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Simplicity, oh simplicity…

I decided to spend today as ‘musician’ rather than ‘teacher’ (after all, it is a school holiday) and this blog entry pretty much shows that but keep with me – there’s a teaching point in here…

With this in mind, I dug out some songs that I’d written a while ago but never recorded.  Recording is probably my strongest skill as a musician – I’ve recorded pretty much every type of ensemble you can think of in more styles than I care to list.  I made a conscious decision to avoid using synthesisers (except for the drum kit) so that I had an opportunity to go back to my roots as a guitarist.

I very quickly laid down seven guitar parts, bass and a guide vocal before I realised that it was time to do some mixing.  No problem, this shouldn’t take long.  I applied a variety of effects to each one, carefully EQd them so that they each occupied their own frequency range, panned the parts around to ensure that the stereo image was wide and that similar parts didn’t clash with each other and the list goes on.  The problem was that I did pretty much everything that I should have done but it just sounded dull.

In a moment of frustration, I decided to start afresh with the mix and promptly reset everything – no effects, no automation, no panning, no reverb, nothing.  To amuse myself I hit play while I made a coffee and, in between the sound of grinding beans and steam, I couldn’t believe how much better the raw, unmixed version sounded! 

I promptly muted the vast majority of the parts that I’d recorded and applied just the slightest compression, reverb, panning and EQ where it was absolutely necessary.  It started to sound great!  The channel strip looked like the one on the right.  Notice that three of the guitar parts only feature amp simulators and two of them are muted entirely.

Compare this screenshot to the one below from a previous project of mine.  The point is almost made by the fact that I can’t fit all of the channels onto one screen…

It didn’t take long for me to realise that my initial desire to ‘get back to my roots as a guitarist’ was in direct competition with the opportunities I had in front of me.  Years ago, I was lucky just to even have the chance to record something.  The idea of recording forty or so tracks was beyond ludicrous, I considered myself stupidly lucky if I had eight!  Most of my time was spent in bands – vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, keys, bass and drums.  When would I ever have thought to put down seven guitar parts?  Today, I find myself spoilt by technology.

This thought is what brings me to my point.  Our pupils are becoming musicians in a world where one person has an unlimited palette of opportunities in front of them.  They don’t need a band to create music, they can more with time, patience and a sequencer than they could ever do in a four piece rock band.  This is amazing but what a burden it can put on kids.  My pupils are constantly saying things like “Sir, can you help me add drums to this?”, “Sir, can you have a listen to my bass part?”, “I can’t work out if this sounds better with strings or brass, what do you think, sir?”.  It’s not that we necessarily demand this of them but they, themselves, often expect it.  Gone are the days where your bass part was played by a bass player (or a guitarist that thinks a bass is just a four string guitar).  Gone are the days where kids would write for the instruments available to them.  Gone are the days where playing in an ensemble was the best way to realise your composing skills. 

In some respects, this saddens me.  That said, I’ve got to admit that I’d rather be a kid today with the opportunities that they have in front of them.  The trick is that they (and I) need to remember that this vast array of opportunities doesn’t have to be exploited in every recording.  Sometimes, just a simple and straightforward recording is the best way to get an idea across.  Sometimes a simple arrangement allows the main ideas to shine.  Sometimes, we just need to Keep It Simple Stupid.