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last updated March 19th, 2010
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by RML Labs

The Instrument Of Your Success
First published in L’Amour Report

When I was a kid, many kids wanted to become rock stars. They'd see a guy up on stage with a Fender Strat or a Gibson Les Paul and say, “If I get that I can be a rock star!”. A lot of guitars got sold that way. Of course, now these kids had to learn to play, and they needed bands to play in.  There were a lot of really awful bands practicing in basements and garages.

Of course, you don't become a real player overnight. One guy I ran into back then said quite seriously, “It takes two years to learn to play rhythm guitar and five years to play lead.”  I'm not a guitar player, so I can't say that he was right, but for some guys it was probably about right. My little brother took band in junior high, and he chose to play the trombone. He got serious about it.  He was determined to do what was necessary to become an excellent musician.  Watching his progress showed me a pattern.

You need an instrument to play.  My brother Glenn started out with one of those Holton trombones that were pretty much the standard beginner's instrument at the time.  When it became obvious that he was going to go the distance, our parents got advice from his teacher and located a Bach 52B bass trombone (if I remember correctly), making sure it was one that had been made at the right factory (before it moved to where labor was cheaper). It was a fine instrument.

You need to know how your instrument is put together, how it works, and how to maintain it.  Glenn studied that, too. He got the right cleaning cloths and tools and the right lubricant (for the slide), and learned to keep his instrument in top shape.

You need to master the technique of the instrument:  you know, the mechanics.  In Glenn's case, this included knowing how to play notes at EXACTLY the correct pitch, what slide positions were for which notes, how to breathe, the use of mutes, etc. With enough practice, correct technique becomes more or less automatic.

Once you have the “technical chops” down, the real artistry can begin. This is the part that cannot be graded easily, because it is about personal taste and judgement, and these are not easy to define.  It is, however, what makes you able to tell one player from another when you hear them play.  It is also what finally gets him the gig.

Here in the 21st century, things have changed a lot, yet they are also the same. What people want to do now is make and sell recordings of their music. The tools for making those recordings are now more widely and easily available than ever before.  For as long as I can remember, there have been guys who thought “If I get the right stuff I can make great records!”  A lot of recording gear gets sold that way.  Of course, now these guys need to learn how to record and how to mix. There are a lot of really awful CD's being made in basements and spare bedrooms.

Of course, you don't start making great recordings overnight.  Back when I was going to different studios looking for work, a guy at one studio told me, “It takes 5 years of recording and mixing experience to become a good engineer.”  I imagine it takes some guys more time and some guys less, but he was definitely right about one thing: there is NO substitute for experience.  Several years ago engineer Steve King told about meeting a Famous Engineer and asking him how he got to be so good. The reply? “By screwing up other people's records!”

When I went to work at United Sound in Detroit as their Maintenance Engineer (yeah, OK:  studio tech), I found myself repairing equipment that I did not know how to operate properly.  Can you imagine a car mechanic who can't drive?  I was determined to learn engineering, and made a point of picking up every bit of knowledge I could. I studied the equipment and the manuals for it, soaking up details about how it all worked.  I learned from the different engineers how they used microphones: what got used where, how they were placed, etc.  I became a sort of unofficial set-up man for sessions, setting up mics and headphones and such to save the engineers time.

I knew that I needed to make recordings of my own, so I started an album project (still on my shelf somewhere...) as a way to get experience without “screwing up other people's records”. I could take my time, I could (and did) make mistakes, I could experiment with methods of my own as well as stuff I had read or heard about.  I recorded and mixed in different studios, working with different kinds of equipment. I got to the point where I could avoid most of the classic Stupid Mistakes. After I had made myself the “guinea pig” for a few years, I picked up occasional session gigs.

I can now make pretty good recordings, but I am not foolish (or vain?) enough to think that I can compete with the top guys in the business. Even among professional engineers, fairly few become “top level” guys, and all of them take years to get there.

Just in case I haven't already beat the point to death, here it is:  the recording studio is just as much of a musical instrument as the guitar, the trombone, or whatever. To make great recordings, you have to pay the same kind of price a great player does:  years of learning and hard work.

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