“The scene sucks.”
“We need to fix the scene.”
“What’s wrong with the scene?”
If you are involved in a local music community in some way, regardless of your particular city or area, you have probably heard the above phrases and other similar sentiments. Spoken by your friends in bands, their fans, the people that work in bars and music venues — and perhaps yourself — people are very eager to express their concern and love for “the scene”.
Based on my experiences, the burning question that keeps the people who are truly passionate about their musical craft or their support for independent musicians up at night is: Why? Why does “the scene suck”? Why does it need fixing? What is the cause of the problem?
[NOTE: I personally don’t think anyone’s scene “sucks”. I’m sure that there are some “suck-y” scenes out there, but more often than not I find that “the scene” is just fine, and it’s actually the lack of true community that really sucks.]
Can anyone, myself included, confidently pinpoint exactly why “the scene sucks”? Not likely. Many will claim that they have the answer. Personally, I think the truth about why “the scene sucks” is more complicated than a one-answer summation, and those who claim to have one are drinking Drano®.
I’m going to attempt to illustrate my belief that a major contributor to why “the scene” suffers — and new/young/up-and-coming bands ultimately fail — is the audio engineer’s decision to manipulate a mediocre or less-than-mediocre band’s recorded performance into a near-perfect production. In this situation, the band is given a false representation of their actual abilities, and because of this, a distorted perception of the band is created both in the audience’s mind and in the minds of the band members themselves. When the band is unable to reproduce the performance quality and sound of the final recorded production — sometimes, not even coming close — the audience, other bands and even venues disconnect from the band.
The argument: when a band is recorded and represented accurately, their strengths and weaknesses will be exposed, causing them to either work harder at practicing and do better next time when they go into the studio, or receive negative feedback and quit; either outcome helps “the scene”, because both outcomes tell the truth about that band, their abilities and their true passion for their craft.
With all of this being said, consider the following…
“Let’s make a record!”
Imagine your typical local rock band, consisting of a vocalist, two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. They’ve written six songs, and performed at a few shows in and around their home town, mostly for a handful of their friends and family, who support them almost unconditionally. Based on the feedback from their audience, they decide they want to pay to record their six songs in a professional recording studio. They go online and look in their city’s weekly magazines for advertisements for a local recording studio. They call one of the studios listed, and are immediately able to schedule as many days as they think they’ll need with one of the in-house studio engineers.
The band shows up to the studio to record their songs. While recording, a few realities become immediately apparent:
– The band’s equipment is at the consumer- or “pro-sumer” level.
– The drummer has never learned how to tune drums, and tunes them poorly.
– The drummer has difficulty playing in time and/or to a click track.
– The drummer hits inconsistently during their performance.
– The bassist and drummer do not perform as a proper rhythm section.
– The bassist and guitarists do not know how to properly tune and intonate their guitars.
– The bassist and guitarists have a poor sense of timing.
– The vocalist is unable to perform consistently in time and on pitch.
Let’s say that the engineer continues to record the band, just as they were hired to do. The engineer endures the poor tuning, lackluster performances, wrong notes, off-timing and pitch issues, and records everything the band needs to complete their six songs, just so long as the band understands they’re paying for it. Once the band leaves, the engineer begins working on something we affectionately refer to in the audio industry as “polishing a turd”.
“Fix it in the mix!”
Starting with drums, the engineer aligns the drummer’s performance to a grid, making it appear as though the drummer performed perfectly in time, almost like a machine. Since the drummer’s kit sounded poor, the drums are replaced with pre-recorded drums from different studios around the world, making it appear as though the drummer has a professional, well-tuned drum set.
Moving onto bass and guitars, since they were poorly tuned and intonated — and poorly performed — the engineer uses his studio’s collection of guitars and amplifiers and personally re-records the parts for the band, generally without their advance permission and/or knowledge. (Believe it or not, this absolutely happens, and occurs commonly.)
When it comes to the vocals, the engineer corrects the timing and pitch of the vocalist where necessary — and at many times, where unnecessary — making it appear as though the vocalist sang “in the pocket” and with near-perfect command of their pitch.
Once the above operations are completed and the mixes of the songs are to the engineer’s liking, the band is invited into the studio to hear their recordings mixed for the first time.
“It’s studio magic!”
Upon hearing playback of the first song, the band can’t believe their ears.
“Wow! It sounds amazing!!” one of the band members says. “My drums sound incredible!” “Man, what did you do to get our guitars to sound so good?”
“Studio magic,” the engineer replies.
The band leaves with their CD in hand, incredibly excited. They listen to the CD for the whole drive home, as loud as their car — perhaps their parents’ car — will allow before the speakers rupture. They text their friends and family and tell them how awesome their CD is, and that they can’t wait for everyone to hear it. They start talking about booking their CD release show, and how much merchandise they’re going to sell. They talk about touring.
They believe they are going to realize their dreams.
When they get home, they invite their best friends over to listen to the CD, and they are blown away at how great the band sounds. The band shows other friends and family the CD, and everyone exclaims at how good the CD sounds and what a great job the band did. Everyone that hears the CD is extremely proud of the band, and champions their new recording to anyone that will listen.
“I can’t wait to play this stuff LIVE!”
The band books their CD release show on a Saturday night at a well-known local venue with other local bands, and engage in promoting the show aggressively. They sell tickets. They make events on their social media sites and get several people to click “Attending”. Local radio stations play their music in the weeks prior to the show based on the strength of the recording. The buzz for the show grows and grows, and the band is more excited than ever.
The day of the show arrives and the venue is packed. It’s obvious that the band put in a lot of work to ensure the success of the show. They bought a banner with their name on it to hang behind the drummer. They spent money on new t-shirts to have for sale. They ordered 1,000 CDs, which — unbeknownst to the audience — arrived the morning of the show, just in time. This is obviously a very important night for them, and they worked as hard as they could to make it successful.
Out of the 200 people in attendance, 100 people showed up to see the band releasing their CD that night. They heard the CD, and listened to it several times in anticipation of the live performance, even on the way to the show. The band takes the stage to a roar from the crowd, and begins to perform all of the material from their brand new CD.
Halfway through the first song, it is immediately apparent that something isn’t right…but only to the audience.
– The drummer has difficulty performing in time, speeding up and slowing down.
– The drums themselves sound thin and/or dead.
– The bassist and guitarists have a hard time playing in sync with the drummer.
– The guitarists are out of tune with each other, and possibly their instrument itself.
– The vocalist has timing issues, and the singing sounds “out of key”.
Meanwhile, the band on stage is having the time of their lives. They were able to get free drinks from the venue before playing, since they had so many people show up to see them, and they’re feeling pretty good as they perform. Their significant others and friends and family are in the front of the audience, singing every word that they know back to them at the top of their lungs. The band itself has an amazing energy and excitement level that they’ve never displayed on stage before. They sell almost 50 CDs. They believe it is their best show yet.
After the CD release show, they book a string of shows a few weeks apart in order to play out more and sell more CDs. At the next show they play, they have close to 50 people there to see them. They don’t mind the drop in attendance because “it’s not as big of an event as a CD release, and anyway, it’s twice as many people as we normally get to come out to a show.”
At the next show, around 30 people attend. “But it was a weekday, not a Friday or Saturday, so lower attendance is to be expected,” the band believes. Just under 25 people attend the next show, so the band decides they need another new t-shirt to entice fans to come back out to see them…and they deplete their band fund. At the next show, on a Saturday night at a venue close to where they and their friends and family live, less than 15 people attend. The band performs…angrily.
“This scene sucks, man! It SUCKS!”
The band doesn’t understand what’s happening. They don’t understand why people aren’t coming out to their shows. They don’t understand why other bands they’ve played shows with don’t come out to see them or encourage others to check them out and support them. When they text their friends and family asking if they’ll be at upcoming shows, many of the texts aren’t responded to. People aren’t “liking” or commenting on their social media posts, and those that do are the ones that were doing so long before the band entered the studio.
The band decides to put a call out to their music community and tells them to “support the scene”. They talk about venues and how people don’t go out to shows as much because they aren’t allowed to smoke indoors, or because the drinks are too expensive. They talk about how shows that require bands to sell tickets are a scam, even though they’ve done a ticket show before. They have band meetings and talk about potentially changing their band’s name, or their logo, and any other things they can think of.
They play some more shows to small audiences, mostly consisting of the same people that supported them before the recording process for their CD began. They still have over 900 CDs in their inventory. They feel disheartened. They feel like they wasted their time. They blame “the scene” and everyone in it who doesn’t come to their shows, buy their merchandise or post about them online.
Ultimately, the band breaks up, and a couple of the members decide to continue on and form a new band. They write six songs, and perform at a few shows locally, mostly for a handful of their friends and family, who support them almost unconditionally. Based on the feedback from their audience, they decide they want to pay to record their six songs in a professional recording studio. Since the last engineer they recorded with made them sound so amazing, they go back to work with them again…
The band shows up to the studio to record their songs. While recording, a few realities become immediately apparent…
“I can’t believe it!”
Most bands and musicians I have the pleasure to know and work with are incredibly passionate. They sacrifice money, jobs, relationships, possessions, their credit rating and more in order to pursue a dream of a successful, lasting career in the music industry. In my opinion — and the opinion of comedian, Eddie Izzard — the biggest thing that keeps a band or artist working and sacrificing in order to realize their dream of “making it” is…
Belief is the fire inside the artist’s belly that keeps them focused on the prize, keeps them from giving up, keeps them from listening to the naysayers and forging on toward the greatness they know they will ultimately achieve.
Many musicians acquire their belief in their musical abilities from their parents. Some get it from other family members or their friends. Some gravitated toward music naturally on their own, and developed the belief in their abilities over time. Some have been influenced by all of the above.
I truly feel that at the moment an audio engineer discovers the true nature of the band they will be recording, it is their duty to capture that band’s performance as accurately and professionally as possible, and showcase the band in the best possible light, based on the band’s current skill set; or encourage the band to rehearse more, and offer advice and tips to help them become better musicians and a tighter band. Either way, the band wins, because they are being told the truth about themselves.
When the audio engineer decides to record a mediocre band knowing that later on everything will be replaced with professionally pre-recorded instruments, re-recorded or “fixed in the mix,” the engineer is doing the band — and the local music community — a huge disservice.
They are creating false beliefs for the band, the band’s audience and anyone else who hears the recording.
“Help! I’ve been robbed!”
Most people learn how to get better at something from two sources: mistakes and mentors. For the most part, when people make mistakes they become embarrassed, and they do their best to not repeat the same mistake again. Mentors help us by pointing out our mistakes constructively — or telling us of the mistakes they have made — in an effort to get us to become better at whatever it is we’re doing.
Q: How did the audio engineer in the story above mentor the band during the recording process?
A: They didn’t; they just took what the band gave them without counsel.
Q: What mistakes were left on the recordings for the band to hear over and over again, embarrassing them into practicing harder at their craft and rehearsing more as a band?
A: None; the mistakes were erased and replaced with the use of technology and the engineer’s knowhow.
Because of this, the band believes that what they recorded is what is on the record, and can’t believe that the reason they are floundering and unable to get people to come to their shows is because of their personal and collective musical and performance abilities, when in fact that is the case in many, many circumstances.
Studies have shown that in order to become a “master” at a particular craft it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice. To break that down, if a musician practiced their instrument for an hour every single day without fail it would take them over 27 years to become a “master”.
When a mediocre recording is manipulated to near-perfection through the use of the readily available technology, the musicians in the band are being robbed of their 10,000 hours of practice, and consequently being robbed of their ability to become a “master”.
“The truth will set you free, but at first…it may piss you off.”
Audio engineers can do almost anything to perfect and enhance otherwise mediocre performances, thanks to the technological advancements in digital recording and their immediate availability in retail stores and online. It is up to professional audio engineers with quality standards not to coddle or deceive their clients, but to expose them to the harsh truths about their abilities and their skill set. Whether that toughens their skin or sends them scurrying away isn’t the engineer’s problem.
While we are able to understand and appreciate that many engineers have bills and expenses related to their studio and their career, and need to generate steady income, does the need for money excuse them from accepting the great responsibility they have to their clients and musical community? Should a professional audio engineer with extensive knowledge in recording, songwriting, arrangement, mixing and production simply stay silent while recording a poor performance and manipulate it near to perfection while the band is away, ultimately giving them an inaccurate representation of their work, simply because the studio bills have to be paid?
My belief is when audio engineers decide to placate their clients instead of telling them the truth, they impede the short- and long-term improvement of the skill set of the musicians, and the fallout from that impediment is something that really, truly hurts “the scene”.
I’m trying to assert that the recording engineer is the first/last line of defense in accurately representing a band to the public, and when they just take the band’s money and “polish the turd”, the band (and scene) ultimately suffers.
Thanks for reading.
John Kay is a professional musician, producer, mixer, and engineer currently operating in metro Detroit. He plays guitar around the world with Koffin Kats, mixes at his personal recording studio — Stu Stu Studio — and is in the final stages of production on his first full-length solo album.