Your assumption, however, is that you’re working with a great amp, a great instrument, and a great guitar player, which isn’t always the case.
Well, if you don’t have that, you’re never going to get a great sound; all you’re going to get from a mediocre player is a mediocre sound.
That’s the real truth of recording, and it’s some-thing that a lot of people don’t want to face.
That’s why I’m saying it’s not hard to get great sounds as long as you have great players; what makes engineering hard is having to focus for 14 hours a day and persevere when things aren’t sounding great because the performance isn’t working, or having to deal with broken gear or problems with the signal flow, or trying to maintain the big picture even while having to do minutiae like vocal comps.
Plus you need to have strong people skills: you need to have a really great attitude, the ability to be a diplomat, and the instinct to know what the most important thing is to do next.
It’s all about knowing how to spend those 14 hours—which is costing so much money—really well.
And at the end of the day, great sounds aren’t all that important. There’s that old joke about how do you fix a terrible snare sound? The answer is, a hit single. [laughs] It’s true. Listen to [the Rolling Stones] “Gimme Shelter”—really listen to it. It’s the worst-sounding garbage I have ever heard, but it’s also one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.
So we forgive that appalling recording and we say it sounds fantastic . . . because it is fantastic. Or listen to [Creedence Clearwater Revival’s] “Fortunate Son.”
Let’s face it: it’s a terrible recording, but it’s still compelling. I’m sure the engineer didn’t intentionally blow out John Fogerty’s vocal—nobody said, “Hey, let’s get some distortion on this vocal—won’t that be fun?”
It just happened, and I’m sure somebody got some shit for it, but because Fogerty’s performance is so exceptional, it becomes quintessential—the hallmark of the best distorted vocal you’ve ever heard.
So my approach as an engineer is to hope that the music is great and then throw up some mics. I might go into the control room and add a little high end or midrange to something; I might, for fun, sculpt the sound a little bit because everything’s going so well, I’m bored and looking for something to do.
But if it’s a terrible band and it’s sounding terrible, I know that there’s nothing I can do about it except hack away. . . and even then it’s still going to sound bad.
You still have to be creative, of course. You have to go, “Wow, I wonder what would happen if I miked this piano like I would mic a snare drum?” You’ve got to get in there and be inventive and have fun because you might stumble upon new ways for things to sound.
But, again, that’s not my definition of getting a great sound. My definition is putting a microphone in front of an already great sound and then recording it.