If everyone recorded music the same way, everything we did would sound the same. But we don’t record the same way, and those differences are part of what makes up our recording style.
In this relatively short episode, I talk about how I developed my recording style, and outline some of the things we might do to help us each come up with our own style.
I would like to hear from you how you developed your style. Has it changed over the years? Do you have a different style for different types of music? What was helpful in your quest for your style?
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org about this or any other topic.
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64 Your Recording Style 4 August 2022
I’m Doug Fearn and this is My Take On Music Recording
I have a few, very few, copies of recording projects I did as far back as 1967. In the intervening 55 years, I have learned a lot and my recordings today are better than what I did back then.
That’s not only because I have improved, but also because the technology has advanced. And my ability to acquire really good equipment is also better.
Another major factor is that I get to work with much better players now, than I did back then.
But despite the years and the gear, when I listen to those old recordings, I hear the same type of sound I strive for today. The sound that was in my head 55 years ago is still what I want.
You might say that I have not made much progress in all those years. But I would argue that I had a style back then, and it still persists today.
Over those decades I have recorded all kinds of music, especially when I had a commercial studio and needed to take in whatever work came through the door. I recorded a lot of R&B and disco back in the 1970s. Many rock sessions throughout my career. Lots of folk music, and occasional jazz sessions. Some country, Appalachian, and Bluegrass, too.
I’ve recorded gospel choirs and Broadway show tunes, Reggae with Jamaicans, even some New Wave/punk.
There has been World Music from Africa, India, the Middle East, South America. I’ve had sessions of Eastern European folk songs, Irish and Scottish traditional music, and even some very obscure music from places I never heard of until I worked with the musicians from there.
I have done classical sessions, both in the studio and on location, with ensembles ranging from solo instruments, to string and woodwind quartets, to full orchestras.
Perhaps the most bizarre sessions I ever did were with the Philadelphia Mummers, who played a style of string band music native to the city.
I’m sure there are other genres that I am not remembering right now. I have to say all of it was fun and I learned something new at every session.
Over those sessions, I learned to appreciate all the music, even if it was not my favorite. Often it was new and alien to me, and not in my realm of experience up until then.
So, the question might be, how does one have a personal recording style over that wide range of music?
I’m glad I did not think about that back when I was doing those sessions, because that might have done something to my way of recording that was not helpful.
Early on, I developed a motto. The Music Tells You What It Needs. This applies not only to how I record, but also how I help artists when I am producing their music.
Of all the genres I have recorded, from my early days until today my favorite is acoustic music. I like to record real acoustic instruments and capture their essence as best I can. But I am not obsessed with making those instruments sound exactly like what I hear standing next to them. I want the recording to sound better than that, because recorded music lacks so much of the experience of listening to the instruments live. We have to give the listener a version that sounds better than live.
I try to achieve that by picking the right mic, the right placement of the mic, and the right placement in the room to get what I want that instrument to sound like. That sound can vary quite a lot, from project to project. It depends on the player, the intent of the music, the instrument, and how that sound fits with the other sounds in the song. I also try to imagine how the final product is going to fit together later, when any additional parts are overdubbed.
The same approach applies to non-acoustic instruments, too. I can’t have a fixed notion of what the electric bass should sound like until I hear it in context.
I rarely listen to instruments in isolation. I will never wear out a solo button.
Of course, if there is a problem, I might solo the instrument that doesn’t sound like I expect it to. I may also check a track for bleed from the other instruments. But that’s about it. Basically, I only solo mics or tracks in a troubleshooting situation. I want to hear how everything fits together.
In my early days of recording, I was always limited by the equipment I had, by the instruments that were on the session, and by the limitations of the player. Because of those limitations, I liked changing the sound in unusual ways, like changing the tape speed, or applying some extreme eq or compression. If I was working with an artist who needed some help in coming up with new songs, I would often give them a loop to work with.
This was a real loop. There was no digital audio back then. Everything was recorded on tape, so a “loop” was a literal loop of tape. I would put together a few bars of a pattern, rhythmically or melodically, and splice the ends together and route the loop as necessary to accommodate its length. For a slow tempo loop with a long pattern, that loop could be many feet in diameter, on a tape machine running at 15 inches per second. I made the loop route using small, empty tape reels, free to turn, clamped to supports, usually mic stands, around the control room.
We would often improvise instruments out of whatever was available. It could be a simple as a different guitar tuning, or tacks in the hammers of a piano. (Not on a good piano, but one that I didn’t worry too much about modifying.)
Sounds for a loop could be made of components recorded at various off-speeds, to tune, say a percussion sound and make it into a melody.
I used all sorts of things in the studio building to create interesting percussion instruments. One of my favorites was the sound of a razor blade slicing through a block of styrofoam, mic’d a fraction of an inch away. Massive sound, and scary, too. Or a kick drum improvised with a felt hat and drum stick. Huge low end when mic’d from inside the hat.
If some instrument just could not be tuned properly, such as a guitar with really bad strings, I would wobble the pitch on the tape machine to make it sound sort-of centered on the desired pitch.
I could continue to list these things, but you get the idea.
I mention these techniques to show that I was not, and am not, a purist when it comes to sounds. I did what was necessary to get the sound I wanted. And that requires that the sound is in your head before you begin. It may evolve as you experiment, but always with the intent of the song in mind.
Think about this: if we all recorded everything the same way, with the same mics, same mic placement, same eq, compression, reverb, delay and whatever, all our stuff would sound basically the same. Is that what we want? Or do we want to have our individual vision of what kind of sound we want?
So, let’s say you don’t want to sound like everyone else. Where do you start in developing your own style?
We all started by listening to the music we love, and the recordings we love. Something about the sound appealed to us, excited us, and we wanted to know how to do that.
Maybe we went into the studio and tried to duplicate the drum sound that impressed us. That’s not a bad exercise, and I did that, too, when I heard something that just knocked me over. I wanted to get that sound. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I didn’t. But I learned a lot in that process. I learned things that would be helpful in the future, even if I never had a reason to get that sound again.
But what I found was that even when I was pleased with what I had achieved, I rarely saw myself using that sound. It was someone else’s style. It wasn’t my style.
And I realized that I can love what other people do, appreciate their talent and ability, enjoy their style every time – and still understand that their sound is not for me.
I think it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt to duplicate something you heard. Figure out how they did it. Get as close to achieving it as you can. But realize that you will never exactly duplicate it. You won’t have the same player, the same instrument, the same room, the same gear, or the same background as the person who created that sound. But at least you will have a deeper understanding of how to get something similar. That can be valuable.
As you are trying to copy a sound, you may find that you veer off into a variation of that sound. It could be because you could not exactly duplicate it. Or maybe you realized that you were heading toward something different, something that was more you. Maybe it turns out better than what you used as your model.
I found that after a period of trying to duplicate my favorite sounds made by others that eventually I just stopped doing that. I had learned as much as I was going to learn from that process.
At some point we all have to stop going to school, stop reading about how others do things, stop analyzing other recordings, and devote our energy to using what we learned.
These days, I rarely listen to any music except what I am working on at the time. I’m not sure that is a good thing, especially if you want to achieve success in the competitive market. There will be people that reference all kinds of previous work in explaining what they want their recording to sound like. In that case, it’s probably necessary to listen to a lot of contemporary work so you will know exactly what your client is asking of you.
That may be a key to success in the music business, but I would argue that it doesn’t necessarily produce the best recordings.
Back in the days when record labels controlled every bit of music that anyone was ever going to hear, I was often appalled at the lack of imagination of the record company people. I can recall lots of times sitting in the massive office of some record label A&R director, as he listened to what I submitted for consideration. And then he would play a vinyl record or a tape of something that was a current hit and tell me that I needed to do something like that.
It was an infuriating experience, and although I did try to do what they suggested on occasion, mostly I just walked out wondering how music was ever going to advance if all the gatekeepers wanted was more of the same thing.
We’re all influenced by what was done before. But I don’t want to live in a world where every song sounds the same.
Today, the landscape for artists and producers is entirely different. Anyone can record whatever they want, any way they want to, and make it available to a potential audience of billions of people instantly. That’s far better than having a dozen record labels decide what is going to be heard and what wasn’t.
We now have an unlimited ability to create whatever sound we want, with no one telling us whether they will give it exposure or not.
Of course, the reality is not quite that simple. It’s just now your work will either sink of swim on its own, in a sea of millions of songs.
And that’s another reason why developing your own style is even more vital than it used to be. Instead of 50 songs that get all the promotion and exposure at any given time, now to be recognized, you need something that stands out.
Of course, the music has to be good. No matter how skillfully you record it, or how innovative the sounds you create are, if the song just doesn’t have at least some appeal, it’s not going to succeed. That is a topic for another time.
Given these odds, one approach is to simply make the best recordings you can, with no thought about what anyone else is doing, or what the potential for success might be. The possibility of success is so remote that it makes sense to me to make the recording sound like that you want.
I make recordings that appeal to me, and see if there are listeners that agree. I have taken the same approach for the studio audio equipment I have designed.
Even in the world we live in today, it’s not much different than it ever was. Music that broke through and grabbed people’s attention was so different from what they had ever heard, that often the audience didn’t really like it at first. It was just too alien and perhaps extreme. But something brought them back to listen again. Maybe it was just to try to make sense of it. But at some point, that unique sound found an audience. It might have become an incredible success, or perhaps it just appealed to a niche audience. But it broke through. And part of that success is often the recording style.
I can’t give you a definition of style. It’s like any artform – your style is your signature sound. It is what makes your recordings sound different from everyone else. Style is also why people will want to come to you to record their music.
For someone starting out in recorded music, I would suggest that one approach is to figure out what sound appeals to you, and keep refining that sound as you gain experience.
I can’t tell you how to do this. But you know the variables you have at your disposal: the song and the performers, mics, your room, your gear, and your sense of what it should sound like. That’s plenty enough to keep you busy for a lifetime in the studio.
And since we work in a technological environment, the actual equipment we use is also part of our style. I suggest you not buy a mic, an eq, a compressor, or plug-in until you have considered if it fits your style. All the gear and tools you acquire should be considered in light of what your style is. Just like it may not be helpful to emulate a hit sound, you should not buy something just because it is what was used on a successful recording.
And don’t forget that your room is also part of your style. The limitations of your studio space may force you into getting sounds that are not exactly like what you might want. Very few of us can build a studio with the wonderful and distinctive sound of Abbey Road.
Bit it is worthwhile to optimize your room to make it fit your style. You might make it as dead as possible if a good room sound is not possible. If you have the space, a large and reverberant room might fit your style. You can make spaces deader-sounding, but it is difficult to take a small space and make it sound larger.
I must again emphasize that it’s still the song that matters. You can make it sing if you give it what it needs. That’s your contribution as the engineer. Listen, because the music always tells you what it needs.
I am interested in how you developed your style. How did it evolve? What exercises were useful to you in understanding where your style was going. Has your style changed over the years? Do you have a different style for different types of music?
Tell me about your style. You can email me at email@example.com
Thanks for listening, subscribing, and giving me feedback on this or any other topic.
This is My Take On Music Recording. I’m Doug Fearn. See you next time.