I was getting a haircut in Lansing many years ago when I overheard the barber tell a story about a colleague. A customer had called and asked this person if they could cut “black hair.” The colleague, a white dude, thinking that he could cut hair no matter what color it was, said “of course!”
Long story short, there was soon a black dude walking around with fucked up hair, because black dude hair is fundamentally and physically different than white dude hair, and requires a different approach than what this poor barber was prepared for.
Much the same way that you wouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, or a Marshall stack to a bluegrass jam, you really need to know what kind of music you will be recording before you take the gig, so you can be prepared to record that music in the way it is usually done.
Just because you’re awesome at mixing thrash metal, does not mean you can convincingly record jazz flute. Not only is there artistry to engineering, there are certain things which just are and are not done, and it is completely dependent on genre.
Stuff you may not know:
- Jazz drummers will actually murder you if you “replace” their drum sounds.
- Natural tempo variation has no place in certain kinds of aggressive metal.
- Punk rockers don’t like click tracks, and the feeling is mutual.
- Do not expect to play with your sweet new reverb on a rap vocal.
- Not all singers know that their words are supposed to be clearly enunciated.
- Not all drummers know that their kick drum is important to the rhythm.
- You don’t need a separate mic for every member of an orchestra.
- A kick drum does not drive a jazz tune.
- “Loud” can mean very different things to different musicians.
- Your favorite modern-pop vocal? There is no such thing as “unedited.”
- Just because your room is large and reverberates, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.
- Mic positioning is directly related to how you mix, in whatever genre.
- Bluegrass in your portfolio does not get you metal gigs, and vice versa.
- Keyboards, laptops and samplers need you to have a good stereo direct box.
Things are further complicated when inexperienced bands insist they know something about how a sound is produced – and want you to do it that way. Yes, the Beatles may have had a mic on the back of an acoustic guitar to get the body resonance – they also put one in front of the fucking thing. And they had different mics. And they had different songs. And different guitars. And players, and studio rooms, and recording equipment, and so on. Sharing a mic technique in no way assures similar results.
More or less, once the inexperienced band is committed to a time and you have assured them that you will take care of the recording process all by yourself, it becomes your job to ask them what artists they want the record to sound like, then do some research. Most of the time it’s not that involved – unless you get a Peter Gabriel wannabe or something that requires a studio or expertise that is just beyond you, it usually boils down to learning a particular mixing style. This requires of course, that the band rolls in practiced and ready to go, and with the appropriate gear. You may have to borrow an amp or a better drum kit to get the right sound, but there’s no real black magic to it. That being said, you may have to learn how to quantize a live drum kit and use sound replacement software, but you’ll know right away if that’s an issue.
Similarly, here’s a word to you bands heading into the studio: if your engineer can’t give you a good example of work they have done in your genre, or are reluctant to do so, think twice about going to them. If a friend recommended them, ask yourself if your friend knows what the fuck they’re talking about. If they’re a new studio without much of a portfolio, then make a judgment call – but don’t expect a stellar record. But who knows? Maybe it will be awesome.
In any case, any time money is involved, there should be a professional respect between band and studio, which includes research into etiquette, and expectations by everyone on both sides of the mixing board.