In our last adventure, our hero was despairing of his job search and had decided to write music as a side project to fill the time and possibly make some money. He also made a particularly entertaining comment on children who are terrible at finger painting. When we last left him, he had just made a startling and devastating revelation…
The Road So Far… - Pt. 2: Year 1
A well-considered metaphor for luck is being struck by lightning. I like this metaphor because of the implications of its extension. Basically, the more you stand in an open field, holding a giant metal rod, the luckier you get. This means that you can learn to be skilled at being lucky. Luck just takes the right set of equipment used in the right set of circumstances.
After the failure of the Christmas song, I came to a few realizations:
I needed to record on better equipment
I needed to learn how to mix each separate instrument track into a coherent whole
I needed to keep writing songs for material to practice recording and mixing
Recording on Better Equipment
Talking about strokes of luck, this realization came with one. As I said previously, I have always enjoyed playing my own music far more than anything else. Growing up, in order to capture my ideas, I collected microphones, cables, software, and most importantly, an interface for plugging all of those things into my computer. I already owned better equipment! I just needed to learn how to use this mysterious better equipment…
(Side note: You may be wondering why I didn’t already have a minor mastery of the subject. The answer, of course, is that my older brother and I were in a band, and he learned how this all worked, then tirelessly recorded each member of the band and mixed the tracks together. All I had to do was play/sing. Yay, Rick!)
So, Ikea style, I put microphone cable hookup A into microphone cable slot A (or is it supposed to be B? Has anyone mastered Ikea schematics?). Then I ran through a couple of tutorials and WHAM!, I George Michael-ed the crap out of learning the basics of using a Desktop Audio Workstation (DAW). After extensive (and I mean extensive) research and trials, I bought a license for REAPER, a program by musicians for musicians that proves that the multiple thousands of dollars you have to pay for ProTools is like clogging your toilet by flushing money down it, then calling a plummer, taking a day off of work to wait for the plummer to show up, have him unclog the toilet, then doing it all again roughly 2 or 3 more times.
(Edit: To be fair, I looked up the cost of ProTools 12. The price tag is $599 with an annual upgrade option of $299. I also looked up they average cost of the services of a plummer. I was using hyperbole, but 3 or 4 times of money flushing and unclogging actually appears to be a decent cost estimate, as long as you are flushing Washingtons to get the toilet to clog.)
Learning to Mix
Now the individual audio tracks were on the computer, and had gotten there through legitimate channels. I didn’t even have to build a wall and try to get Mexico to pay for it. Now all I had to do was throw them all together and I’d have a classy, LA production-quality track, right? WRONG! You are wrong. How could you think such a thing? You know people go to college to get a degree for this stuff, right?
As Walter Sobchak says, “You’re entering a world of pain...a world of pain.”
In navigating this new world of levels, compression, spatial arrangement, and all the associated effects, I found some maps in the shape of random internet blogs, The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski, and Mixing Audio: Concepts, Practices, and Tools by Roey Izhaki. I also spent a lot of time combing through a real-life library for books on mixing, writing lyrics, hungry caterpillars, learning to play drums, etc. Did you humans know that libraries still exist? Actual buildings with actual books! The experience was glorious, and I recommend spending some time in one.
Anywho, although I continued writing new tracks, hours and hours and hours and hours and more hours (and also more hours) were spent dealing with different types of reverb, lengths of reverb, delay, delay times, delay styles, different audio sampling programs, finding the right plugins, etc. The worst was compression, because no matter how hard I listened, I couldn’t seem to understand how it was used. It seemed the more I used compression the worse everything got.
My tracks starting sounding better, but were still nowhere near acceptable production quality (referred to as Broadcast Quality, as coined by Michael Laskow). Something was still wrong and I needed to figure out what it was, or I would never produce acceptable audio tracks.
We leave our hero lost deep in the perilous labyrinth of audio mixing! Will he escape? If so, will his sanity still be intact? Will he figure out the age old secrets, lost in time, behind using compression correctly? And what further dangers lie ahead for our relentless, intrepid hero?
Tune in next time for the stunning conclusion of ‘The Road So Far…’