One of the guitarists in one of my old bands said that he couldn’t read or write music, he played purely by ear. He reckoned if it sounded right, then it probably was right. One thing to say about this guy, he had an exceptional ear, and his pitching and timing was superb. He’s a very good guitarist too! There’s that element where you might think it sounds “right” but you’ve kind of glossed over a part, or perhaps changed a melody slightly here or there. But if it’s got to be right, then you have to make sure it’s right preferably at source.
In a different field, the Alexander technique talks about how we end gain. Specifically this is how we make a movement without actually thinking about what we’re doing to do that movement. So we go to stand up, but all we focus on is the actual goal of being stood up rather than the process of transferring the weight from one base to another. Doing this end gain can lead us to all sorts of pain and bad usage of our bodies. What has this got to do with recording and getting the sound right at source? Well, very often people just chuck microphones at instruments on a fire-and-forget principle. They automatically close mic instruments on a drum kit, automatically close mic the speaker on a guitar cabinet. But is that really giving you the best sound? Sure, if it gets you the sound that you’re looking for, then fantastic! But how much is being missed out if you don’t listen and find the truly optimum place, rather than just close miking because that’s what Mr X producer said on such and such a forum.
The principle is the same for when people come in to record with us. Very often, the recording session is the end gain if you’ll forgive my borrowing from Alexander. They don’t think about the process of getting to that place, they don’t fully practise the song, they may not be too clear on what happens in the bridge. There is perhaps an expectation that they can just come in and record and we’ll press a big red “MAKE IT GOOD” button and all will be well. Well, of course we can (ahem) improve some elements, but we can’t polish the proverbial.
This leads us to another of those studio truisms – if you have a good performer with a good instrument going through good (well placed) mics and good preamps, then you should get something good at the end.
So if you’re thinking about heading into the studio, and wondering how you can help your friendly engineer or producer to get you a good sound, then make sure you give them a good sound at the source!
Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He can often be found hiding under desks gently weeping.