Arthur Nasson is a recording artist, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer based in Boston, MA.
Around the turn of the century, as the digital revolution took hold in earnest, music stores began selling off the very last of their all-analog recorders in order to make way for “the future”.
I stood inside of one of those stores, nonplussed as I listened to demos of the latest digital recordings, an experience which I likened to chewing on tin foil at the time.
The dual frustrations of attracting investors and dealing with studios had led me to decide it was time to throw my own party. With little funds, the best I could do was to buy a Tascam 488 Mk2, an 8-track cassette recorder.
Before we finished the paperwork, my salesman turned to me and said, “Look, I don’t want you coming back to me saying you can’t get a decent drum sound out of this thing, it’s for home demos, OK?” I didn’t care if he was right or not. Dealing with record companies felt like networking on the Titanic, and I just wanted to record, without having to listen to anyone’s bullshit.
My penchant is for arranging, not for studio gear, and as a multi-instrumentalist, I “sonically paint” via overdubbing. At the time, I possessed little real engineering experience, and now had just 8 tracks to work with. Obviously, I’d have to alter my approach significantly from what I might have done in a “pro” studio:
Drums would have to take up one or two tracks at the most. Layered background vocals would have to be bounced down to one or two tracks, with percussion being performed at the same time.
The tracking had to be good, as there was no room for surgery or obfuscation. Any wild effect had to get burned to tape. And with no room for filler, every track would have to stand up ten feet tall.
In the hope of gleaning inspiration for this new approach, I started listening to jazz, rock, R&B, blues and avant-garde recordings that were done well before 16 and 24 track recording took hold. An early epiphany came while listening to Art Blakey’s “A Night In Tunisia.” The drums were racing out of the speakers as if Blakey was going to get up from behind his drums and enter the room at any moment.
That sense of excitement came mostly from the performance, but it was also the simplicity of the recording: it seemed like there was nothing in the way of what was happening. It was tremendously open sound that felt like sparks flying, purportedly captured with one mic without any compression, limiting or noise gates, and slight, if any EQ. Some of my favorite classic rock and pop songs recorded between the 50’s and the very early 70’s were recorded with 8 tracks, and could be broken down in much the same way.
So with one Shure dynamic mic, no effects, and a crummy basement with comically low ceilings, I set out to try and capture the sound of my ancient cheapo drum set, and anything else that was around.
Instinct said “go out in front of the kit and hope for the best” and, after trying countless permutations (even pointing the mic away from the kit and capturing whatever came off the wall), it turned out to be a good idea. I would play demos for friends, some of whom were sound engineers. Consensus seemed to be that it was pretty good, but if I hoped to win any awards for ‘Best-engineered Album’, I might be disappointed.
Then one day, a friend told me that my humble little Tascam 488 mk2 was actually a machine that a few big artists had used to record some of their major-label releases. Names of albums were rattled off, tracks were played, and I couldn’t believe how good some of these songs sounded. I immediately began to think that if I just worked harder at it, maybe I could get closer to the sound of these more polished sounding recordings as well. So it was back to the basement for me, in an attempt to reach the sonic league of what I had just heard.
The sound got better over time as experimentation gave me a sense of how to get the sounds I wanted to hear. So much of it came down to listening and placement. Instruments began sounding fuller due to far better placement of my one little mic. As this opened up a wide array of choices, EQ became less relevant. I found my compressors didn’t really help anything, but just sheared off high end and made things sound duller. Eventually, even the ambience of my basement started to add something to the drums that I liked.
A year or so later, I ran into the friend who told me about all those major label artists who had used my cassette 8-track for their own releases, but this time the story was different. He told me that he had been mistaken, that some of those major bands had used their cassette recorders at home, but that the albums he mentioned were in fact all done in high-end recording studios with any kind of equipment you could imagine.
Initially, I was confused and somewhat disillusioned. But I soon came to realize what an amazing gift this had been. Just thinking that something was good enough made it possible for me to keep pushing myself, to keep trying to find solutions instead of making excuses and settling for a lousy sound.
In time, I added a few things. Real speakers were a major and important step. Then came an effects processor and a couple more mics, and I was sailing along, releasing albums recorded on an 8-track cassette deck in the basement. But even as my options expanded, it still made sense for me to keep my drums mono, with just one mic and one track. It still sounded best to me in context.
These homemade recordings went on to get rave reviews, radio play and placement on MTV. Granted, that was more for the artistic content than the slickness of the engineering, but for the most part, the way the music was recorded was neither a hindrance nor an obstacle.
As we set up for tracking on the first day, I initially decided to step back and look on as the engineers chose the mics and put them in place. The resulting sound was strange to me. Not bad – just not at all what I was expecting to hear.
Legendary mics were placed all around the drums in the customary fashion for “options” during mixdown, but it just did not sound like the well-tuned, Ludwig kit in the room. What seemed to be missing to me was a good overall picture of the instrument.
We swapped things in and out. The engineer put up a new toy as an overhead – a very expensive modern stereo ribbon mic – and I was surprised at how dull it sounded. There was a murky quality, a lack of definition, no attack, or “air.”
We made many adjustments and I found that a cheap condenser gave a more accurate rendering in front of the kit than the very expensive tube mic that came off as sounding so wooly to my ear that it felt like it was wrapped in packing blankets.
We backed the mic off the kick drum and got more of the depth that I was hearing in the room. In an attempt to get some more snap, we put two mics on the snare (geez, I don’t put two mics on an entire drum set!) While it was an improvement, the sharpness of tone and sense of air was hindered by the close proximity of the mic, which made it sound thicker and tubbier.
When we got to the piano, the engineer placed a very expensive, legendary stereo condenser mic at the soundboard. The image was hazy, almost to the point of seeming muffled. The representation of the hammers’ attack on the strings seemed weak: chords became blurred, rendering a weak and washed-out kind of sound.
I asked the assistant to plug in a Shure SM57, and after putting it in place, the instrument stood straight up with clarity, attack and presence. One could sense the harmony of chords better, individual notes had more definition, and it had more of the feeling of the piano in the room. It instantly sounded “right” to me.
So after all these years, I go back into a great studio with a great engineer and find myself longing to capture things the way I did in my home studio, with just one mic? Maybe after all this time of doing it myself I was just accustomed to something different, or have developed a deeply ingrained personal aesthetic.
One’s expectations and experiences drive all of the subtle moves and decisions needed to make the translation between what’s happening in the room and what comes off the tape. In that process, equipment is almost meaningless compared to the instincts and tastes each of us brings to the table.
That’s where recording can really become an art form. It’s our insight, determination and creativity that make the possibilities endless, and the same mic in different hands can yield wildly disparate results.
For years, gear-focused engineers would tell me that you need a certain mic or pre to get or approximate a certain sound. But these are merely excuses, and a good engineer can vividly articulate sonic ideas with just about anything. The best engineers and producers also tend to be the best musicians, because musical intelligence translates to every decision that’s made in the studio.
Good producers and engineers don’t assume, they listen. Without a good listening environment and transparent monitors, one is shoveling sand against the tide. Most studios, even high end studios, don’t focus on this, and have deeply compromised listening environments that make a trip to a good mastering room less like a quality-check and more like invasive surgery.
On the other hand, the worst producers and engineers are the hacks who waste time and money “dorking out with their toys” rather than asking “does this have anything to do with the music?” While “shootout” comparisons can be very revealing, they typically reveal that cost does not necessarily equal quality.
There are genuinely talented people out there: First rate musicians and producers who are responsible, thoughtful, and creative; People who are well-versed in writing, arranging, harmony, counterpoint, modern and ancient recording techniques, who help with every aspect of reaching and even expanding the vision of the artists involved.
It’s not their tools that make them special. It’s their vision and taste. Forget all the hot air and window dressing. Approach is everything.
Listen to Arthur’s single “She Was Never Really There” below, or visit him at arthurnasson.com for videos and more tracks.