“The devil is in the details” is likely the most valuable idiom relevant to audio production. There seem to be multiple definitions for the phrase, but the overarching theme is always the same: The details will make or break a project. I didn’t set out to open this article with a clichéd definition, but I think that it’s the best way to illustrate what I’ve come to call “the last 10 per cent.”
I spent years teaching audio and the most common question I was asked was, “Why don’t my recordings sound like pro recordings?” The answer is that you’ve only taken it to 90 per cent of its production potential. It’s tuning out the details that seem insignificant, often because they seem so incredibly arduous that they’re easy to just ignore. A lot of people think that the last 10 per cent is all about experience, and a part of it is, but I would say that most of it is just rolling up your sleeves and hammering through it. It’s staying up to 4 a.m. editing, or driving across town in traffic to rent that one perfect snare drum, or getting into the studio early to restring guitars. It’s the thankless tasks that take tons of time yet only give back a marginal benefit. But it’s each of those fractions of an audio inch that make an amazing recording.
Many have tried their best to mitigate the responsibilities and time commitments associated with the last 10 per cent, but most automated tasks don’t work as well as good ol’ elbow grease. For example, take vocal tuning. You will never get natural results using the “set and forget” method. Or with de-essing, there is no plug-in that beats going through and manually lowering the volume of each “ess” sound. Or taking the time to inspect every hit when sample replacing to ensure that there are no flams and that none are even partially out of phase. These tasks aren’t fun, but they make all the difference.
Historically, I would say that the last 10 per cent was only about two per cent prior to the DAW recording revolution. As our capacity to refine recordings has increased, though, the expectation has also risen and the time we have to spend on the details has increased proportionately.
I don’t want to entirely downplay the fact that great gear, great ears, and great choices contribute to great recordings, but I promise you that a “Why bother?” attitude towards the things that may seem trivial will most certainly end in mediocre productions. The details matter and the devil is just waiting for us to forget that.
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 the Toronto-based band, Recovery Child. To find out more, go to www.bitcrushing.com or www.recoverychild.com.