You are here

MILES GLEN: Finding The Time To Learn

Sounding Off
Published December 1999

MILES GLEN: Finding The Time To Learn

It's all very well having the virtual equivalent of Abbey Road in your computer, says Miles Glen, but when are you going to learn to use it all?

A few years ago, there used to be an advert which showed two alternatives for the home studio. Illustration one (the 'before') showed the poor musician literally buried under rack units, keyboards, leads and patchbays, whilst illustration two showed what you should now be aspiring to: one shiny box and a VDU. The message was clear — the horrors and complexity of 'real' kit were no match for the compact, clutterless virtual studio. I am not now going to advocate a return to the good old days of filling up entire rooms with a couple of modular monosynths, but I would suggest that if many first‑time buyers could see the innards of some digital studio setups displayed as the equivalent in hardware, many of them would quite rightly feel anxious about their ability to cope with it all.

The studio I work in was built up bit by bit, mainly due to lack of finance, and this meant that I learned gradually and thoroughly. Effects came first, then items less sonically seductive, such as gates and compressors; each box was a new subject to be mastered, and again, finance dictated a gradual progression. Think back to the time when you first became interested in the idea of owning your own studio, before you had the level of expertise you have now (being a regular SOS reader!), before knowing your inserts from your auxiliaries, or your post‑ from your pre‑fades, and imagine that somebody then had given you the keys to a fairly large, well‑equipped studio, and simply told you to get on with it.

If you're honest, you would admit to feeling daunted about having to work out what was patched where, what each rack unit did, and how it did it — let alone trying to manage the large 747 cockpit in the middle of it all. Yet today, hundreds of hobbyists face this scenario, simply because disposable income now gets you lots of gear in one go, especially in 'virtual' form. Buried under shift keys and menus, or hiding in windows on today's PC studios, there can lurk fiendishly complex routing systems and phenomenally powerful audio processing, though it can look deceptively simple — there are inputs at one end, a few faders and knobs in the middle, and out comes the CD at the other end. However, the sort of questions that appear in technical help columns, asking if they need to 'burn MIDI data onto a CD' to record a track, illustrates the position some can find themselves in. Again, if some potential buyers could see how what they were buying might look if racked up, even for a modest setup, they might realise what lay ahead in terms of homework and help lines.

It's not simply a question of the time needed to gain technical proficiency: technical proficiency itself is only a means to an end. For every 10 engineers who can patch and program like lightning, there will be one who can do so as an artist, bringing to bear a sympathetic sonic creativity to a client's work, an ability developed from years of mixing and practice — just like the musician who has spent a lifetime perfecting his or her chops. Too many hobbyists expect results too quickly, and soon end up frustrated with a badly translated manual, sitting at the bottom of a steep learning curve, without even realising that the top of that curve represents only base camp.

For some reason, although it's freely admitted that playing guitar or keyboards well is a matter of talent and years of practice, many home recordists seem to think that if they only had the studio, a few weeks with the manual and maybe some mastering plug‑ins, they could not only do real justice to their songs, but hopefully end up with a professional‑sounding master. The affordability and power of today's recording equipment has seemingly eliminated the need to devote time to learning about the art of recording from first principles. Whilst I would not suggest a return to the days of the men in white coats, at least the complexity of traditional hardware studios made people think twice before assuming that they could automatically be great producers and engineers as well as great songwriters or musicians. Such is the unassuming and compact appearance of today's equipment that it no longer seems to generate the same healthy respect.

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambs CB3 8SQ. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address. Email: