Embracing The Fun of Audio Experimentation

The Music Industry attracts playful people. Few enter a career in music in order to learn how to roll up XLR cables, but somewhere along the road to career success comes the administrative work of laying down the ideas for the sake of a fantastic outcome. As engineers, it’s too easy to become stuck in the pattern of producing audio by the book and forgetting to revert back to the playfulness which attracted us in the first place. Creating time to experiment is beneficial for both our wellbeing and our career; here’s why…

Why Nobody Tells You To Experiment
It used to be the case that mixing desks used in professional recording studios were limited to 16 tracks. That was it. Before buses, groups and MIDI, recording meant using just a handful of tracks before you had to start bouncing down. Imagine those days (if you have to!). A single sidechain compression effect on a 16-channel desk, for example, would consume 1/8th of your desk space. No wonder that experimentation was seen as a luxury. The business was just far too practical to allow for creative signal routing and unusual microphone placement. Besides that, it was so much more expensive. Decisions had to be made by the audio engineer quickly and without fuss or any kind of time-consuming avant-garde approach. As with any commercial enterprise, artistic value usually takes a back seat to the bottom line. Online media courses are quick to part with technical knowledge, but remember also that the heart of a career in music is being able to bring new ideas to life.

Channelling Infinity
These days, our music production is limited only by the processing power of our computer. You no longer need to produce music by the book. If you’ve got options, use them. Once you’ve set up your guitar amp and mic, grab a second mic and stick it in the back of the cabinet. Stick another one at the back of the room. Perhaps a combination of two is the sound you’re going for. The advantage of taking the time to experiment is building your own vocabulary of idiosyncratic production tricks. Along with your impact on the actual songwriting, this type of ‘creative capital’ fuels the music industry in a big way. Being an engineer is about being able to offer producers, clients and artists creatives viable alternatives to what everyone else is doing. That only comes when you pioneer your own techniques. Before anyone offers you a music industry job, you’ll need a platter of unique options to offer your clients. So get writing!

Stretch The Limiters
Also experiment with your software devices. You’ll understand an effect far better when you overdo it. Overdoing effects is the best way to learn what sound they’re actually producing and training your ears to certain devices. Grab a compressor and set the threshold to -50dB. Yank the ratio up to 80:1. Make a point of maxing out every parameter on your favorite effect in order to truly familiarize yourself with its effect on the dry audio. It’s tempting to want to tweak the settings finely and exactly while narrowing your limits in the process. You’ll get to the end much faster by tweaking your compressor up to 20:1 and then back down than by slowly raising it to find the sweet spot. Sure, don’t expect most of it to sound any good, but do break the rules and forge your own limits. Curiosity is such a huge part of doing something great, and it’s certainly advice that every online music college should be offering. So get out of the box, take back some of the fun and experiment.

“It’s A Microphone… It Will Record Anything!”
When DSLR cameras first came out, voices from within the film community were adamant that big, successful films had to be made with a 35mm film camera. Then, some DSLR films started coming out which were praised for their DIY approach while still delivering on the core objectives of film – storytelling and surprise. The same goes for audio engineering. Just because a Rode NT2 is widely considered a vocal mic, there’s no reason to assume it won’t work in the back of a guitar cabinet or overhead on a drum kit. With every product you hold in your hands, someone, somewhere was tasked with making it a marketable commodity. Sometimes that means distilling all of its its possible uses down to a single strength. Experimentation is about remembering that what we call a paperclip can be 200 feet tall and made out of foam rubber. We would still call it a paperclip. A microphone is a microphone. It will record anything. Putting on an experimental mindset means not being limited by labels.

Have Fun!
As corny as it may sound, have fun while experimenting. If you consider yourself a serious professional with work to do, learn to schedule time to go in a new direction. Try not to see experimentation only as goofing off. If you’re looking for a career in music and you’re not goofing off when nobody’s looking, you’re doing it wrong! Tweaking and saving patches is the work part. Going wild with mind-altering effects is the play. Combine the two to create a library of your own sounds and effects. Sure, there’s a bunch of science involved in audio engineering. But remember that this is the entertainment business. If you’re not being entertained while making the music, how can you expect the listener to be entertained while listening to it?

The Tail End
Experimentation is certainly a luxury in most commissioned works of art. Nine out of ten times, commercial work involves imitating an existing success story without treading on anyone’s toes. There’s simply no reason for a client to encourage an audio engineer to stray from their appointed task of producing a soundalike. This provides the curious engineer with all the more reason to engage in trial and error and always being ready to discover a feature of the equipment that resonates with what he or she alone has to offer. Experimentation is the path to finding your unique voice.

Written by John Bartmann, an award-winning musician and producer.