The Art of Making Decisions

I generally prefer to take my time over things. Work on a track, leave it a day, make a few changes, leave it a day, change it again – each time the changes getting diminishingly smaller until I load it up one morning and go “yeah”.

I’m certainly not alone in that approach. But sometimes it’s good to be forced into making decisions quickly, and every now and again a job comes along that reminds me that even when you’ve got the time, sometimes it’s better not to use it.

The Mercedes effect

The biggest job with the shortest deadline I’ve had over the last year was mastering the online content for Mercedes’ flagship ‘Sound With Power’ campaign. Without going into details, I was given a day – maybe two – to master an enormous amount of material. It worked out to about 15 minutes per track.

Granted, the tracks were short, and most of them were very similar to each other, but that’s still an awful lot to get through in a very short time. Certainly no leaving it for a day, coming back to it… Even if I’d had the time, it would have been tortuous to go back and re-do every single track so many times.

So I worked on the first track for an hour or two, decided on a workflow, signal chain and general direction and just ploughed my way through it.

The lesson to learn

The Mercedes campaign wasn’t the first time I’ve had to work like that, nor will it be the last. Anyone who’s ever done any work for film, TV or advertising will know the excruciating deadlines and sky-high expectations commonplace in those industries. But as hard as they are, every time I have a job like that, I find it incredibly informative.

The key is making decisions. Anyone who’s ever mixed anything will know the torture of constantly switching plug-ins and techniques, flip-flopping between often minute variations until you can’t hear straight no more. And then you’re lost.

What jobs like these teach me is the value of making a decision and sticking to it. Treating it like what it is: engineering. Presented with a problem, what’s the solution? What are the best tools to use? And how shall we use them? Great, let’s do that then. Job done.

It’s easy to get caught up in the creative distinctions between different compressor models, different saturation algorithms… With so many digital tools at our disposal, perfection is just an oversampling option away. But the more you play around, the less perspective you have.

Know your tools

The real trick is knowing your tools. Pare down your options. I tend to use only one of two options for everything in my chain. After years of experimentation I’ve narrowed it down to what works best for what job. And when I get it wrong I try the other one. I very rarely have to reach for anything else.

Once you know your tools you can make informed decisions and stick to them. Mix blindness is a far worse enemy than choosing arguably the slightly less appropriate tape saturation.

Our Part in the Mercedes ‘Sound With Power’ Campaign

You might have seen this on TV recently.

It premiered during X Factor on Saturday, in what is probably the biggest ad slot in the UK (other than the final). The sound design was all done by our friends and clients Ithaca Audio, the online mash-up kings. We had nothing to do with the TV ad.

But. There is a strong digital element to this campaign. Users can log on to soundwithpower.mercedes-benz.co.uk and choose between a wide range of sounds and samples to create their own mash-ups similar to the TV ad. The best creation will be shown on telly as part of the follow up campaign.

We’re proud to say that we mastered all the material for the interactive online version.

That’s all we’ll say for now, but there will be a blog post soon with some observations about the lessons that can be learnt from the workflow of this kind of project – lots of material, very short deadlines. Very similar to the experience we had mixing a Spanish language feature film recently.

Until then, enjoy making your mash-ups!

Why All the Analogue Emulation?

Slate Virtual Tape MachineThe age of digital audio is the age of perfect stability. Of flawless copies and non-destructive editing. After decades of analogue audio designed to be ultimately transparent, digital has finally delivered on that.

As such, enthusiasm amongst senior engineers is commonplace. You’d be hard pressed to find an audio engineer of a certain age who’s not incredulous at the vinyl resurgence. In theory, even the stock plug-ins that come with your DAW should be able to deliver perfect sounding audio.

So what’s with all the fuss around analogue emulation in plug-ins? Looking at the biggest sellers in digital pro audio you’d be forgiven for thinking the recording industry hasn’t moved on since about 1973. Surely with all the imperfections of analogue equipment, the binary perfection of digital should be a blessing, shouldn’t it? Why spend so much time and money on analogue emulations?

Familiarity of analogue

One argument’s that often trotted out is the simple familiarity of analogue equipment. Firstly amongst engineers who ‘grew up’ surrounded by 1176s, dbx 160s, Neve desks and so on, but also amongst listeners. They may not consciously recognise it, but even the least tech-savvy listener is familiar with the sound of analogue recording from all those Rolling Stones records in their mp3 collection.

Engineers and listeners alike are used to the sound analogue equipment makes. And for engineers who learnt on analogue equipment, combining the efficiency gains of digital with the same workflow and sound as analogue means they can immediately know what a plug-in will sound like (or at least should) and keep their old habits. The classic pieces of kit serve as useful signposts when choosing which processor to use.

Ease of use

One of the great advantages of digital is the unparalleled flexibility it provides. EQs that can target frequencies down to a single Hz, compressors tweakable to the microsecond; these processors don’t exist in the analogue world.

However, that can also be a downside. As anyone who’s ever used any real analogue equipment will tell you, the limited set of controls can actually be a joy. It speeds up your workflow as you’re not inundated with endless options, and can quickly narrow down choices to ‘this one or that one’ rather than micro-tweaking how many decimals of a decibel you’re cutting 53Hz by.

There’s something to be said for replicating the limitations of analogue within the digital realm.

Non-linearity and distortion

The area of analogue emulation that’s received the most attention lately is the non-linearity and associated distortions. Slate Digital are particularly hot on this.

Simply put, digital is linear. No matter what level the audio is at, it will be captured and played back exactly the same. Analogue is non-linear. The higher the level, the more distortion is introduced. And this distortion isn’t necessarily just harmonic (i.e. multiples of existing frequencies). Up until very recently, plug-ins were unable to replicate this.

These are essentially the imperfections that make analogue sound different from digital. And the sonic character of classic pieces lives in these imperfections. But analogue emulations have come a long way, and plug-ins are now capable of very good approximations.

Is it worth it?

Let’s say you’ve just bought Cubase. It comes with all the plug-ins you could possibly need: compressors, EQs, multiband compressors, limiters, reverbs etc. Every tool in the audio box. Do you need to spend money on a UAD card or Slate plug-ins?

Technically no. Technically you can make perfect sounding mixes using just these plug-ins. Technically, you can come pretty close to analogue sounding anyway if you know your theory well enough (by tweaking EQ the right way, using compression to emulate tape compression etc.).

However, as a mastering engineer, I’ve worked on enough mixes to know when someone hasn’t used analogue emulations (or analogue). And a lot of the work actually goes into dirtying them up. They come in perfectly clean, lacking depth and life. They sound small. The perfection of digital is why adding some form of distortion or harmonic excitement is now common in mastering – to compensate for the missing layers of distortion inherent in analogue mixes. Distortion that makes mixes sound big and exciting.

And I have to say, analogue emulations do make mixing easier. Not just in the operation of the plug-ins themselves, but because using them makes mixes come together quicker and with less effort.

It’s true that there’s a lot of marketing hype surrounding analogue emulations. But it’s not all hype.