RYAN McCAMBRIDGE: ‘That sounds appropriate’ – Trusting your intuition

I was sitting in my friend Sean McDonald’s Red Medicine Recording Studioin Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was my first visit and I was loving the vibe of his space.

He played me a few things that he was working on but one song really jumped out. The drums just had such a distinct feel to them that I had to write a post on my blog about his process. What caught my ear was that they sounded so refreshing, rightfully so, given that they were recorded with only one mic. But there’s more here than just the lo-fi marvel of mono drums. This is a story about breaking one’s own convention.

A big part of our business is solving audio problems, and often no two problems are the same. It’s not like Sean’s usual drum setup consists of only one mic, he just had an audio problem that he solved by stepping out of his comfort zone – the one that we all have when recording instruments the way we’re used to recording them – and created something incredibly appropriate for the song. This is the creative solution and the personal touch that a good producer brings to a project. It’s ingenuity and the part of the process that can never be replicated by software.

A letter recently surfaced on the internet that was originally sent from Steve Albini to the members of Nirvana before recording their 1993 album, In Utero. There was line in that letter that really rang out to me: “I do not have a fixed gospel of stock sounds and recording techniques that I apply blindly to every band in every situation.” There it is: Our fixed gospels. Our personal processes. Our 57s on guitar amps and programmed 808 kick drums. Perhaps our crutches? It’s easy to see yourself as a creative person but when the pressure is on we often fall back on what we know will work.

But before we had our personal systems, all we had to run on was curiosity, intuition, passion and a bold set of ears. We chased a sound without any parameters in hopes of finding something that worked well for its purpose.

A good songwriter friend of mine Erik Alcock, who has a lot of credits in the hip-hop and pop worlds, recorded the guitar on his first cut with Eminem through the built-in mic on his laptop. That song, the one with the laptop-recorded guitar, was released on the album Recovery, which went on to sell ten million records. Does that make it a good guitar sound? Not by my multi-amped, multi-miked, mega-rock guitar standards, it doesn’t. But ten million people obviously liked it within its context and therefore I would say that it was a wonderfully appropriate guitar sound for what they were trying to achieve.

As much as experience and knowledge are incredible assets (and in the case of Sean, leading to a very cool drum part), I think that there’s something to be learned from the wonderful flailing-chaos of novices. Bands in garages, bedroom hip-hop producers, and dreamy-eyed artists, all uninhibited by experience. Perhaps now and again we should leave the engineer’s bible at home and throw caution to the wind. Perhaps we should rediscover our inner novice and just trust our musical intuition, instead of our technical prowess. Perhaps this will help us all make better art.

Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.

Ryan’s websites: www.bitcrushing.comwww.acalmercollision.com
Twitter: @RyanMcCambridge

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