Musician's Survival Guide to a Killer Record - Introduction

Musician's Survival Guide to a Killer Record - Introduction
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#1

On behalf of the team of a admins at Indie Recording Depot we’re honored to have @Mixerman with us as a special guest, and glad to help him promote his new book! Please feel free to use this thread to ask questions or discuss related content! Now over to you Eric…

Hey Everyone! My newest book is finished and should start shipping out at the end of this week. In the meantime, here is the first half of the Intro. If you’d like to read the rest of the intro, sign up for my mailing list. I’ll be sending it out later this week. Once you’re on my mailing list, you can email me anytime. I will go out of my way to answer every email.

From Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record.

The Intro (first half)

This Survival Guide is not intended to make you a better recordist. It’s designed to get you thinking about your Art and the creation of it from a musical place–regardless of genre–and to turn technical decisions into practical ones.

Given the title, it should be no surprise that I wrote this guide specifically for musicians. Every explanation and recommendation that I make is based on the realities of the recording musician today. Some of you are relatively new to the process. Others of you have recorded for years, but may be frustrated with the incremental improvements in your records.

This is not the book to learn how to plug in an interface or how to choose a DAW. This is a Survival Guide, it’s not a From-The-Ground-Up Guide. If you don’t know what converters are, or what a mic preamp is, or a compressor, or the difference between a real mic and a USB mic, then this book will be a little advanced for you. If, on the other hand, you want to know how to make all of those tools work for you rather than against you–that I can help you with.

Very few of us operate purely as a musician these days. You’re probably also an Artist, a producer, a recordist and a mixer. Those creative positions were formerly held by a team of people who were ideally experts at their respective jobs. These days, it’s more likely that one person is doing them all.

You.

Which is a little problematic, because there’s an inherent tension that occurs between the recordist, who is tasked with an accurate capture, and the producer, who is more concerned with performance. This sometimes results in making a take before the recordist is ready (which really annoys the recordist I have to say).

Personally, I’d rather have a less than ideal capture of my Artist when she’s itching to perform, than to have her shut down because my recordist spent too much time dicking around with tone. If there’s a usable signal coming through the monitors, and an inspired singer standing in front of the mic, I’m hitting record, regardless of protests from my recordist. I’m not going to allow technical bull**** to prevent me from capturing the performance of a lifetime. Even if there’s a sonic technical issue, if it’s a great performance, we’re good. Sound Schmound.

Unfortunately, if you’re both the performer and the recordist and there’s no producer to crack the whip, it can be difficult to extract yourself from the engineering mindset, mostly because you want your record to sound good, and if you don’t focus on the sound, you could very well ruin your record. In reality it’s an uninspired performance that will ruin your record, and the best way I know to achieve an uninspired performance is to focus on sound.

So does that mean you should just haphazardly throw up a mic, plug it into the nearest preamp and hope for the best? Of course not. But there are strategies that you can implement. In the case of a vocal, you could do some advance work, so that the mic and the preamp are ready to go the moment you’re inspired.

It’s critical that you learn good habits in your quest to make a Killer Record. Oh, and not just one Killer Record, but many. As such, the intent of this book is to provide you with a blueprint—a method, as it were—to bring you along the path of success. Which all starts with the acceptance that if you wish a prosperous and successful record career, the music is where you should focus your attention.

This requires discipline. Not in doing the work. Most of you love recording and if you could do it all day and night you would. No, I’m talking about the discipline to make musical decisions rather than sonic ones. That will take some practice. Hey, you’re a musician. You should be used to practice by now.

You don’t need to know anything about how anything works from a technical perspective where it comes to making a Killer Record. Seriously, for many years I couldn’t tell you how any of this **** works beyond the basics myself. I literally learned how to record by rote, and picked up everything else along the way. Here we are five gold records, one platinum, and a multi-platinum record later, so clearly, all that you need to know is how things work from a practical perspective. And if you’d like to dive deeper into the technical aspects of recording, then by all means jump on the Internet and do some research.

It’s not like it’s difficult to find obviously reputable sources who can accurately explain how recording tools work. I just typed “how does ratio work on a compressor,” into my search engine, and on the first page there are several legitimate articles, and a few questionable ones. All of the well-known sources offer an accurate technical explanation of how ratio works. None of them really offers a practical explanation of how to choose your ratio.

Despite the ubiquitous nature of information on how to get started recording, somehow that doesn’t stop people from going on to a professional recording forum and asking what an interface does (bless their hearts). Fortunately, there are many people with far more patience than I who will gladly dispense that sort of information to you. They’re called Gear Pimps. Seriously, why would you ask strangers on the Internet advice on gear when a Gear Pimp will go out of her way to give you the best consultation she can based on your needs and workflow? Because she wants to sell you something? Good! She wants to sell you lots of somethings, and it makes no sense for her to sell you the wrong thing. If you’re asking about the best converter under $1000, then you clearly want to buy something. Go talk to the person who wants to sell you something.

Sheesh.

The mantra of this book is you have what you have and what you have is going to change. In fact, I did not mention any audio gear brands or models in the body of this book, nor did I need to. In other words, if all you have is a DAW, an interface, and a mic, that’s probably enough to get you started. But you have to face some reality here. You will be severely limited in what you can do.

There’s nothing wrong with limitations. We deal with them on a daily basis. Music has limitations. Our creativity manifests in how we operate within those limitations. And when you get really good, you learn how to expand your limitations into assets.

I peruse the various recording forums on the Internet a fair bit, and the mythology that is passed around in regards to recording and mixing is rather remarkable. Oftentimes, those who would be educators don’t know much of anything themselves and have never been involved in a record of note. Believe me, a record of note is not a prerequisite for explaining basic signal flow. It is, however, an absolute requirement when it comes to understanding how to make a record of note.

Further problematic, where Internet recording questions are concerned, the situation at hand is rarely considered. For the last 20 years, I’ve advised young mixers to put a compressor on their main stereo outputs (often called the 2-bus). I’m downright adamant about it. But if you ask me if a musician making her own record should put a compressor on the 2-bus? Probably not. It took me several days of internal debate to finally come to that conclusion.

That’s why I decided I had to write this book. It was clear that musicians are getting answers that don’t take into account their reality. Of course, some people don’t seem able to properly set up a question either. And social media all but trains us to post open-ended statements posing as inquiries designed to provoke a reaction. That’s rarely a good way to get information.

Hey fellow recording enthusiasts! Longtime lurker, first time poster. Should I mix with headphones?

Absolutely not.

300 posts later we find out the original poster is a hobbyist who gets complaints from neighbors when she uses her monitors, and is in danger of being evicted, which will be a real problem since her credit rating is down around 500 and no one else will rent to her.

Should I mix with headphones?

Um. Yes?

Of course, who is answering the question might influence the response.

Should I mix with headphones?

Absolutely not! Says the major label mix engineer.

Absolutely! Says the home recordist whose wife is fast asleep in the bed behind her.

As you might imagine, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about recording, mixing, and producing. Things have changed dramatically in the past few years. There is no doubt in my mind there are more musicians producing their own records than ever before in history. DAWs are powerful tools that generally don’t cost very much, and often come stocked with massive libraries and impressive manipulation tools. As such, there is a definitive need for practical information based on the current realities.

When it comes to record-making, there are no rules, and we’re going to use that fact to our advantage. But as I pointed out, there are indeed limitations, and you need to understand and accept those limitations in order to operate within them. If you go into your record with a vision that can’t be achieved given the circumstances, then you’re going to be disappointed with the results.

In order to set you up for success, the first thing that we must address is your thinking. So long as your expectations align with reality, you’ll have a good shot at making a record you’ll adore. That is to say, a Killer Record.

Mindset

You’ve probably noticed the cover of this book is modeled off a US Army Field Manual. Much like a Field Manual, this document is meant to provide you an enormous amount of practical and useful information in a relatively compact package. Unlike a Field Manual, it’s intended to be somewhat entertaining. At the very least engaging.

I can assure you, dryly explaining signal flow and gain staging is neither entertaining nor engaging, and you’re not going to get a whole lot of that kind of nonsense from me. Sure, I’ll address both of those wholly technical considerations, but let us not forget that the goal here is to make a Killer Record. Not a technically perfect recording, whatever the hell that is.

Now, I recognize that it’s quite possible you don’t want to make a Killer Record at all and don’t understand why anyone would. Perhaps what you want is a Phat record. Worry not. I can help you with that too! Or maybe you want your record to be wicked. Or awesome. Dope, stellar, righteous, super, super-duper, bomb, epic, kick-ass, unmother****ingdeniable. It doesn’t really matter what word you choose, these terms all describe the same thing. A record that moves you.

Clearly, some of those descriptors will resonate with you more than others. After all, we identify with certain expressions based on our culture, our location, even our friendships. When you think about it, it’s no different with music. Some music resonates with us. Some doesn’t. And although the manner in which we describe our favorite records can vary greatly, we do have one thing in common. We’re musicians. And as such, we record music.

Let me repeat that. We record music.

Yet for some inexplicable reason, most musicians I know, and I assume most that I don’t, seek to improve their engineering skills. If you spend any time at all on audio forums, the trend is obvious. Musicians everywhere mistakenly believe they should think like recordists. Perhaps because that’s how you improve your recordings.

It’s not really. In fact, the headspace of a recordist is literally the last place you want to be in when you’re recording music. Strange, I know.

As someone who has operated as a professional recordist at the highest level (the $1000 per day kind), when you’re recording someone amazing, when you’re recording someone who understands how to project confidence and perform with artistry, you literally need only to set a mic in front of that amazingness and make sure that you’re in record when it matters. Yet, when you’re capturing something particularly atrocious, you’ll have to muster every bit of your experience and creativity in order to deliver what we can ostensibly refer to as a halfway decent recording.

Right. So, as a recordist or an engineer, if you merely avoid ****ing a record up you’re a genius. But if you bring it miles ahead of where it was, you’ll be judged as wholly mediocre.

Which begs the obvious question: Why would anyone want to be a recordist? Because going from the thankless job of musician to an even more thankless job, with no chance of fame or the corresponding perks is somehow forward movement? Nearly every recordist I know is either a frustrated musician or a roadie who wanted more out of life. This is what you want to strive for as a musician? To be a recordist?

Look, I’m not saying there’s no merit to being a recordist, or even an engineer for that matter. But the main purpose of the gig, done properly, is to keep technology out of the way of the performers. The recordist concentrates on all the technical bull****, so that the rest of us can concentrate on the music. Yet, like every other job in this industry, it has been elevated in importance beyond reason, despite the complete erosion of the position. These days, you’re far more likely to record yourself than to hire a recordist to do the job.

Anyone and everyone who has ever spent any part of their career as a designated recordist can tell you without equivocation, that the quality of a recording is based purely on the artistry before them. If the artistry is great, the recording will be great.

Notice I used the word artistry and not musicianship. Whether someone is a great musician or not is somewhat irrelevant. U2’s The Edge was no virtuoso back in the early eighties when they put out Boy. But he sure understood how to convert his limitations into strengths. That’s what artistry is. Understanding how to use the resources around and within you in order to make a statement that moves people. Art can be technically ugly and artistically beautiful at the same time. In other words, you don’t have to be a great musician to make a Killer Record. You just need artistry.

It makes far more sense for a musician to think like an Artist than to think like a recordist. As such, your artistry is your musicianship. And whereas recordists focus on how the music sounds, Artists and producers focus on how the music makes them feel. After all, that’s how Music Fan judges our work, by how it makes her feel. So, if the listener feels the music, why then would we ever concentrate on the sound? Because if the music makes you feel a certain way, then there’s a good chance it’ll make the listener feel that way too.

The thing we have to keep in mind is music is inexorably attached to sound. Yes, you can have sound without music. But you can’t have music without sound. Therefore, if you get the music right, if you arrange the parts such that they work together in balance and push the listener forward through the track, it’s going to sound good too.

I operated for many years as both producer and recordist. As such, I began to realize that anytime I was antsy about the sound during a take, it was actually a performance issue. The take didn’t sound good because the music wasn’t being performed well, and no amount of knob twiddling or fader riding could fix that.

Surely, when you first open up a haphazardly placed mic it can sound horrible. There is a process after all and we’re going to go through all of that. But once you’ve pulled your tones and you’re happy with them, barring some weird electrical anomaly or perhaps a bumped mic, what could possibly cause the sound to change other than the performance?

Oh, I know. The drummer played way harder once he was making a take.
For anyone with a little seasoning, that’s predictable.

Hitting the skins harder will certainly change the timbre of the drum, which will produce less overall tone. The drums will also be louder, which means the mic preamps are hit with more signal, same with the compressors. And yeah, one possible solution to the problem is to notch down the mic pres, which will also address the over-compression. But not only is that the least simple solution, it’s a technical evaluation that only serves to ignore the more likely possibilities.

For starters, if the drummer is hitting the drums harder than usual during a take, her performance can stiffen. This will often manifest as sonic degradation, even when you inherently understand it as a performance issue. If the drummer is doing anything outside of her normal practices, the performance very well could suffer. Notching down the mic pres isn’t going to fix that.

There’s no doubt that you need to understand how to get a mic into a mic preamp into an EQ and a compressor. You also need to understand the basics of how all those operate. And you can use these tools to mangle and to manipulate your tones to some degree. But if the initial rundown of the track sounds better than the early takes, this is a performance issue far more often than not. A bad performance can, and will, cause the sound to fall apart.

Still don’t believe me? If I bring super cellist Yo-Yo Ma into a world class studio, and place a good mic in front of him, he will sound amazing. If I immediately bring in Ma-Ma Yo—a first year cellist of questionable talent—and ask her to play the same song, with the same cello, in the same place, it will most assuredly disappoint.

What changed? The player and therefore the performance.

Logically speaking, if a poor performance can cause the sound to crumble, then to address the performance is to address the sound. Admittedly, when you’re in the act of setting up a cheaply built microphone that’s distorting both at the capsule and the preamp, it becomes a little difficult to keep the focus on the music. That’s what mantras are for. Repeat after me:

May all of my recording decisions be musical ones, and all of my technical decisions practical ones.

Say that three times. That should fix it!

Ahem.

Okay, so unfortunately, a mantra alone isn’t going to do it. You’ll also need to understand some recording things in order to keep the technical process out of your way. At least now, going forward, you no longer need to feel pressure to become a great engineer. Really, you just need to learn how not to **** things up. The best way to accomplish that? Keep it simple.

Keep It Simple"

The Intro continues, and in total the book clocks in at 103,000 words. I thought long and hard about everything that I write about in this book, particularly in regards to musicians, and I break down concepts that will take years to figure out. And if you’re an engineer, you’ll probably want this in your studio, because it will actually make your life easier if your clients read it. At the very least it keeps them out of your hair for a while. ha!

You can check out the TOC on my website. And for a limited time, you can pick up the book for just $9.99 on Kindle which can be viewed on just about any device. You can also still preorder the paperback version and save on the shipping and the taxes, also for a limited time.

Enjoy, #mixerman


#4

I read the whole thing. I find peoples takes on these issues enlightening, others experiences can be such a great way to learn when taken in context.


#5

That’s great! :joy: Also made me think of a '73 gold El Dorado with custom wheels. :smirk:

I like that definition, and making a statement that moves people. Great explanation!


#16

I signed up for the mailing list.


#30

I’m a fan of Mixerman. Actually he wrote his first book “Daily Adventures of Mixerman” at a time when I was going exactly thru similar experiences as he was, it was so funny that there were so many parallels at that time as I was studio engineer in somewhat similar situation. The book was a lot of laughs and a critical and realistic view of the whole record industry.

I also read the “Billionheir” or whatever that was called - very interesting take on the whole current culture of streaming and music production.

I did skim through most of the description, and best of luck @Mixerman - I hope you sell a lot of books. There is definitely a need for your point of view and someone to remind people that it is all about capturing a feeling, not a perfect drum tone, etc. as those things don’t really exist as you can see on this forum (look up the mix crit). Cheers!


#67

#69

Thank you for your kind words and well wishes.

Mixerman


#70

Great intro–I love it! I just pre-ordered the Kindle version and look forward to reading it when it comes out. :slight_smile:


#71

Your track Moment of Weakness is awesome. Thanks for your support. I hope the book serves you well.

Mixerman


#72

Hey guys!! Great news. According to an email Eric sent out two days ago, the book is live. I still don’t have my hardcopy yet, but its up for grabs on Amazon’s Kindle platform for $9.99! :slight_smile:


#73

Yeah I’ve been reading it! Really enjoying it so far. Something that stuck out to me was the discussion about confidence… I thought about how I’m often timid with the various parts of my recordings. I think that some of the “holding back” is part of my style, but that a lot of it is also just lack of confidence. And that there’s no reason for me to be unconfident, because I get as many takes as I want, and if something comes out like crap I don’t have to release it. It’s always been interesting to me that even if I’m home alone and no one in the world can hear me, it takes a lot of courage to perform/create confidently. Like I’m afraid of myself. Like I’m afraid of what I might be. It’s getting easier as I get older, but I still have to work at it!

Anyway, yeah I’m going to read more this weekend. I’m finishing up one song and just starting to write another one, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how I can apply these musical concepts to the new song/recording.


#74

Evaluating your own performance is probably the hardest part of making a record. I think that people convince themselves that they are never going to like their own performance, and that might be true for some people, but really, you know what you like, and if you don’t like what you’re doing, if you’re not causing yourself to react to your own performance, then keep trying until you do.

What makes a Killer Record has to do with what you like. Therefore, if you make a record you like, you’ve succeeded, and you will light up other people who like similar things.

Enjoy, Mixerman


#75

This reminds me of how I write lyrics. I keep coming up with lyrics until I get some that make me cry, and then those are the keepers. :slight_smile:


#76

This is an EXCELLENT approach to songwriting. If the music or lyrics move you physically (the beat gets you groovin’, etc) or emotionally, you know you’re on the right track. :slight_smile:


#77

I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long
This brother is free
I’ll be what I want to be…


#78

Yay. Got my copy in the mail… realized the envelope was there late last night.

About to sit down with a pen and highlighter :slight_smile: Cristina, did you start at the beginning then work strait through this?


#79

Yeah I’m reading everything in order. The downside of a Kindle is that I can’t really flip around and reference things. I was planning to go back through it again when I’m done and take notes on the things I think I’ll want to reference.


#80

I bought the Kindle book a couple months back and finally finished reading it. Personally, I found some good “nuggets of wisdom” in it and I think it was worth the purchase. I am glad that Eric was invited here and shared the book with this community.