We humans are superstitious by nature. Evolutionary biologists say there’s good reason for this. One common explanation is that back in our species’ infancy, a little superstition and paranoia could keep you alive.
Imagine yourself as a prehistoric human, hanging out on the savannah. If you saw a rustling in the grass, wrongly assumed it was a lion, and ran away to hide, then hey — no harm, no foul. But if it turned out that it actually was lion and you wrongly assumed it was nothing but the wind, then you just weren’t going to end up passing on your genes.
“[N]atural selection can readily favor making all kinds of associations, including many incorrect ones,” Dr Kevin Foster of Harvard told The Telegraph in 2008.
And so we have essentially evolved to make wrongful, instinctive connections that are best described today as “false positives.” Our bias toward seeing patterns and connections where none exist is well-documented. Dr. Foster suggests that it fuels all sorts of our behaviors, including experimenting with medical treatments that are known to be ineffective.
Famed biologist Richard Dawkins may have put it best when he said there is no such thing alternative medicine, only “medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work.” By definition, Dawkins argues, any treatment that is proven to work ceases to be “alternative” and would be better classified simply as “medicine.” Of course, this also means that anything that doesn’t work would be best classified as “bollocks.”
But superstition is a double-edged sword. In a moment, we’ll focus on how superstitious thinking can hurt. But first, we’ll take a look at those few occasions when a little bollocks can be of great benefit.
When a Little Nonsense Helps
Audio scientists don’t make such a big deal about correcting for the placebo effect and confirmation bias because they’re meaningless. The truth is that they try to correct for these factors because they are so incredibly powerful. Under the right circumstances, they often have a measurable real-world effect. Placebo medications really do appear to sometimes help make sick people get well, and “lucky shoes” really can step up your game.
Take an instant-classic study that appeared in Psychological Science: One half of a group of golfers were given what they were told was a “lucky ball.” Even though there was no actual difference between the “lucky” balls and the balls given to the control group, the group of “lucky” golfers sunk 33% more putts than the control. This is a concrete, measurable improvement which reminds us that sometimes silly tweaks on the mental side of the game can make for a real difference.
We all know that there’s tremendous amounts of anecdotal evidence out there that backs this up, from athletes who wear lucky shorts to writers who write with lucky pens. And yes, there are even engineers with lucky compressors and consoles.
Take for instance, the mainstream mega-mixer Chris Lord Alge. Although the music he works on doesn’t often appeal to me, there’s no denying that he’s a tremendous craftsman who has honed his style to a kind of perfection.
Out of all of his racks of gear, Lord Alge has one vintage 1176 compressor that he swears by for vocals. It even has a name: “Bluey.” When it came time to model a few of his favorite tools for the Waves plugin company, “Bluey” was one of the first ones to get hooked up for emulation.
Although he owns several of the same model of compressor, to hear him talk about it, Lord Alge is convinced there is something “special” about this one. And in a way, that’s true: He’s used it on Bono, Springsteen, Tina Turner, and Stevie Nicks. By his own account, something like “90%” of the platinum-selling artists he’s worked with.
As an objective party, I don’t doubt for a moment that there is some “magic” in that box. But it’s just the kind of magic that comes from confidence and peace-of-mind.
Certainly, there can be subtle differences between two pieces of the same model of hardware. But these tend to be exceedingly subtle, provided that both pieces of gear are in good working order. Unless CLA’s “Bluey” has fallen so far out of spec that its extreme deterioration is what gives it a sound truly all its own, the differences between his and any other properly maintained blue-stripe 1176 are unlikely to be anything more than what a half a dB of EQ could correct for.
Even if there’s a difference that significant, it’s sure to offer nowhere near the meaningful sonic impact of a great story.
Producer Kevin Killen, who we interviewed for the last episode of InputOutput, has worked with everyone from U2 and Peter Gabriel to Kate Bush and Elvis Costello. In a way, he feels similarly about his Sonnox plugins.
Killen cut his teeth working on SSL consoles during their heyday, but in the late 90s he took a listening challenge at Sony studios where he and several other engineers were invited to bring in their own projects and compare mixes of their work on Sony’s consoles to their mixes done inside of a computer. Once they corrected for gain staging and panning, and listened with their eyes closed, he and the other engineers were surprised to find that they could not hear a meaningful or consistent difference in their listening tests.
This was an easy lesson for Killen to take, as he had not invested his own hard-earned money into old electronics and formed a powerful story around them. Soon, after some great client feedback regarding his “In-The-Box” mixes, he came to trust his Sonnox plugins as much as he had trusted SSLs in the past – and never looked back.
In a way, the Sonnox plugins are Killen’s “magic box”. He would be the first person to tell you that “it’s not about the gear,” but he continues to use the tools that he knows because they give him the confidence to move forward and think about what matters the most: The song, and whether or not it’s working.
Find Your Own Magic
Please note that this is not a plug for Sonnox software, for blue-stripe 1176s or for any emulations of them. I don’t own any of them or use any of them on a regular basis. And frankly, I couldn’t care less. I have my own magic boxes. The point is that out in reality, magic boxes don’t exist. Although in your mind, they can and do.
Coming to trust a piece of gear like Lord Alge trusts his 1176 is a wise strategy. But you don’t need his blue-stripe 1176. You don’t need a blue-stripe 1176, or even an 1176, for that matter. You can also make great mixes inside a computer without ever even demoing Killen’s Sonnox plugins.
All that does matter is that you find the tools that work for your approach and personality and then stop questioning them. It can often be wise to purchase top-dollar tools that have some pedigree or a great story built in, but mostly because they’re certain to make your anxious mind more comfortable. In turn, it may help quiet your clients’ anxious minds as well.
Personally, I like recording through Neve and API preamps. This is not because I’m convinced that they give me significantly better results than I’d ever be able to achieve otherwise, but because they’re everywhere, and I’ve come to trust them enough that I don’t have to think about them. More than anything perhaps, they give me confidence, and encourage me to tell myself and the client a better, richer story. It’s a story about tradition and inclusion and certainty of sound. Once we know the basics are settled, we can be creative or even experimental everywhere else.
A bad carpenter blames his tools, and whenever I start to doubt work that I’m doing in a room that doesn’t have these devices, I think of how good the bass sounds on Air’s La Femme D’Argent, and remember that it was recorded on a little Mackie mixing board. I think of the instant emotional impact that Peter Bjorn and John’s Writer’s Block has, and remember it was recorded on a little old Digi 001. I even think of some of my own mixes, some of my proudest, and remember how many of them were recorded in rural cabins and mixed entirely “In The Box.”
This makes me focus on the meaningful things: What I can do – right now – to make the sounds better than they are. This simple mental exercise reminds me of how much the tools are merely a vehicle for the ideas.
When Superstition Gets The Best Of You
Past a certain point, the gear essentially becomes inconsequential. But if you’re a musician or an engineer, you’re constantly bombarded by the stories of other people’s magic boxes. Start ignoring them and instead start making your own stories. There should be at least one in every record.
Although superstition can be positive when it helps you come to trust your tools, it can become crippling when it makes you question them.
In the internet age, there’s more access to great sounding gear than ever before, often at prices far lower than they’ve ever been. Yet somehow, it seems we have higher levels of gear anxiety now than we’ve ever had in history.
Today, there are entire websites devoted to stoking and prodding our anxieties about our tools. Convincing musicians, producers, and engineers that they have reason to be insecure seems to be a multi-million dollar industry. And as far as superstition goes, unscrupulous marketers couldn’t have picked a better target. We artist types live and breathe the stuff.
Now and then, things get to the point where musicians choose studios based on gear lists, or decide to spend a small fortune building studios of their own, rather than focusing on what’s really important: the people – Who they are, what they’ve done, the sounds they get, and how well they get along.
Sometimes it is worth spending a small fortune on recording. Peter Gabriel hired Killen for 10 months to help complete the mix sessions for So. Artistically and financially, it was an investment that paid off. But where the money is best spent is never on specific tools. It’s almost always on the environment, the time, and most importantly, the talent.
Common Superstitions That Aren’t Helping You Make Better Recordings
In journalism, there’s an old saying that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” In music and sound, our best form of sunshine is critical listening, preferably blind.
Chances are that you’ve been fed so many of other people’s magic box stories, that you believe some very funny things, perhaps to the point of paralysis.
Here’s a list of a few bold claims – Let’s see if you can suss out the myths from the truth:
A) “You can always hear the difference between MP3s and high-resolution audio.”
B) “Analog is better at summing than digital, and you can always hear the difference between an analog mix and a digital one.”
C) “Boutique preamps make for a very big difference in your sound.”
D) “Tape has higher fidelity than digital and Vinyl has higher fidelity than an iTunes download.”
Unfortunately, this is a track test, and the answer to all four statements is “measurably false.”
We discussed both statements A & D back in the Spring when we took a look at the media’s poor fact-checking of some big claims made by Neil Young. It’s been widely demonstrated that only a small minority of trained listeners can tell a 160kbs MP3s from high-resolution digital file. At rates a little higher than that, almost no one has ever heard a reliable difference, and at 320kbps, the number of people who show that can hear a difference drops to zero.
As for B, don’t just ask me – do your own tests. Studies have shown that there’s no problem with the way that digital systems “sum,” but that didn’t stop those products from taking off for a short while.
“Summing” aside, you may like analog gear for its inspiring vibe and ease of use, as well as its inherent distortion and coloration, just as I do. But also know that the effect of this is sometimes overstated in normal use.
Not long ago, Avid, the makers of Pro Tools, issued a “listening challenge” in which they gave engineers the opportunity to compare the sound of a prestigious Neve console to a digital sum. The results? Thousands of trained listeners took the test, and their guesses were no better than a coin flip. If you’d like to try for yourself, please do.
As for C, Ethan Winer recently wrote an article for us showing exactly where we can find the big wins, and it’s not going to be in a preamp circuit. It’s easy to demonstrate that improvements gained from upgrades in speakers, room treatments, and microphones far outweigh any other point of the chain – unless of course, you count the people involved.
Some tools certainly perform better than others, but once you reach a certain level, the differences can become inconsequential as far as a quality is concerned. So much of the time, we make our choices based on the story the equipment tells, and not just for its sound.
Joe Marciano is the owner and engineer at Systems Two, one of the busiest Jazz studios in any of New York’s five boroughs. At the studio, he has John Coltrane’s personal RCA 77 ribbon mic. Does it sound better than any other RCA 77 ever made? Who knows – and who cares! But don’t you want to play into just once anyway?
As for me, I’d consider booking Systems Two, not because I want to record something with that mic. Instead, I’m impressed that they’ve worked so many great sessions with so many interesting people that they were able to find it, and to justify buying it.
So the next time you’re in the studio, remember the golf balls and remember John Coltrane’s ribbon mic. Science says that there are magic boxes. But their magic comes from inside the people that use them.