This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
One of my earliest mentors was a man named Dale, but we always called him “the old man”. He was a documentary producer at the local public television station where I got my start. I worked under him as a work study generalist, but he quickly put a camera in my hands and, recognizing my bent, had me heading up sound on set within weeks.
Dale and his other protégé Manny brought an artfulness and soul to documentary making that I’ve rarely seen matched. We were the wild men of KNME, the ones with big beards and foul mouths, and it often seemed to me we were flying by the seat of our pants. Some days we would just grab a hi-8 camera and a pistol grip boom and go down to the worst parts of town, just to see what we could find.
It may have seemed crazy to me at the time, but one of Dale’s favorite things to say to us was “master the craft and the art will follow”. If it’s not obvious, what that means is this: Amateurs try to be creative first, thinking up wild ideas and trying to figure out how to do it. Professionals do this too but what they do first is work hard to understand their craft. That gunslinger you think doesn’t have a care in the world? He doesn’t, but that’s because he’s so well prepared.
An audio engineer from the days when audio engineering required actual engineers, Dale taught us to know our tools very deeply; how light, sound, physics, gear and even people worked. He taught us to prepare thoroughly and love the craft. For me, what that meant was it wasn’t enough to know where the record button was. I wanted to know how to white balance, what an iris does, how to manipulate the f-stop, what kind of lavalier would actually work in a noisy environment, and what a change in light would do to a long shoot.
Sure enough, as Dale predicted, the more I learn, teach and write about the craft, and the more I understand the mundane details and deep fundamental concepts, the more creative I feel. There’s nothing to block the creative flow when you truly know your medium and your tools.
That’s one of the major reasons I write for Recording. When it comes time to teach something, there’s no choice but to know it in and out, and when I do that, I tend to find a creative wellspring as a reward.
It almost never fails. Deep dive into the subtle and elusive art of cleaning and punching up low end in a mix, and you find your mind conjuring up a song laden with sick kick drums and slick bass lines, just so you can mix them better than you’ve ever mixed before. Learn once and for all what happens when you treat a room and how to do so, and suddenly you’ve got nothing standing in between you and that cello masterpiece. Get a systematic view of the mics available in a certain budget window and what you can expect to hear from them, and suddenly you can picture an elusive vocal mix with no question about how to achieve it.
There’s an interesting and tricky balance that goes on there. Some recordists are absolute perfectionists. Some believe there are details that don’t matter. Try asking a Facebook group about MP3s and see how many answers you get. The one thing that remains constant though, is that the more knowledgeable an artist is, the more empowered they are. That’s probably why we continue to debate the physics, science and psychology of sound and music. We want to know. We want to have an unburdened creative flow. We seek mastery.
When we’re young, we want it quickly. We often want to skip the boring stuff and get straight to being wildly creative. We worry that we need to chase the art, or it will fly away without us. That’s ok too, but sometimes we tend to go great guns without preparing, only to wonder why the final product isn’t what we envisioned. Our sifus, senseis and mentors tell us “master the craft”. We say “but we want the ART!”.
It turns out, the muse is attracted to skill. That creative spark we all seek and hope will come our way is enflamed and incited by our mastery and love for craft. It’s looking for the artist that will do it the most justice. Every time you learn something about HOW to make the art, the art comes sniffing around.
So, we at Recording hope to help you some in that regard. We hope we can be a part of your on-going love of the craft of making incredible records, and it turns out that really helps us on our path to mastery. We’ll keep making records and writing about how, and you keep making records and reading about how. Write about it too, we’d love to learn what you know!
After all, as The Old Man says, master the craft and the art will follow.
I’m a producer, vocalist, pianist, writer and craft masterer – hmm…. Anyway, look for me on Twitter or Facebook at @AaronJTrumm.