Matt LeMay is a writer, musician, and producer/engineer in New York. He fronted the band Get Him Eat Him from 2004 to 2009, and now records music under his own name and plays drums with Graham Smith’s indie-pop juggernaut Kleenex Girl Wonder. Matt operates a small recording and mixing studio called A Question of Frequency, where he has worked with Oxford Collapse, Franklin Bruno, Mr. Dream, BELLS≥, Yvette, the Capstan Shafts, Cindy Lou Gooden, White Hinterland, and more. You can follow him on Twitter here.
A couple of months ago I got an email from a friend who, like I do, spends a good deal of his time recording and mixing music. The e-mail read, in its entirety:
“do you ever have days where literally everything just SOUNDS wrong/unbalanced/out of whack? not just everything you’ve mixed but literally everything?”
I laughed so loud that it made my coworkers a little bit nervous. But I could just as easily have burst into tears.
There’s a certain kind of listening that only starts to take hold when you’ve put in triple-digit hours recording and mixing music. Let’s call it “forensic listening.” I use this term because, at its most demented, forensic listening feels like solving the world’s most important crime — if you can’t unravel “The Case of Where Exactly Does the Kick Drum Sit in a Good Rock Mix,” then the record you’re working on will turn up stabbed to death in an alley the next day. The thing about making an album is, you only get one chance to make the finished product sound “right.”
One seemingly impartial way to make sure you’re on the “right” track is to compare your work-in-progress with beloved, famously great-sounding recordings. The problem, as my friend pointed out, is that nothing sounds “right” when you’re deep in the throes of forensic listening. Even your favorite records become disjointed blobs of spitty vocals, tinny guitars and boxy drums. But there is a certain creative power to be found in this anxious and joyless state: when everything sounds “wrong,” it’s much harder to be swayed by anybody else’s definition of what sounds “right.”
At first, understanding music production seemed to have a purely positive and expansive effect on the way I listened. For many uncomplicated years, it felt as though I was developing the aural equivalent of x-ray vision, or finally learning a language that had been spoken to me for my whole life. This process must have started for me around 2003, because I clearly remember being able to hear compression for the first time on Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People and Hot Hot Heat’s Make Up the Breakdown. I recall actually saying something at a party, along the lines of, “Yeah, man, that Broken Social Scene record sounds awesome because there’s so much compression on the hi-hat!” In retrospect, this was remarkably narrow, self-serving and presumptuous criticism. But I was giddy that I could decode the inner workings of a record, that I was now able to identify the little technical decisions that, while invisible to the untrained ear, make up the very heart of how music feels.
That was all well and good until I began applying a similar line of thought to my own music. Deconstructing the little aesthetic details that add up to an emotional experience is one thing; letting every little aesthetic detail become a grotesquely overblown stand-in for that entire experience is… well, more or less the same thing, just backwards. And as each little decision grows in importance, so too does the pressure to get it “right” — and, in turn, the nagging fear that what sounds “good” to you is not, in fact, “right.” Becoming aware of the difference between “good” and “right” is terrifying, but understanding that difference is everything.
To assuage that fear, I began obsessively researching the techniques used by professional recording engineers. Surely, I told myself, if I did things the “right” way, the results would be unassailable. When it came time to home-record some acoustic guitars for my former band’s second record, I must have read through twenty tutorials in the hope of discovering the most incontrovertibly correct method. Having sussed out a consensus, I confidently placed a condenser microphone at a precise distance from a specific fret on the instrument. A week later, I brought the tracks to our mixing engineer, expecting a compliment on a job well done. Instead, he furrowed his brow and asked flatly, “You know that these tracks don’t sound… good, right?” To be honest, I had no idea. I hadn’t even listened back to those tracks when I finished recording them; I had just assumed that doing things the “right” way would make my recordings sound good. And if they didn’t sound good, what did that say about every other album that was recorded the “right” way?
It was difficult to find clear, instructive answers in albums I had previously regarded as works of absolute perfection. Instead, I found myself scanning my favorite albums in the hopes of hearing something that echoed — or even exceeded — the potentially “wrong” decisions I had made on my own recordings. “OK,” I told myself, “the snare drum on this Archers of Loaf album is even louder and more up front than it is on the album I just finished mixing, so everything must be just fine.” But in selfishly trying to find what was “wrong” with other albums, it slowly dawned on me that the very “mistakes” I was listening for were often the things I enjoyed the most. Listening to My Bloody Valentine’s mbv, it struck me that Kevin Shields’ boldest production choice has always been mixing the drums so quietly that they can be overtaken by the internal ebbs and flows of his guitar parts. This is the “wrong” way to mix drums when held up against most modern rock albums, but it is every bit as responsible for the textural magic of Shields’ recordings as any esoteric guitar recording trick. Less subtle violations of recording norms can be just as compelling; the nasty digital snare drum overloading on the seven-inch version of Les Savy Fav’s “Reprobate’s Resume” is still one of my favorite percussion sounds ever.
And therein lies the enormous upside to forensic listening: once you’ve followed it all the way down to its cold and impartial core, harsh digital distortion sounds no more wrong than, say, an immaculately recorded bass track that happens to sit a little bit too far forward in a slick, professional mix. It just sounds… different-wrong. And that is a huge gift, because what sounds safely and certainly “right” today may very well sound terrible a couple of years from now. If, for example, you were recording a rock album in 1985, your snare drum probably didn’t sound “right” until it was slathered in gated reverb. That is, unless you were working on a record like the Meat Puppets’ Up on the Sun, a product of the mid ’80s that somehow dodged every single one of that era’s now dated sonic affectations. Nearly 30 years later, Up on the Sun still sounds crisp, contemporary, and deeply good. The same can be said of the early Modern Lovers demos that John Cale recorded over 40 years ago. Sometimes I like to think that those precious and timeless recordings were made by people who had hit that very point my friend described in his email, where even the most ubiquitous and sounds of their day seemed plainly, unavoidably, “wrong.”
And that’s the thing: the true test of any recording comes long after you’ve decided what microphone you’re going to use on a snare drum, or what EQ curve you’re going to apply to a lead vocal. Listening back to something I worked on months or years ago, these small tactical details barely register. However, the more substantial production choices I suffered with the most are often the ones that I find most immediately and viscerally compelling when I’m no longer forensically scrutinizing them. In the world of subjective, emotional listening – the world most of us inhabit all the time – there is no “right,” only “good.”