Audio Myths: The Sound-Good Sauce

Maybe it’s because superstition has always played some small part in the world of music and musicians. Some people say Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to become a legendary blues guitarist. Jack Black was questing after the supernatural Pick of Destiny in hopes of dominating the world of rock and roll. And of course it’s never good luck to hire a bandmate’s girlfriend (or boyfriend) to be the band’s road manager (that’s not superstition, just common sense).

So superstition may be one reason why some people tend to believe there is genuine magical mojo inherent in a rare tube microphone or two-inch analog tape or the live room of Basing Street Studios in London. Another reason is marketing. Probably every recording musician of lesser means has at some point thought, “Too bad I don’t have this mic or preamp or channel strip for EVERY channel” …as if the quality of the equipment is the thing that takes music to the next level.

If enough time is spent digging through the audiophile forums on recording magazine websites, one will eventually stumble upon this notion: a talented engineer can make a great recording on a cassette tape multi-track with one $90 microphone. This, of course, flies in the face of the superstition/gear lust mentality we’ve already identified. But it is true. No amount of expensive gear will enable a person with uninitiated ears to create a better musical blend than a maestro with a cheap microphone.

The sound-good sauce is, therefore, largely a myth. In the same way that a runner will do far more to improve his time by shedding 30 pounds of excess weight rather than purchasing more expensive running shoes, an audio engineer will do far more to improve his mixes by listening. A lot.

The best advice a new engineer can receive is this: listen to the frequencies. Listen to the highs, mids and lows. Break out a parametric equalizer and sweep across the whole spectrum with broad and narrow boosts and cuts. Learn what 3 decibels of reduction at 200 Hz sounds like on a guitar, vocal and entire mix. Boost 2.1 kHz on the same sources. Roll off the lows at 80 Hz. Crank up the highs at 14 kHz. Discover how one sound may be masking another and find ways to fit them together without simply turning one up or down. Listen over a wide variety of speakers and headphones. Compare professional mixes with other professional mixes. Compare them to your own mixes.

Given this sort of experience, ears tend to get better over time. This progression also gives one time to learn what one particular microphone sounds like. Then another. And so on. Eventually it isn’t the secret sauce/hot piece of gear that takes things to the next level, it’s the aural experience that prompts a seasoned engineer to choose a particular treatment for a particular source in a particular setting. No superstition involved – unless it’s a Stevie Wonder reference track.