In the early days of recording, the instruction book for a tape machine would extend to maybe a dozen pages, and perhaps twice as many for a basic mixing console. Echo came from a tape, reverb from a spring or a plate, and, if you were lucky, you might have a couple of compressors and gates. The amount you could do to a sound once it had been recorded was quite limited compared to what you can do today, so engineers spent a lot of time making sure they had the instruments and voices sounding right before they hit record. If a part went wrong it was either played again in its entirety or, if possible, you'd execute a punch-in to replace the offending part. And because there was no Undo button, you got to be pretty slick at punching in!
These days the handbooks that come with typical DAW software extend to hundreds of pages, and even individual plug-ins often have more instructional text than an entire old-school studio. Ironically, a lot of today's plug-ins are designed to try to recapture the sound of old analogue studios, but I have a feeling we'd get a lot closer to it if we just concentrated more on basic recording techniques and took less notice of plug-ins that promise to help us fix it in the mix.
Some of the new tools are fantastic for polishing up an already good recording of a great performance, but there seems now to be an excessive reliance on them for trying to patch up something that should never have been recorded in the first place. How many times have you sat there for half an hour editing the timing of a vocal overdub or trying to knock it into pitch using a plug-in when it would have taken less than a minute to re-record it? I know I've done it! We agonise over which of 200 reverb presets will work best on a track, when nine times out of 10 all you really need is a good plate sound with basic EQ and variable decay time. It's said that we're developing into a dependency culture, and it seems to me that we depend too much on mix processing.
The problem of not having basic recording and performing skills is compounded by the sheer number and complexity of plug-ins. All these tools have to be learned properly before they can be used, and in most cases a manufacturers' preset list won't be all that helpful if you're looking for a shortcut. How many compressor plug-ins come with a list of presets ostensibly suited to various voice or instrument types, yet fail to tell you that unless all the vocals are recorded at exactly the same level as the audio file used to create the preset, you'll still have to adjust the threshold control to obtain the desired degree of gain reduction?
Alhough we all fall into the trap of thinking that we'd make better recordings if only we had an XYZ plug-in or BCD hardware box, I suspect the real problem is that the modern studio actually gives us far too many tools with which to damage our recordings and not enough time to learn how to use each of them correctly. Perhaps a week or two going back to basics and leaving all the fancy toys bypassed would be time well invested?
Paul White Editor In Chief