THE BEST RECORDING BOOK OF THE YEAR, AND PROBABLY THE DECADE!
Wow! I just finished reading Mixerman’s MUSICIAN’S SURVIVAL GUIDE to a KILLER RECORD. I need to take a moment because my head is full. I have five degrees and three college diplomas but my head has not felt this full since my PhD defence. I really wanted to finish it so that I could get to the review so I picked up the pace for the last 70 pages which was a mistake. This book is so full of truly great information and insight that it should really be read slowly enough to be absorbed because you will want a solid basis for your next few readings of it. Because like any survival guide, you will reference this book constantly as you create your Killer Record. It is now my most-annotated book, which is saying a lot.
The pseudonym “Mixerman” has served Eric Sarafin well as a name that was fun, easy to remember, and described his mastery of mixing audio. Over time though he has outgrown it by branching into producing and more recently writing. At first he wisely wrote about what he knew, beginning with a hilarious account (slightly fictionalized) about a recording session gone horribly wrong. He then wrote a series of brilliant technical books entitled “Zen and the Art of …” which included Mixing, Recording, and Producing. Multimedia versions followed which led to his second humorous book “#Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent”. By this time, however, he was an experienced writer who mixed the very serious problems that even very talented musicians face in making a living at their art with a satire on “making hits” in the Internet World. Especially with this remarkable work, Eric Sarafin gained a new, more powerful voice as a music critic in the best sense of the term: looking at the state of the most popular genres of music in the global society and how they are controlled by inside forces presenting themselves as “fans.” As with my other few favourite authors, he was able to make me laugh out loud even as the seriousness of our predicament as musicians dawned. This is a book that should have made every “Best Books of 2016” list. (MUSICIAN’S SURVIVAL GUIDE to a KILLER RECORD should make every Best Books of 2018 list. It tops mine.)
So having reached the upper echelons of the music biz, how does one top such a writing career? In Mr. Sarafin’s case, he brings his loyal readers (and they are legion) back to where most of us began: music. Having provided a technical grounding for his readers that could form the curriculum of a good music engineering school, he questions the desire of many musicians to learn to be sound engineers, rather than the producers of that sound: singers, musicians, and songwriters (which they already are). And yet musicians waste hours, days, their lives in music forums getting into arguments over pre- and post-whatever and what type of knee to have when compressing a kazoo. You need music to record and to have practised enough to perform it with full feeling.
Notice that this is a musician’s guide, not a recordist’s, mixer’s or producer’s. As he says: “the goal here is to make a Killer Record. Not a technically perfect recording, whatever the hell that is.” Are there any flaws in your favourite records? Do you love them any less for them? [Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from this book.]
He reminds us (often) “We record music.” If you don’t love music, what are you recording? Musicians should focus on music. “If the artistry is great, the recording will be great.” He distinguishes artistry from musicianship. Since not everyone is a virtuoso, the best players know their limitations and play within then, even maximizing them. He aptly mentions The Edge, who is no Eddie Van Halen on guitar, but then Eddie would not have the feel that The Edge has, which is exactly what U2 needs and was the “edge” he gave them over other bands. A Killer Record makes you feel a certain way, and it is the feel of a song in performance that connects with us.
Of course, there are basic recording techniques that a self-recording artist must know, and these are presented, but from a musical point of view, best summed up in Mixerman’s proposed mantra: “May all of my recording decisions be musical ones, and all of my technical decisions practical ones.” Record with intent. Plan what you want to accomplish musically and how you will do it. Then do it. “When it comes to Art, there is nothing more debilitating than fear.” Frank Herbert put it this way in Dune: “Fear is the mind-killer.” For an artist fear leads to self-doubt which can in turn lead to stagnation, second-guessing yourself until you drop the whole project. And then you go into a music forum to learn from “the real musicians” about the latest plug-in or technical details from projects that they have abandoned to be there too.
Just as you will write some (maybe much) crap as a songwriter or composer, you will make some lousy recordings. But then not even the best musicians release everything they record. Some great ideas don’t pan out, but some lousy ones can lead to even better ideas. Of course if you give up you will never know. “If you don’t waste a portion of your time on bad ideas, you’re playing it too safe.” You want people to feel something from your recording, from your song. A strong reaction. Some will be negative but even that is far better than apathy. People will remember you, and maybe give you a second listen. I said in my own book, “How to Write Your First Song”, not everyone is going to like your songs. They should make you feel what you want them to. Mixerman points out that “there is no such thing as a universally adored record.” If you have a strong feeling for your recording, you will then find your fans. But if you don’t feel it, why would anyone else? So while Mixerman speaks from his own experience, he knows that your decisions will be based on your own taste and circumstances, and his writing shows that he respects this. Most important is that you record with intent, which he explores in much of the book. Regardless of your limitations, technically, personally, whatever, “what matters is the music.”
All of that is from the Intro to the book!
Mixerman likes to break things down into their simplest components so that you can make high-level decisions. There are only THREE elements that make up your Killer Record:
The song is obviously important because it is what people hear. It is also what other Artists record, and the songwriter gets a cut of each sale of EVERY recording of their song. “A Killer Record requires a great song. … The record is a snapshot in time. The song is forever.” Musical styles have changed a lot over the years since 1927, but people are still recording arrangements of “Stardust” (over 1,500 times according to Wikipedia).
Now the book’s multimedia begins. YOU do it. That is how you learn. YOU record your favourite song, providing performance and arrangement. Then you write a song for your favourite artist. Don’t worry, you won’t release it or send it to the artist (if they are still alive). Unless maybe you end up with a Killer Record. Unlikely though. Imitate a lot to learn the craft and get self-confidence. And don’t wait for your skills to become “great” or even “better” — they will improve as you record and you are using what you have! Mixerman suggests that when you have made a record that you still adore three months later, you have made your first Killer Record. This may not be a #1 hit, but many great records were not either. And that’s not the point.
Mixerman breaks music into six functions:
You improve with each record, not by making one Killer Record, so practice is the way to learn. And you will run into the dilemma of artists wanting to be unique (and being taught this relentlessly) while the majority of record buyers want what is familiar. The way around this is to find your own way of expressing feelings that others feel too. Show your common humanity with your listeners.
Now Mixerman gets to the Five Planes of Space that he first posited in Zen and the Art of Mixing. These are:
width or panning (left to right)
frequency (up and down)
balance (front to back)
reflectivity (far or near)
contrast (dynamics) or the filling of space from sparse to dense
While he has covered the technical means to exploit these planes elsewhere, here he points out how to use them to realize your musical intentions. Once again music determines the use of technical details, not the reverse. There are some great technical tips here, for sure, but his emphasis is on making more compelling music. Many tips are aimed at freeing your artistic creativity, such as losing the fear of asymmetry in placing instruments in space. (Would you expect symmetry like that in a live band?) Of course every balance decision has repercussions and so building your arrangement with intent, which is a major theme of the book, is critical for getting that Killer Record. “A great production isn’t about sound” — it’s about music and feeling. You have to manipulate your own feeling for the song before you can manipulate anyone else’s. And there is nothing devious in the word “manipulate”. Mixerman points out how you use all musical and technical knowledge at your disposal to translate your feeling into a recording that reproduces those feelings in others. As an audience, we want to feel deeply what an artist has to say to us, regardless of the technology they are using. It should be invisible to us, so that we are left with the song and our feelings about it and the performance.
Don’t let me give you the impression that this is a “feel good” book. “Hey, you can do it!” There is enough technical information here to thrill even an accomplished recordist and mixer. It’s also accessible to a novice. Again he simplifies frequency ranges into four categories:
Each has tips on how to best use the range and problems that specific instruments have, right down to the frequencies.If you need and can use this type of information, great; if not, it’s interesting, but move on. But this is all real world stuff. If your bass kills your kik drum, or your guitars just seem dull, you will find reasons and fixes here. (BTW, I like his spelling of “kik” drum which is useful and probably saved many drum heads from idiotic interpretations of the more common spelling). Given the huge range of instruments that are available with even basic DAW’s, Mixerman’s basic advice remains fundamental: build your arrangement of them taking frequency into account. Don’t overload certain bands while leaving holes in others. A lot of great information on how to do this with specific references to instruments as well as common mistakes is just one reason to keep this book beside your music computer, which is where I have mine.
Although the section headed “Forward Motion” is short, it is a concept that is brought in again and again as music navigates time and a song needs to move the listener forward with intent so that they remain invested with the feeling you are putting into the performance.
All the basics of the recording process are included, so don’t worry that technical issues are given short shrift. They go right down to reasons for recording at certain bit-levels and when your room just can’t handle the type of recording that you are planning, all as part of when you will need to rent some studio time, and how to make the best of that investment. Even using and paying an engineer can pay off in the long run, since “when you’re thinking about sound, the music is suffering.” If you just can’t get the sound you want, why waste weeks of your own time, and your band’s, rather than pay a pro for the tech stuff and get on with the performance? All the tech is here, from buffer sizes to mic types and patterns, along with when and how to use them musically. And while there is all the information you might want about mics, the basic adage of “use what you have” still applies, which was a relief to me. There’s also a “Microphone Attributes Cheat Sheet” on one page that may be all you need, and is a great starting place when using the book as a reference.
A surprise to me was the importance of distortion in virtually all genres, and how its subtle use can add to the musicality of any recording. As you expect by now, there is a lot of information on how to use it effectively from barely noticeable to “what instrument IS that?”. Same idea with compressors. Taking away the shame factor, Mixerman gives you all the technical terms you need to know to use these musically and subdue them in the service of the feeling of your music. As with all of the effects he goes through, their musical value is front and centre, with the final decision being your own ears. And for those of us who get caught in an endless loop of trying to capture THE perfect performance, a user-friendly description of how to use comps (that are most likely simple to use in your DAW) will eliminate a world of pain in recording yourself. It will likely also save your project, and your sanity.
Having given you the basics, Mixerman moves on to The Process of making that Killer Record. How does all of this work, applied to what you have, and your abilities right now? We even get shown how “mistakes” can become musical brilliance.Of course this being the real world there is no lack of idiotic mistakes, but if John Lennon’s inability to thread a reel-to-reel tape led to The Beatles’ use of backward music on Rain and several other songs then some alleged mistakes are worth a second listen. (The Beatles were known to look for and exploit such ‘chance occurrences’.) Some of the most important and welcome advice is to use what you have, not just in skills but also in equipment. You may not have everything you wish you had (who does?) but you could find unexpected inspiration in purchases from a different time or state of mind. Consider that Steely Dan, one of the most memorable bands to create a unique style based on precisely sculpted arrangements with obsessive attention to detail used an old plastic Yamaha keyboard and an electric sitar for the solo in their first hit “Do It Again”, definitely a Killer Record.
Much space is allotted to recording drums given the difficulty of doing so well, and anyone working alone and using drum samples will learn a lot about drums as well as how to use their drum samples effectively and even how to combine real and sampled ones. The process of recording virtually every instrument is included, along with the best way to make convincing musical use of sampled instruments. Possibly the most valuable of the many lessons here is the advice to simplify whenever and whatever possible. Why make your life more difficult? You are acting as recordist, mixer, arranger, and producer as well as performer(s) so simplification becomes an art in itself. And with decades of experience as well as the awards to prove his excellence at these tasks, Mixerman is as good an advisor on simplifying as you are going to find.
So, how do you start? Mixerman says to find your “lane” ASAP, and get your business chops together — most importantly, marketing. Find your fan base and get to know them. Get your name out there and get some rabid fans who will help you with marketing by word of mouth, the most valuable kind. Have an online presence where you can invite questions and interact with your fans. Post your best stuff, and be choosy. This will define who you are to many people. Only so many will hear you live, at least at first, so make concerts special for them and put the best songs from them online so that more people want to see you live. There are crowd-funding sites that can help you pay for your first album, but consider whether that is your best option. If it takes you, say, two years to put out an album, once it drops, then what? Will your fans wait two years for another. Will they even remember you? Can you afford a tour to market it? Mixerman has excellent advice to keep you in the public eye that is worth the price of the book, so it’s not my place to reveal it here except to say buy this book! It is truly one that will pay for itself 100 times over if — and only if — you follow his simple advice. And it is simple. The truly brilliant ideas often are. Like getting your influences from listening to the music, not the technical recording techniques, of your favourite musicians. Your Artist Signature Guitar is not going to make you sound like your hero, but why would you want to? There’s already one of them. But there’s room for your music to have a similar feel, and if you don’t plagiarize it would be hard to duplicate it anyway. Be yourself even when you imitate, which is a part of learning. And if it’s too obvious, then you shouldn’t be releasing music yet anyway.
One of my favourite parts of the book comes near the end, and concerns mastering. If you don’t know what mastering is — and surprisingly few musicians do — then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. Once again Mixerman’s advice is pure gold and bound to save you money, far more than the cost of the book! And guess what? When you make that Killer Record following his advice, Mixerman actually invites you to send it to him. If that isn’t motivation, what is?
And of course with the holiday season approaching, it is nice that Mixerman adds a list of equipment that he personally recommends. Most are astonishing bargains, such as Slate Digital’s subscription program which I have reviewed a number of times, and which keeps getting better. And you are getting this advice from a major figure in the recording industry who uses what he endorses. So use what you have, but if you are missing a vital piece, or are dying to upgrade something, you are given some great ideas.
I have reviewed several terrific full courses and many excellent books on the craft of recording, including all of Mixerman’s, but this is the first one that has unrelentingly focused on the music and performance over the technology. Think back to the original, scratchy 78 RPM recordings of Stardust and compare them to the overwhelming variety of playback options today, and the many options for making those playback versions possible. What has remained constant? The song, and to many of us Hoagy Carmichael’s original recording on what might be considered laughingly primitive equipment. But the feeling in that song is what makes it one of the most recorded songs in history. I doubt that few, if any, lists of great singers of the 20th century include Hoagy Carmichael, and yet he made many Killer Records with great performances of great songs that carry that feeling for close to 100 years now. The same could be said about dancing sensation Fred Astaire’s vocal talent, but it was the feeling in his performances that made him George Gershwin’s favourite singer of his songs. Having started as a “song plugger” in Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin knew that his great songs were not enough, even with his own incomparable arrangements; he needed a performer who could get across the feelings in his songs.
Mixerman / Eric Sarafin has given the world of music a real gift with this book. He has freed many of us songwriters and composers from the burden of ever more complicated technology by pointing out our true mission, which really comes down to making the music that we were attracted to in the first place, and by showing us that we can make Killer Records with what we have today as long as we concentrate on the song, its arrangement and its performance. Once we get this — and really get it — he gives all sorts of great tips for recording no matter what level of technical ability we have. But it is the music, the feeling, that makes a Killer Record.
BUY THIS BOOK. For yourself, for your friends, for your bandmates, for someone you love, for anyone who loves music. And if you are or want to be a recording musician, it will change your life.
You got that this has MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION, right?