If an artist’s job is to have an artistic vision of the music they create, then it is a producer’s job to realize that vision through a “sonic vision” of the project. When starting out, many young producers and engineers don’t know what they’re listening for or even when a particular instrument sounds good for its purpose. Having a vision for a project is impossible without training this awareness.
The first step to developing these sonic judgment skills is to listen to as much music as possible. Make sure to engage in active listening, which means analyzing each instrument while making notes on their sonic qualities. The range of difference in how an instrument can sound is quite vast, which can only be fully appreciated by listening to many genres. Here are some questions about common instruments that will help prompt your analysis:
• KICK DRUM – Is the overall sound soft or hard? How much point and sub is there? Is there boxiness to the sound?
• SNARE DRUM – Is it tuned high or low? How much crack and fullness is there? Is the amount of ring acceptable? Does it sound airy?
• TOMS – Are they tuned in pleasing intervals? Do they sound full or papery? Is there a lot of attack to them? How long do they ring out?
• DRUM OVERHEADS – Do they give a good overall image of the drum kit? Are the drums within the kit aligning with their close mics?
• BASS – Is the overall sound aggressive or tubby? Does it sound higher or lower than the kick drum in overall frequencies? How much attack, growl, and sub is there?
• ELECTRIC GUITARS – In the spectrum of clean to distorted, where do they sit? How bright or full are they? Are they so bright that they sound shrill? Is there enough fullness without crowding the bass and kick drum?
• VOCALS – Is the overall sound aggressive or warm? How full do they sound? How sibilant are they? Do they have depth and dimension? How close and intimate do they sound? Are the early reflections pleasing?
This exercise is mostly about refining your palette, but now when you go to record you can put these observations into action. As you listen back to what you’re recording, ask yourself these same kinds of questions. From there, you can make the necessary adjustments to get the sounds closer to what you envisioned.
Keep in mind that there will be a slight discrepancy between the fully-mixed and mastered productions that you referenced and one that is still in the recording stage. That said, you should be 90 per cent there with your sounds as you record them. An overestimation of what a mix or a master will do for your production is a set-up for mediocrity and disappointment. Will it take longer to get your sounds? Absolutely. But small details make all the difference, and getting the right sounds at the source will culminate in a final product that truly realizes your sonic vision.
Ryan McCambridge is a freelance audio engineer, writer, producer, and programmer, usually working out of SlipOne Digital Studios. McCambridge has taught audio production at Ryerson University, heads the audio blog Bit Crushing, and is also the frontman of Toronto-based band Recovery Child. To find out more, go to www.bitcrushing.com or www.recoverychild.com.