For The Pro: DON'T TAKE OUT THE TRASH

By Todd Smith

As recording technology has become more sophisticated, it has become more possible to fix "imperfections." In the old days, they would record all the instruments together in the same room on the same microphone to a tape machine with one track. They had to keep doing takes until everybody played it right. They had to mix by physical proximity to the microphone. They actually used to edit tape by cutting it with a razor blade and Scotch-taping it back together.

Now each instrument has its own room, its own mic, and its own track. We can record the drums in Nashville on Monday, the guitars and vocals in Louisville on Tuesday, and mix in Cleveland on Wednesday, if we actually wanted to mix in Cleveland. Not only can we "punch in" and "punch out" to fix mistakes, we can correct the pitch of an out-of-tune singer and correct the tempo of an out-of-time drummer. Hell, we don't even need musicians anymore (unless you count Mr. Macintosh).

Yes, the technology is awesome and amazing, and it is a good thing. But it has created a new problem: too many options. We have too many knobs now. And just like we will climb the mountain because it is there, we will fiddle with the knob because it is there.

There used to be two big black knobs for echo, chamber one and chamber two, and you just dialed in however much you wanted of each one. Now you can have six different reverbs on each track, and you can vary the high frequency damping on each one, as well as the attack and decay times; you can multi-layer that with all manner of other effects and processors, then run the whole mess through your Uranium Q-36 Space Modulator…

This is too much power in the hands of an engineer, who is by nature a tedious twiddling type to begin with. Give him more knobs to twiddle, and you can bet he will twiddle them. This is why it takes months (or years) to make a record now. We can zoom in too far; our level of focus is microscopic.

Have records gotten better because of it? Well, sonically, yes. But the music itself has suffered. It has gradually slipped down the list of priorities, replaced by knobs to twiddle and parameters to set. Many years later, we are able to make records that are technically superb and musically ghastly.

But as history teaches, the pendulum must make mighty swings to the extremes before we learn that the middle is the place to be. In the last few years, we have seen a trend in the recording arts back to the less-refined. We have noticed something missing in our recorded music; namely, music. And we are figuring out that the essence of the music lies in the humanness, the imperfections, the trash. The ideal record is one that makes optimum use of technology without killing the music in the process.

Where did we ever get the idea that every note had to be perfectly in tune, and perfectly on time? Listen to any old Stones record; it is painfully clear that vocal tuning was not of primary concern. But there's magic from the first downbeat.

So leave it in! Don't take out the trash. Unless it's just so offensive that it breaks your earbone when you play it back (and sometimes eventhat's good), leave it in. You'll be glad you did. When you come back to it in a week or a month, you will probably be pleasantly surprised at the vitality of your recording.