Today’s question is not new. In fact it is easily the most common question we get. But as each month and year goes by, and the equipment we use gets better and better it is noteworthy that this question is still as prominent as it ever was.
“My question is about the magic of the “studio”. For years, while recording to cassette, I expected the low quality recording I was getting. But now with digital recording and effects, compression, good mics etc. I am much more satisfied with what I can produce in my basement. However, it never sounds as good as a pre-recorded CD of my favorite group, of course. My question is what is the major, number one thing about the studio that makes those perfect sounding recordings? I used to think it was compression, been there, done that. I know there are all kinds of things going on, but what is the biggest factor that makes the difference? I know even these great musicians and singers make little mistakes on some of their takes. Does it just take 100 hours to edit one song until its right? I don’t think my wife is going to allow that.”
This is such a wide open question with so many possible answers that almost any response will tend to sound frivolous. We dealt with the equipment aspects of it in our One Piece of Gear Summit a few years ago, but things have changed since then (though we will be glad to post any updates anyone has). And nothing has changed more than our personal conditions of satisfaction. What do we mean by this? Look at it this way. Back when you were recording to cassette you would have been able to produce truly world class recordings if you had the tools and experience you have today. Perhaps your recordings would even surpass the recordings of the time. While your tools, expertise, and resources have grown a lot since then, so have everyone else’s. Consequently all of our conditions of satisfaction have changed. Things sound a lot better, but we expect a lot more as well. It’s always important to keep that in mind as you wrestle with this type of issue.
You ask an interesting question: what is the single biggest factor in the difference? I see the question at face value, but I still hear the thinking hidden behind it. Even though we all know there are many potential differences we all still want to simplify and quantify it almost like it’s an equation. Buy the new gizmo and my recordings will make a quantum leap toward sounding like the commercial releases. Fact is, this is usually just not the case. The ‘difference’ truly is that a bunch of things contribute to the overall sound in some small way. Nevertheless some elements probably do contribute more than others. Which ones those may be for you depend greatly on what you already have and what your skills are. This is one great reason why it is ideal to have a relationship with a Sweetwater Sales Engineer. These guys are pros and this can be a great place to bounce around these concepts and see what sticks in your specific situation. Plus, anyone who’s been around has heard great recordings done on gear that isn’t as good as what most of us have so clearly there is more to this than simply connecting the right boxes together.
So, with those caveats and conditions in mind your inSync editor’s opinion of the single most important thing in those perfect sounding recordings is…(drum roll please)… skill. Skill? Absolutely. The ability to recognize (hear) what must be done: what gear to buy, how to set it, and so on. Sorry if this feels like a cop-out, but the truth of this cannot be denied. Running a very close second to this is the source material itself. Talented artists who are really proficient with their instruments and know how to make them sound good can make a world of difference. For example, common sense dictates that any two drummers can hit an identical snare drum and it will sound about the same. Not true. There really can be vast differences in the sound of drums, bass guitars, and just about any other mechanical instrument based merely on who is physically in contact with it. And we haven’t even started talking about actual musical playing chops yet.
After that you get into the finer details of the recording environment (the room), the microphones and preamps, and the monitoring environment, which is critical to making good assessments of what is going on (assuming you have the skill to do it). We see many people overlooking these fundamental components in one way or another thinking that the magic happens on the back end with editing and mixing. (Ever heard the phrase, “fix it in the mix?” Don’t believe it.) This is obviously a very deep subject, and we don’t have time to go on in this forum much more than we have. Perhaps this is a good topic for another inSync summit. Let’s hear some feedback. If you guys think this is worth more exploration and think you would have some meaningful input let us know and we’ll draw it up.