Two Approaches To Audio

From time to time I like to step back a bit from the explanation and demystification business and put on the wide angle lens. There are two different approaches towards working with audio that I regularly observe with myself and others. Let’s think about how they relate to each other and to what happens on this site.

If you’re a regular reader of The Science of Sound, you know that I like to look at things from as many different angles as possible. By the way, if you’re not, you should definitely become one!

As a research and development engineer, I am not only interested in figuring out tricky maths and reiterating aspects of digital audio over and over until we can finally get rid of this annoying digital audio bashing. A big part of my vocation is also observing how audio engineers and musicians approach and understand their tools, which also includes observing myself very critically.

Lately I’ve come across a couple of thoughts that I was trying to make sense of. And I’d like to invite to join me in that endeavour.

In conversations with other audio enthusiasts, in online discussions and when discussing product ideas and features with my colleagues over at Kemper Amps, I regularly observe two fundamental approaches to working with audio: tweaking and selecting. What does that mean?

The Tweaking Approach

What I call tweaking is the more controlled approach. It consists of adjusting and configuring the available tools and devices towards a specific goal that you have in mind.

Thus, tweaking requires a rather clear vision of the desired outcome. And consequently, it requires knowledge and training about how to reach these specific goal. Both is probably the absolute hardest part in all of audio and music.

Obviously, this tweaking approach is what can be largely considered a professional style of working. You know exactly what you want, and you know how to get there. You can probably even give your client a quite exact estimate on how much time it will take you. This level of professionalism comes from years of training.

The predetermined and schematic character of the tweaking approach, on the other hand, isn’t very creative. You can’t expect too many surprises in the process.

The more advanced you get with your tools and the more “tweak-ish” your work gets, the more you will demand continuous and exact control from your tools. You don’t want either this or that. You want knobs that let you dial in precisely the amounts of this and that you require.

The Selective Approach

More or less the exact opposite is the selective approach. Rather than controlled adjustment towards a specific goal, this involves playing around with different discrete options and selecting one that suits well. With this kind of approach, it’s not necessary to know exactly the desired outcome and how to achieve it. In fact, a clear vision might even be counterproductive.

The selective approach is all about giving up control and inviting and embracing the unknown and the lucky accidents. It’s about choosing from a broad set of possibilities and finding inspiration.

Typical examples for the selective approach are mixing and matching guitars, pickups, pedals and amps to find a combination that leads to a distinctive tone. Or stepping through lots of synth or effects presets to get an idea what’s possible and (hopefully) find that special something to make a song stand out. Or testing different mic and preamp combinations with a singer to find out what works best for that specific voice.

Usually in these situations, it is unknown which exact features you’re after. The best thing to do then is to explore a broad set of options in a playful way.

In contrast to the tweaking approach, which often requires continuous control over distinct aspects, the selective approach doesn’t handle nuances very well. Its purpose is to get you in the right ballpark.

Training and knowledge are rather hindering to this aspect. With more experience and thus ability to precisely control outcomes, you will tend towards established processes that have worked well before.

Building The Tweaking Toolbox

Obviously, the selective approach usually stands at the beginning. At some point, outcomes with regularly proven success become part of the tweaking toolbox. They become a predictable tool for reaching a specific goal. Thus, with experience, the selective approach morphs into the tweaking approach.

If the above mentioned toolbox becomes large enough, the tendency towards the selective approach degenerates. Once we have learned to create reliable and predictable results, we will prefer to do so. Consequently, creativity will suffer.

Keeping The Balance

The stuff I’m mostly writing about here – of course – tends heavily towards the controlled side of things. In essence, I’m helping you understand the innermost workings of audio and human hearing. Such knowledge is essential in order to identify goals and problems and figure out how to achieve or solve them respectively.

On the other hand, I’m deliberately not providing any fool-proof recipes with 5 steps to jam vocals into the listener’s face, no matter how hard the singer sucks. What I’m trying is to go beyond common proven strategies such as analog summing and figure out why and how they work. My goal is to open up new creative possibilities. And to clarify topics that regularly lead to confusion.

Anyway, that shouldn’t hold anyone from keeping the experimental muscles in shape. No matter how routined you have become over the years, branch out regularly and from time to time, try to do things deliberately NOT like you have always done it. Keep your processes open for experimentation and surprise.

But DO dig deeper and explore the why and how. Obviously, a good strategy for that is reading The Science of Sound regularly.

Does any of this make even the slightest sense to you? Share your thoughts in the comments!