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The Art & The Science

It's no secret that today's music production requires both left-brain and right-brain functions, and although neuroscientists have now largely dismissed the 'left for logic, right for art' paradigm, the notion is still useful for describing how we approach certain tasks. Music production involves a lot of technical decisions, and 'housekeeping' tasks like tweaking the timing of vocal parts, pitch correcting individual vocal segments, muting 'noisy silences', automating vocal levels to ensure nothing gets lost and, in some cases, automating vocal EQ to fine-tune the timbre of individual problem notes. All this is very 'left brain', and you need to be fairly disciplined to separate such jobs from the more creative right-brain work, as most people find it difficult to keep jumping between the two. Perhaps this is why there's still a very real role for the non-engineering music producer, as this allows the engineer to deal with all the left-brain stuff while the producer can stay locked in creative mode. However, those of us that are working in home studios usually don't have the luxury of a separate producer and engineer — we have to be both at the same time, and where you're working on your own music, you're also the artist.

The sheer degree of technical perfection that we can now achieve is due to the editing capabilities of modern DAWs — much of which is left-brain work — and maybe that's why I still find myself engaging more fully with music that was recorded before the era of digital editing, plug-ins, pitch-correction and the availability of as many compressors as you fancy using. Even the subject of balance seemed less formulaic back then — for example, who on earth would mix an album in the way Bob Dylan's Desire, which breaks all the rules for drum balance, was mixed? Or those Tamla Motown records where the tambourine was louder than the entire drum kit? I believe one of the reasons why those guys broke the rules in the name of creativity was that the limited technology of the time meant they had to rely more on right-brain thinking.

Perhaps then, the real question is how we multi-tasking composer/engineer/producers allow our creative side to take the upper hand in a DAW‑dominated world where so much left-brain input is demanded? My own strategy, and one that I know a number of my colleagues also employ is, as far as is possible, to try to separate the purely technical jobs from the creative ones by setting up comprehensive song templates in order to minimise the time it takes from getting and idea to recording it. Then, once I've set up what I think is a good basic mix for a song, I'll leave it alone for a while so that the left brain can take a nap, then I'll sneak back up on it to apply such creative processes as come to mind. Equally important is to resist the temptation to edit all the humanity out of a recording; it's the imperfections in many of my favourite records that give them their character. Sometimes this approach works, sometimes it doesn't, but that's the thing about art — you can't just call it up to order — and long may it remain so.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published July 2012