When talking about audio, we get so caught up in the intricacies of the technical, and yet the most potentially challenging element in production is communication.
When people align, great things happen: Synergy is effortless, ideas are boundless, and productivity is unparalleled. But when people aren’t quite connecting, a session can turn disastrous very, very quickly.
To my experience, there are two main types of miscommunication in the studio. The first is artistic, in which people can’t relate to each other’s creative motives. As a producer, your job is to make the artist as great as they can be in a recording, however, this type of miscommunication is difficult to get around. No one is right or wrong in these situations, they’re just not good matches of creative personalities. You can open your eyes and try and respect the other’s view for the benefit of the greater project, but it’s usually an uphill battle. Who you are as a producer or engineer is mostly based on your opinions and your aesthetic, so putting those aside isn’t really the answer. In this type of miscommunication, it’s best to just muscle through and try your best not to repeat it.
The second type of miscommunication in the studio is that of a differing musical vocabulary. Those of us who grew up in the School of Rock n Roll generally have a language that is completely and utterly fabricated, based on nothing more than descriptors. Complicating this further is the fact that there are an infinite number of dialects within this made-up musical language. At the extremes, try having to talk shop with TV producers, or spend a session with classical musicians, and you’ll quickly realize that your Zeppelin vernacular doesn’t get you very far.
So how do we get around this? First, recognise that there’s always the potential for miscommunication and don’t assume that you know what someone means when you’re working together. For example, it’s not uncommon for a drummer to say something like: “I want the kick drum to be [insert abstract descriptor. i.e. heavier, punchier, awesomer, etc.].” Does that mean they want to hear more sub frequencies? Does it mean that they want more point and attack? Or does that mean that they don’t recognise their shortcomings as a player and they just don’t dig into their kick pedal enough when they play? The different ways to abstractly describe music is limitless so there is really no way to be prepared for a musician’s personal dialect. But at least if you go in without assumptions you can be aware of potential pitfalls and prepared to get the people you’re working with to further explain themselves.
With that awareness being the first step, the next is to do your best to remove language altogether, which is the only way to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This often means expanding your technical prowess so that you are able to present all available options in hope that one resonates. If everyone can actually hear a reference, it helps create a common ground and minimises descriptors.
To adapt to all possible situations by giving those we work with the sound they want, we need to thoroughly understand what effect different elements have on the sounds we’re working with. Obviously, each producer/engineer will have different requirements based on the type of music they create, but a thorough understanding of the following will provide you with a palette of potential solutions that may help you bridge your communication gaps:
• Audio – Makes/models of mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, delays, and reverbs
• Music – Music theory, harmony, and arrangement
• Guitar & Bass – Makes/models of guitars, bass guitars, amps, pedals, as well as basic guitar/bass repairs
• Drums – Makes/models of drum kits, snares, as well as dampening techniques, and tuning
• Keyboards – Makes/models of pianos, keyboards, synths, as well as basic synthesis
• Misc – Candles, incense, area rugs, thermostats, chairs and stools, local eateries, etc., etc., etc.
So when a guitarist says that they want their tone to be “more aggressive”, you’ll have an arsenal of potential solutions. Will using the Les Paul instead of the Telecaster fix things? Maybe you should be using a Marshall JMP instead of a Fender Bassman? Perhaps it just needs a bit of Tubescreamer bite? Or perhaps all the pedals should be taken away and you should just push the amp harder? Or maybe the guitarist just hasn’t eaten lunch and is playing too far behind the beat? Or maybe it’s time to swap your API mic pres for Neves? They’re all possible solutions to making something “more aggressive”.
Unless you possess some sort of uncanny power, I would bet that you’re not a mind-reader, so don’t try to solve problems by guessing at what people are thinking. Use your studio skills to explore different options until everyone agrees that you’re on the right path. That exploration is one of the best parts of being in the studio and will help to develop that session’s dialect, which will ultimately make you an even better audio-linguist for future sessions.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
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