Whenever I come to write a comment piece like this one I'm reminded of the 'Four Yorkshire Men ' Sketch from Monty Python. With that in mind I want to be clear that I don't subscribe to the philosophy that it's only real recording if its hard. If I can find shortcuts and easier ways to do things and still achieve the same results then I'd be stupid to ignore those options. I'm glad my kids have access to stuff that I could have only dreamed of.
That said I do think that skills developed through sheer necessity and scarcity of gear have held me in good stead over the last few decades. For example bouncing used to a necessity to make up for the low track counts we had. My first machine was a Tascam 4 track and as you can imagine it didn't take long to fill up those 4 tracks. What it meant though was a session had to be carefully planned like some kind of audio 'Rubik's Cube' so that you got the tracks down in the right order for bouncing, or in fact like one of those puzzles where you have to get the fox, the chicken and the bag of grain across the river in the right order.
If you wanted a stereo track at the end then you needed to figure out what you would do first and what you would bounce from the 3 tracks to the 4th one. Of course one thing you could do was bounce the first four to another stereo 'tape' recorder and then back to two tracks. So a second discipline was making sure you recorded things well enough to keep noise as low as possible - with tape every copy made the sound worse and the hiss louder.
So our second skill was making sure we recorded the stuff right in the first place and carefully selected the tone of our instruments or the synth patches because we we recorded them as audio not MIDI. There was no fixing it in the mix, no thinking let's choose the sound later or add a plug-in, no tuning, no quantize. I remember rejoicing when I get a MIDI sequencer that I could sync to tape, now I had a MIDI sequencer and my 4 track - BUT now if I was going to lock the synths to the tape my 4 track was a 3 track!
Let's be clear this is not a polemic on how plug-ins are evil and will destroy real recording, I lived through the 'drum machines will kill drummers' hysteria (oddly enough that was the only feature they didn't have that some wished they did.) so I know that doomsday predictions rarely come to pass.
What I think I'm really trying to do is to encourage all of us who now have access to such powerful equipment, and at a fraction of the cost it used to be, to develop the fundamental skills of recording, as well as some good production philosophies.
For example on the technical side learning great microphone selection, set-up and recording techniques is never wasted. Then on the production side learning how to mange a vocal recording session and a vocalist to make sure you get the best possible performance and the right results is indispensable. All those producer heroes we have do both and often more of the latter than the former.
This week I was tracking a singer I am working with and it involved all of the above - selecting the right microphone, choosing the right pre-amp, deciding on how much hardware compression to put on the mic as it was recorded and then working with her to make sure we made the right performance choices as we went through the session. Now I have a great performance and sound on 'tape' so that decision is done.
I've used plug-ins as the hook to hang this discussion on perhaps because of that awful term 'fixing it in the mix' but it could apply to other parts of the modern recording process that are dumbing us down.
We might think the idea of being able to fix stuff later as appealing - the first time I used Pro Tools I was 'so you're telling me I can fix this drum part?' or 'so I can copy this guitar to here in the song' - who wouldn't want that? However what started off as powerful tools to help us when things needed fixing became the way some people made music, me included, and I think to the detriment of my productions and my ability to grow my skills as a recording engineer.
So here's a challenge I want to give. If you have never or rarely commit your sounds and your plug-in choices to a recording at the start then why not try doing it? That is one of the great things about the UAD Apollo range of audio interfaces that you can do this. In fact their Unison technology actively encourages this recording methodology. Make a compression setting on a vocal and commit it to the track. Choose a guitar sound with all the effects and commit it to the track. Record the drums in mono, choose a synth patch and lay it down as audio. Get the vocalist to really nail one fantastic performance rather than assembling a patch work of 'perfect' takes.
If you do this for the first time then you may find two things happen - the song will come together easier as you hear the 'finished' parts getting laid down and even better the song will almost mix itself.
We have too many video tutorials about how to mix, this is because for some people it's already too late. The decisions (or lack) have given them hundreds of tracks to try and make into some kind of cohesive finished mix rather than a piece of beautifully conceived art which came from intentional decisions each step of the way. Vance Powell sums it up better and perhaps more eloquently than me...
"I tell em, please make some decisions, don't give me 5 guitar tracks for every single f*cking guitar part, because I'm just going to turn em off." He seems to have found his stride and explodes into another moment of passion by being reminded of an interview he did for the Red Bull Academy the week before. "I said a lot of stuff but the only thing some guy was tweeting was that I said 'make a f*cking decision'. Be an artist and make the decision."
And this is what I'm really trying to say, working this way may seem stifling, in fact quite the opposite I find it liberating. I don't want to go back to the 4 tracks on tape world and the bouncing audio just to get the song finished but I'm convinced they were some of my best songs - albeit covered in hiss. As one commentator quipped 'If Google taught us anything it is that omniscience is overrated.' In some ways having infinite choices in the production process is also overrated.
Plug-ins are a wonderful part of modern music making, but if we rely on them too much then we'll never really develop some of the really important skills of recording and in the long run be poorer for it.
"You try and tell the young people of today that and they won't believe you!"