Rough Mix: Capturing Inspiration
“I didn’t have a mic. I was just singing right into the mic on the computer.” —Erykah Badu (Red Bull Music Academy interview).
That’s my secret weapon. After spending a full semester introducing students to the intricacies of microphone technology, I drop Ms. Badu’s QUOTE on them regarding her creative process for the album New Amerykah Part One.
Originally posted BY GINO ROBAIR |emusician.com 5/19/2015
By this point, they have experienced the various qualities of each mic in our studio—products by AKG, Audio-Technica, Audix, Avantone, Blue, CAD, Electro-Voice, Neumann, Shure, Studio Projects—on voice, drums, amps, acoustic guitar, and whatever else they bring in. They know how much a transducer influences the sound of a recording, and they already have a wish list filled with classic mics, many of which their favorite artists have used or endorse.
Suddenly they find out that some of the vocals on a hit record were recorded directly into the built-in mic of an Apple MacBook Pro. And Badu was tracking to Apple GarageBand—freeware that arrives with your computer!
By now they’re probably wondering why they bothered to take this class at all, let alone spend so much money on a DAW and interface, if all you have to do is sing into your computer to make a hit. So it’s time for a reality check: Badu is not only a talented songwriter with an exceptional voice, she’s working with A-level producers and engineers. Full stop. Let that sink in.
On top of that, she claims to have written upwards of 200 songs during the process of making that record, the vocals of which were demoed directly into her laptop mic. In other words, she didn’t just keep the first take of the first idea that came into her head. She was planting seeds and harvesting only the cream of the crop.
The take-home message for my classroom of teens and twenty-somethings is that the mic doesn’t make the music: The artist does. When inspiration strikes, you capture it with whatever you have at hand and deal with the consequences later…or not. Badu notes that the various imperfections in her vocal recordings were often kept by her engineer, Mike Chavarria, when she sent him the files.
Now I don’t mean to imply that the MacBook Pro’s mic is inherently terrible or that using GarageBand is unprofessional. In fact, they’re a fairly sophisticated set of tools when used together. And, yes, Badu usually records in top studios with pro engineers using high-end gear. But in every case, the technology should be invisible in order for the artist to focus on capturing those precious gems of inspiration when they appear.
So it behooves us to learn the personality of each mic we own in order to be able to pick the best one for a given situation as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter if we’re a songwriter or recording engineer; the time to do a mic shootout is not while you’re courting the muse.
When you do find that magic combination of gear that inspires you, give yourself unfettered access to it. I know a lot of artists and engineers who leave their go-to mics set up in the studio at all times, ready for action at a moment’s notice. For example, producer/engineer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, Beth Orton) will often leave his AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic set up on a stand in the tracking room, ready for whatever phase of the song a band is in—basics or overdubs. Similarly, producer/engineer Joel Hamilton (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, the Black Keys) told me that his Coles 4038 stays on the stand and gets used for guitar amps, brass, and as a drum overhead.
In regards to the question about how much your mic matters, the answers are “a lot” and “not at all.” A high-quality mic will capture all the timbral and dynamic subtlety of an artist, but a good song will transcend the recording media and delivery system. Sure, a recorded performance of a piece of music is defined by the gear used when it was recorded—for example, the guitars, drums, mics, amps and, of course, the voices of The Beatles are integral to the sound of the single “She Loves You.” Yet the band’s performance of the same song on The Ed Sullivan Show, using many of the same instruments but an entirely different signal path, still had a powerful impact on the millions across the world listening to the broadcast through the tiny speaker on their television.
One of my favorite anecdotes on this subject is the story engineer Nathaniel Kunkel tells about the days leading up to his first recording session with James Taylor. Kunkel spent a lot of time thinking about the signal path, worrying that he might choose the wrong mic. Then it hit him: James Taylor is going to sound like James Taylor no matter which microphone he uses.
In other words, you have the knowledge it takes to track and mix a record, as well as the best signal path you can currently afford. Now stop fussing over the gear and get to work.