How many ways can you make change for a dollar?
Using pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, fifty cent pieces, and one dollar coins, there are 293 ways to make change for a dollar. But what does that have to do with mixing records? A lot actually.
To preface this little op-ed/rant, I have been watching a lot of Pensado’s Place recently. If you aren’t familiar with this excellent show, it’s an online, weekly talk show hosted by mixing legend Dave Pensado. On the show, Dave interviews and does Q&A with the who’s who of the music production world, and the insights that the guests offer are often priceless pieces of wisdom, ripe for any skill level to consume.
Watching these interviews with all these amazing mixers, engineers, producers and song writers has further solidified something I have thought a lot about, even struggled with, over my years as an educator and artist. Some may be familiar with the term, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” but since I love my 2 cats far too much, I like to think of it as, “how many ways can you make change for a dollar?” The best thing about watching the show in binge increments is that you quickly notice that each heavy-hitter interviewed on Pensado’s Place has a unique approach to making a record, and at times, these techniques, insights, and ideologies are at direct odds with the person who was on the show just one week prior. The point that this continues to reiterate (to me at least) is that making great records/mixes/art isn’t about one specific technique, or a special piece of gear, or whether you are mixing inside or outside the box, it is about having a unique vision in your head and using the tools and techniques you are familiar with to achieve that vision. Just like there is more than one way to make change for a dollar, there is certainly more than one way to achieve an artistic goal and create a great piece of art.
Just in case you don’t believe me, let’s look at an example. In the Bruce Swedien interview, Bruce is adamant about not using compression in most recording and mixing scenarios, going as far as saying “compression is for kids” and stating that it destroys your transients and transients are what make a record special. Now there is solid wisdom in that statement, no doubt, a compressor when used improperly will destroy your transients and the music within, I can personally attest to that. But if we just stopped there, one might think, “alright, Bruce Swedien, mixer for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and a ton of other multiplatinum records, is telling me that I am whack for using a compressor, I better just STFU and trust this dude.” But in the Jack Joseph Puig and Michael Brauer interviews, those two guys, with equally impressive credits and (IMHO) just as much sonic swagger and credibility as Swedien, can’t stop talking about how much compression they use, anywhere and everywhere they seem to have a compressor doing something.
Now I certainly wouldn’t say that Jack or Michael’s records are “for kids,” both have done stuff that blows me away sonically, while at the same time is commercially accessible and sells records. So clearly what this tells me is that Swedien, Brauer and Puig all use and conceptualize compression radically differently in their workflows, but each is successful both artistically and commercially while simultaneously leaving a distinct “sonic footprint” on anything they do. I would also argue that if put in the same room, each would be able to digest and understand the other’s wisdom and put that in the context with their own ideas and techniques. In other words, even though Bruce makes change for a dollar differently than Jack or Michael, I doubt anyone would argue that, at the end of the day, they weren’t each making that dollar (both philosophically and literally speaking!). Furthermore, one man’s dollar could be another man’s pound, or yen. On a given day, I might like a Brauer mix better than a Swedien mix, tomorrow I might like both equally, and that is just my personal opinion, not a fact. Ultimately, everything is relative and entirely subjective, so you must take any wisdom or insight you glean from the world at large and filter it through your own unique esthetic lens before applying it.
As a teacher and mentor, I have found that these kind of discrepancies from such authoritative figures can really screw up a budding engineer or producer who is still trying to figure everything out. Someone who is still trying to wrap their head around their tools, how to use them and what their unique sound is can be heavily influenced by the commanding authority of a seasoned veteran, blindly following another’s statements to the extent that they don’t consider all their options and their own unique take on them. Because most of the questions from the audience in Pensado’s Place are centered around things like, “WHAT specific compressor do you use for this, and WHAT plug-in is BEST for that” I fear that people, even given the ability to compare and contrast the unique views of each of these amazing interviewees, don’t get that it is the WHY combined with the WHAT that is interesting. In other words, I don’t so much care about WHAT change you used to made that dollar, but WHY did you use 4 quarters, instead of 3 quarters, 2 dimes and a nickel? WHY does Brauer use compressors the way he does? Not the specific model numbers. And WHY doesn’t Swedien like to use them? and how are those unique personalities reflected on the work that they do. That is what is interesting.
To be fair, I have to give props to Dave for pointing out exactly what I am talking about on almost every show. To quote Dave, “I can teach you how to get a great vocal sound, but I can’t teach you what a great vocal sound is.” He always suggests that you take the ideas you learn and make them your own, and encourages the audience to pursue their own unique sound and vision. But as the questions pour in at the end of each segment, I can’t help but wonder how many of the viewers are actually taking this wisdom to heart. To me this would be like sitting with some famous dead author, say Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, and asking them “What specific words and grammar rules did you use to write this great book” and they sort of look at you all cockeyed and say, “are you serious?” That parallel might be a tad bit exaggerated, but you get the point.
Now I am not saying that the tips, tricks and techniques aren’t cool or useful. I absolutely love them and my mixes are certainly better for them, but I know how to responsibly digest them into my own unique workflow. I know that if I don’t remember why I sat down to mix in the first place and I just blindly put some random technique into place because Michael Brauer said it worked for him, then I am not really doing my job as an artist and I am missing the whole point of the creative process, and no doubt, my final product will reveal that. It’s true that the HOW or WHAT gives us insight into an artist’s technique, but it’s the WHY that gives us insight into an artist’s unique vision or “soul” and how they hear things. Regardless of how many tricks you pick up, or how many pieces of gear fill your rack, if you can’t piece the HOW and the WHY together in your own head when it comes time to write a song, mix a song, or create any piece of art, you won’t be able to reach the kind of head space that these industry icons are achieving when they create.
I understand the urge to seek easy answers and magic bullets, I really do. Unfortunately, you can’t buy inspiration, and there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to learn it even after years of practice. So when this “on-demand” world of instant gratification tells us, “sorry, it’s gonna take a lot of time to understand these concepts and develop your own opinion, and I’m afraid you can’t skip that part or BUY something that allows you to bypass that,” I understand that it’s not what most people want to hear and there is a whole industry out there preying on those who seek that magic-bullet, ready to sell you the next great thing. Learning to listen is hard, learning to have a opinion about sound is even harder, and learning how to take that opinion and turn it into a record is a struggle that even the best will continue to face until the day they retire, no matter how good they get.
Why do you think all these famous engineers aren’t worried about telling you how they did something? Why aren’t they worried you will learn all their tricks and take all their work tomorrow? Because they know that you can never be them. But guess what? They can never be you, and that is what makes the world and art so great. We are all unique and hear things differently. We all have different opinions about what sounds good and what doesn’t, don’t fight that, embrace it. Learn what you like, learn what other people like and if you don’t like it, ask yourself why. Form an opinion, and from that opinion forge a vision. Use that vision like a GPS to find your destination. Sometimes you will get lost in the fog and find yourself dissatisfied with your work, believe me, even the greats face this challenge daily, but never stop growing and refining the things that make you unique.
In closing, be sure to constantly ask yourself WHY when learning about the HOW or WHAT. It might be hard at first, but the sooner you can make change for that dollar, pound, yen, or *insert your own currency here* all by yourself, the sooner you’ll be able to buy something really special with it.
As an aside, I discussed some of these ideas in my interview with Lynda.com check it out if you’re bored sometime.