When I was in my mid-20s, I spent money I didn’t have to go to New York and attend the AES conference. AES is basically the trade group of audio engineers, and they have a conference or two every year. Lots of producers, lots of new gear, it’s a glorious place for someone who works with audio on a technical level.
I was still young in my career, and it may surprise you to know that I didn’t go to school for this (really, James, you’re kidding, they said sarcastically). This was partly a cool vacation on my own, which I had never taken before, and a learning experience. I wanted to come away with something I could use in my career.
At the end of a panel I attended with some music producers (who it was I can not remember), they opened the floor to Q&A. I asked what one tool they used that would help someone like me the most.
Needless to say, I was embarrassed. And I was mad. No one pays that much money to go to a conference (money I really REALLY could have used at the time) to be told to use their ears. Come on!
Everyone who works in audio uses their ears. It is our number one tool. Actually, it’s our first tool, but I’m not convinced it’s our most important. I’ll talk about that in a later post.
That was not what I wanted to know. And that wasn’t really the question I was asking.
Last year, I remember hearing a similar question asked at the Third Coast Festival conference. It got a similar response. Again, that wasn’t the answer they wanted, and it wasn’t really the question they had asked.
If you were to phrase the question in a way that was more honest, it would go something like this:
“I am not quite to the level of (editor, engineer, producer, etc) that I want to be. What are a few tools I can use or pieces of advice you can give me that can help me to become better at what I do?”
You will note that “your ears” would be a fairly ridiculous response to this. Even if someone wanted to say this, there are better ways to phrase it that would be more helpful.
After more than 15 years since that AES conference, here is the advice and tools I wish I would have been given:
- Pay attention to what you are listening to. Think about why something should sound the way it does.
- Make space for the elements of a mix.
- Learn how to really use a compressor. EQ is the most obvious thing to learn. Compressors will be the next thing you use the most. And they don’t all sound the same, so really play around with them.
- Microphone placement is critical. It matters more than you think it should.
- Take a break and relax your ears. Go for a walk. Get away from the mix. Then go back and listen again.
- Learn more aspects of the audio world. If you know recording, learn live mixing. If you know live, learn how synthesizers and midi work. If you know those things, learn about broadcasting. The ability to work with other people and with other fields will further your career as much as your ability to work with sound.
Those six things would have been the perfect next steps to learn as someone who knew a bit more than the basics and really cared about what they were doing. There are many more pieces of advice and tools that can help, but these are the ones I could have really used at the time.
Got any you want to offer? Comments are open.