'Think Before You Tweak!' - Why Understanding Our Instruments Is So...’Instrumental'.

08-29-2013 08:02 AM

The evolution of popular culture in the last 10 years has pushed the majority of the music affiliated to it into a realm of creativity that largely stems from the digital and electronic synthesis of sounds.

The sad fact is that due to money constraints, time constraints, the limitations of the home studio environment, and in some ways the influence of popular music trends, more often than not, a producer or songwriter is going to reach for a digital emulation of an instrument, rather than hunt down the real thing, figure out how it works and record it.

It is at this point in time we have to address the elephant in the room: Most people currently making music via their laptop or computer, have probably never recorded or really played the majority of the instruments they are using to make music. Have you personally ever tried ot play a cello? Or a flute? Or an exotic African percussion instrument that Native Instruments gave you for $99? Now what I am not saying is that you are musically ignorant, if you haven’t opened up a piano and looked at the technical design of it and where the sound actually derives from. It is indisputable that knowing the optimal sweet spot to capture the stereo image, if it is correctly tuned, or the tonal difference between an upright, baby grand, grand or concert grand piano is tremendously beneficial information.

This article isn’t about making home studio composers feel inadequate for their choice of tools. (I personally work on a rig on a Mac about 14 hours a day, and utilise sample libraries constantly in conjunction with real instruments.) This article is about challenging what we think we know about the instruments we work with on a daily basis, so that we become better at our trade.

The most prominent example that comes to mind for me is strings. Probably the most widely used orchestral instrument in modern music, strings rear their head in everything from dance music to motown to cinematic cues, yet we constantly hear strings being misused and mixed in a way that is obviously misinformed. Even fairly experienced mixers I’ve listened to, myself included, have made silly mistakes with instruments that we are not that familiar with, and the simple solution is this:

Learn about instruments and talk to musicians.
It might seem like an obvious suggestion, but it is something that is massively overlooked. Have you ever considered, for example with a violin, the tonal change that can be attained if the player plays on rather than above the bridge? Have you considered that some common intervals are unplayable on string instruments if the player is performing a double-stop? How different a trumpet sounds with a mute or without? How the tonal resonance of a drum increases in prominence the closer you play to the ring? Simple research on common instruments and actually just talking to players will exponentially inform you about the recordings and arrangements you work with, and from a mixing perspective will make your mixes much more authentic, as you will be better able to recognise musical aesthetics in a players performance that will directly affect the way you mix the takes.

MIDI: The Double Edged Sword.

I want to mention briefly our good friend MIDI. MIDI is a both gift and a curse. While simultaneously enabling nearly anyone with musical knowledge to create a tangible recording, and allowing songwriters and composers like myself create comprehensive works in real time with authenticity and realism, MIDI has also helped fuel a culture of musical ignorance. It is very easy to press a few buttons on a keyboard, set it to strings, quantize it, and bounce the result out, but the true measure of your worth in my opinion is not knowing how to do what is expected, but knowing how to do the extra things that make people value you over others.

If you can create a MIDI piano track on a laptop, this qualifies you to make exactly that. If you understand a piano and know how to record one as well as play it, you now are potentially valuable for multiple jobs: Backing tracks, live recording, studio recording, mixing for piano and voice, performance, and of course, MIDI programming. I personally would chose to work with someone who is musically knowledgeable (even if they are not musically inclined and there is a difference) over someone who just had experience programming Mini Grand or some similar program, for the simple reason that their appreciation for the instruments we work with on a production means that the end-result will be infinitely better and the process more efficient.
The best thing to do to begin expanding your knowledge is to establish first if what you know is common knowledge or not. Ask yourself: “Is there is something else I can learn about what I do, to make me more unique and more knowledgeable in your trade?” Hint: Yes is the answer!

Now I can’t finish this article without recommending some places to start looking for more information. Here are two useful books:
Samuel Adler’s ‘The Study of Orchestration’.

Buy the accompanying CDs here: Not only can it teach you about every component of all orchestral instruments, but it can teach you how to compose for those instruments, how to notate, their ranges and characteristics that make them the instruments they are. I can tell you from first hand experience that this will improve your mixing AND arrangement tremendously. Note: You will need an understanding of theory for the notational end of this book to be helpful, but it still contains a large amount of relevant information. CDs are also available to accompany to book, which support the points in the book. I highly recommend them and it is well worth the read!
Eric Taylor’s ‘The AB guide to Music Theory’

Get VOL I here.
Get VOL II here.

For audiophiles coming from the technical side of things, this 2-part series of books will literally take you from clapping basic rhythms right up to complex musical notation and background knowledge on the mechanics and rules of composition. The beauty of it is you can go as far as you want, until you have enough knowledge as you see fit to have.

**These books are NOT recording books, or mixing guidelines**, but that is the point. A radical change in the perspective of what you do might be just what you need to bring your game to the next level. Don’t forget to research yourself too, that’s the point!

Remember, if you are a songwriter producer or engineer, it is not only about being competent in your work but also being uniquely competitive in your skill set.

Denis Kilty is an Irish Songwriter / Music Producer / Mixing Engineer currently honing his craft at Windmill Lane Recording Studios, Dublin.