‘You don’t need a big budget to start breaking out of the box’

With so many songs being conceived, written, recorded and mixed in the box, the involvement of the human body can become far removed from the creative process.

Digital technologies have done wonders for musicians and music production, liberating a process which would have been out of reach for many musicians and only available to a small proportion of artists with financial backing. Today it is possible to create professional productions on a cheap laptop or tablet and put them online for the world to hear.

Much has been argued about analogue vs. digital, what is best, what sounds better, what gets better musical results. The ease of digital has certainly streamlined production times, the simplicity of recalling in the box mixes means engineers can move fluidly between different songs. This can make the whole process much more creative. No longer do they need to spend hours recalling an analogue desk mix to turn a backing vocal up by 2dB!

Others feel that digital technologies have led to something being lost, making the music feel cold and clinical when compared with the warmth and character of analogue productions. In reality there is no real war between these technologies. It’s important for musicians, producers and engineers to use the equipment and technologies available to them to help produce music with character and emotion and there is no single process or piece of equipment that will do this for them. What is really important is finding a process that helps the artist feel more connected with the music and therefore the emotion within it.

When I work with artists who have been working on their music using DAWs and home recordings it is often liberating for them when we start sending their stems through bits of analogue outboard. Not so much in a sense that it sounds different but in that they start to view the song differently. It starts to become fun and tactile. Turning knobs and faders, driving pedals and amps always seems way more fun and appealing than using a mouse to input data. This can lead to the music taking a new direction and add a new dimension of emotion and creativity. We have all experienced the joy of using our bodies to achieve something, be it physical exercise, playing an instrument or interaction with other humans and animals. Touch is an amazing sense and when we use it in music production it can be just as rewarding.

You don’t need a big budget and lots of outboard to start breaking out of the box. Many of the pieces of equipment I have around the studio are relatively inexpensive, some don’t work correctly but that just adds to the fun. An effective way to start livening up your productions and mixes is by using guitar effects pedals. Using pieces of equipment like this can add an extra layer of sonic texture to your productions and add eccentricities to the sound which can add depth and interest to the whole production. As a listener it is these subtle differences to the sound which add interest and maintain a sense of mystery; when everything sounds the same we can quickly become bored and lose interest.

Some of my favourite bits of kit to do this are old spring reverbs that have come out of broken guitar amps, tape delays, fuzz pedals and old mixers. I have an old WEM live mixer that distorts differently on every channel and the built in output limiter has a really unique sound that works great for drum parts. Using synthesiser modules is a lot more common these days due to the popularity of Eurorack modules and the unique and creative boutique manufactures who put their own wacky ideas into their modules. Guitar amps are great for everything – not just for guitars – vocals, keys and drums can all benefit from a re-amped version adding an extra layer of character to the production. You must remember that when adding a new external processed signal in parallel to an already existing one you must ensure the tracks are phase aligned correctly. Just by passing a signal out of the box and back in adds a small amount of latency and can throw your signals out of phase. I usually just zoom in on the waveforms to ensure they are in correlation once recorded back in to the DAW.

Interestingly we seem to have come to a stage where some digital equipment or software sounds almost analogue and some analogue hardware feels almost digital. As a result we are seeing more and more digital hardware units released, for example Strymon guitar pedals are combining analogue circuitry and DSP processor chips to create unique and interesting sounds. Likewise, analogue modular synth manufactures are also experimenting by incorporating DSP modules within their units. For example, TipTop Audio’s Z-DSP module allows the user to insert a small digital cartridge into the module to change its function, outputting CV allows the DSP unit to interact with traditional analogue modules. This shows that perhaps the interest in analogue units has less to do with the sound and more to do with the physical inclusion of the body in the creation process. Vintage digital equipment also has an aesthetic which has become synonymous with the sound of certain music genres, for example the MPC sampler is still a sought after unit for the creation of sample based music as their digital chips have a certain quirk or charm to the sound which users are drawn to.

Digital recording technologies have forever changed the music making process and consequently also the role of the recording studio. So many productions are started at home and brought to a studio to work on the parts that require a studio, then taken away again and worked on further, going backwards and forward between home and the studio. It’s not just musicians that work in this way, but many engineers as well.

So what are you waiting for? Break out and start having fun with your productions and mixes!

Tobin Jones is owner and head engineer at The Park Studios, a recording studio in Wembley, London.