I love talking about audio and music. I love having discussions with other people that enjoy the same things that I do. This is the reason I found myself frequenting not only forums, message boards, Facebook groups, but also live events and other places where people that enjoy recording audio and making music gather. Since I was a kid I was always looking for a way to join a community while not actually having to join a community. When I started playing the bass in the 6th grade, I joined a bass guitar message board where I could talk to other bassists about ways to improve. Later on, when I got into playing competitive paintball and poker I did the same thing. By joining these communities I was cued into a network of people that were all interested in the same thing. It became a vital way for me to find people that have similar interest that are also looking to grow. Message boards and similar types of communities are also a great place to educate yourself as they are great resources for information as well as staying current on industry trends.
Now, with all good can come bad and there can be a lot of bad when you get a lot of nerds together online. This is actually a reason I enjoy facebook groups a bit more than message boards. Facebook is less anonymous than the some of the other communities which hold users accountable (to an extent). Anonymity can bring out the worst in people.
Some of you that follow me on social media may know that I like to create and post a lot of memes that are designed to be funny and poke fun at certain aspects of audio, music or production. It seems some people get them confused with statements about audio engineering or music production beliefs and philosophies.
I recently posted a meme where I depicted a Fairchild 670, the Waves plugin version of the same compressor– the Puigchild 670 and a stock photo of people in a crowd with the words “Who would win?” at the top. Almost immediately comments began flooding in arguing one side or the other.
The point of this meme is making fun of the high cost of analog gear and the fact that the majority of people that will eventually listen to the end product on their cell phones not only don’t give a crap about what type of processors you used but also will never be able to hear the difference. I love analog gear, I use a lot of it, I wouldn’t be able to do certain things without it. I love plugins, I use a lot of them, I wouldn’t be able to do certain things without them. One is not better than the other, they both serve their purpose. If you like one better than the other, great, that doesn’t mean it’s better for everyone.
That meme is meant to be a joke, it’s meant to be funny but what I’ve found is that people online seem to take things too seriously and love to take any opportunity to argue something they believe is 100% right. If you’re one of those people let me save you some time and aggravation. It’s not worth it and you’re not always right, even if you always think you are. Why are you trying to change complete strangers opinions on the internet?
It doesn’t make any sense to me. I understand having a proper debate about something that may be controversial but there’s really no right or wrong in these scenarios. If you like analog gear, great, use it. If you like plugins, great, use it. Why is anyone trying to prove to anyone else that one is better than the other?
I’m just as likely to be reading this type of article as I am to be writing it. I’ve struggled with getting rid of bad habits my entire life. I wish I could tell you I’m the hardest working engineer in the biz, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. I’m always looking for ways to work harder and smarter. That doesn’t mean I’m lazy or don’t work hard, but there’s always room for improvement. It all comes down to discipline. You can lose weight, quit smoking, get better at basketball if you can improve your self-discipline and are smart about your approach
To give yourself the best chance of getting rid of a bad habit, it’s important to understand your tendencies and adjust to them accordingly. It’s hard not to feel like I’m the pot calling the kettle back, considering I’ve been “waiting” to start going to the gym for the last five years. But that’s not to say I haven’t improved in other areas or displayed self-discipline in other aspects of my life (humble brag; I just celebrated my first anniversary of not smoking cigarettes).
I started writing the “confessions of an audio engineer” series because I wanted to write about issues I am currently struggling with or have struggled with in the past. Even if admitting some of these things may be embarrassing and writing them out may be difficult, putting my thoughts on paper helps me be self-reflective and gives me a sort of third-party perspective. Ultimately, writing my thoughts down helps me better decipher what they mean and how I can fix them.
Lately, I’ve been disappointed that I haven’t been writing as much music as I’d like. I haven’t finished a song in years. I work on other peoples music, and I enjoy it, but like most audio engineers I got into this field because I enjoy creating music. I want to start finishing more songs, I want to begin cultivating better habits when it comes to writing and practicing music, and this is where the idea for this article stems from. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.
Figure out what you want to change
The first step to fixing habits is figuring out what you want to fix. I think it’s hard for a lot of people to step back and unbiasedly look at themselves and figure out what they would like to change about themselves. It’s important to focus on what you can change and stop worrying about what you can’t.
The majority of people go through life without stopping to figure out how they can improve themselves on a more significant level. People have egos, some feel they are better off thinking that everything they are doing is fantastic and the way they feel or how they think is always right. The best advice I can give myself and others is to remember to stay humble, nothing is written in stone. It’s okay to have an opinion; it’s not okay to be ignorant. Be open to changing yourself, your mind, the way you think and the way you live.
Make a list
The best way to figure out what you want to change is by making a list. Write out what you like about yourself. Then, write down what you don’t like about yourself. Now look the list of what you don’t like about yourself and try to figure out the best course of action to go about fixing it. For instance, in terms of life if you’re trying to get in better shape, put down a few different ways you can work towards doing that. So using this example you could say, go to the gym twice a week for 30 min or walk 10,000 steps a day. Make sure that the task is something that’s achievable and not overwhelming. It’s important to keep the goal reasonable or you’ll be more inclined to procrastinate or talk yourself out of doing it. And also make sure that you’re taking into account some of your tendencies. Now, this is the problematic part, and some will be better at this the others. If I hate running on a treadmill or going to the gym then I should try to walk in the park or find exercises I can do at home. If I know I’m not a morning person, then I should schedule my exercise in the afternoon. If you know exercising isn’t easy for you, start slower, start with your diet.
Find out and get rid of temptations and other distractions
Are you constantly going on Facebook? Staring at your phone?
Turn off the wifi! Put your phone in airplane mode! Mitigate your distractions by recognizing what they are before you even start working!
It’s common to find your attention drifting. If you see this happening you should immediately recognize it and cognitively redirect your attention back to what you should be focusing on. I know, easier said than done, the good thing is if you keep at it you’ll get better over time.
Schedule a time
Set aside a specific time to do a task. Make sure that it is written down on a calendar. Writing it down and putting it on your calendar helps hold yourself responsible. As I mentioned before, it’s easy to procrastinate, and it’s easy to give yourself excuses to not do something. My biggest problem is when the time comes to do something I tell myself I’ll have time to do it tomorrow or tomorrow’s a better day anyway, and I find a way to convince myself it’s okay not to do something. I’ll talk myself out of doing something that at one point was important enough to put down on a to-do list but
You can’t wait for the motivation or inspiration to start doing something. You have to show up every day and get to work. James Clear who is a Behavior Science Expert says “The work of top creatives isn’t dependent upon motivation or inspiration, but rather it follows a consistent pattern and routine. It’s the mastering of daily habits that lead to creative success, not some mythical spark of genius.”
If you know you have trouble holding yourself accountable when it comes to completing a task, schedule a time to do it. If you don’t do the task at the time specified, you failed. Once you start fulfilling these obligations you put down on your calendar, you’ll begin to enjoy the feeling of getting shit done. Small wins, add up to big gains.
Don’t give yourself a choice
There’s no excuse for not giving all your effort. If you find yourself always thinking of ways to get out of doing something, realize this is an unfortunate trick your brain is playing on you. If you say you’re going to do something, you have to do it!
A technique I like to use is to think of myself as an optimized robot. If I was the perfectly programmed music making robot what would I do? How would I spend my time? This allows me to take a step back and look at the situation from the outside. Robots don’t have a choice. If you schedule a robot to do something at a specific time, they do it. To sum everything up; be cool, be a robot.
If I could only have one effect or plugin, it would be a good saturator. You can use saturation to do just about everything from compressing to distorting, to just adding color or harmonics to enhance the overall tone.
One of the major problems with digital recording is everything is captured so “cleanly.” Because digital signal processors lack actual hardware components, the super fast transients are preserved in an almost unnatural way. Super clean digital recordings tend to sound “sterile” compared those recorded to an excellent magnetic tape machine. The analog components inevitably soften transients and add what most engineers describe as warmth and color. Whatever word you want to use to describe it, the end result usually makes things sound better and more importantly blend more easily.
To compensate for these super clean recordings, many software companies that are emulating classic analog gear have added saturation stages into the algorithms. It is common to see a saturation stage in compressors, equalizers and even some delay units such as the Waves H-Delay and Soundtoys Echoboy. The reason for this is because the units they are modeling had transformers, transistors, capacitors and other components that the audio would have to pass through before being outputted to your speakers. In order to accurately model these classic processors programmers needed to make sure the coloration that is happening inside the unit is there as well.
It’s common to hear other audio engineers talking about “width” or “how wide a mix” is. There’s a reason for it, something that sounds wider usually sounds “better” because it sounds fuller. There may be a select few scenarios where a narrow mix might be preferable but for the majority of music, you’ll want to actively try to keep the stereo field as wide as possible.
Normally when adjusting a stereo track, you’re either adjusting a single mono channel individually or both stereo channels together. If you’re adjusting a stereo signal whatever you’re doing to one side will affect the other side exactly the same way.
Midside takes a stereo signal and decodes it into a mid and a side channel rather than the standard left and right. This lets you control the mid and the side channels separately.
The mid channel lets you control the center of the stereo image. If the mid-channel is boosted, the listener will perceive the source as narrower or more mono.
The side channel is the outer edges of the stereo field. Boosting the side channel will give the listener the perception of a wider sound. M/S decoding stems from the microphone technique of the same name invented by Alan Blumlein in 1934.
Mid/Side can be a very powerful tool but a little definitely goes a long way and you need to be careful of going too far as more extreme settings can cause phase and imbalance issues.
Automating Mid/Side effects is a fun way to add width to synths or guitars during a particular section of a song. Another cool trick is to raise the mid-channel on the overheads to get more focus and punch out of the kick and snare.
In the past, I wish I had been more aware of the stereo field and just how important it is. A good mix engineer is very aware of giving every element of a production its own deliberate space. No two elements can be competing and everything has to be put in a place that makes sense. That’s what makes a good mix. A lot of people underestimate how important and powerful panning is as a tool for engineers. There are many problems that can be solved with just a small move of the pan knob. Instead of trying to cut a conflicting frequency with an equalizer, adjusting the panning can often be a better solution.
The center of a stereo image is where the important stuff is going to happen. The vocals are arguably the most important and you’ll always find them located smack dab in the center. You’ll also need to make sure both channels are balanced. This can sometimes be difficult during the mixing phase as there are times where you’ll want a mono sound playing through both speakers that is conflicting too much with more important elements. A widener is the perfect tool for getting an element out of the way of the center while still keeping stereo image balanced. I hate pulling a guitar or keyboard over to one side without another sound on the other side to balance (unless I’m specifically going for that effect or want something to really stick out). There are multiple ways widening plugins make the image seem wider and most involve some sort of phase manipulation.
I learned that It’s hard to know you need something when you’ve never tried it. No, I’m not talking about drugs (stay away from those kids)! I’m talking about transient designers. I waited a little too long before I decided to try out a transient designer. It’s a tool that serves an important purpose when it comes to newer more transient heavy electronic music and it can not be replaced by any other tool in an audio engineers toolbox.
I think the reason I went so long without using them is if there was ever a sample or some track that would benefit from adjusting the transient, instead of opening up a transient designer I would opt to replace the sample or find another way to fix whatever issue I was having. That’s the beautiful part about recording and art in general. There’s always more than one way to do something and if it works, it works and it doesn’t matter whether anyone else considers it “right.”
Replacing the sample is one way to fix a problem but using a transient designer is a much quicker and more efficient way if you are looking to adjust the attack or sustain of a particular sound.
These synthesize harmonics and allow you to blend them into a dry source. Harmonic generators like the Aphex Aural Exciter have been a long-standing staple of recording studios and are commonly used on vocals to help add extra shine. These units ultimately help the sound pop, they add an excitement which you mostly notice in the high frequencies.
Subharmonic generators like the Peavey Kosmos and Waves R-Bass allow engineers to add synthesized subharmonics into their bass, kick, and synthesizer tracks. Sub frequencies that are 40 Hz below are difficult to capture via a standard microphone. You may have seen engineers recording a kick drum with a sub mic. A subharmonic generator allows you to synthetically add in these frequencies to help give the tracks some extra low-end oomph.
Maybe you’ve bit crushed a synth track but have you ever tried bitcrushing a hi-hat? or shaker? Or a vocal double and blending it back in for a lo-fi texture. When you lower the bit depth of an audio signal, you alter the frequency response. The lower the bit depth, the lower the frequency range the audio signal can reproduce. Lowering percussion tracks or other sounds to 16 bit, 8 bit, or even lower can help add some texture that no other processor can.
You’ll find bit crushers are great for adding harsh distortion. They are a goto for engineers that want to absolutely destroy a sound, but they also can add more subtle color effects when used more tamely.
My favorites includeKlanghelm SDRR and the stock Bitcrusher in Logic Pro X and Ableton Live