The Secret Ingredient of Recording

A few weeks ago, I was watching the movie Kung Fu Panda with my son. In the film, Po (the Kung Fu Panda), finally learns the secret of both Kung Fu, and of his adoptive father’s noodle soup: there is no secret ingredient. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. A few days later, I started considering how this same revelation applies to the world of recording.

Just like Kung Fu and noodle soup, there is no secret ingredient to recording and mixing. At least there’s not ONE secret ingredient. Instead, there are hundreds, if not thousands of ingredients that can make or break a recording. But it seems that every recordist (myself included) goes through a phase of looking for that one secret ingredient, that one magic bullet, that will take your mixes from amateur to professional overnight. Many are willing to spend a fortune (and some do) on new equipment, only to be sorely disappointed when that new piece of gear turns out not to be the secret ingredient they were hoping it would be.

The reason that there is no one secret ingredient is that there are simply far too many variables involved in this very complex process. Let’s just try to name a few:

  • The quality of the source being recorded–the actual sound being produced by the guitar, amp, drum, piano, horn, voice, etc.
  • The acoustics of the room where the instrument is being recorded. Even when close-miking, a certain amount of “room sound” will be picked up by the mics, which affects the overall sound of the recording.
  • The “vibe”–that intangible quality of a musician’s performance that’s almost indescribable, but you know it when you hear it (or when you don’t)
  • The quality of the analog-to-digital converters in your recording interface
  • The quality of your mics
  • The quality of your mic cables
  • The quality of your mic preamps
  • Your mic selection, or which mic you choose for each source. For a variety of reasons, some mics are more flattering on certain sources than others.
  • Your mic placement–where and how you position the mic relative to the source
  • The room acoustics of your Mixing environment
  • Your monitoring chain (digital-to-analog converters, Monitor Mixer/Volume Controller/etc.)
  • The quality of your monitor speakers
  • How you EQ your tracks (while tracking, mixing, & mastering)
  • Your use of effects (compression, reverb, delay, etc.)
  • Etc.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s debatable how much of an impact each of these factors contributes to the overall quality of a recording. Some would argue that some of these have little to no impact at all, and that’s okay. We can have that debate. What’s not debatable is that even if you cross a few of the more questionable items off the list, you’re still left with a significant number of variables, all of which contribute to the overall quality of the recording.

So what conclusion should we draw from all of this? I think the answer is clear: stop trying to find that (one) secret ingredient–there is no secret ingredient. Instead, try to make the most of each of these smaller, seemingly-insignificant ingredients to make the most of your mix. Strive to do the best you can to maximize each of these, to the extent that it’s within your power–given the time, talent, and gear that you have to work with. If you’ll do this, you’ll be well on your way to better recordings.

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