An exploration of why how music is presented is just as important as the music itself
I’ve always been fascinated with music production. Ever since I got my first taste of recording in around 1998 via an old second hand Tascam Porta03 cassette tape 4 track which had one track broken. Fair enough the only thing I used it for was to write songs to give to bandmates to hear as demos so it didn’t have to sound amazing (and it didn’t) but the control over levels, structure and sounds was intoxicating.
My technique back then was that I was using a freeware MIDI sequencer called Massiva to program drums, bass & Keyboards using a mix of samples and GM MIDI and I took a line out of the computer and into the 4track. I then used the remaining 2 tracks to record rhythm guitars via my old fizzy POD 2.0 (Oh for a low pass filter and some notches back then). I’d then bounce the whole thing down to a degradated second generation so I could do lead work. It all had to be played in a oner with no punch in and if one of the line out instruments was too quiet or too loud I’d have to fix it in Massiva then record it and everything else all again and hope for the best. Phew!
In around the year 2000 or so I found myself in the position where I had outgrown my meagre setup and a 4 track just wasn’t enough for what I wanted to do. I had to find a way to record directly onto the computer. The only recording software I knew about was Steinberg’s Cubase so a quick hunt soon found me a cracked copy of Cubase SX. After some fiddling with the crappy on board sound card’s line in and bungling around setting up inputs I was away….and it was fucking brilliant!
My first song was a power metal rip off of the Level 1 music in the arcade game Shadow Warriors and I shamelessly added at least 5 or 6 layers of guitar harmonies thanks to the unlimited tracks which Cubase offered. I was still running my POD 2.0 so there were no plugins involved and after discovering the parametric EQ and a bit of press & guess knob twiddling the tones started to sound good too although I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing though and was probably boosting the midrange by about +20dB.
Cut forward 16 years, an audio production college course, a fucked liver, a hard paper round face and a shitload of experience and I’m still using Cubase, although it’s a much later version and I’m still fascinated by sounds and production.
But why bother?
On the internet you will constantly hear the phrase “It’s all about the music man!”. This is generally when a song or album has been quite poorly recorded or mixed and people are quick to defend their favourite band. Metallica’s Death Magnetic instantly springs to mind. The album was famous for it’s obnoxiously over compressed limiting and poor mixing which saw engineer/mixer Greg Fidelman brickwall the album to a ridiculous -4dB RMS (most commercial albums are around -10dB RMS) before it had even hit the mastering studio (Yep it was him, the mastering engineer issued a statement saying so!). The album has since become the poster boy for the ‘Loudness war’, a cancerous trend amongst music which thankfully now seems to be dying out.
What a legacy to have!
The “All about the music” statement is actually true….from a certain point of view (Cheers Obi-Wan!). Of course one must consider circumstance, era, genre and intent when making this judgement. It’s unfair to state that say Jimi Hendrix had a crap recording sound for his albums when that was the best the tech could offer at the time and it’s actually not just the music but the point in time which was captured as well. Equally it’s unfair to say that Burzum’s Filosofem sounds pish because it was 100% intentional that it be completely Lo-Fi. In 1993 the album could have sounded a million times better by commercial standards but that was not the goal and that’s why the guitars were recorded using a distortion pedal through an old stereo and the vocals through a set of headphones reversed to become a makeshift microphone. This gave the album a cold, distorted bleakness which would have been lost if the production was polished.
Generally though where bands misstep is when they want their album to sound as good as it can be and it just fall far short of standards which in turn affects the type of music played. Black metal rarely uses palm mutes, time changes etc. or those kind of dynamic techniques so it doesn’t require careful control of the low end or low mids to achieve or tame swell at the right moments. Similarly demos and early works from bands can have a certain charm which is appealing as there is an innocence about a rough production which does (intentionally) get lost over time and is replaced with experience and a more masterful command of technique. Other groups DO need that polish though. Imagine a band like Killswitch Engage or Alter Bridge with the same production as Burzum. It wouldn’t work becasue a band like that needs a strong modern production to showcase power in the right places and capture the wide range of time changes, accents, moods, guitar tones and vocals textures as well as the technicality of the playing from the band members who will all be doing different things at different points. Similarly, can you imagine the iconic drum fill from Phil Collins’ In the air tonight recorded ‘Zeppelin’ style with just a single mic pointed at an acoustic kit?
That’s not to say that people won’t still like music with an unsuitable production but with a little frame of reference it’s easy to see just how much BETTER it could be. Go on, try listening to one song and imagining it with the guitar tone or drum sound of another.
I refer to a post I made on Facebook yesterday which was the seed of this article :
“Imagine listening to the Star Wars or Game Of Thrones theme played on plastic instruments in a toilet and recorded with an iPhone.
This is why production is important.”
One of the most popular things on YouTube at the moment is musicians doing different versions of famous songs. It may be in a different genre, or it may be a mix of vocals styles with other sounds BUT it’s still exactly the sane notes which are played. A favourite with the rock/metal world is taking songs from an album and doing them with a previous album’s production using guitar tones and drum sounds from vintage recordings. These videos are insanely popular, but if it’s all about the music then why bother if the all that matters is the parts are audible?
The fact is that music is not just about notes, chords and rhythms strung together. It’s about tone, timbre, dynamics, frequencies and feel too.
Music and production aren’t separate entities. Production IS part of the music itself and so to say ” Who cares about the production man, it’s all about the music” is rather a contradictory statement.