Acoustic instruments have evolved in a strictly 'Darwinian' sense — the ones that work well together have survived, and the ones that failed to find a place in the grander scheme of things faded into obscurity. The symphony orchestra is a perfect example: the timbres and levels of the various groups of instruments complement each other with no requirement for EQ, compression or even gain controls. If the flutes aren't loud enough, you simply get more flutes! In more 'compact' forms of music, such as chamber orchestras, string quartets or jazz bands, instruments tended, again, to be combined in naturally symbiotic groups, but all that changed with the modern 'built for volume' drum kit and the electric guitar. While a drum kit played by a jazz musician can fit in with louder acoustic instruments, such as the saxophone, there are few acoustic instruments that form a natural balance with a modern rock drum kit. Indeed, the electric guitar evolved out of the necessity to be heard, but now the tables have been turned, because with today's high‑power amplification the electric guitar can go loud enough to make your eardrums meet in the middle of your head, leaving the hapless drummer to shout "Unfair” and demand microphones!
When you close‑mic a drum kit, the sound is very different to that of the same acoustic kit played in a room, and once you amplify a guitar, the sound can be processed in a number of ways, from twangy and clean to grungy and distorted. This flexibility is great for artistic freedom, but it also means that the instruments no longer have a natural balance, so we have to create it ourselves using tools such as EQ and compression. The development of the synthesizer posed similar challenges, as it can create sound in any or all parts of the musical spectrum and at any desired level.
However, it would be wrong to place the entire burden of forcing these sounds to work together on the studio engineer. The tonal colours of amplified instruments need to be worked on at source to get them to combine in a mutually supportive way, and that means not only finding suitable guitar and synth sounds to mesh with the other instruments and voices, but also working on the musical arrangement so that each instrument plays in the correct register and at the right time. If every instrument in the orchestra played solidly through every composition, the result would sound very congested, as all parts of the audio spectrum would be filled all of the time, yet this is exactly what happens when a single, heavily distorted rhythm guitar is strummed without a break from the count‑in to the final cymbal crash. The less thought that goes into the arrangement, the more the engineer has to fit a square peg into a round hole by EQ'ing off the corners. So if you've ever wondered why the great pop records sound so good, the answer might just be that they were carefully arranged in the first place.
Paul White Editor In Chief