Why is it such an expected practice for engineers and producers to accept, record and use tracks that haven’t been recorded well? Why do some musicians have the belief that lacklustre performances are acceptable and will contribute to a great mix? It seems obvious that if the input is bad, the output can’t be great?
Once audio has been captured, it’s important to remember that EQ, compression, modulation and time-based effects are effects that process the audio at their input point. This seems obvious, right? So how can an effect, or the engineer mixing a song, be expected to give the track something that isn’t there to start with? A signal with a high-pass filter will never get it’s low frequencies back. You can boost the lows but the most you’ll get is whatever frequencies fit between the crossover of your EQ and the high-pass filter. Similarly, a compressor can make a signal (or a whole mix) punchy in a lot of different ways, but you’ll never get the push and pull of a great performance. You can even automate effects in and out, but they’ll never rise and fall like a performer/s do in an inspired and rehearsed performance.
Rehearsing brings me to my next point: musicians should be rehearsed before they enter the studio. Another point that seems obvious when blatantly stated in a blog, but also something that falls by the wayside. In the past, I’ve suggested a band recording live because of the sounds and feel of their references. On one occasion, the band though this idea laughable because the band (more specifically the members who knew the song at all) hadn’t been able to play the song the whole way through yet. Why would a band attempt to record a song they hadn’t rehearsed? They’ll do it because they believe it’s the engineers or producers job to make them sound great, and this isn’t entirely wrong.
In 2017, many releases are self-produced, or the engineer will take on both roles. This may explain, but not excuse the reason so many artists and engineers accept takes that don’t have great feel, vibe and energy. It’s a lot for on person to take on, engineering and producing, but unfortunately it’s the way this job is heading. It important, however, to note that this still doesn’t excuse the expectation to capture a great take. Compare audio to photography, for example. You wouldn’t give a Photoshop engineer (is that a thing?) an average photo and ask them make everyone in the photo look like they’re having a good time. In Photoshop you can add filters, change colours, edit borders, scrub out imperfections, emphasise/draw perfection and even include elements that weren’t in the original image. This won’t necessarily make for a great image, because just like audio, it’s a lot of the imperfections that make a great photo. Theoretically, the photo might have great line of sight, it’ll be balanced and the colours might be pleasing – but what’s that if the original image is boring?
These are just a few things to keep in mind the next time your band goes into the studio to record, or even before you enter the studio. You can’t get out what you don’t put in, and effects and filters or process or emphasise what is already there. A good band with a bad recording will still sound good, and likewise a crappy band with a great recording, mix and master will never sound great.