A while ago a wrote an article about developing the habit not of “fixing things in the mix” but of recording every track as good as possible even from the beginning. I would have never thought that this article would spark so much controversy.
The reaction I expected was more like “blah, blah, blah, I learned this on my first day in recording kindergarten, why are you telling me this?” But no, I got quite some reactions, which I am very glad about because it shows me that people not only read the article but also thought about it enough to post comments.
What I also came to realize from the comments was that this article wasn’t just about recording practices, EQ or no EQ, but also about psychology and diplomacy in the studio. I would like to spend some more time on that subject because it is very important and seemed to have been overlooked in most recording schools. The fragile egos of the artists (and even the engineers).
Have you read the stories about engineers at Death Row Records being beaten bloody by some of the artists? That never happened to me and I worked with a good amount of rap artists. On the contrary, I worked with artists that many engineers and producers refused to work with. “How did you possibly manage to record an album with this guy?” Well, I did, and not just that, I ended up hanging out with the artist afterward eating Fajitas, and partying in Miami Beach.
Why am I telling you all of this? The strongest comment I got was “I would never lie to an artist and say I did not use Autotune on his voice.” That was not really what I was suggesting. The article was about fixing it in the mix, so if you have the situation where an artist just can’t hit that particular note at the end of the third verse, you can either go on and torture yourself and the artist until you get it right, or you can put a stop to the torture once you have a track that is good enough to be fixed by Autotune later in the mix.
You politely say, “this one is good, we can go on to the next song now” If the artist then asks, “are you going to Autotune this thing?” You can stick to your good Christian values and say, “yeah, I think a little Autotune would make this thing perfect, we’ll decide that later in the mix”. Let’s look at some scenarios of artist egos. I will name some real-life examples here but no names. You can figure it out if you want to.
Scenario One: The scared vocalist
Here is the scenario: You have to record a whole album with a young 18-year-old female singer who is incredibly good but has never been in the studio before. She is singing incredibly well on stage but in the studio, she is totally intimidated. The tracks don’t sound as good as they should. The vocal performance is shy and timid. You do not get what you want. All that technology just intimidates the hell out of this girl.
The first thing she asked for was to turn the lights in the studio lower. Always a good practice, to make the atmosphere more relaxing. Then she asked again, and again. After a while, she was pretty much in total darkness. But it did not seem to help. Finally, we figured out that the light in the studio was not really the problem. It was the light in the control room and the engineer and me staring at her through the glass that was the issue.
So we turned the lights in the control room off. Not a perfect situation to work with but that can be done in most cases. Secondly, I went into the studio to sit next to her to get an even more one-on-one atmosphere. I took the second headphone and let the engineer do his job.
After a while, that really worked out and the tracks were getting better and better and a little bit of a party atmosphere developed in the studio, and the engineer on the other side was all but forgotten. The end result was a nice album with strong and convincing vocals.
Scenario Two: The Superstar
This is one of those cases where you may have to fix some stuff in the mix and in most cases, that is actually expected of you. You are dealing with an artist who clearly considers himself the best in the business, whether that title is really justified or not. And he expects his recording to be perfect. If it is not, it is surely the engineer’s fault and not his.
That will take some delicate maneuvering and the right handling on your part to make a session like that happen. This is when engineers could get beat up. I have seen it myself (but again, I won’t mention any names).
If you are dealing with those difficult artists, you’ll have to learn studio diplomacy. I found that one of the best practices to convince an artist that maybe recording this particular track a little differently is to demonstrate the alternative, not argue your point.
If your superstar is convinced that this particular part of the song should have a vocoder in it while you think it sounds much better with his voice and a vocoder on top (I just pick a random example here), then don’t argue. Record the track, then sit down with the artist and play the song his way and your way. If he hears what you have in mind and likes it, that’s a win. If he doesn’t, well, then you will not be able to convince him either way. So, show, don’t argue…that principle goes a long way toward keeping peace in the studio.
And of course, here is where the occasional Autotune will save the peace (and the artist’s ego). If you want to talk about it and discuss it in great detail with the artist, that is your business. If you just add it as needed in the mix later and then ask, “hey, what do you think?” we won’t have to call an ambulance for you yet.
And of course, trying multiple takes of vocals with this “singing God” to get it right will not work at all. After all, he’s perfect, right? That’s when you suddenly find yourself all by yourself in the studio with the artist gone and a looming deadline.
For the final chapter of this article on torture in the studio, let’s deal with self-torture. Now this sin is mainly practiced by the engineer himself and that was also evident in the replies I got to my article “Should you really fix it in the mix?”
I got responses like this, “in your article, you only mention the noise gate when it comes to fixing a badly recorded noisy track, but there are those wonderful noise reduction tools and plugins.”
Sure, there are wonderful tools available and we will surely put some of those to the test in future articles but let’s consider this: “Not only do you have to buy one of those wonderful tools for your studio, but you will also have to spend another half hour fine-tuning that noisy track while you could have just turned the air conditioner off while recording.
That was the point of the article, why spend money and time fixing stuff instead of recording them correctly? And this is where I see the self-torture come in when you are driven to buy that and install this to “have the latest, have the best” while some problems could be solved by using a better cable or facing a mike in a different direction.
If you have to buy a different microphone just because it is perfect to record that particular guitar through that particular amp, you will either have to have a rich uncle or look for an alternative solution. Or sometimes even fix it in the mix. There, I said it!!!
The point is that a recording engineer is no different from a car mechanic or a house painter. Your client expects that everything turns out exactly as he wants it. If your car comes out of the garage humming softly and accelerating like a Ferrari, your customer will think you’re the greatest mechanic in the world. When you need to re-tune five times and ordered the wrong parts three times, you will never see your customer again.
It’s no different when somebody walks through your doors to record a song. They expect the experience to be pleasant, and easy and the results to be perfect. Quite a lot to ask for but a bit of studio diplomacy will go a long way to a perfect recording and a happy customer.
Also read: Simple Recording Tricks For A Better Mix
About the author:
Alan Steward is a Producer, Engineer, and Musician with over 30 years of experience in the music business. He worked with Grammy-winning artists from the Temptations to the Baha Men. His music has been used in TV shows and feature films. He is also well-known as a producer of loops for music production and owns a recording studio in Germany.
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