By the time you press record, 70% of your production should be finished.
Huh? This principle is based on the author’s experience with thousands of hours of recording, mixing, mastering and teaching.
Regardless of your workflow or genre of music, it is a given that to give your production the greatest chance of being competitive in the open market it will need to be recorded, then mixed and mastered. This approach is nothing new but how we start the production has a dramatic influence on the quality of the final product and speed at which we can work – what you put in is what you get out.
Too many songs enter production before they are complete because in reality music is an assortment of ideas and not a coherent composition. With the ease and accessibility of the DAW workflow, the music industry is inundated with material (songs) that are a series of loops and grooves that do not have carefully crafted melodies and meticulously planned arrangements. The result is a ‘good idea’ that does not have longevity because after 20 bars of music the song has nothing left to say. While we’re on the subject, the DAW with Virtual instruments and samples has spawned a generation where everyone, including their families and pets, is a producer. In reality, most folk who are referring to themselves as producers are in fact a composer with a computer and the appropriate software! There is also a substantial difference between creating sick beatz and a composition. More beatz are not needed folks, but carefully crafted compositions that have something to say will never go out of style. Miles Davis used to tell his musicians with regard to taking solos when performing live ‘if you don’t have anything to say, shut up’. As with everything, our quality control and being informed are minimum requirements for us to be competitive, because the artists, producers and engineers whose productions we aspire to compete with, have these qualities locked down.
So, what has any of this got to do with the 70% philosophy? The short answer is, everything! Many audio engineers and production teams spend relatively little time with the composition and recording of the material and rely, in certain instances almost completely, on the mixing to achieve balance, coherence and musicality. When you press record, you have already determined about 70% of what the record will sound like, regardless of what automation and clever trickery you have planned for the mixing. The recording engineer’s responsibility is not simply to capture a signal and watch the levels; it is to ensure that a performance is captured that is already balanced! This principle applies to our workflow whether we are using MIDI or microphones, or both.
The principle of the 70% philosophy is to achieve balance of tones, levels and musicality before we press record. With this approach, more than ¾ of the production is completed during the recording phase, which makes mixing and mastering a cinch in time and effort and bypasses the need for damage control to produce a stellar result.
Another Holy Grail for achieving balance during recording in the digital domain is to stop pinning the recording levels! In the days of analogue tape and noisier electronics, it was vital that engineers set the recording levels to tape as close to maximum without clipping, to ensure the best possible signal-to-noise character of the recording. Most engineers in the digital domain still use this approach and it is not necessary because of the incredible signal-to-noise integrity of modern digital audio electronics (negligible noise with spectacular transparency). Even entry-level digital audio gear can handle resolutions of 24 bit/96kHz easily so there is no excuse for us not to be using this in our productions – the benchmark recordings are. Yes we need to deliver a 16/44.1 final product but more on than that in a future article. Right now, we’re concentrating on the 70% philosophy!
When your DAW session is prepped, routed and ready to go, let the music’s dynamics determine the recording levels, it is that simple! The benchmark that we should be striving for is to present the mix engineer with recordings where they can bring all the faders up to unity gain on their console (virtual or hardware) and already have a wonderfully balanced mix. This is only be possible if we use our 70% philosophy, and it isn’t rocket science to achieve if we allow the recording levels to mirror reality – i.e. optimising your gain structure to receive the signal and then let the music dictate the levels-to-tape itself. It sounds simple, because it is!
Mix engineers often need to ride faders and use complex automation because the recording engineer (often the same person) has been level watching and ignoring what the music is actually delivering. A soft sound or passage of music will have a low/softer recording level and vice versa – leave it that way! Let the recording levels mirror the dynamics of the performance and don’t kill yourself trying to get hot levels – it is counterproductive.
Many engineers believe they cannot achieve a LOUD production if they don’t have high recording levels? Rubbish! If you record a soft sound loud, you will simply have to pull its fader down in the mix.
The best sounding productions (regardless of genre) have dynamics, period.
In summary, the 70% philosophy will support us to produce superb productions that are engaging, powerful and exciting by being sure, before we press record, that the performance and tones are balanced. Once we’ve achieved the 70% philosophy we can sit back, relax and enjoy the music and the production process with the peace of mind of knowing that we have captured something special and don’t have to rely on the mixing and mastering. Our love of music is what brought us into this crazy business in the first place, so, let’s enjoy ourselves and stop hoping we will receive a great production back from the mastering engineer because we ensured that by the time our finger hit the record button, we had nailed it already!
Until next time, have fun, don’t monitor too loudly and let your love of music dictate how you work and don’t obsess that you have to have X preamp or Y speakers. The listener doesn’t care!
David Maclean | a Brief Biography – The 70% Philosophy
David Maclean is a mastering engineer, educator and business executive with two decades of experience in the music industry and tertiary education sector. David is the Director of SAE Institute South Africa and is based at their campus in Cape Town. The SAE Group has 54 campuses across the globe. David understands the attitudes and opinions of the industry professionals within the creative media industries and the educators and authorities within Higher Education in South Africa and abroad based on his unusual portfolio of skills in business, education and creative media technologies.