PRACTISE: THE ESSENCE OF TRANSFORMATION
Technical Articles/June 15, 2016
When it comes to any craft, practise is one of the key ingredients to success. No-one hits a straight golf ball 300 yards or plays guitar like Hendrix without putting in some serious effort behind the scenes away from the spotlight. Audio engineers are no different.
If you want to advance your engineering skills but think practise doesn’t play a part, think again.
Some of the best recording, mixing and mastering engineers I know work every day, applying their craft to all kinds of musical scenarios. One of the reasons why they’re so good at what they do is implicit in this first statement – that they work every day (well almost). In other words: they’re ‘match fit’ and ‘in form’.
One of the things I notice myself about working in the studio is that I’m generally more ‘in form’ when I’m at the console week in and week out. (It’s a shame my physical fitness suffers the opposite fate when I’m working consistently, but that’s just the rub – the more match fit my ears become, the higher my cholesterol climbs.)
It’s not something I necessarily plan, but like a footballer or musician, the more consistently I apply my skills, the better I am at my job. I guess it’s no surprise really. The same is probably true of most things. But for all the reams of stuff written about recording and mixing technique, very little seems to have been written about ‘match fitness’.
Problem is, there’s a bit of a Catch 22 at play here. If you aren’t that skilled at recording or mixing, or you just want to improve on the skills you’ve got, but there’s no consistent work around you, how do you develop your match fitness?
One of the obvious things to do is find more work – easy to say but often hard or impossible to do, depending on your circumstances. In the absence of this however, the thing to do is practise.
Like anything, practise is crucial to advancing your skills, whether it’s a golf swing, a paradiddle, or a mix. The other important thing to understand about practise in relation to recording and mixing is that it offers you a different perspective on the sounds you’re hearing. It’s by no means a replacement for working at the coalface under seat-of-your-pants pressure with clients, but it is nevertheless crucial to improving your skills and abilities. When you commit yourself to this background work, you tend to be much better prepared and far more composed when you’re finally faced with a real-world recording or mixing situation.
THE SWISSE CHEESE KNOWLEDGE BASE
One of the problems with working under pressure with clients is that it teaches you certain skills quickly in the absence of others. Call it a ‘baptism of fire’ or ‘diving in the deep end’; either way, this approach can have the affect of rapidly improving your skills in one area whilst leaving you technically blind in others. Despite the cliché, learning on the job can make your skill-set narrow and fragile, leaving you potentially exposed to unforseen circumstances or technical mishap.
That’s why practise is so important. It builds you a wider and more technically solid foundation than working alone at the coalface ever provides. When combined with study and learning, practise makes you far more proficient and technically literate. It deepens your knowledge base and provides you with far more skills and solutions that you can apply later in the field.
It’s like playing drums. You don’t get to be a technically brilliant drummer by simply going on stage in front of 20,000 people every night and having a red-hot go, nor could you ever hope to score the job in the first place without any real skills.
Drumming involves hours and hours of practise every day that eventually leads to great performances. Brilliant drummers aren’t just born with magical powers over drumsticks. They learn their craft slowly and methodically. Recording and mixing is no different.
Practising your audio skills can take many forms. If you’re interested in recording, mixing or mastering, and regardless of your level of competence, any type of study, experimentation or volunteer work will help. Here are a few things to consider doing, especially if you’re just starting out.
Know Your DAW: It pays big dividends to get to know your software down to the nut and bolt if possible. Devoting time to working with your main program in particular, away from the pressures of a session – experimenting with its GUI and reading its manual from cover to cover – is a good idea no matter how proficient you think you are. Though this might sound tedious, a lot can be gained from this sort of study, in some cases revealing things about the software that day-to-day work might never uncover.
Improving Your Mic Technique: Learning new mic techniques by reading, watching online videos and lectures, or working with others in outside sessions, can make a huge difference to your impact as an engineer. Mic technique has more influence over good sonic outcomes than just about anything else you can learn. I still find myself discovering new mic setups 31 years after I first walked through a studio door!
The best thing about this job is that there’s no end to what you can learn or how you can apply your knowledge, and the more you know the faster new techniques tend to sink in. The learning never stops until the day you’re prepared to announce to the world that you know everything… anyone game?
Re-mixing Off The Clock: It’s worth having a crack at remixing stuff recorded by others, whether it’s old classic multitracks or recent recordings of friends or colleagues.
Without the pressures of a real mixing session bearing down on you, more time can be devoted to experimenting with techniques you’ve read about, or new software tools you’ve recently acquired (or discovered). Sometimes reading or discussing a technique only gets you so far, and real clarity is often only reached through having a go at a process yourself, making mistakes along the way, and letting the fog clear in your own time. Discovering things yourself, cracking the code of certain tried and true methods is not only very satisfying, when you work them out yourself, they stick.
Sometimes the boldest moves, the greatest experimentation, takes place away from the prying eyes and judgement of others. When you’re on your own, go for it. What have you got to lose?
Confront Your Fears: You may have read about all kinds of techniques in your travels about everything from parallel compression and key input side-chaining, to advanced reverb settings and mix bus limiting. But then, when push comes to shove during a paid session, you flinch and abandon any ideas you may have had of trying something new – it’s often too scary and potentially embarrassing.
Fair enough. Everyone experiences this at some point, often repeatedly. The way to overcome this hesitation is to demystify some of the things you fear most in private, and at your own pace. It’s a shocking feeling, being caught out in front of others, looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. The best way to rectify this is to write down a list of the things you know very little or nothing about, and investigate how each one ticks by reading, experimenting and asking questions.
Explore Your Ideas: Lots of this recording and mixing caper is about discovering things yourself. Not all these will be revolutionary of course, or necessarily even new to the wider industry, but when you hit on techniques yourself, or give old ones a personal twist, it can be very empowering and satisfying.
Practising your craft allows you to the time and headspace to follow ideas to their natural conclusion. It also gives you the freedom to get things very wrong before you eventually get them right.
Don’t back away from your blindspots or weaknesses. Face them head-on and and before you know it you will have developed solutions and added techniques to your repertoire that make you a more experienced engineer.