The more I dive into the whole sound engineering field, the more I discover that it isn’t about opinion, it is about good and bad.
I remember when I first taught Faith and Javier, I taught them what I was taught from my school’s internship, “as long as it sounds good to you, it is ok!”
Perhaps to a certain extent, that is true. However, the more I do sound, the more I discover that new sound Engineers have no opinion or scared of giving their opinion on sound or couldn’t identify the problems of a sound.
People often ask me, how do you tell/test whether a sound engineer is good? Isn’t it very subjective?
Well, yes, artistic taste is very subjective. I may not like metal, another person does like metal, that doesn’t mean that a metal song is bad compared to a rock song. However, before everything there are prerequisites and rules that each song must comply to for it to sound good. For example, all songs require the musicians to play in time, in pitch and have dynamics. Similarly, a sound engineer need to fulfil a few things before adding artistic flair.
First, a sound engineer needs to make sure every instrument can be heard. If in a band I have Bass, Drums, Guitar, Keys, Backup Vocals and Lead Vocals, I must make sure every single instrument and voice can be heard and in the correct levels that makes sense. I cannot have the bass to be deficient in the mix. I cannot have the backup vocals louder than the lead vocals. Of course, the Singers/musicians themselves have to work on their own musicialities and dynamics, however, as the engineer, it is my responsibility to educate people and do whatever I can to help people sound good.
Second, every voice must sound human; every instrument must sound right. I often catch engineers not alert to make someone sound decent or human. I don’t blame them of course, this is probably due to the fact that they aren’t educated like me. Every voice should sound natural, unless, the song require
that kind of sound. Voices shouldn’t be muffled. Guitars shouldn’t be twangy. Oh talking about guitars, I have had a lot of trouble EQ-ing guitars. I just cannot seem to get a full sound that has adequate string noise and body. Recently, after having a ton of trouble trying to fix it, I discovered that if you add a simple plate reverb to the guitar, you will surprised at how well it improves the tone. After the 14 year old classical vocalist recording, I have been adding a plate reverb to the keys, man, it makes piano samples sound so good! 😭
Third, a sound engineer MUST be alert to the sound changing. This is especially important for live shows. A singer may feel like speaking in between chorus and verses, you have to watch out for that and cut reverb whenever the singer speaks.
Fourth, there mustn’t be any unwanted artifacts in your mix. Namely, distortion, feedback, harmonic distortion, leaks from other mics and electrical hum to name a few. Ok, for those reading and like to have some education, here are the artifacts and how to solve them.
Distortion – basic distortion happens when an instrument in the signal chain gets a signal too high that it cannot handle—clipping. Hence, it will create that static-ish kinda sound, very bad for everything.
Solution: Reduce gain of the equipment that is clipping. Normally the pre-amp.
Basic sound system:
Sound source – Mic – pre-amp – console – amp – speakers
Every instrument on this list has a chance of clipping. Reduce the gain of the equipment that is clipping.
Harmonic Distortion – happens when you try to compress something too much. Certain frequencies seem to crackle and the voice will sound unnatural.
Solution: Turn off the compressor or move the threshold such that it doesn’t compress so much. Ratio can be more gentle as well.
Feedback – happens when the mic sends a signal, the speaker outputs that sound, that sound gets back into the microphone, hence forming a loop, certain frequencies that are more prominent would ring out.
Solution: Don’t point your microphone to the speakers. Add in an EQ for the speakers so that you can tune out the prominient frequencies
Mic leaks: basically hearing the other instruments on your mic, the leakage from other instruments.
Solutions: Educate the vocalist to project more to increase signal to noise ratio. Add a gate/expander to the channel to soften the softer signal, for better control.
Electrical hum: Buzzing of channel or speakers. This is due to dirty ground or ground loop. This is due to sharing of ground with the other equipment apart from audio, for example, lighting.
Solution: change the power source of the DI or speaker to a source that isn’t used. Lifting the ground would often help too. If both are not possible, gating/expanding the channel would help to cut the buzz when the channel isn’t in use.
Artistic preference comes after fulfilling all of that first. Once you get a mix, having certain things stand out is totally up to you. HOWEVER, it is very important that this doesn’t affect the requirements above. You can make a guitar stand out, no problem, however, it shouldn’t drown out the drums or be too loud.
Truly sound has a template and has its requirements. It is like how there are different types of writing. Formal. Informal. Argumentative. Narrative. Each essay has its own purpose, style and format. However, the rules of grammar still applies to all types of writing. If the rules aren’t followed, it isn’t an essay with proper English. So how can that be a good essay?
Same for sound, if you cannot follow these requirements, the mix can never be a good mix.
Man, how I wish I can do this for a living. 😦