After graduating from Berklee College of Music in 1999, Enrique Gonzalez Müller started his career as a music producer and engineer at the Plant Studios in Sausalito, California working with artists like the Dave Matthews Band, Joe Satriani, Joan Baez, and Les Claypool., and members of Metallica amongst others. In his home country of Venezuela, he’s produced many chart-topping albums for Caramelos de Cianuro, Viniloversus, and Desorden Público, and in 2009, his collaboration with Los Amigos Invisibles won the band a Latin Grammy Award for their album Commercial. In Italy, among many collaborations, Gonzalez Müller has produced, arranged, and mixed albums for L’Aura and scored a no. 1 hit with “Teach Me Again” from Elisa and Tina Turner. In the U.S., he has recently worked with the Kronos Quartet and Nine Inch Nails, and toured with Wynton Marsalis as well as many up-and-coming artists. In 2015, Gonzalez Müller was the recipient of Berklee College of Music’s Distinguished Faculty Award for his innovative work as a full-time faculty in the Music Production and Engineering department and is currently the program director for Berklee Online’s Master’s program in Music Production. Continue reading below for Müller’s installment on assertively distorting reality.
To us, members of the unique and quirky tribe of sound engineers, I pose the following question: “Is it our quest to faithfully capture and represent reality? Or instead, distort it?”
In the dawn of sound recording technology, engineers the world-round strove to capture the emotion of a fleeting performance, freeze sonic lightning in a bottle, documenting reality as closely as technology would allow. With the ultrafast developments in technology, sound engineers were ever increasingly successful in putting the listener in the live audiences’ shoes. With time and insatiable hunger for creative exploration, this technological craft became a fully developed artform in its own right. Less and less, engineers and producers felt bound to the shackles of capturing our perception of strict reality, but instead, were taken by the unique creative possibilities afforded by this aural medium.
In our current day and age, I present to you once again my opening question: “Is it our quest to faithfully capture and represent reality? Or instead, distort it?” I pose to you, dear fellow sound engineer, that our jobs can only and inescapably be to distort reality. For those of you raising a skeptical eyebrow, think about it… for starters, every single sound we capture with a microphone must be transduced; which is the transformation that happens when the acoustic sound we’re capturing with a microphone is transformed into an electrical signal, that is then converted to digital information in order for it to be captured and processed by a DAW. In order for us to eventually hear these sounds reproduced by a speaker, this digital signal must be first transformed (transduced) back to an analog/electrical signal, and then converted into the acoustic energy we’ll be able to hear. Knowing that these transformations are inevitable, we realize that it’s impossible not to change (distort!) the sound we naturally hear from the source. For me, once this realization sank in, my next question was: “if the sound characteristics of a recorded vocal will drastically change as a result of my engineering choices, for example, if I use an Audio-Technica AT4050 (a large diaphragm condenser), instead of an AE4100 (a smaller diaphragm dynamic microphone), what will this sonic difference do for the resultant feeling of these two different versions of the same performance?” This realization made the nerve-racking, daunting task of choosing the “right” microphone and its placement within the vast ocean of possibilities out there, a simple endeavor. I realized that the main guiding principle behind the many engineering choices at my disposal should not just be a technical consideration, but perhaps more importantly so, an emotional one. More practically put: “which mic is the right mic for the job?!” The one that most accurately distorts the sound of the source into a sound that most effectively feels like the emotions were trying to convey in honor of the music we’re recording.
If, for example, the desired emotional goal for the vocals in a song is to convey sensual intimacy, the silky, breathy 900Hz to 3kHz mid-range emphasis of a closely handheld AE4100 (again, a smaller diaphragm dynamic microphone) will get us considerably closer to our emotional objective then the pristine-sounding, full-frequency range of an AT4050 (again, a large diaphragm condenser), even though this is a more “transparent” and expensive microphone.
This conceptual clarity and guiding principle have greatly improved my workflow, allowing me to be considerably more assertive (and confident) in my engineering decisions. The unexpected, interesting thing is that this sparked a naughtier, more rebellious side of me, prompting the follow-up question: “If I now have my sonic bases covered with the ‘right’ mics for the job, can I boldly and ferociously exaggerate, amplify and maximize these emotions with the addition of more extreme and riskier mic choices?” Yes!… Enter the “Wild Card” microphone.
A Wild Card mic is simply, an additional microphone which only seeks to unapologetically exaggerate the hell out of the intended emotion of a performance. For example, when recording a drum kit and my foundational kick, snare and overhead sounds are already covered, I’ll do a deeper emotional assessment of what emotion each section of the song is trying to convey. If, for example, the emotional evolution of the verse to the pre-chorus is meant to develop from unstable and jarring too confident and assertive, how about starting the section with a mono boundary microphone (like the very awesome PRO 44), which will capture limited and muffled top end to represent the initial tension of the verse and then, have the other “normal,” full-frequency mics fade in for the emotional contrast of the pre-chorus?
When it comes to sound engineering, do you think engineers should focus on keeping sounds as real as possible, or is their responsibly to distort reality? Let us know in the comments below!