Plan A or B

By May 20, 2010General

OK, so you became a happy owner of a brand new computer and software, an audio interface and a shiny microphone. You feel like the lord of the sound and just mentioning ‘music career’ makes your heart pound and bursts your chest open. You even read your DAW’s (digital audio workstation) manual. Man, it was hard! Fortunately for you the modern technology allows you recording and mixing music yourself. No need for an expensive studio any more. What a cost cut!

Finally, the day comes to mix your first song, your baby. How exciting! It’s like sitting in the driver’s seat for the first time. And here comes the tough question – where to begin?

Hmm what if I try some plug-in presets, first, you think. Necessity in a rock vocal? No problems, just select a preset called ‘Great rock vocal’ and… and it doesn’t suit. Never mind, there are lots of dedicated forums for musicians out there. Right, forums! And so you begin searching through an innumerable quantity of topics and asking a countless number of questions. And those forum members, they are sincerely trying to help you. After all, they are in the same boat like you, they know your pain. Eventually, inspired by myths and beliefs, and armed with some tricks from your brothers in mixing, you’ve re-mixed your song. Sound? Well, it’s different, but not what you are after.

All right, you say, it must be wrong software. Of course, it’s software! If you could only possess the same amazing setup as that famous guy from a music magazine ad, your song would sound as good as his. Easy. Several Buy-clicks and you are a proud owner of ‘professional’ programs, new instruments, effects, speakers… you name it. Sure, lots of money has been spent and there is almost nothing left for the next month (or two) to live on but that’s fine. After all, professional stuff can’t be cheap, and you want that pro-sound, right? Plus, your girlfriend, she said she will support you – safe! OK it’s time for the new re-mix. And…? And it still doesn’t sound as you want it.

In the end, you have got to a point when you became frustrated with technology, it seems like producing music isn’t enjoyable at all, and you are about to bawl out: “Enough! What’s going on? I’ve done everything I could. I’ve spent so much money, energy and time on it! Even my girlfriend wants to leave me if I won’t stop. What am I doing wrong?”

Well, you aren’t doing anything wrong. Frankly, some things have been even overdone. Let me make some lyrical digression to explain what I mean. Look around and you will see that behind every man’s action, there is a very strong word – faith. For example, she loves him, and he loves her. Do they know for sure about each other feelings? Not really. However, they believe in them and that is what holds him and her together. More examples? OK, athletes dripping with sweat on coaching because they believe they can win Olympic games, musicians rehearsing to madness because they believe it can improve their live performance, terrorists blowing themselves up because they believe they are doing the right thing etc.

When we believe in something, we are capable of achieving great goals and equally, we are able to do horrible things. The only question is – what do you believe in? In your case, someone or something made you believe making music is easy, and that all you need is a computer. Theoretically, this is correct. Today, you can build a studio in a computer and start making noise. Yes, it is possible to get that ‘pro’ sound with tools any decent DAW has out of the box (you must have a great recorded material in the first place though which is art in itself). Yet, there is one thing money can’t buy. It’s called ‘experience’ and getting it can take many years.

Put it this way. You wouldn’t call yourself a builder only because you purchased some tools, would you? In much the same way, you wouldn’t call yourself a chef because you have just bought a set of pots. And yet you think you are a mixing engineer because you have a computer and software. Funnily enough, many of us admire tools much more than skills. Many times, I was asked the question: ‘Vitaly, could you teach me how to use (put your favourite DAW name here), because I want to mix my stuff myself?’ Sure, I can.
However, being a mixing engineer isn’t about moving knobs and faders or copying/pasting data. First of all, it is about understanding our perception of the sound and what can we do to make it pleasant to our ears and this understanding comes with years of experience.

Am I encouraging you not to record and mix your songs yourself? No way! Having a record setup is great help to perfect your music skills and to work out some ideas. What I am trying to say is – don’t blame gear. There is nothing wrong with it, this is not where the problem lies.

So what you can do? Basically there are two scenarios.

Plan A – a short way:

Do your best as a musician/song-writer i.e. write songs, record demos, perfect your skills. And when you feel you are ready to record your album, go and find a good professional to do that. Yes, you will have to pay for his/her services and yet if we consider the time and energy to be spent, it will be much cheaper than…

Plan B – a long way:

Doing everything yourself. At first it seems attractive as you don’t need to pay for studio time. You can do whatever you want, and for as long as you want. However, in reality, quite a few years will pass before you start producing something decent. Eventually, you will look back and realize that at this time you could start working on your second or even third album if back then you chose Plan A. Instead, you are still sitting in your room thinking ‘how can I make my drums punchier?’.

You might think all this time I was trying to make you believe that spending money on professionals is worthwhile. I admit, I was, because quality is what I believe in.

Vitaly Zolotarev,
Recording/mixing engineer, freelancer.
Member of AES, NZAMP
[email protected]

© 2010 Vitaly Zolotarev


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