When we listen to a record – and this could be any kind of record – we focus mostly on the singers and/or instrumentalists. However, although musicians may be the center of attention, we see that photographers, technicians and, especially, producers and mixers also play important roles in the making of a record.
Photographers produce art that reflects a record’s vibe. In fact, the cover art is what leads many music lovers to buy CDs, cassettes or any kind of hard copy (I don’t want to include vinyl here, because visuality is not the only reason to buy a high-quality analog record). But I’m not going to focus on the photographers in this discussion, because ultimately it’s the efforts of the producers, mixers and technicians that are the crucially important elements in a record; a great song can be ruined by bad recording and mixing.
Let’s start with technicians, who mainly deal with recording the sound. This might seem simple and easy, but in fact recording any type of sound properly is a technical process that specialized companies work on. What things are important when recording a sound? First of all, the microphone, because this is the device that creates an electric signal from the sound. Therefore, sound first has to be accurately captured and transformed into a signal. In creating the vibe of any record, the microphones’ positioning around the studio is important, because the reflections and angles of the incoming waves can be a musician’s best friend or worst enemy. If a producer wants to use two microphones, then they have to be in phase, which means that the sound waves enter the diaphragm of the microphone at the same time. Thus, the distance between the source and the microphones has to be same. In order to make in-phase recordings, detailed calculations and engineering are a must.
Once the sound is captured, the signal is processed. These processing applications are also important, because a raw signal includes lots of noise. While unintentionally captured background noise is normally not wanted, there are no strict rules, since such sounds might suit the song’s vibe, depending on what that is. The vibe of any given recording is determined while the song is being written, but during the recording sessions anything might happen, according to what the composer wants. To properly reflect the vibe, which is the most difficult part of the recording process, the producer, musicians, composer and mixers work together.
When the recording is done, the mixers have their paints in front of them. Taking the correct steps in mixing can create a beautiful painting. If you search for “mixing techniques” on the internet, you’ll find lots of technical details. However, none of these techniques are exclusively correct and definite. If you listen to great recordings and analyze the mixing techniques, you’ll observe that all of the steps are taken to serve the song, not to create a piece of engineering perfection. Therefore, when the mixers sit in front of the recorded signals, they determine the destiny of a recording. One of their hardest jobs is to internalize the feeling of the composition. But no musician wants to give full control of a song’s vibe to the mixer, and no mixer wants to take all the responsibility for it. Therefore, they generally work together. This is not a quick and easy process. For example, the equipment to process the sound has to be selected with care. Today, you can easily download great compressor plug-ins, but previously everything was done using hardware, and since the signal traveled to this hardware, all the components inside these devices were important.
To conclude, I’d like to give some examples of great mixes. To hear one of the greatest (maybe the greatest) drum sounds in rock history, I recommend Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” The drum sound in this track is created via both reverb devices and various recording techniques. When technical know-how and engineering skill meet up with John Bonham’s powerful drumming, one of the greatest drum sounds ever is achieved.
To hear perfection in both recording and mixing, one should always consult Pink Floyd’s recordings. However, it should be noted that the technique they used didn’t work in every situation, since recording some sounds live is nearly impossible.
From the post-punk, post-hardcore scene, I would suggest “One Armed Scissor” by a band called At the Drive-In. And if we look at the electronic music scene, I would suggest maestro Jean-Michel Jarre’s early electronic recordings. I would also recommend Justin Timberlake’s “Filthy,” since I really like the sound design used in that song.
Finally, I suggest that you listen carefully to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles. Considering the relatively limited technical capabilities of the early studios, I think that all of the technical elements that went into creating this album reached the pinnacle of the art of recording.