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Audio Engineers: You Care About The Wrong Stuff

Big Disclaimer: it’s important to understand and be aware of everything I’m about to talk about.

We should always seek knowledge. The point of this article is to keep focused on the things that really matter and stop stressing over the things that don’t. Each point is going to be one thing you don’t need to think much about followed by something you should be thinking about and practicing instead.

1. Sample Rates vs Comb Filtering

It truly surprises me to read so much debate about sample rate and the effect it has on the sound. Not saying there isn’t a difference between 44.1, 48, 88.2, etc … but it’s so subtle that I’m not even sure if I truly hear it or if it’s a placebo effect.

Folks seem concerned about potential data loss (which I guess translates to aliasing distortion) and the effect that will have in thinning and distorting the audio. Frankly, I don’t believe I could pick out different sample renderings in a blind test and even if I could, I don’t believe I would actually care. I firmly believe that the end result would have no bearing on the listener’s enjoyment of a record or inclination to purchase it.

Meanwhile, if we’re truly concerned about jeopardizing the quality of a recording we really need to focus on the quality of our recording space. Any decent mic and preamp in a well-designed space will be more than usable for a major release. However, a fantastic mic and preamp will still sound thin and edgy in a poor space.

I’ve experienced this first hand more than enough. Even subtle amounts of comb filtering will affect the sonic fidelity far more prevalently than sample rates. So rather than waste one more minute debating between 44.1 or 192 — try perfect mic positioning and room acoustics to get the best capture with the least amount of negative room interference.

2. Perfect Equipment vs Perfect Performance

I’m happy to go full-on gear nerd with my fellow audio dorks any day. I think understanding the equipment we have available, having our preferred chains and picking apart the nuances of each bit of electronics is great. However, I find that it’s pretty rare that I have my exact preferred equipment available at every studio all the time.

You know what I do find in every recording situation? The need to get the job done. I am past the point of saying we can’t record because all we have is this mic and this whatever-whatever and we don’t have these other whatever-whatevers. It’s irrelevant.

We spend a ton of time talking about equipment. You know what I almost never see? Discussions about performance technique. When was the last time you went on an audio forum and read a discussion on vocal tone? When was the last time you thought about the material of a guitar pick?

The reality is that if you need a different tone out of an instrument you can almost always get that tone from the performative quality rather than the equipment. In the grand scheme of things, microphones and compressors are not all that different from one another. Maybe on the extremes, an RCA44 is pretty different than a C800G, but really given just about any nearly appropriate set of gear it’s not too crazy to get a great recording. The sonic imprint of gear is almost always adjustable. The performance imprint is fundamentally the sound and is not nearly as adjustable.

3. Bit Depth/Digital Gain Staging vs Signal-to-Noise/Analog Gain Staging

I always take a ton of heat for this one. People are very emotional about gain staging. People are oddly emotional about digital gain staging and also bit depth and don’t even understand the relationship between the two. Which is kind of like being passionate about cars and not knowing how to drive.

Bit Depth refers to how quiet your signal can get before your computer can’t figure out what that signal is supposed to be and just turns it into digital noise. Digital gain staging is … not technically even a thing in the most literal sense because in order to have gain stages you need to have points of amplification, and for that, you need amplifying devices like tubes or op-amps or transformers. At the very least you need to have points in which varying degrees of level effect the ultimate outcome of the sound.

Meanwhile, in the analog world, gain staging is pretty important when it comes to how much noise is getting into a signal and how the devices in line are tonally shifting due to various levels. Noise is fairly straightforward — try to keep your levels up before your noisiest gear.

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I have a noisy Pultec EQ clone that I absolutely love the sound of, so I just put it last in my chain so I can do most of my amplification ahead of it. Things get a little more complicated if we’re recording and mixing to tape because there’s a lot more potential noise and gain issues that can occur. But for simplicity, if we’re hitting the computer it really is that straightforward.

Tone shift is a little more ethereal. I’ll give an example. I love the sound of a 1073/1084 … for the first three clicks past mic level. Once we start pushing that amp the tone starts really shifting. For some sources, like bass, for example, this extra saturation and emphasis into the lower frequency that occurs is great. For other sources, like Pop vocals — not my favorite.

Sharing the amplification with another device that has really clean gain (I used an Inward Connections Vac Rac for the first time … where’s my heart-eye emoji??) is a great way to get that beautiful 1073 midrange with a clean top and low coming in right around 0 dbVu — perfect level for a console channel or to hit straight into the converters.

The biggest mismatch I’ve seen when it comes to focusing on gain staging is the tendency for people to record as hot as possible. I believe the practice was a carry-over from tape recording. In tape, because there is some degree of self-noise inherent to the medium, it’s important to get pretty close to the top of your headroom when recording in. Although, this practice has been fairly abused as well. But at least with tape when you start maxing out your headroom it kinda of has a sound which can actually be pretty cool if done well.

In digital, even in the 16-bit days, self-noise was really never a thing. The digital noise floor has always been a bit of a boogie man used to explain why “digital doesn’t sound as good as analog” when there are probably a million other explanations for this phenomenon. I still see sources recorded exceptionally hot, peaking very close (or over) 0 dB. This attempt to maximize digital “headroom” while ignoring the analog stages along the way often results in a very tonally saturated sound … particularly if the input stage of the D/A converters is not super high end. It is, in fact, better fidelity-wise to come into converters at conservative levels to keep from saturating the front end. I say “the greener the meaner, the redder the deader”.

4. The Mix vs The Music

Mixing is tough. Shameless plug coming: That’s why I sell courses to help people learn how to mix records.

What I’m learning as my career matures is that so much of what I need to focus on is actually the music itself. For example, a very common question I see is “how do I get my vocals to sit in the record correctly?” And there are a million mix-related answers to this question that are important. But before even addressing things like EQ or compression, we have to consider tone and timing.

It is profound how much a 500 sample nudge can make a vocal feel like it marries to the music when it didn’t before. And getting an ear for micro-timing is definitely a skill. The more I teach mixing the better I get at teaching music as a part of the process. I cannot possibly emphasize how exceedingly important it is to really listen to music that you love and figure out what makes you love it. And I also have to highly recommend picking up an instrument if you don’t already play. I like guitar a lot. It’s an instrument that you can start pretty easily and it immediately demands that you focus on micro tuning, voicing, and tone. Don’t even practice with the intent on getting good if that’s not your bag. Just practice to open your music brain.

Even if you are doing EDM or Hip-Hop where there’s very little direct application for acoustic instruments. EDM, for example, almost completely relies on the conversation of rhythmic and tonal elements. The sonic palette for EDM can be absolute crap (and often is), but if that rhythm is really talking to you, the record will move people.

I just finished a Reggaeton mix, and in it, I have the entire instrument bus going to a compressor. I’m using the Slate FG-Bomber and DBX160SL. The 160SL is set to a pretty slow release. This was an experiment for me — I’m almost always using fast release compression on instrument bus/mix bus. But I wanted to create a specific flowing movement to set a groove between the big pulses of the record. The slow release is used to create a dynamic arc inside the record where the kick causes the level to drop and then rise up leading into the next kick. Kind of like an EDM-ish thing. The key to it is really defining the exact release time and listening to how it affects the musical rhythm. This is not a sonics kind of thing. It’s purely an idea to emphasize the music. And ultimately that’s what recording and mixing techniques should be — technical skills that emphasize the intention of the music and make it most effective for the listener’s experience.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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