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The Importance of 'Character' in Recordings
By John McKay
One of the things I notice about a lot of home recordings, and even professional studio recordings, is that they lack character. They are technically sound, acoustically neutral, and as a result, pretty boring to listen to.
There may be cases where a neutral recording is important, but in most cases, it just sounds generic and lame. It is possible in this day and age of technology and computers to create a 'recording' that lacks any evidence of the environment it was created in, or of the era even. But I think that's a wrong-headed approach to take. You should embrace your space and milieu.
I think back to the truly classic recordings, and what it is that makes them classic. Obviously, the songs are key, but the sound of the tracks often dates them, and captures the excitement and values of the era they were made in. In this case, being 'dated' isn't a bad thing.
Think of the Beatles, for instance. Would their recordings be the same if they were made today, using autotune, sampled drums, one instrument at a time? They might still be great songs, but some (most?) of the magic would be gone.
Were the Beatles thinking this way at the time? It's hard to say, but from what Geoff Emerick says, they were trying to make new sounds, do things that would turn heads. They were pushing their gear beyond the safe operating range. Limiting drums severely, driving the vocals hard to tape, micing guitars and drums in ways that were not part of Abbey Road's approved procedures. Part of the beauty of those records is the imperfections and distortions that came from pushing the envelope. They were making great records, not technically perfect ones.
The same is true, of course, of many smaller budget productions, punk bands from the 80's, indie rock from the 90's, etc. Would The Misfits' early recordings be as sublime had they been made in a perfect studio environment? Would the Pixies' 'Surferosa' be as engaging if it were produced by a more straight-laced perfectionist than Steve Albini? That record is a classic, and its magic is in the way it captures a moment in history. The chatter between band members, the way the room is incorporated thoroughly, and so on.
So, what does this mean? Simply that we shouldn't aspire to clinical perfection in recordings. Embrace the room you're working in. Don't correct every little error, or replace the drums because they don't sound like Blink 182. You're making a document of a time and place, in the band's lives as well as the greater culture. Don't try to squash every bit of humanity out of the song.
Do try new things, and if it sounds cool, go with it. Don't worry about whether it'll seem goofy in 5 or 10 years. It might, but that's not a bad thing. The worst records are ones where the band and engineer played it safe, fixed every blemish, and made a perfectly boring, lifeless representation of songs that probably are great live. But no one will know that if the record sucks.
The great records capture great, inspiring performances (not technically perfect ones) and have a sonic fingerprint. You put them on and they take you to that day, that place where they were made. Put on a Minor Threat song and it's the early 80's in a tiny studio, with excited, pumped up kids. Put on a Doors record and it's the 60's. Put on Mitch Ryder's original recording of 'Devil With a Blue Dress' and you feel the excitement, distortion, bad edits and all (listen to one of the re-recorded recent versions to hear how bad that song can sound, too!).
Those recordings are dated, imperfect, and the performers put it all on the line. And that's what makes them great.
Sometimes the Perfect truly is the enemy of the Good(and the Great!)