Saturday, February 28, 2009

FFW04: Preset Mentalities & The Children Of The Revolution

Presets... I've always hated them. Preset synth sounds, preset effects settings, preset templates for recording, mixing and/or mastering. They might make it easier to use stuff, but they also destroy any need to understand the tools at hand and thereby discourage original thinking, original application and, ultimately, original music. Here's First Word #04, from early 1999...

Preset Mentalities & The Children Of The Revolution
As issue three of AudioTechnology went on sale, Chris Holder and I found ourselves at Q Studios, where a beaming Richard Meucke was showing off their brand new G+ SSL console and generally looking extremely pleased with himself. After much perserverance, Q Studios – formerly Rhinoceros Recorders – had finally been restored to its former glory as one of Australia’s most prestigious tracking and mixing studios, and one of the largest facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.

So there we were, Chris, myself and a handful of local engineers, producers and studio managers, all getting the royal tour. But that wasn’t the only reason we were there. Quantegy (the tape manufacturer formerly known as Ampex) had released a brand new tape formulation – GP9 Grand Master Platinum – and were using Q Studios to introduce it to the local industry. Double whammy!

GP9 grew from Quantegy’s acquisition of the 3M company; a hybrid, if you like, with the best of Quantegy’s and 3M’s tape technologies all rolled into one reel. To demonstrate this new tape, Quantegy had collected an excellent group of musicians and enlisted Simon Leadley to do the engineering. Quantegy’s Dave Williams had devised a very clever tape splicing, biasing and switching scheme that allowed different tape formulations to be compared against each other and against the live performance without changing reels or re-aligning the recorder. Other tapes used in the comparison included Quantegy’s 499 and 456, and BASF’s 990.

In my opinion, the GP9 was clearly in a new league and undoubtedly the most high resolution and true-to-life of all the tapes, doing an especially good job of reproducing the important low mid harmonics on kick drums, bass guitars and the lower registers of male vocals. It was also a hands-down winner when recording difficult sounds like hi-hats and sibilants, and made the good old 499 and 456 formulations sound more old than good. 3M’s technologies had certainly injected new blood into Quantegy, and allowed them to go beyond what either company was capable of doing on their own. A true synergy.

Eventually, we started talking about which tape we’d prefer. “Well, they all have different tonal characters,” said Chris, “and I’d probably choose the tape that best suits the style of music I’d be recording.” “Right”, said Simon Leadley, “tape becomes just like presets…”

Oh oh, someone said the ‘P’ word. If there’s one thing I detest about recording and music technology, it’s presets. In the tape context that Simon was using, the concept of presets is absolutely acceptable. Each tape sounds noticeably different and, apart from tape speed and recording level, there are no parameters to adjust once the machine is properly aligned and calibrated. But what about synths, samplers, effects processors and digital consoles? All of these products have dozens of user-adjustable parameters, but they are not always easy to understand, and that means less sales. Rather than focusing on better user-interfaces that educate the users on what the parameters do and how to use them (e.g. Apple’s ‘Balloon Help’ system), manufacturers take the easy way out by piling in the presets. After all, you’re more likely to buy something that gives you instant results on the showroom floor…

Now, let’s be fair to the manufacturers. Their user manuals often go to great lengths explaining the fundamentals of a product and what each parameter does. But when you’ve got a pile of presets allowing you to get up and going straight away, who’s going to read the manual? And let’s be fair to presets. They do provide a great way to land in the ball park – an effect preset called ‘snare reverb’ may be a good starting place for creating a unique snare reverb to suit the mix. But how many people are using them that way? Very few, I’m afraid.

In the late ‘70s, Teac introduced the affordable tape recorders and mixers that spawned the Home Recording Revolution. I was playing with analogue synthesisers at the time, particularly Roland’s System 100M. This was a totally modular synth which required plugging in a handful of patch leads before you’d hear anything that resembled a musical sound. There were dozens of parameters, but no memories and no presets. To make a useful sound you had to understand the theory behind subtractive synthesis, and that provided a great background for understanding how different sounds worked together. For me, every new sound was a unique sonic event, hand-crafted from raw materials and never to be repeated. My goal was to create unique and individual sounds that held the listener’s interest while fitting perfectly into the mix.

Teac’s Home Recording Revolution let me carry that thinking into studio and live sound engineering situations. After choosing the right microphone, each instrument would be given its own individual EQ and effect settings, which no other sound shared, and which were designed to make it unique and interesting while also fitting into the mix. That approach has remained with me to this day. In fact, I believe it to be one of the secrets behind achieving separation and clarity in a complex mix.

Many other manufacturers spurred on the Home Recording Revolution, and, as the equipment got better, we saw the emergence of the Project Studio in the mid ‘80s. Even then, most equipment users had a background in sound manipulation and understood what all the parameters were for.

But as we approach the next millennium, even the most affordable recording and music technology has become very complex, with hundreds of powerful parameters hidden behind menus full of simple presets. There’s a new generation of users who have only ever been exposed to this kind of technology. They are not encouraged to learn what all the parameters are for, and therefore they learn nothing about the art of sound manipulation.

These are The Children Of The Revolution, and their approach to sound engineering is one of hunting and pecking – just like shopping in a supermarket. Rather than learning how to program a synth or tackling the fundamentals of equalisation and effects, this ‘preset mentality’ encourages them to step through hundreds of presets in a process of elimination, trying to find the one that best fits the application. It’s time consuming, boring, and a great detriment to the creative process. And quite often the chosen preset is, in reality, the best of a bad lot.

Some years ago I reviewed one of the first affordable digital consoles, and was rather dismayed when I scrolled through the EQ library and saw a handful of guitar EQ presets, all set up and ready to go. I’m not doubting the benefit in being able to save an EQ setting and recall it later, as there are many applications where this is very useful. But to provide a bunch of preset EQs worries me. Any professional engineer worth their salt knows there can be no such thing as the perfect guitar EQ preset, in the same way that there is no such thing as the perfect vocal microphone or the universally applicable snare reverb. It all depends on the individual instrument, how it is played, and the way it fits into the mix. One size does not fit all, nor should it! But The Children Of The Revolution know no better, and blindly reach for the ‘rock guitar’ preset. As a result, all their guitar recordings have the same tonality. While artists are striving for originality, technology is encouraging similarity. Had a listen to the charts lately?

The preset mentality is destroying creativity. In their attempts to make things simpler to use, manufacturers are inadvertantly ‘dumbing’ their users and leaving The Children Of The Revolution with no voice of their own. So please, let’s pull the art of sound engineering out of the supermarket and put it back into the studio, where it belongs. Learn what the parameters of your equipment do, and use your presets as starting points only. Your work will be better for it.

AudioTechnology #04 remains an interesting issue to me for a couple of reasons. Most notably, it contained the first instalment of Rupert's Word, a short-lived column that Rupert Neve wrote to follow his interview (in this issue he discussed harmonic distortion). It also contained my review of JBL's LSR32s - the first JBLs I ever liked, and damn fine monitoring speakers too. I was so impressed that I interviewed one of the LSR32's designers, Doug Button. What he said made sense...

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