Studios As Musical Instruments: Music Production Philosophy

My New Microphone Studios As Musical Instruments: Music Production Philosophy

In the world of music production, the studio is often viewed as a creative space for getting work done, made up of a collection of tools and technology. However, I'd invite you to philosophize with me and consider the studio not just as a workspace, but as an expansive musical instrument in its own right. This perspective revolutionizes how we interact with studio equipment, and I believe its importance as a conversation is even more important now in the age of democratized home studios than it was in the infancy of multitrack recording.

Viewing studios as musical instruments involves creatively using their equipment and acoustics to produce and shape sound, treating each element from the acoustic space to the microphones, processors and mixing boards as integral to the musical expression.

That might be a bit out there, but it's a worthwhile thought experiment, and in this article, we'll go through just that: a discussion on the philosophy of considering and indeed using the studio as a musical instrument.

What Is A Musical Instrument?

Before we can properly get into this discussion, let's define the term “musical instrument”.

A musical instrument is an object or device constructed or adapted for the purpose of making musical sounds. It typically has all, or at least the majority of, the following characteristics:

  1. Sound production: it is designed to produce sound. This is the primary function of a musical instrument. The method of sound production can vary widely, including the vibration of strings (as in guitars or violins), air columns (as in flutes or trumpets), membranes (as in drums), or electronic means (as in synthesizers and other electrophones).
  2. Intentionality and control: the instrument allows for intentional control of the pitch, loudness, timbre, and duration of the sounds. This control can be exerted through various means such as pressing keys, strumming strings, blowing into tubes, or programming in the case of electronic instruments.
  3. Musical context: it is used in a musical context, meaning it is played alone or with other instruments in compositions, improvisations, or structured performances. This context distinguishes musical instruments from other sound-producing devices that are not typically used for musical purposes.
  4. Human interaction: most musical instruments require human interaction to produce sound, though this can vary from direct physical manipulation (like plucking a string) to indirect methods (such as electronic programming or automated playing mechanisms).
  5. Cultural and historical significance: many instruments have cultural and historical significance, reflecting the traditions and artistic expressions of the cultures that developed and used them.
  6. Acoustic or electronic nature: instruments can be acoustic, electronic, or hybrid. Acoustic instruments produce sound naturally through vibrating bodies, while electronic instruments rely on electronic amplification or sound synthesis.
  7. Tunability: most musical instruments are tunable, meaning their pitch can be adjusted. This is essential for playing in harmony with other instruments and for performing a wide range of music.

We can imagine all of these traits as part of our common musical instruments, but they apply to the studio as well, don't they?

  1. Sound production: studios produce sound in their reproduction of the recorded material via monitoring.
  2. Intentionality and control: Engineers, artists and producers are intentional about crafting the music being produced and have control over the results, even in experimentation.
  3. Musical context: music studios are designed for music production.
  4. Human interaction: music will always be about human interaction, and even once AI is creating music we actually want to listen to, there will still be people producing music in their studios.
  5. Cultural and historical significance: many music studios have immense cultural and historic significance simply by the fact that great music was recorded. Do Abbey Road, Sun, Motown, Capitol or the Hit Factory ring a bell?
  6. Acoustic or electronic nature: studios combine acoustic spaces (and instruments) with analog and/or digital electronics in the gear being used (and instruments).
  7. Tunability: studio spaces are often “tuned” in terms of their acoustic spaces and playback systems, electric tuners and tuning software are often used, and the audio being recorded is typically tuned as well.

And so by the definition put forward, we can make a fairly strong argument that the studio is, indeed, a musical instrument!

A Brief History Of The Idea Of The Recording Studio As A Musical Instrument

The idea of viewing the recording studio as a musical instrument stems back as far as multitrack recording. The importance of this technological advancement cannot be overstated.

Before multitrack recording, the goal of music production was to capture the performance as faithfully as possible, often with limited microphones.

Once multitrack recording became the norm in recording studios, so too did the separation of recording and mixing as well as the processes of overdubbing and tape edits.

The recording studio became more than just a location to attempt to record a performance as true-to-the-original as possible; it became a place to explore creative uses of technology in the music recording process.

We may take all of this for granted in the days of affordable home studio equipment, but these advancements were a major step forward. Let's consider overdubbing and tape editing, for instance.

Overdubbing is the recording technique where new sounds are layered onto existing recordings, allowing artists to add multiple parts, like vocals or instruments, one at a time for a fuller sound.

Before multitracking made overdubbing possible, the entire performance had to be captured at once; we needed a musician for each and every instrument, and the entire ensemble had to play to the standard of the recording (retakes for individual tracks were impossible).

All the musicians had to rehearse together beforehand and come to the studio prepared, and enough space and equipment had to be present to capture the recording.

Overdubbing allowed, for the first time, musicians to record separately from one another and to double themselves (a technique that is now common in music production).

This allowed musicians and producers to effectively write as they made their way through the recording process. Here are but a few examples of the freedoms overdubbing brought about:

  • A performance could be re-recorded multiple times until it was perfected.
  • If layering was needed at all, it could be added after the fact.
  • Arrangements could be finalized well after the first tracks were recorded.

Fast forward to today, and solo artists can play every single instrument (and even program virtual instruments) on their records and do so while controlling the studio.

This is what I do in my home studio. You can check out my work here if you're interested.

Tape editing involves physically cutting and splicing magnetic tape to rearrange or remove sections of audio, allowing for manual editing of recordings for desired effects or corrections.

Before multitracking, the entire performance was recorded to a single tape straightaway (or a wax cylinder or vinyl record). We could make edits to the tape, but they'd affect the entirety of the music. Therefore, editing was difficult to manage.

The advent of multitrack recording brought in a new era of editing in music production, allowing engineers to edit individual tracks in the mix to improve the mix and also for special effects.

Fast forward to today's digital audio workstations, and we have it ridiculously good. We have to undo and redo functions, grouping, time compression/expansion, flex-time, MIDI quantization, and a wide variety of other editing tools at our disposal to get as surgical as we'd like with our audio tracks.

And there's even more to uncover in today's DAW-centred studios in terms of utilizing the studio as a musical instrument.

The Studio As An Additional Instrument

In this section, I want to think of the studio as one of the many instruments or tools available to us as music producers, which isn't necessarily difficult to do.

The studio itself may feature many instruments, including our standard string, percussion, brass, woodwind and electrophonic instruments in addition to “studio instruments”, such as the mixer (console or DAW), processors/effects (outboard or software plugins), microphones and even the acoustic space.

In addition to the above, our digital audio workstations also give us access to a vast number of virtual instruments, which can also be considered “instruments of the studio” — MIDI allows us to control such instruments and effectively produce sound from our studio without actually needing a real, physical instrument to do so.

While what we would typically think of as musical instruments may make up the bulk of the audio information in the music we produce, the studio itself shapes the sound and, in some cases, creates the sound.

There are so many ways to think about this.

First, we can consider how we naturally hear music versus how we produce music.

In the real world, we can hear acoustic and amplified electric instruments working together in an ensemble. We're positioned in an acoustic space in close enough proximity to the sound being produced for our ears to pick up the sound waves and convert them to electrical signals we hear as music.

With music production, we can use the studio to build upon such an “ensemble” by way of editing, overdubbing, mixing and stereo (or surround playback) — it may not be able to offer as many sound sources during playback, but it can certainly offer an enhancement, at least in terms of arrangement and production, compared to a live ensemble (due to the aforementioned editing, overdubbing and mixing).

Additionally, the microphones, miking techniques and acoustic spaces we record with will generally pick up sound rather differently than our ears before the signals are mixed together for playback. There are likely to be more microphones used than we have ears; these microphones may be used for overdubbing (we can't hear at different points in time simultaneously), and the positioning of such microphones offers vast differences versus our typical listening positions (we don't listen to instruments “close-miked”).

Sound is often recorded dry (with little “room” information in the signal), and the time-based effects of delay and reverb are often used to simulate dimensionality in the mix. This is yet another way studios are used to craft the sound versus what we would hear naturally.

Second, the studio itself is a listening environment, producing sound as if it were an instrument.

Just like we can listen to a symphony in a theatre, we can listen to a mix in the studio. The playback system and acoustic environment, complete with the amps, studio monitors, acoustic treatment, etc., all play a role in the sound we experience.

In this way, the studio is the instrument and the venue, which is pretty neat.

Third, the studio can route and process signals for playback that would be virtually impossible to recreate in the real world, even with electric instruments and hardware effects.

Things like parallel drum compression, sidechain ducking of one instrument versus the other, and other advanced mixing/production techniques are achieved inside mixers (in the studio or elsewhere) and can play a major creative role in the sound of the music.

Automation is another superb tool offered by mixers that emulate dynamics in playing style and changing effects parameters, though in its own way. Automation can help us make a mix more dynamic than it otherwise could be.

Of course, this last part is more about mixers being instruments than specifically about studios. However, studios need mixers, and so I thought it was a valuable addition to the conversation.

Again, I'm only offering alternative ways to view things. You can choose to take this information as food for thought, or leave it behind!

Using The Studio As The Instrument

In this section, I want to think of the studio itself strictly as a musical instrument, which is a bit more of a stretch, but also where things get fun and experimental.

Before diving deep, we can revisit the use of virtual instruments and even add audio samples in the mix. By doing so, we can produce entire songs in the studio without the need for any musicians (other than ourselves interacting with the DAW), microphones or even a dedicated physical space (let's say we're working on a laptop).

This song, made entirely in a computer, could sound just as good, if not better, than a group of musicians playing real instruments.

With that note out of the way, let's consider using the studio creatively to produce sound as if it were a musical instrument.

Editing As An Instrument

Creative editing can be utilized as a musical instrument by effectively manipulating audio into something new and musical. This involves a creative and innovative approach to editing audio in the production process. Here are some ways to achieve this:

  1. Creative cutting and splicing: Just like playing notes on an instrument, you can cut and splice audio tracks to create new rhythms, beats, or even melodies. This can be done with analog tape or digitally in a DAW.
  2. Looping and layering: Use looping to repeat certain segments of a track, creating a rhythmic or harmonic foundation. Layer these loops to build complexity, much like adding different instruments to a composition.
  3. Time-stretching: Alter the time (with or without pitch-shifting) of recordings to create unique sounds. This can be used to generate harmonies, adjust tempos, or create entirely new textures.
  4. Reversing audio: Play segments of audio in reverse to add an ethereal or unusual quality to your music. This can be particularly effective for transitional elements or to create a sense of intrigue.
  5. Dynamic automation: Use automation in your DAW to dynamically change parameters like volume, panning, or effects over time. This can add movement and life to your tracks, similar to how a musician expresses emotion through their instrument.
  6. Rhythmic editing: Edit audio to create or alter rhythms. This can involve cutting up a loop and rearranging it or adding silence (negative space) to change the groove.

By viewing editing as a musical instrument, you're not just altering sound; you're actively shaping and creating music in a deeply expressive and innovative way. It requires both technical skill and artistic vision, much like playing a traditional instrument.

Effects As Instruments

Allow me to start off by stating the obvious: hardware effects can and are used outside the studio all the time. While this is true, they're also very important in the music production studio, allowing us to create new and exciting sounds from our audio inside the studio.

  1. Granular synthesis: This technique involves manipulating small pieces of a sound sample (grains) to create new textures and soundscapes.
  2. Sampling and resampling: Use samples creatively, not just as fillers but as key elements of your composition. Resample your own tracks, manipulating them into something entirely new.
  3. Dynamic use of reverb and delay: Instead of just using these effects to create space or echo, play with their parameters in real-time. Automate the decay time, feedback, or wet/dry mix to create evolving soundscapes.
  4. Creative distortion: Use distortion, overdrive, or bit-crushing not just to add grit but as a way to sculpt the harmonic content of a sound. Experiment with different types and amounts of distortion to transform the character of instruments.
  5. Modulation effects as sound shapers: Flangers, phasers, and chorus effects can be used to create movement and texture. Automate the rate, depth, and feedback parameters to make these effects more dynamic and integral to the sound.

In the digital realm, software and plugins offer an additional layer of creative potential. These tools are not just functional utilities; they are instruments that can be played, tweaked, and explored. The digital studio environment becomes a playground for experimentation, where the boundaries of sound are constantly pushed and redefined.

An Important Note On Limitations

With modern DAW technology, we really aren't subject to many restrictions in terms of being able to produce and mix professional-sounding music.

However, we should take into account the specific limitations of our studios and use these as creative confines in which to work.

Just like a piano is restricted to 88 keys and pianists must work within those limits, we as music producers can find inspiration in the limitations of our space, equipment, instruments, software and computer.

Call To Action

Contemplate the ideas put forth in this article and consider how you can make more creative use of your own studio.

Feel free to share your findings with me in the comment section below. I'm always interested in hearing about the creative endeavours of my fellow producers!

Furthermore, if you're into exploring different music production techniques, be sure to check out my article 100 Music Production Techniques: Improve Your Music & Mixes.

How can I make more creative use of my mixer? To take full advantage of the creative potential in our effects returns, we must understand how we can separate the dry and wet signals, how we can then process the “dry” and “wet” signals differently, and how we can utilize complex routing to achieve specific and experimental effects.

For more information: Unlock The Creative Potential Of Effects Sends And Returns

How can I make better decisions in my mixes? The psychology of decision-making for mixing engineers involves balancing intuition with analytical skills, managing cognitive biases, handling decision fatigue, and considering emotional impact, client expectations, and industry trends in their creative process.

For more information:
The Psychology Of Decision-Making For Mixing Engineers
Top 11 Tips For Making Better Mix Decisions

Leave A Comment!

Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section at the bottom of the page! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

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