Cutting edge guide to digital audio production best practices from a master of the craft
One of the lamentations of the modern world is the loss of the concept of apprenticeship. That is, as a young student, one’s pathway to knowledge and professional growth is to align oneself under a master, or at least an experienced professional of a certain field, and thus learn firsthand by observing, assisting, and eventually assimilating that person’s ethos into one’s professional life. Perhaps the rugged individualism found in today’s creative world is the natural byproduct of our current digital technology, laptops, and the ease of software, allowing virtually anyone to venture into the world of recording and mixing music on their own. However, once doing so, many students find themselves in a position where they are equipped with mind-altering amounts of technology, yet feel a deficiency in time-tested technique and well-informed guidance. After all, access to a kitchen full of state-of-the-art utensils does not a good chef make.
In talking with students, this writer has heard this desire and concern echoed in many contexts. Whether it be the desire for an internship under a more experienced professional or time with a certain instructor, many young engineers and music producers are hungry to interact with a professional elder with years of experience who can sit down with them and walk them through the essential foundations of creating great recordings. It is in that spirit, that engineer, instructor, and all-around music philosopher Steve Savage unveils his new book, entitled The Art of Digital Audio Recording. From start to finish, Savage’s book reads like a conversation with an elder craftsman, providing a practical and thoroughly comprehensive introduction to the processes and considerations of today’s recording environments. For most new students of digital recording, Steve Savage’s book will prove to be a more than useful tool in their arsenal of information. His writing style conveys a non-condescending and encouraging tone that will inspire and equip the most novice student in their production technique and skills.
Where many books aimed at students of music recording and production can veer too deeply or too quickly into tangential issues or get bogged down in subjective taste making, The Art of Digital Production distinguishes itself by approaching complex issues with simple, yet balanced explanations, steering the reader through varying topics with an ease of language and description that feels akin to a one-on-one dialogue.
And that’s not to say that the book doesn’t delve deeply into the necessary arenas of audio for any aspiring engineer. With a logical and personable approach, Savage journeys through session basics, recording protocols and technology, editing and mixing fundamentals, as well as basic overviews of mastering, file delivery, and helpful recommendations in establishing good repertoire and communication with clients. The book does a superb job of providing a thorough and developed introduction to newcomers who are working in the digital environment. In fact, the primary focus of the book is how to operate in the realm of the DAW technologies that dominate the recording field today, which current students will find extremely valuable (as this is the main way that most of them are starting up in the infancy of their recording careers). Although Savage makes it clear that the crux of the book will rest in operating within the context of a DAW, that doesn’t stop him from providing the necessary background and explorations of analog concepts on which the principles of good recording are founded upon.
The strength of The Art of Digital Recording lies in Savage’s approach to explaining essential concepts in layman’s terms. From the very beginning, it’s apparent that he is drawing from a wealth of hard-earned experience. In the Essentials chapter, Savage addresses some of the most critical components to the recording process that are very-often overlooked, or worse, completely disregarded by young engineers including proper room acoustics, monitoring set-ups and considerations, developing headphone mixes, and principles of signal flow, to name a few. Again, there is a strong overview to these matters, which allows both the beginner to grasp a very broad range of concepts and the expert to be reminded of the core foundations for quality work.
Another helpful aspect of the book is how Savage draws from personal stories in order to share the lessons he has gleaned from his storied career. One can easily appreciate how he consistently steers the trajectory of discussion back to the thing that matters most in recording: the music. Take his constant reminders and admonitions to pay attention to the details that matter, such as communication and talkback habits that respect the musician and their specific needs, paying careful attention to monitor volume and the effect that has on our perception of frequency response, or even the basics of file storage, session set-up and maintenance. As with most recording books, The Art of Digital Recording does a thorough job of exploring recording techniques for nearly every type of expected instrument an engineer is likely to face. Far from laying down an ultimatum approach to recording style, Savage describes the long-accepted approaches to recording traditional instrumentation, but yet encourages the reader to follow their imaginations through a journey of informed exploration.
In dealing with the basics of mixing and manipulating in the digital arena, Savage uses the world of Pro Tools™ as a basis for introducing the essential concepts of comping, editing, and correcting. Although his screenshots and examples are exclusively tied to one platform, it doesn’t stop him from allowing users of any type of digital production software to get a firm grasp on the concepts, allowing the reader to apply them accordingly to their software of choice. Overall, the tone of the book is conciliatory and thoughtful, especially where disagreements continue throughout the recording industry (analog vs. digital, mixing “in the box” vs. mixing “out of the box”, digital vs. analog summing, to a name a few). Savage does a fairly thorough job in presenting both sides of the argument, but then gives a reason for his current workflow of choice and how he has arrived at that decision.
The chapter on mixing will prove especially helpful to students who are seeking to find a way to build their mixes effectively and, develop a framework for understanding the pathways to achieving their creative goals. Whether exploring signal processing or methods in achieving spatiality and clarity, Savage breaks down mix terminology and methodology into intuitive explanations. Especially as he broaches mastering (which is one of the hardest parts of the recording process for both students and clients to grasp), he gives a great overview of what to expect from a mastering engineer and how engineers should prepare their mixes for mastering. Issues such as final mix organization, communication between all parties involved in mixing and final delivery for mastering are all handled with aplomb. The process of mastering could command an entire book of its own, so Savage chooses his issues wisely and thus keeps the reader within a range of concepts that are easy to grasp.
If there is one deficiency with the book, perhaps it is in Savage’s resistance to provide too much artistic input. Given the title of the book, I was expecting a little bit more in terms of his creative techniques in both mixing and recording scenarios from his past projects. The book is littered with examples from his long history of recording, but some more detailed specifics would have helped to personalize some of the information a bit more and give the reader a more in-depth glimpse of his artistic considerations as a producer and engineer (especially with clients such as Robert Cray).
Nonetheless the book remains one of the better and most accessible overviews of the music production process that we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s refreshing to find an author in the recording industry that continually keeps the focus on the major priorities and gives a solid presentation of how a student should begin developing their paradigm of audio recording. Any instructor of music production would be well advised to add The Art of Digital Audio Production to their short list of essential texts to prepare their students for the technical choices, and creative opportunities, that await them.
(Antonuccio is a contributor to TapeOp.com and PopMatters.com, teaches courses in audio production at Hocking College and Ohio University, and is producer/owner of 3 Elliot Studios in Athens, OH.)
The Art of Digital Audio Recording
Oxford University Press