Using A Light Touch In Modern Audio Productions

Professional audio production has turned into an endlessly complex place where what was valid in the past is no longer true today. Powerful tools abound to fix anything in audio, but having a light touch is essential to truly good sound. 

The only way to stay on top of the latest innovations in pro audio today is to engage in a lifelong pursuit of learning. Be wary of the ever changing series of myths and untruths from non-experts that haunt pro audio.

These mythical opinions are especially prevalent on the internet, where every opinion is treated equally. But much of this information is speculation from the uninformed and not true. Try to keep an open mind, while learning the basics of good sound. It is not always so easy to do.

In our modern age of audio, don’t believe it when someone says expensive, exotic gear is necessary to create good sound. That might have been true in the past, but no longer. Many mixers today create magnificent tracks without any outboard processing audio gear at all.

Of course, some outboard devices can always enhance certain sound mixes with very specific issues. But these devices are not absolutely necessary and when used, should be with a very light touch. Basic audio post production systems today from brand name manufacturers are of excellent quality.

Photo by Jan Střecha.

Photo by Jan Střecha.

Far more important to improving the sound quality of a project is the producers' skill set — and, of course, his or her’s own ears. The human equation, rather than a technical one, is what matters most in recording. The right sound comes from listening carefully and making the right basic decisions.

Another popular misconception in pro audio is that one DAW sounds better than another. This is hogwash. It is another area where cheap internet talk has clouded common sense. Digital audio workstations have no “sound.”

Sure, each DAW might operate differently. Workflows may differ. Some DAWs might be optimized to work best with a certain vendor’s audio components. But a different sound? No. Pick a major brand-name DAW and master its operation. This, with the right skills, is all that’s needed to getting excellent sound.

Genuine pros in audio lose the ill-conceived temptation of using a mediocre musical performance and trying to use post-production tools to make it better. If you don’t get an excellent musical performance to begin with, scrap it and try again.

By excellent musical performance, I mean more than technical issues like vocals in tune (which can be fixed). What’s essential is not technical perfection, but to capture the emotional impact to the performance. This is something that cannot be fixed in post. Some of the best recordings ever made were far from technically perfect.

Remember that every ounce of audio processing will affect the tone of the final audio file. Pitch correction software has certain sonic characteristics that can be identifiable later on. You can't successfully hide anything. Apply a very light touch to your mix, pay close attention to the quality of the original performance and you’ll be far ahead in the game of recording.

Photo by James Owen.

Photo by James Owen.

If necessary, use headphones for your mix. But check the mix on speakers as well. Many headphone mixes don't sound optimal in the real world. Make sure you judge your mix on multiple devices — the way real human beings will hear it.

Don’t buy into the fallacy that parallel processing is essential to the mixing process. It can help with specific problems like all other tools, but is not a magical fix. In fact, there are no magical fixes in recording. Learn each tool and use them wisely. But try to get the recording right in the first place.

If there is a golden rule to follow when recording, choose the right microphone for the job and put it in the right physical place for pickup. Move the mic around until it sounds good. Don’t get lazy and use EQ or other compensation to “fix” the sound.

Then, use your mixing and editing tools sparingly. The best recordings in history were made without sound processing tools at all. Remember that always. 

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