4 Commonly Misused Pieces of Audio Advice

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Learning is an ongoing process. In the competitive field of audio engineering, failing to continue to learn and grow is a career death sentence. Unfortunately, there are certain pieces of advice we tend to throw around that, while well-intended, only hinder our own progress.

These mantras are repeated so often we sometimes say them without any consideration. This leads us down those roads — you know – the ones that are paved with good intentions.

Here are four misused pieces of advice that we really need to stop doling out.

1. Just Use Your Ears!

What it’s intended to mean: The ultimate barometer for how something sounds is … well … how it sounds. It’s important not to let things like meters, or the fact that a knob is turned up all the way, or maybe the fact that there are no knobs turned at all, influence our objective listening. Yes, maybe we added 20 dB of low end to the vocal — that is probably a mistake in most cases — but if it sounds good, then so be it!

How we misuse it: It seems whenever discussing a technique someone inevitably comes along and says “Just Use Your Ears!” Assuredly thinking they are giving out some ground-breaking coin of wisdom.

Example: Here’s some techniques for compressing and reshaping a bass guitar. Eight Facebook comments later: “The best technique for compressing a bass is to use your ears!” STOP THAT.

Of all the pieces of asinine advice this one has got to be the worst.

We all use our ears. Most people have been using their ears their whole lives. And most people can’t mix records.

I’ve tried to reshape my bass guitar by smell and I can tell you ears are absolutely the way to go.

But that has nothing to do with technique. Our ears will tell us if a technique is working or not, not what the techniques are.

2. You Can’t Polish a Turd

What it’s intended to mean: It’s important to get things done right at the source. The better things are at the beginning, the better they will ultimately come out at the end. And if something is absolutely garbage coming in, all the clean up in the world won’t save it.

How we misuse it: This phrase has become the theme song for passing the buck. The reality is recordings are seldom perfect. It’s rare that every musician is super solid every day. It’s rarer that we have the perfect instruments with the perfect player in a perfect room with a perfect mic collection and everything just goes perfect. It’s vastly more common that mistakes are made and printed, one of the band members is maybe not 100% practiced on the song, there’s too much bleed in a mic — whatever. It’s our jobs to identify problems and do our best to fix them. Will some things be totally salvageable? No. Does that mean we shouldn’t polish it up? No.

3. It’s The Ear, Not The Gear

What it’s intended to mean: The skill of the craftsman is vastly more important than the tool.

How we misuse it: The craftsman is going to have a hell of a hard time building a house with a rubber hammer. Without irony, we use this advice to essentially negate the advice about turd polishing. The fact is, we still use stuff like mics and preamps and EQs to get music recorded. So while it’s true that our skill will trump our gear there’s still going to be a quality gap between a $90 mic plugged directly into an interface and a $9,000 mic running through a $4,000 preamp. The intention of this advice is to say we don’t need a million dollar setup to get million dollar results — not to use the cheapest pieces of crap you can find and expect a big budget sound.

4. There Are No Rules!

What it’s intended to mean: Music is art, and what makes art good or not isn’t dependent on any strict factors. There isn’t one goal that we are always working towards when producing music. Experimentation is key!

How we misuse it: There are no rules … therefore, we don’t need to know what we’re doing! Sorry to burst that bubble, but not having rules doesn’t mean there aren’t accepted principles. And while no one is required to adhere to any principles, being aware of them really helps!

Also worth noting: in addition to the aesthetic principles that define various genres, there are also technical rules that do exist. Things like phase, headroom, pickup patterns … basically anything revolving around the concept of reality.


If we use this advice correctly it means we rely on getting the best we can given the resources at our disposal. We experiment with the results, and use our ears and judgement as the ultimate barometer of what’s working and what’s not. We make solutions, not excuses.

If we use this advice incorrectly it means we do whatever we want without having to invest the time to do it well, or the money to do it right. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s only because someone else messed up or people just aren’t seeing our vision.

Have you heard any pieces of sage wisdom recently being used in absolutely the wrong way? I’d love to hear about it in that good old comment section below!

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.
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  • Druphis

    One piece of advice my upright bass teacher told me when I was calling him out on not doing something the way he was teaching me he wisely said “One can only break the rules when you know the rules in the first place”. So it is dangerous to say there are no rules since you should have at least an idea of certain concepts before throwing rules out the window. Just think of cooking… It’s an art but I need the basics before I can start improving on a recipie.

    • Absolutely! If you understand a concept inside and out and choose to reject what’s often the established way of doing something because it suits your purpose: that’s one thing. If you DON’T understand a concept and reject the established way of doing it… you’re just wingin’ it.

  • Bonzo Wrokks

    Great article, i was once mixing a track for a friend and could not convince him that it wasn’t possible to have two separate sub basslines playing at the same time. He kept using the ‘there are no rules’ and ‘it sounds good to me’ excuses till i finally caved in and let him keep his murky unintelligible mess.

    • I mean… technically you CAN. I have yet to hear it really work, but it’s physically possible. Kind of like me doing a standing backflip. It could happen, but it’s gonna take some convincing to get me to give it a go.

  • Gregory Wilson-Copp

    The old classic “Analogue is better than digital!”
    I think you mean “Analogue is different from digital!”
    “You get what you pay for!”
    The amount of terrible mixes I’ve heard from reputable producers in top line studios because they were working for a band that couldn’t afford for them to care one tiny bit about their mixes once they were out the door. Affording the time is way way more important than affording the studio.

  • Chris_Vandeviver

    I love this piece, specifically: “We all use our ears. Most people have been using their ears their whole lives. And most people can’t mix records.”

    The other title for the article could be “The Help You Won’t Receive From Gearslutz in Four Sentences”.

    • Come on, Vince!

      Amen. I used to mix sound for a medium-sized church because it somehow got grafted onto my already-spastic list of responsibilities. I actually got PAID to do this, and it could have better been done by a retarded dog. I love music. I’m a pseudo-musician. I can’t mix for sh*t, and I too have been using my ears my whole life.

  • Actually you can polish a turd. Watched them do it on Mythbusters ?

  • poop -in chocolate -out

  • Sayan B

    About the polishing a turd point, I agree.
    There are certain things, though, that need to be polished, and number one on my list would be vocals.
    This is a resource that I use regularly. These people are good and their services are cheap – a combination that is pretty much a rarity in this field. Do feel free to get in touch with them if you have any vocal tuning requirements.

  • Xavier Sheppard

    Its a weird process you have to go through when behind the mixer. At one point the final project IS a product and the financial success and acceptability of it is how in the end you need to evaluate it. But during the creation process you need to keep it as far back in your mind as possible. If you use your EQ’s and compressors the same way every time then your not listening to what your turd is telling you.
    I always Keep in mind “what needs to be heard to get the tone/feel right with the message.”
    I find a lot of people forget that your job behind the board is not to make it sound good; thats the preformers job :p but to pick out what needs to be heard to make the message effective. I like leaving in mistakes and unbalancing away from the commercial sound during creation and put on the money hat at the end of the day. Usually when the entire group is focused on have the song “make sense” other then “sound good” you end up with a lot more to work with already half way there if you can keep focused on what your trying to accomplish with the song.
    From there you keep the rules in mind (you gotta make sure your “music math” adds up. but a good song can always break through a bad recording, just have to play to the strengths your given and not trying to make it fit anything, but effective in its use none the less :p

  • Richard Lodge

    Excellent piece… All these expressions seem to be used by people in order to mystify the creative process and really great to see someone calling bullshit on that. Thanks Matthew.

    shameless blog plug: http://www.tapestelltales.com

  • Jeffrey Gerards

    I’ve always enjoyed the phrase, “fake it till you make it.” I feel like this happens so often in the audio production world and it’s pretty amusing to watch people try to do this and ending up with their foot in their mouth. No one is perfect and no one knows everything. Be honest about what you don’t know. Most people, unless they are assholes, are more that willing to share their knowledge with an eager mind.

    • westlafadeaway

      The alternative…”Stay invisible til you invincible” -MaxNormal.TV

  • Frank Converse

    What a load of scattershot advice. Doubtful you’ve ever had a hit record. Too elementary and obvious.

  • Ryan Gardner

    Here’s one I’ve heard. “At the end of the day, all that matters is what’s coming out of the two speaker.” Fair enough BUT what goes into ‘what’s coming out’ is more complicated than listening to Tom Petty on your way home from work.

  • Definitely number 4! Gotta know the rules before you break ’em.

    • Hue Nery

      Beat me to it. YES! #4. I’m tired of people using that lame excuse when you try to give some reasonable advice.

  • I like people who deconstruct like 32 bars of drum recording with hitpoint detection, quantize everything and then choose a “humanize” preset for the kick drum again, just as the result of their compulsion to control. “use your ears” is another claim misused often: trust your own taste / creativity? don’t fully trust the daw meters and scales? / give a pile about the opinion of somebody being dogmatic? there are plenty versions of a good interpretation but if you are a audio engineer for living you probably gotta meet in the middle of the customer’s taste and the industry standard depending on the genre. and expensive equipment won’t help somebody who is missing knowledge (“wisdom”) or experience with those gear.