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Less Is More

Leader
By Paul White

While today's recording technology is far more affordable than it was when I started out, those early systems at least had the advantage of simplicity. What's more, they were based on modular hardware, so you could start out with nothing more than a recorder, a mixer, some speakers and a microphone, then add things like effects and signal processors later. And because everything was expensive back then, later often meant a lot later. As I've mentioned in previous leader columns, while having to wait so long between adding new pieces of kit was frustrating, it at least gave me the chance to learn to use what I had to its best advantage. I knew what every knob and button did, which is more than can be said of today's systems, packed with exotic plug-ins, some of which may never even get used.

We also learned to improvise, which, for me, was one of the most valuable parts of the whole experience. For example, to add reverb, I might run the mixer's aux send through a guitar amp with a built-in spring reverb, then feed the preamp output back into the mixer's return. If the amp didn't have a preamp output, I'd hook up a few resistors and a blocking capacitor or two, and solder them up to build a pad for reducing the speaker output of the amp to line level. These experiments didn't always achieve the desired results first time around, but we early adopters persevered until we got something useful. Echo came from a borrowed domestic tape recorder, and guitar amps were buried under piles of blankets if they were too loud. Back then, a power soak was exactly that — a heap of material that would soak up power.

Today, I'm going through the same process with video. Until now I've had no real reason to take an interest, but these days you have to be able to knock up something half decent for your band's web site or for YouTube. While it was tempting to buy a sophisticated camera and heavy-duty editing software, I made a conscious decision to buy something very basic and to learn to use it in the same way as I learned audio. For editing, I started with iMovie, which deals only with sequential shots, not with multi‑camera, multi-track assembly. I'm already discovering parallels with my audio journey; that the problems faced can often be overcome by improvising rather than by throwing technology at them. For example, no amount of technology can compensate for having the camera or the subject in the wrong place, and with small lightweight cameras, controlling their movement or holding them still is the first challenge. Should you use a tripod, a monopod, or simply tape the camera to a brick? Then there's the planning of your shots — should they be static or panning? How long does each clip need to be to get the right pacing? When is zooming a good idea, and what about those little shots that act as glue to hold the longer segments together? Then there's lighting, which can be done on the cheap using halogen work lights and reflectors made from cooking foil stuck to boards. In fact, you can learn most of the basics using the video functionality of your camera or mobile phone plus some simple editing software.

As with audio, I'll move onto the next stage only when I understand exactly what I need and why I need it. At the moment I'm aware that the journey is only just beginning.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published September 2010