This column originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Ian Bodzasi
I often see engineers lusting over a particular piece of outboard, microphone, or plug-in that they want to add to their arsenal. Their hope is that if they pick up that one thing, the skies will part and everything in their mixes or tracking sessions will suddenly fall together. I’m of a couple minds when it comes to that, but generally feel that it’s misguided; for me, it’s always been more about small, incremental changes that add up to something sounding the way it does rather than any one piece. As they say, the devil is in the details.
Of course, the broad strokes are important, as well. A good-sounding tracking room, accurate monitoring, good converters, a good desk (if you’re working on a desk), etc. We’ll assume those big-picture items are already covered. Beyond that, it’s the little things that add up one by one – that particular compressor on a guitar, whether a mic is an inch this way or that way, that EQ choice for the bass. On their own, they’re important, but can often be pretty subtle. Start to add them all up, though, and that’s where you’re really going to see the changes in the sound of a record.
I heard a story from a colleague once about a client seeing them use a particular piece of outboard in a mix, and immediately they hopped online trying to source one for themselves. They didn’t understand that what the engineer was doing worked for that mixer, on that mix, of that song, recorded how that source material was recorded, in conjunction with the countless other things that engineer was doing. If that client did end up buying that piece of equipment, it likely didn’t get them as far ahead as they were expecting, or really anywhere near it. It would have contributed to the mix, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a small part of what was going on. It wouldn’t necessarily work out of context without everything else happening, particularly without that mix engineer at the controls.
That’s also why I tell people to “try before you buy.” Whatever it is you have your eye on may work great for other people’s workflows, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work for yours. I can think of several mics, compressors, and EQs that people whose work I really admire are using that just don’t work well for me. Good thing I didn’t go out and buy any of those without first putting them through the wringer myself.
I remember another time seeing photos of the guitar tracking setup that a well-known engineer likes to use. The mics were in a bit of an unusual spot, and the engineer had explained that the unique sound he gets is a combination of those particular mics, with that particular placement, with a particular preamp, set to a particular impedance. If someone saw that mic placement without the explanation and tried to mimic it, thinking that they’d picked up an awesome new trick, they probably wouldn’t get very far at all. Again, it’s each of those pieces contributing to that sound.
If you do have a particular secret weapon that you rely on heavily, that’s great, but it can also back you into a corner if it’s ever not available. Hardware can fail. Software can get bricked by an update or bug. If you’re reliant on one (or a few) specific things, what happens when you don’t have them? If each of those items is only a small part of your workflow, that’s much easier to deal with when something goes south. If you’re going to rely on one thing, be damn sure you’ve got redundancy available.
All that said, it’s important to have the tools on hand that make your life easier. Whatever gets you there faster or with less wrestling, keeps your workflow uninterrupted, or improves things sonically, even a little bit, you want to have on hand. Each thing on its own may just be contributing a little bit to the overall sound, but that’s where you want to take full advantage of everything – that subtle EQ change, automation move, microphone or outboard or plug-in choice. Use those small incremental improvements to add up to something great. If that EQ or compressor or effect or whatever tool it is saves you time or adds a small bit of acoustic value to something, use it. If each of those things adds only a small bit to how good the track sounds, that may not seem like much individually, but that’s still giving you an edge, and those little changes add up very quickly when chosen effectively. You just want to get there with small steps rather than counting on giant leaps.
Ian Bodzasi is a mixer, producer, and engineer. He was previously the chief engineer at Metalworks Studios before going freelance in 2006. His private mix studio is now located within Toronto’s João Carvalho Mastering. Some of Ian’s credits include Katy Perry, Nelly Furtado, Coleman Hell, Sum 41, Sam Roberts, Ronnie Hawkins, D12, Randy Bachman & Burton Cummings, The Tea Party, and the author Robert Munsch, as well as the hit documentary film Festival Express. www.bodzasi.com.