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The “Lost” Art of Audio Engineering: Drums, Live Music, iPods

Most of you are probably used to reading how-to guides here at The Stereo Bus. Today I’m going to do something different and write some commentary.  Audio Engineering as a profession is largely a dying industry.  More and more musicians are taking a DIY approach to Music Production, opting for laptop and bedroom studios instead of booking time in commercial facilities with dedicated engineering staff.

A couple of months ago I joined a community called WeAreTheMusicMakers over at Reddit.  I quite enjoy Reddit as a whole and am happy that there are people discussing Music Production and Audio Engineering over there.  One of the more popular things to do is to take photos of your studio and share them with the community.  There are some pretty common items present in the photos: a computer, a recording interface, a small mixer, and a keyboard and/or drum pad unit.  Seldom does one see a drum set.

The Popularity of Hip Hop has Largely Marginalized Audio Engineering

I have a lot of respect for Hip Hop.  It’s been a powerful force for empowerment and a beautiful art form in and of itself.  It’s a form of music that grew out of necessity: you didn’t need a lot of equipment to make Hip Hop and, arguably, you didn’t need to know how to play any musical instruments.  One’s musical intuition and raw talent can get you most of the way towards a compelling song and rapping can be practiced pretty much anywhere.  As time progressed, the standard turntable setup grew into samplers, keyboards, and computers.

To this day Hip Hop remains music that can be made in urban environments such as the apartment where I live.  Electronic compositions can be made with headphones and require minimal miking capabilities beyond something that captures vocals adequately.  Unlike rock music, where guitar amps sound best cranked and where live drums necessitate well-treated rooms, Hip Hop can be made in unmanicured environments with stray ambient noises,  sensitive neighbors, and bad acoustics.

One day my wife was discussing my Audio Engineering with a coworker.  The coworker said she had “lots of friends” who do Audio Engineering.  I was surprised when I heard this, but ultimately I came to realize that what is understood to be Audio Engineering has changed in the Hip Hop era.  I might argue that what most Hip Hop artists do doesn’t constitute Audio Engineering, but that’s not really the point I want to make.

Recording Studios Aren’t Closing Because of Piracy

Recording studios are closing because the way we make music has changed.  The perceived value of recorded music has changed. And the mediums in which people hear music, such as iPods and laptop speakers, has trended towards those with which it is harder to distinguish adequate recordings from excellent recordings.

Drums are the Litmus Test

Why don’t we see drum sets in the studios posted to WeAreTheMusicMakers?  It’s because drums are freaking difficult.  If you can pull off a killer drum sound, you can pull off just about anything.  It means you have a variety of high-quality mics, have a room with good acoustics, and have an understanding of how to capture an instrument that most people expect to sound a very specific way.

In the past ten years we’ve heard a lot more experimentation with unconventional sounds in music.  I would argue this is because fewer and fewer musicians are utilizing professional Audio Engineers and are instead taking on the role of a Sound Designer in their compositions.  It’s hard to make well-known instruments sound like we expect them to sound, so it’s much easier to leverage synthesizers and sample libraries than it is to gain the technical experience and equipment needed to do so.  And if you can produce compelling music that touches people this way, why not?

The Spirituality of Live Recordings vs. Overdubbing

I remember the first time I recorded a half-dozen musicians at the same time in a studio.  We had a drummer in the live room, singers in the vocal booth, guitar amps in the hallway, bass amp in the dead room, and several people jamming out in the control room.  Everyone was playing together.  Music was happening.  It’s a spiritual experience to have talented people bonding and creating a creative space between them.  The recordings produced this way bear this idea out.

But, the prevailing pattern of music-making today is overdubbing (the process of layering single tracks on top of each other to simulate simultaneous performances). I use overdubbing all the time.  I’m not harping on it.  But I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something.

I’ve been craving returning to real rooms, real mics, real, physical equipment that takes up space in a room, and real musicians.  We’ve left behind a wild world of gear maintenance, social musicianship, and imperfection.

You just simply cannot make music like the music of Steely Dan or Kate Bush (or The Roots, for that matter) with a bedroom studio.  It hurts me to hear people saying things like “albums should be free” and “musicians should only earn money from ticket sales”.  Music Production and the creation of recordings is an art.  A sacred art.  A legitimate art.  I see people walking around with headphones on all the time, the recorded music enriching their lives and deepening their understanding of life.  Sure, perhaps we need to find a better economic model for supporting the creation of albums, but I will continue to advocate for the appreciation and compensation of artists who strive to produce their best work in the recorded medium.

I don’t know the solution to reinvigorating the Audio Engineering world, nor how to change people’s perceptions of what makes the effort of their favorite artists valuable.  But I’ll let you know what I come up with.

13 Responses to :
The “Lost” Art of Audio Engineering: Drums, Live Music, iPods

  1. Ellis says:

    You sound very bias. The people you claim that “are taking a DIY approach to Music Production, opting for laptop and bedroom studios” are the future of music production and engineering; regardless of the genre or what is being used to produce it, music is music; not just a business that requires “booking time in commercial facilities with dedicated engineering staff.”…as if these “bedroom-studio”-owners are not dedicated. I cannot agree with the first five paragraphs of this blog, but I do agree with those following. Please let me know if I have you misunderstood.

  2. Dan Connor says:

    Well no doubt I am a little biased here. You are correct that the landscape of the industry has changed forever and that the future is different than the past, but that doesn’t mean that it’s invalid to look at the past in a nostalgic or reverent way. And it’s also not to say that we haven’t lost something in exchange for everything we’ve gained. I’m excited to see the ways in which the engineers and producers of the future integrate the methods of the past with those of the future. Those that pull that off will be the new generation of industry leaders.

  3. Mengmar says:

    It is impossible to record music in a bedroom and get it to the kind of quality that you can get in a studio…do you honestly think the great album that is ‘Nevermind’ by ‘Nirvana’ would have had the same impact if it was mixed on a computer in bedroom.
    The production on that album was just as important as the great songs on it.
    I would love the oportunity to record in a proper studio utilising the knowledge of professional sound engineers but instead i am stuck in a bedroom with mediocre equipment and ending up with mediocre recordings but dare i say it i have great songs that would benefit greatly from a studio.
    I also agree with the bit about how people listen to music nowadays has lost it’s appreciation for quality and people use inferior quality speakers and formats (in order to save space) and for people who arn’t in the know this is fine as they can’t tell the difference between an early beatles recording from the more professional recordings that came after thanks to inovations in the industry.
    But for people with a more discerning ear like myself this just isn’t enough.

  4. Dan Connor says:

    Indeed. I stand by my assertion that drums sounds are still the mark of a professional studio. Even with the amazing sample libraries out today you can’t get that lush room sound that you can get in a real studio with real mics. And let’s not forget the special magic you’ll never get by overdubbing: the chemistry and the subtle bleed between microphones.

  5. Gudiker says:

    Totally agreed! one of the things that I enjoy the most is recording drums, real drums just stands everything out! nice info!

    best regards

  6. Dana says:

    I like acoustic drums over electric drums every time. The have a warmer full sound that you just don’t get out of electric drums. Great article.
    Thanks a lot

  7. Anthony says:

    I do not believe it is a dying art, it is just changing, there will always be a need for the studio engineer. Ultimately the studio engineers trained ear and studio knowledge of recording, mixing and mastering is necessary for good music production. I am an artist and a recording Do It Your-selfer with a home studio and I completely respect and use the services of engineers in my process.
    Thanks and respect to your profession, great website too
    Best regards

  8. Chris says:

    I also do not believe it is a dying art. However most young producers are lured toward using samples as opposed to miking a whole kit. I have heard many professionally miked drum sounds as well as very good samples. Live drums and other instruments give a song a “real” feel. It’s something that is very hard to get in a sterile environment where every track is perfectly on time. I much prefer a song that has a natural flow, too many songs these days are mixed to a rigid perfection. It begs the question, is perfect really perfect?

  9. nehajason says:

    i agreed what anthony said. becuase art as don’t have end it is spread over the there is always need for audio engineer. nice article
    thanks a lot

  10. Mike F says:

    This article comes off a little biased to me. It seems as if you’re talking about people ho produce bats for hip hop not having any talent. Stating that you need to musical talent at all. And when it comes to the DIY home studio, you have to take into effect what music the person is trying to create. I record all the time in my room on a small cassette deck and computer. Sure, it doesn’t sound the best to some people, but I enjoy the lo-fi aspect because I know that I created it and am actually doing something worthwhile with my time. Most people do this as a hobby and don’t have time to book a studio to record their songs. I understand that there are a lot more possibilities for creativity in a professional studio but I feel this can be recreated in one way or another just being creative in the comfort of your own home.

  11. Dan Connor says:

    I’m not trying to say that any kind of music or music production techniques are more legitimate than any other but I am saying that a particular breed of recording is getting less attention: the live, band, high-fidelity recording.

    DIY with a cassette deck is cool. It’s art – there aren’t really rules. But most people agree that Chuck Close paintings look more like faces than those made by Jackson Pollock. Similarly, if your goal is to communicate the authentic sound of a drum set then you’d better plan to record a drum set. People know what a drum set sounds like. If not, it’s not an issue for you. If you want to produce the sound of two planets colliding you have more flexibility because nobody knows what that sounds like. It’s art and art is largely about communication. But also remember that audio engineering is also about science and sonic integrity.

  12. Harrison says:

    Given the amount of material that is being created in home studios and bedroom spaces, it’s vital that we understand the necessary tools for producing music. Whether it’s due to the lack of technical knowledge, poor recording space or a lack of industry experience, the home recordist runs a risk of missing vital detail. Therefore, we must adapt our processes to meet today’s workflow.

    I believe it’s vital that we must always collaborate with industry professionals such as producers, songwriters, music supervisors and other trained industry professionals to grow in our craft and ensure that the material we produce will continue to be the best it can be.

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