My 5 Most Unpopular Opinions (That I’m Sticking By!)
Through the years of reading, writing, recording, and mixing I’ve come to form a lot of a opinions. Oh so many opinions. One might even reasonably say that I’m (wait for it) — opinionated. And not all of my opinions jive with conventional wisdom.
The following is going to be a list of exactly those opinions that seem to go against the grain of what’s popular. Hopefully this will accomplish the task of getting folks to think outside the box a bit.
Here we go …
1. The Importance Of Gain Staging: Is Overstated
Gain staging, simply put, is the management of level across a signal path. It entails considerations such as signal-to-noise ratio, headroom, and the tonal changes that occur as a result of changing gain along the way.
In the digital age, gain staging barely matters. If you get it wrong, it’s a problem, but frankly, once you’re aware of the idea it’s pretty hard to mess it up.
Digital is a linear system, meaning all you really have to do is not clip the signal and you’re good. And yes, some plugins are designed to act like analog gear and react to different input and output levels — and yes, to a certain extent that’s important.
However, gain staging is not what makes for a great mix. If you simply turn down the regions of your audio so that nothing is peaking far into the yellow/light green (depending on your system), you’ll be fine.
2. Automated Mastering is Awesome
This is probably the opinion that gets me the most flack.
I did beta for Aria Mastering a while back, and I love it. I think the program sounds awesome. It makes my mix sound better, but not vastly different, and has a certain tone that is very much reminiscent of Colin Leonard’s signature sound at SING Mastering.
I’ve heard all sorts of reasons why automated mastering can’t work: it can’t make the nuanced decisions that a person can make; it can’t remove clicks and pops or correct fades — and all of that is true. But sometimes I need to get something done fast, or I need to get something done cheap, and it needs to be good. And for those circumstances, Aria has been rockin’.
3. LCR Mixing is Silly and Super Wide Mixes are Overrated
LCR stands for Left-Center-Right. It’s an approach to mixing where you only pan things center, hard left or hard right.
The idea is that the ear doesn’t readily localize partial pan positions, so LCR gives us the strongest mixes. Or, that when everything is panned hard or dead center, we get the widest mix. Or, that once upon a time recording consoles only had three pan positions, and older means better.
Now, I can dig the first two ideas to about five feet eleven inches, but it’s easy enough to use hard pan positions for these purposes while still allowing yourself to use partial pan positions when necessary.
There have been countless times where I’ve pulled drum overheads from hard left and hard right to 70< >70 because I wanted my drums to be less wide and sound like one homogenous kit. Why would I take that option away from myself?
The other question is why have we inherently designated wide mixes as being better?
I agree that a stereoscopic image can be great. I agree that wide mixes tend to sound bigger and give us more room to create contrast and dynamics within the stereo image. But if that imaging becomes distracting, or we start sacrificing musicality for the purpose of wider and wider mixes, we’re not doing anything better than the loudness war.
Personally, I’d much rather hear something that’s gelled together than something that’s impressively wide.
4. Sample Rate and Bit Depth Don’t Really Matter
I’ve recorded and mixed at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 and 192 kHz sample rates. I’ve also recorded and mixed at 16-bit, 24-bit and 32-bit floating point. And you know what — none of it really makes a wits bit of difference.
I’ve null tested records reproduced at different sample rates and bit depths and do they null? No. Do I care? No. The differences are hardly perceivable, if at all. I’d even go as far as to say that I could probably mix at 44.1 kHz and 12-bit, and no one would be the wiser.
I’d also say, while being unpopular, that dithering hardly makes a difference as well.
Even on the best playback systems it’s difficult to discern between a truncated print and a dithered one, and the fact that people choose between different algorithms is pretty hilarious.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s not worth investigating and sticking to best practices. What I am saying is that if you’re spending more than a couple hours thinking about it, then you’re wasting your time. If you want to talk about things that will have the least impact on the quality of your records and mixes, sample rate is toward the top of the list, and bit depth isn’t very far behind.
5. Software Signal Processing Easily Competes with Hardware
Before writing me off as a know-nothing amateur for this statement, please know that I own about $50k worth of outboard signal processing gear. My hardware is not what is making or breaking my mixes in terms of overall quality.
The reason I have expensive hardware signal processing isn’t because I feel it’s inherently “better,” it’s because I can’t find the software equivalents to specific pieces that can perform the way I want. This is a nuanced but important difference between utility and quality.
I’m also not going to say that gear doesn’t matter — it does. But it’s about having the gear that works for your own sound and style.
I recently mixed a record in the big place, where I have all my signal processing plus another four racks of outboard, and I mixed the entire record in the box, except for my Bricasti M7 reverb on the chorus and an Alan Smart C2 on the mix buss. And frankly, I could have gotten away without using either and would have been fine — it just would have taken a touch more work.
On top of all that, I think there are some excellent stock plugins in most DAWs, and I recently compiled a list of inexpensive plugins (the priciest was $65) that I feel outperform some of the most expensive software in the game.
Now, the point of this article isn’t to prove how edgy I am. I don’t think anything in the world would convince anyone of that. It’s to perhaps inspire you to think differently about growing as a music producer.
It’s easy to start looking at psuedo-mystical things like gain staging, sample rates, mix styles like LCR, expensive gear, and think that’s what we’re missing. Or that if you just hire the best mastering engineer — that’s the missing piece of the puzzle. Or that the mix would sound better if it was done at 88.2 kHz and had the best dither at the end. None of this stuff is the crux of great engineering.
By far — and I’m talking miles upon miles here — the most influential factor on the quality of music production is decision making. The real differentiator is in our ability to identify what the music is trying to do, subsequently fix the things that inhibit the music, and expose the things that will help it along. This is really what makes the difference, and very little else.
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