Maintaining Sanity With The 80/20 Rule In Professional Audio

In the early days of pro audio, commercial recordings were often made with a single ribbon microphone, a simple broadcast console and a mono audio tape recorder. The choices were all about choreographing performers around the fixed microphone. Today, with the rise of digital audio workstations (DAW), the operational choices are infinite and the desire for perfection can overwhelm any recording.

Depending on the project, today’s engineers, working with any DAW, can tweak his or herself into oblivion. Before the 1950s, that wasn’t possible except in the most esoteric studios. Now, we obsess over a tiny amount of gain on one track or a minor tweak in EQ. Whether any of it matters in the end, is subject to opinion.

I recently read on SonicScoop, the audio engineering website, about something called the Pareto Principle. In 1941, the pioneering Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, had gone around Italy measuring various things. From these measurements, he noticed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the people. In his own garden, just 20 percent of the pea pods produced 80 percent of the peas. This applied to dozens of other measurements.

Today, the outgrowth of Pareto’s research is called Pareto’s Principle of Unequal Distribution. Since the 1940s, others have determined that 20 percent of a company’s products account for 80 percent of its sales. Also, 20 percent of nations account for 80 percent of the world’s GDP; 80 percent of health care costs come from 20 percent of patients; 80 percent of the computer crashes come from 20 percent of the bugs; 80 percent of the crimes are committed by 20 percent of the criminals, while 80 percent of complaints come from 20 percent of customers, as do 80 percent of the profits.

In the world of pro audio, an estimated 80 percent of revenue is generated from 20 percent of clients. Engineers also tend to spend 80 percent of their time on 20 percent of the project. And — get this — about 80 percent of those tiny decisions being made have little or no affect on the final audio product.

This leads to the 80/20 rule in audio. In the modern era of the DAW, this infinite number of minute decisions we obsess over have little or no effect on the final recording. We do it because we can. Only 20 percent of our activities give us 80 percent of our results. If we’d quit being so driven by obsessive details, we would become faster and more effective in our work. We might even make some art along the way.

Great production comes not from little choices. It comes from the big principles that we use to approach the overall project. If the engineer can get those key principles right, 80 percent of the job will fall into place. Focus on what has an outsize impact and the rest will rise to meet the standard you’ve set.

It is very easy to get bogged down on some petty choice when working with a DAW. Avoid it. Keep the momentum of the project going at a steady pace. Decide what’s important up front and keep your eyes on the prize. Get the essentials right. As for the rest, chalk it up to creative imperfections.

Good engineers know that perfection is not desired in recordings. It’s performance that matters. We’ve all heard over-produced, soulless recordings. The best, most timeless recordings have some imperfections. While the rest of DAW users drive themselves crazy shooting for some level of perfection, focus on what really matters. That’s the sane way to operate.

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