By: Tony Williamette
Since I started making records, I’ve pondered and debated: what’s the most important part of our signal chain? Engineers love to espouse the virtues of certain pieces of gear and are quick to dismiss others.
Some of this is valid critique, some of it is brand bias, and some of it is just games our mind plays on us. I’m guilty of all 3 of these.
The longer I do this, the more I come back to the performer being the determining factor of “does what I’m recording sound good?” The old adage of Buddy Rich being able to make a cardboard box sound good comes to mind.
Obviously, we’re not (usually) looking to capture extraneous noise, but I’m willing to bet that 90% of even home studio setups are “just fine.” When I get questions about gear, I’ll often impart what I can based on experience, but I almost always make a point to highlight how little the gear can matter.
Being active in recording and capturing material that is well-executed that people care about is far more important than your A/D converter.
I’ve recorded stunning performers using $100 of signal chain with great success. Conversely, I’ve recorded lousy performers through $10,000 of signal chain with mixed to poor results.
These experiences can be extremely humbling and serve to highlight how little our jobs as engineers and producers can sometimes affect the final product. Our perspective rightfully shifts to what matters: the performer and song.
I’ve come up with the below hierarchy of what I think matters to help put things into perspective.
Performer > Song > Instrument > Mic > Room > Mic Preamp > A to D Conversion
Swap any of the first three elements, and I think you’re in the ballpark. Your movement may vary.
This is to say nothing about sample rate, cable quality, power conditioning, and power cables - things audiophiles can spend hours debating.
The most important questions here are “Does anyone want to listen to this?” and “Is the artist happy with the sounds captured?”
If the answers are any degree of “yes,” we’re usually in the right universe.