Knobs And Dials
John North Radway
Posted on September 17th, 2012
This is not an article about food—not really. I’m sorry. I know that you have your expectations and I’ve shattered them and I understand completely if you never want to speak with me again. But I hope, as the years pry us further and further apart, that you’ll at least remember that this was, after all, the Music Issue.
I have recently been dabbling in one of the Dark Arts, those obscure fields of human knowledge that defy rationality while offering extraordinary results to the prudent and utter disaster to the careless. No, not wine and cheese pairing, a rite so arcane and forbidding that I dare not even approach the temples in which it is practiced by well-coiffed persons wearing expensive pants. Not home brewing,i which I believe carries with it the very real threat of death by vinegar. Not hollandaise sauce, which I did attempt once—imagine salmon roe pulsed through a dying blender, but more lumpy and less pleasant.
No, the Art I’m talking about is music production, which involves manipulating sounds to make them sound more like the sounds you want them to sound like. This requires a lot of wires, microphones, boxes with switches and knobs and dials, and complex computer programs that look like they could also launch missiles from former Soviet republics. And I’m a total novice, a neophyte, a noob. I have yet to make any music that doesn’t sound like it was recorded by raccoons under a stack of moist pillows. But I have learned that audio production has a lot in common with a certain other Dark Art: cooking, which can end in abject tragedy (if you’re me) or inexplicable and irreproducible success (if you’re me on a good day). It all depends on what choices you make: which knobs you turn, which parameters you choose to alter.
Now when I say “cooking” I mean cooking the way I cook, which many agree is not such a good idea. Throw in a little of this and that. Try not to let it burn. Those things might be interesting together. Spices? Sniff and choose. Temperature? Just hot enough. See, this is why I will never write a cookbook. It works for me—sometimes—but it is hardly comforting to tell others “just make it taste good.” In music production, however, this is the right way to go about things.ii Trust your ear. Play around, tweak, listen closely. Cleanse your palate. Try again. Taste the soup repeatedly. There are no recipes.
Consider salt. You can’t imagine life without it, can you? It doesn’t exactly change flavors; it activates them, sets them kicking, shoves them to the center of the drooling chowhound’s senses. Without salt, the onions, the cumin, the ripe plum tomatoes are all there, they’re just not really . . . there. But how much should you use? Aye… there’s the… salt rub. (Sorry.) Audio production has its salt as well. It’s called “dynamic range compression.” Basically it squishes all those up-and-down squiggles (I’d draw you a picture, but I’m a writer) so that they’re more squat and punchy. Everything sounds louder, even if it isn’t. This can make vocals leap out in front of a twelve-piece bandiii or give a drum kit that extra kick. But add too much and you end up with an unpalatable sensory overload that no one really wants to listen to for more than a minute at a time. (Turned on the radio recently?) And though this hasn’t been scientifically tested (as far as I know), it can’t be all that good for your blood pressure.
Now consider onions sizzling in the pan until they begin to brown, or that eggplant you delicately perch above the fire on your stovetop until it’s ever so slightly charred. You can do this with sound as well. By the time you’re messing with it, “sound” has become electric current zipping around at a voltage that rises and falls. Years ago someone decided to see what happens when you drive the voltage up too high. The result was a slew of weird sounds ranging from warm to gritty, strange new overtones hovering around the old ones. They called it “distortion,” and it changed the flavor of popular music forever. And you can take it as far as you want, though caution is advised. Not everyone likes their steaks charred to a crisp—but then again, some people buy Slayer albums.
Moderation and prudence will get you far, but some things are better left untouched. We have all had the experience of innocently walking down a supermarket aisle and being accosted by what sounds like the product of an unnatural liaison between a sheep, a robot, and a set of panpipes. This may be the worst scourge of our musical age: “Auto-Tune.” I don’t know exactly how it works, but I am convinced that Auto-Tune is the MSG of audio production. It can overwhelm even the most mediocre vocal performance with a layer of computerized zing so thick that it almost sounds good until you notice that it has left a disgusting film inside your ears. It may induce severe allergic reactions. It may cause permanent damage to the nervous system. And in many cases, you don’t really want to know what it’s covering up.
Which brings us to the most important point of all: start with good ingredients. Always. If you sing like a raccoon under a stack of moist pillows, there’s no knob you can turn that will make you croon like crème brûlée or crow like coq au vin.iv Unless it’s a health hazard, taste it before you cook it. If the old can of tomatoes tastes like an old can, please don’t stew your wild boar in it. If the wine is truly undrinkable, maybe you shouldn’t cook with it either. If your whole wheat flour is stale and sour, your crusty loaf won’t be worth the time it takes to chew. Consider this an audition, and please, be ruthless. Success is hard to define. The Spice Girls made four platinum albums. P. F. Chang’s Home Menu topped $100 million in sales last year. But do you want to feature either at your next dinner party?