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