Friday, November 6, 2009

Audio Hallucinations

Audio Hallucinations

25 years ago I ran sound for bands on the road. I cut my teeth in audio during those couple of years. Once I dealt with the obvious problems that every live mixing engineer deals with, my biggest problem was typically the club owner/manager. There were the usual complaints about volume, but often the owner would have suggestions about my mix. I would always consider the suggestion first, but often they were just plain wrong. In those situations discussion is not an option, so I started to keep a few idle faders pushed most of the way up so I could make a show of lowering them for the owner. Every time I did this the owner would be very happy, convinced that his change had been made.

Years later when I started mixing and producing major label work I would often get input from an A&R or even the label head on a lot things, but mostly the mix. I know these guys want to feel involved and have some sort of creative input, but the fact is that usually it was just plain bad input. Once again argument and discussion will get you no where except not getting hired again. So what did I do? Just sent them the same mix again and thank them for their input. They would hear it and give me the thumbs up convinced that the changes had been made.

It’s funny how people can be convinced about changes in sound and how much we imagine that what we are hearing is changed or better or different. But can we fool ourselves?

Cut to last night. I’m mixing something and I want to automate the echo send on the vocals in this one section of a verse. Somehow I screwed up and ended up adjusting the volume automation instead of the send automation. Listening to that section several times I really thought that the 2 db boost I thought I was giving to the echo was just what it needed! Ha Ha! What I was really hearing was the vocal getting louder (and a little more echo because as I usually do my send is post-fader). Louder always sounds better. It took me a few minutes to catch what I did and not until I had done something else and come back. I’ve even had situations where I’m just tired and pushing myself and I grab the wrong EQ and start turning stuff, convinced I was doing something to the track I was targeting. Yet all I’m really hearing is something being EQ’d and my ear/brain fools me into thinking it is happening to the track I think I’m on.

I call this Audio Hallucinations. We all have them from time to time. Take master clocks for example. For a while it was the rage (Audio Fashion) amongst the producers and mixers I was in touch with to get one for your rig. I bought 2 different high priced models for my 2 main rigs based on suggestions from other engineers who said that using a particular model would be “night and day” compared to not using one. At first I thought it was making a difference. I had to! I'd just spent a good deal of money on these things! But after much A/B testing, changing word clock cables (I actually witnessed a heated discussion between 2 fairly successful engineers over the difference in tone your word clock cable makes!), re-checking the manual and phone calls to the manufacturer to make sure I was connecting and using it right I came to the conclusion that any difference it was making was so small that I frankly just couldn’t hear it. I’ve kept the one master clock in my A Room because it has a lot of pretty lights and it makes my clients feel like I’ve gone the extra distance, but it really is smoke and mirrors. I was at an industry function last night and and related my master clock story to several engineers in attendance and every one of them laughed and agreed. They had the same experience!
One of the engineers went on to describe an experience at a gear shoot out he'd been to at a major studio here in ATL. The guys that were doing the shoot out were interested in finding out how people were influenced by what they heard and how they made decisions in choosing what ‘sounded’ better. They found that when A/B’ing 2 pieces of gear or 2 microphones that if one was louder then the other by even .5 db that almost everyone would just choose the louder one. And these were all established engineers!

We all can get so caught up in sound and what we believe ‘sounds better’. We obsess over the smallest tweaks yet we lose sight of the most important thing. The one thing that you cannot fool yourself or anyone else into thinking is good. And that is the MUSIC and the VIBE.

Years ago when I started doing more hard rock stuff I had an artist that I was developing who had some great songs and a voice that just caught peoples attention. We had no decent amps or guitars. All the songs were recorded with a cheap Crate amp, played on a fake Les Paul and mic’d thru my Soundcraft Ghost console. We really struggled to get it even listenable. I was convinced that I had done at best a mediocre job on the songs. But when we played the stuff for people everyone went crazy over it. I was told that it sounded amazing and the mixes were great. But what they were really responding to was the good songs, the great vibe we had and his voice. I still put those songs on my mixer/producer reels and I’ve gotten work from those songs specifically! I have a couple of other songs that I used to put on the reels from another band I did 3 years ago that I KNOW I nailed the sound on. Truly the best drum and guitar sounds I’ve ever gotten. Probably some of the best mixes I’ve ever done. All the audio components came together perfectly. But the band was in a weird funk and the songs were weak. I stopped putting the songs on the reel because I actually got negative comments on them.

I know I’m going to get emails from engineers saying that tweaking IS what they do for a career. That those minute tweaks and differences is what makes their specialization valuable. Yes that is true, but people are buying music, emotion- the soundtrack of their lives.

I just think the subject is interesting, funny and informative. Anyone have any good Audio Hallucination stories?

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