The 80/20 Rule in audio

Everywhere in life there seems to be a massive inequality at play. I'm not talking about racial or genders here. What I'm talking about is this mystical equation that I keep noticing all over the place. And I'm not the only one seeing it. You've probably heard of the 80/20 rule before, most of us have. Originally it said that 20% of the people had 80% of the money. And subsequently 80% of the people had 20% of the money. But anymore, I find that I hear things like "80% of the work is done by 20% of the people."

It's no secret that I read business books. Audio is my passion, but it's also my business...and I'm guessing it's yours too or you want it to be.

Lately I've been reading "The One Thing" by Garry Keller. I know I know, I'm late on the band wagon. But no one in any of the circles I run has been talking about it. Garry pointed this principle out and made me really think it over and realize that I've been seeing this EVERYWHERE for years! I mean it, everywhere. I was listening to a podcast yesterday where someone brought up the book "The 80/20 Principle" by Richard Koch. Yeah, I was sold and ordered it. Way to go podcast advertising!

This very simple rule is more like a law of physics or a law of the land. It's not just in who's making the money or who's doing the work. It's so much more than that. And that's one thing they were talking about on the podcast. They even broke it down to where they could show you that 20% of what you do in your work was giving you 80% of your results. And further still saying that only 20% of that was giving you 80% of the results mentioned before. And so I pondered this for a minute. While chewing that thought it dawned on me: I do about 20% of the work on getting a good sound as I used to, and my sound is 80% better than it's ever been!

And it's true! It's a principle I'd been using and just never realized. So I thought I'd give you a quick run down on how you can use this in your studio.

Step 1 - Take your time and learn your gear

Okay Okay, I know I said this would be less work. And it will later on, trust me. A little work now will pay off big time in the long run.

While the "quick tips and tricks" can help move things along, you'll start finding out that they don't always work. The best thing you can do to speed up the recording, mixing, and even mastering process is to slow down and make wise choices with your gear.

  • Pick the right mic
    • If you only have a couple mics, try them all out before picking the one for the job. I've been surprised several times at which mic sounds the best. I bet you will be too.
  • Find the best mic placement
    • It really doesn't matter how many people say "this is the #1 spot on this instrument", test it and others BEFORE you record. Recording an acoustic guitar? If I'm using 1 mic I like to place it at about the 12th fret and slowly swing the mic stand left and right to find the sweet spot. *Knowing the sound you're going for will also make a HUGE difference here.* Also, try different places in the room. You might be pleasantly surprised.
  • Check the gain
    • I can't emphasize this one enough. Whether you're going into a mixing board, a preamp, or directly into your interface - check the gain. If nothing else, make sure it doesn't clip! I train people to test the gain at the loudest part of whatever is being recorded. Get that preamp to where it doesn't clip at the absolute loudest spot, but get it up there "into the amber". You want plenty of signal to work with, but you can't have it clip.
  • EQ/Compress going in?
    • This one depends on your philosophy on recording. The big trend right now is being a minimalist and using the very least, and often times the least expensive, equipment possible. I don't like this. And honestly, none of the other engineers I work with do either. We have our reasons. If you have EQ and compressors as outboard gear, go ahead and tastefully shape the sound before you record. Anything you do now will help in the mixing and mastering portion...if you do a good job. If you are going the minimalist route, then use your mic placement and mic angles to shape the sound to the best it can be before recording. This goes a long way and you'll really notice it later.
    • Extra tip here - unless you're recording something with a bit of low end, now is the time to use that high pass filter. Cut the extra bottom end to clean up tracks. This one thing could be the game changer you've been looking for in the mixing phase, and you can do it when you record.

Step 2 - Mix with a purpose

I know I've fallen for the trap and temptation to try every plugin known to man, just to see what it'll do. This wastes so much time, and really, does nothing for the final mix. I now start with EQ, compression, panning, and faders. That's it.  Master these 4 basic elements and you're mixing skills will sky rocket. I can't tell you how many mixes that I've done and heard "That's so much better than what we got from 'so and so'. What did you do differently?!" And all I used was those 4 elements and maybe a little tape saturation. And remember, reverb...it's a privilege, not a right! A little bit goes a long way and use delay wisely (and in time...).

One last note on this one - Label your tracks. Even if you're the only one who will ever see the mixing portion, it'll help so much. Do some color codes and maybe even use markers to map out the portions of the song. Again, a little bit of work here will end up saving a lot of time down the road. And if you have someone else work on it, trust me, they'll want that info. I've been tempted to add a "I had to label your tracks" fee to some of my mixing jobs. 

Step 3 - Master with care

A bit of the work I get is mastering gigs. The biggest thing I've learned with these is not to step on the mixing engineers toes. The mixing engineer has already been working with the band to get the sound that they all agree on and want. The only things you should be doing here is getting rid of any remaining mud and bringing the sound up to listening level. Don't smash it, unless that's what they want. *Note - some mixing engineers do rely on the mastering stage to add that fat bottom end. Ask up front what their expectations are with the project.

I know this seems way too simple (and yet complicated to some). But that's really the base of everything you should be doing.

Focus on getting the best sound when you record. Start your mix with only what will bring the greatest impact (volume, panning, EQ, and compression). And don't over think the mastering process. While some music may require more love and attention, this is what will get you 80%+ of the way there.

Leave a comment below, you never know who might need your words of wisdom on this too. And don't forget to join the mailing list so you don't miss new posts that are sure to help you with your sound!

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