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Nathaniel Kunkel InSession: Technology=Clarity?

December 1, 2009
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Nathaniel Kunkel

I've got to tell you, one of the most interesting things we discuss in the studio is the reality that even though all this great technology was intended to make our lives easier, we end up working harder. I know I've written about this before, but after reading Gino Robair's recent blog (The Robair Report: “Running On Empty? Never!” available at emusician.com), where he talked about what you can gain from careful listening, I decided he was on to something.

So I am giving myself an assignment.

For the next two weeks, I'm going to use gear to save me time, but not to allow me to change my job description. I'm going to try to use my ears, not a glance at the session grid, to determine if the drums need fixing. I'm only going to tune vocals that sound out of tune, not look out of tune. I'm going to live with a mix overnight before I peak-limit the bejeezus out of it. In short, I am going to abandon precedent and standard practices as methods for musical judgment. I am going to — get ready — listen.

There's a good argument to be made that we hear material better when we are fresh, and that is also the best time to make artistic decisions. And because I'm sure that I hear music differently when I am not looking at a Pro Tools screen, I am also coming to the conclusion that laboring over decisions does not make better music, it just makes me get home late.

A good friend of mine recently likened music-production tools to advancements in meat-slicing technology. I was amazed at the correlation. I mean if you need to slice a turkey breast for sandwiches, you could use a knife, or you could use an electric deli slicer. Either way, if you only need three slices, would you cut more on the electric slicer because you could? And if you did, would it make a difference to the quality of the sandwich? The reality is that you needed some sliced meat, and while you can tell the difference between hand-carved and machine-sliced, would either option satisfy your hunger differently?

Is a hit song really not a hit song without Auto-Tune? Would Led Zeppelin have sold more records if Elastic Audio came out 30 years ago?

The answer, of course, is no. A hit song is a hit song, a great arrangement is a great arrangement, and as accustomed to the quantized conformity as we have become, it is not the only frame music can be viewed in. I worry that we are getting so good at conforming a song to sound like a hit, we might not be paying enough attention to whether or not it actually is a hit.

We need to be careful how we use our tools and apply our skills, or we run the risk of creating the audio version of a turducken. Yuck!

Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy- and Emmy Award?winning producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine and comedian Robin Williams.

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