The Most Important Parts of a Recording

As Mixing For Dumb Idiots expands (most recently with a page on composition, and there’s more to come), writing it has helped me clarify what I think the most important elements of recordings are.  I’ll talk about my top three here.  I recommend spending a good amount of your time and energy on these, especially if you’re starting to make your own recordings (HAI CORY).

#1 – The composition itself; its melodies, chords, rhythms, lyrics, and so on.  This could go without saying, and I can’t help you much here (see MFDI), except that I think of recording’s arrangement as an element of the composition and that we can talk about.

The best raw musical material in the world can end up an interesting failure if the arrangement doesn’t present it in a dynamic way (almost like telling a good story).  In what order are ideas (hooks, verses, choruses, bridges, solos) introduced?  What elements repeat, and for how long?  How many and which instruments are used?  Does the introduction attention-grabbing?  Is the ending satisfying?

Great answers to these questions will elevate any material.  Poor answers will undermine even the greatest melodies.  The good news is that I can give you the questions in a blog post (I can’t do the same with writing melodies, chords, and the rest) and you can start applying them right away like people with years of experience; just experiment with different answers on your material until you find ones you like.  Shorten and lengthen a verse.  Instead of opening with the chord progression four times, start with an acapella verse vocal.  Use a piano instead of a guitar.  Use household objects instead of drums.

#2 – The vocal performance.  Is it compelling?  (Note; not technically or conventionally “good.”)  Does it draw and hold attention?  The vocal is most listeners’ way into the song, and it’s a make-or-break element.

Record the best vocal performance possible, whatever it takes.  That might mean catering to the artists’ preferences for space, time of day, substances available, and so on, or it might mean pushing the artist enough to create some healthy, constructive stress.  Whatever compromises are made in terms of mic technique or other technical aspects of the recording will be more than made up for if it improves the artist’s performance.

#3 – Match the recording fidelity with the conventional goodness of the performances.

Let me explain.

Low-fidelity (4-track tape, for example) recordings sound conventionally “right” no matter how professional and tight or mistake-filled and loose the performances are.  The highest-fidelity recordings only sound “right” if the performances are also error-free and precise.

Does that make sense?  Try this:

Plan and execute your recording project’s fidelity and level of performance to end up in the starry area of wonder and happiness!

The Cool Drugs EP was a bit in the zone of deathy frustration, and was hard to mix as a result.  That’s the experience that drove this home for me, and now I hear it in everything.  High-fidelity, loose-performance recordings can be awkward for me to listen to.

I can’t stress enough that matching these aspects of recording continues to challenge me.  In today’s recording world, where affordable, high-fidelity digital interfaces are the default for most of us, especially when we’re starting out, hearing our shortcomings in perfect detail can be really frustrating.  Never underestimate the power of background noise, bleed, tape hiss, analog distortion, and all the rest of it to present less-than-Steely-Dan level performances in a context that flatters them.

Wildest. Patch. Ever.

Check this out; I’m getting pseudo-4-voice paraphony from a two-oscillator monosynth!

The patch includes Gattobus’ 2-voice paraphonic patch, an oscillating high-pass filter, and feedback oscillation from the external signal processor (ESP).  The ESP drone is going through tremolo and flanger pedals, and the entire output is going through a delay pedal.

I’ve used it to record a cover of My Bloody Valentine’s “Come In Alone,” live, in one take/pass. That means no overdubbing, editing, or trickey; I set up the patch and played everything you hear.  MFR email friends can log in to download a rough master of the song at the link below for the next 7 days. Become a MFR email list friend here!

Last Night’s View From The Drum Throne

The light wasn’t great, but here’s looking out from behind the kit at Dark Satellites’ session last night.

We’ve been working on recording a couple of instrumental pieces to 4-track tape for a documentary soundtrack project.  Drew’s garage at the new place is slowly transforming into studio space.  Done: clean, paint, move some gear.  To-do: HVAC (today), more gear, sound treatment.  For the purposes of Minutemen-style punk, rocking with the garage door open in the heat has worked OK, cicadas and all.

Cole has been at the sessions of course, but was grabbing a beer or something when I took the picture.

Scott finished

all the recording he needed to do in Lawrence on Sunday.  There may be a few synth, percussion, etc. things done in Syracuse and added in to the sessions.  That’s four years of annual summer recording trips, if you’re counting.

h&s has been my top free time priority since October 19, when I set up mics for guitars.  I haven’t worked on it exclusively, of course, but it always came first in my mind and on my to-do list if there was anything to be done on it.  That was a result of working backwards from wanting to finish Scott’s tracking this summer, which meant getting my vocals done ahead of that, which meant getting guitars and bass and some keys done ahead of that.

While there’s plenty of work left, it’s good to set that weight aside and work on whatever I feel like working on.

For the past week that’s been figuring out how to make synths do Kevin Shields-like pitch bends (only down and back, not both up and down from the un-bent note(s)).  I figured it out on the MS-20, using a diode alligator-clipped in to the triangle-shaped modulation signal.  I think I know, but haven’t tested, how to do it polyphonically using the MS-20 as a control voltage source for the Electro-Harmonix PitchFork pedal.  I could also program a patch in the Micron to do it.  It would be nice to do it all analog (the PitchFork and Micron are digital) but there are very few polysynths with patch points for such things.

Bright Black

I’m wiped, having spent the day painting the new studio out at Drew’s farm.  It’s a one-car, separated side of a three-car garage and looks to be the loud recording and rehearsal space for a couple of years.  Maybe longer; his ultimate goal is a built-to-spec space in one of the property’s barns, but at this point the garage is looking pretty A-OK.

I also have been doing some synths/keys for h&s, with more of that to come this week.

If you’d like something to listen to, check this out, made by Nate whom I met last weekend at the Approach show:

Elegant Skronk

Couple pics from Scott & Katie’s visit this weekend; bass clarinet recording and rocking with Approach. Recording continues today.




(Full-size version at I Heart Local Music, photo by Ailecia Ruscin)

On Art Criticism

Ann Hornaday nails it:

“The job of a critic isn’t to evaluate a movie on the basis of its imaginary audience, but to try to discern what kind of story filmmakers are trying to tell, ascertaining whether they succeeded and judge whether the enterprise has merit — in terms of ambition, originality, aesthetic sophistication, technical achievement, implicit values and intellectual depth.”

That’s probably the best summary I’ve ever seen of what good art criticism is.

About all I’d want to add (and I’ve probably talked about this elsewhere) is that a critic’s job isn’t to evaluate the art they wish the artist had made, or the art they imagine they might have made themselves if they were in the artist’s shoes.  Hornaday’s quote implies this (“…try to discern what kind of story filmmakers are trying to tell…”).

Good criticism starts from a place of humility, or listening, or even submission.

I can quickly decide, in most cases, if a work is to my taste or not.  I’m much slower to decide if something has artistic merit.  Plenty of works are full of merit but not to my taste (and experiencing these can be valuable to me, if I prepare for them), and I enjoy plenty of others that play to my taste but aren’t loaded with aesthetic value.  These often serve as much or more as entertainment, distraction, or in other functions for me than as capital-A Art.  We all do this, and it’s fine.

(Sidebar; WaPo style guide doesn’t include the Oxford comma?!??  Bummer!)

The world would benefit from more criticism like Hornaday’s.


I’m recording h&s vocals this weekend, and had the thought that tracking vocal takes is a lot like what I imagine running a luge track would be like.

Hear me out.

  • Each song/track is different
  • As you take repeated runs at a song/track, you learn its straights and curves, and can start to anticipate things and fine-tune your performance
  • Your voice/luge is a powerful instrument…
  • … and one you must respect at all times.  One wrong move, and you’ve wrecked
  • The harder you push, the more the preceding point is true.  Flying around corners might get you a personal best, or you might end up in the trees

I’ve done a song every day for the past three, and should be able to do keep pace over the next three as well.  That would leave just one for next week or weekend.

Scott will be back in late July to finish backing vox, and that will almost wrap tracking.  We’ll probably get together later in the summer/fall for some percussion stuff and other extras.

I can feel being ready to be done tracking coming on.  Recording vocals for a song is a two-hour episode of intense focus, with a voice that’s mostly-but-not-entirely cooperative and no guarantee that I’ll love the results.  Psyching myself up to go there, and then to edit the thing, doesn’t come for nothing.