orson Welles in his keynote address at the 134th AES Convention in Rome. This concept reemerged in various guises across a number of recent industry events and discussions, with disparate voices offering individual perspectives that shared the concept that working within limits can improve productivity and focus.
In a presentation on the role of analog in digital production at the Nashville Recording Workshop+Expo, ardent analog recording advocate Chris Mara of Welcome To 1979 Studios discussed how the confines of 24 tracks (or 16 or eight) forces an attitude shift in production. Decisions, commitments to a sound, to a submix, have to be made. Overdubs can’t be endless and are destructive. Mix options and direction become obvious. Pre-production is more critical as a project can’t be endlessly expanded. Musicians who know they can’t easily and endlessly tweak a performance, can’t time-shift notes played, can’t let the engineers bend a performance into perfection, approach the session with a concentrated clarity.
Artist Ben Folds at the Recording Academy P&E Wing Quality Sound Matters event in Nashville echoed the impact of an analog session on preproduction. He recalled a session where the musicians had been told that the next day would be an analog recording. Tape machine issues ultimately forced the engineers to use a DAW for recording, but the musicians’ preparation and attitude adjustments made it the best tracking date of the project.
Reflecting on the history of the RADAR standalone hard disk recorder in a sidebar to a Pro Audio Review test of the new RADAR 6, engineer Lynn Fuston listed simplicity among the key aspects of the unit’s success. As with analog tape, RADAR offered 24 tracks, no playlists and undo, and few tools for manipulation of a recorded track.
There are perils for an artist when given a limitless canvas, when given an unlimited palette of colors. Too many options can confuse. Indecision can erode confidence. Lack of confidence affects performance. The knowledge that commitment can be delayed allows for sloppy work.
Engineers face the same sort of conundrums. Too many options slow progress. Unfortunately, musicians know that their contributions can be endlessly finessed—by the engineer as opposed to them polishing their own performance. That knowledge multiplied by a room full of players can turn an efficient session into a quagmire of minutia. Then you add a producer who is satisfied to play with the recorded tracks ad nauseam, rather than entice the desired performance out of a human being. The same morasses of options that can drag a tracking session down apply to the mix stage as well. Particularly after overdriven tracking and overdub sessions, the mix engineer can have too many details to deal with, too many tracks, too many choices and possibly tracks overproduced to the level of sterility.
Magnificent end results can come from the manipulators in our midst, but ponder how many of the recordings you love best are based on simple arrangements of honest, if imperfect, performances. Think about the lowered stress level when a production is well defined.
Last word to Chuck Ainlay, from the Quality Sound Matters event: “The less you do as an engineer, the better the record.”