In the beginning there was music. It was simple at first: beating on logs, whistles made of bamboo, etc. Gradually the complexity of the instruments as well as the music advanced. Then along the way someone decided to try and preserve music, by crude means at first. Recording technology developed in order to capture and distribute performances of music and voice, but the music was still the catalyst.
Then in the mid-20th century, that all started to change. As technology progressed, with tape recording and the ability to add tracks to prerecorded performances, it allowed the creation of music that would otherwise never have existed. Now in the 21st century, with digital technology, miniaturization and inexpensive manufacturing, recording has grown from being a novelty—like the wire recorders or phonographs of the late 19th century1—into something that most everyone can do at any time on accessories affordable by all.
Recording gear has never been so accessible and affordable in the history of mankind. So has all this progress made music recordings “better” than they were a few generations ago?
Modern Recordings Aren’t Better
Sadly, no. We find ourselves at a crossroads, where technology has stolen the focus away from the music it was intended to serve. The goal of writing a good song has given way to programming a good loop or finding a good riff. Programmers/producers passing around beats/loops for other musicians to layer parts on has become the unfortunate norm. In the past decade, we’ve wondered why there has been such a devaluation of music and why it doesn’t connect with audiences like it did in the past. One common theory about the lack of musical involvement points the finger squarely at digital recording and subsequently at MP3s. Some people mistakenly attribute the musical magic that so many writers/musicians aspire to (the classics of the 1950s through the 90s) to analog tape or tubes. The real magic, though, was in the music and the performances, not in the gear.
So how did we get here? It’s the result of an industry that pushes merchandise instead of creativity. I see musicians these days that spend more time talking about gear and reading magazines and online forums than they do writing songs or practicing their instruments. It’s unfortunate but true.
The dirty little secret that nobody will tell recording novices is you don’t need great gear to make a great record. I’ll say it again. You don’t need great gear to make a great record. The single most important ingredient in making a great record is talent. I hear this sentiment over and over again from veteran engineers and producers that I know. Sure—the gear helps, but it shouldn’t be the focus. In the past few months, I’ve asked numerous big-name engineers, each with credits on multiple millions of records, the same question: “If someone asked you to make a record with one big stipulation, that you can only use SM57s to record everything, could you make a great-sounding record?” The answer from every one of them was, “Sure.” It might not be as easy as having their toolkit of microphones, but it can be done and done well. Honestly, a lack of gear often inspires—rather, it demands—greater creativity. So crank up the creativity to make up for the gear you don’t have. (I did a record once where we made a guitar talkbox out of an Auratone gaffer-taped to the bottom of a microphone stand and an echo chamber out of a tall stairwell.)
Gear Is Everywhere, Talent Is Elusive
So why is the industry as a whole so obsessed with gear? Here’s my theory. You can buy gear. You can’t buy talent. Gear is just a credit card and phone call away and you can have it in a matter of days or less. It’s easy to buy that vocal chain that McCartney or Michael Jackson used, but much harder to achieve that sound. Know why? Because it wasn’t the gear that made that sound, though it did contribute. What does Sir Paul McCartney sound like when you take away the Neumann U47 and REDD console and Fairchild compressor and BTR analog tape machine? Like Paul McCartney.
I saw Ed Cherney (Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton) recently and he recounted a studio experience that many engineers have had, myself included. “I was trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get good drum sounds for the first sixteen years of my engineering career. Then one day Jeff Porcaro (Toto, Steely Dan) was booked on a session I was doing. I became a genius that day.”
My good friend Glenn Rosenstein (Madonna, Ziggy Marley) told me once, “You want to know how to get that James Taylor guitar sound? Hand a guitar to James Taylor. Put up an ‘87. Easiest guitar sound I ever got in my life.”
I got a call once from a person who wanted to know what mic, gear and settings I used to get “those vowel sounds that I hear on Amy Grant’s records. They’re amazing.” He wanted to know what he needed to buy. Well, it’s not the gear. Amy’s sound comes out of Amy’s mouth.
As Bruce Swedien so succinctly puts it, “No one walks down the street humming the console.” It’s the song. It’s the melody.
There is another reason we spend so much time talking about gear. It’s fun. We love it. We can’t get enough of it.
Technology Is Limiting, Creativity Is Boundless
So, what is my point? Two things, I guess. First, let recording be about the music. Don’t let the technology get in the way. Try to find the setup that will allow you to encourage and preserve a musical and emotional performance. Second, don’t use gear, or a lack thereof, as a crutch. I hear artists say, “If I only had this, I could get that sound.” The truth is, gear isn’t standing in the way of you doing something special. It’s the mindset regarding gear that is standing in the way. Focus on creativity and overcome the limitations.
I’d honestly rather have Mick Guzauski, Bill Schnee or Al Schmitt mix a record on a Mackie than someone with lesser talents on an SSL. Why? I know they can deliver excellent results regardless of the gear. It’s the ear, not the gear.
If you only remember one thing after reading this article, it should be this one, plus two more:
1. Use what you have. I started with an RE20 and two borrowed no-name condensers.
2. Work hard and long at honing your craft. It took me ten years before I started getting happy with my sounds.
3. Spend more time developing your skills and less time researching and acquiring gear.
As you master the craft, you’ll be able to use those skills with any gear, good or not so good. And great gear just makes your life easier. Any accomplished engineer knows that they still have to deliver superior results, even when working with marginal gear.