Thank you Tape OP

I was just looking through my new issue of Tape Op, and ran across an article at the back by Ethan Winer called “Perception—the Final Frontier.”  In it, he explains that so much of sound happens in our brain with our perception of what we’re hearing, but also how so much of the conversation in audio circles is hostile and alluding to ‘facts’ about gear and techniques that are anything but a conversation.

In my work in the studio as an artist and producer over the past 25 years, I couldn’t agree more.  It is such a breath of fresh air to hear someone talk about how much people are not willing to admit that they are describing their opinions and perspectives on something, rather than the cold, hard facts they present.  People so quickly move into a mode of circling the wagons around their idea of the sound of a mic or preamp, or of a particular style of recording or mic placement, or whatever. He makes the point that our hearing is  influenced by tons of biases that dramatically influence what we ‘think we’re hearing.’ He’s making the point that if we’re going to learn from each other and help our art and craft move forward, we have to learn to be better listeners, and better able to hear multiple voices and experiences, while getting a better grasp on where our own biases lay.

His ideas jogged a couple of other related things in my brain.  I’ve made records a bunch of different ways, and in varying environments, and with a lot of different players and styles.  Some things have really come to stand out to me, and they are not the things that I read when I look at most forums and conversations in the audio world.

First, I think a lot of folks have forgotten Julia Cameron’s point from “the Artist’s Way’ that good art comes from ‘play.’  I think a many people forget to have a sense of fun and wonder in the creative process, particularly as a project gets closer to crunch time— a release date or other deadline, but often from the get go, too.

So much is focused on the ‘right’ gear, plugins or mics, and so much less is focused on whether a song is really great, or can stand the test of time, and whether or not the performances on a project are particularly inspired, confident and competent without being massaged, manipulated or auto-tuned to death.  And pre-production, or a competent game plan before even getting to the studio is so often pushed to the side, or completely overlooked; so arrangements, re-writing and editing during the songwriting process, and getting the best available talent to work on a project seems to be happening less and less.

I think that these important tasks are truly only learned through experience; and that comes from a lot of time and practice! But in this day and age of every Mac coming with a ‘recording setup,’ this hard-won ‘experience’ has been pushed to the side.  And in a culture where apprenticeship is all but forgotten, and the wisdom of age and experience is much less valued, many musicians are not getting the kind of training and guidance they need to make the best recordings they can make, whether recorded on an aging laptop through Shure SM 58s, or the best gear on the planet (I love my 58s by the way).

I do think that Ethan Winer has a great point in his article.  We at least need to start by understanding our own biases, and begin to hear each other’s perspectives and experiences; and more honest ‘conversations’ that discuss our perspectives could hold knowledge and wisdom that would truly enrich us all.


2 Responses to “Thank you Tape OP”

  1. Great said. I’ve only studied sound engineering for 6 years and now almost been freelancing for TV for about a year, but even in that time I’ve come to recognise the fact that sound engineering is a very abstract subject.. The source, expectations and perception is way more important than any LA2A och SSL console! Good thing to talk all about our biases instead, that would really bring this industry a step further right now.

    Perhaps we need to talk more like musicians do, about our art?

  2. Thanks for taking the time to give some feedback! It’s a conversation that I hope can continue, and you’re right, engineers really are part of an art form, they aren’t just simply technicians in most cases. And stuff can sound good or crappy through most types of gear– I’ve just been re-listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska record. I know I never got my cassette Porta Studio to sound like that, but I’m not Bruce, either!

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