Disingenuity: Why MacGyver Would Make a Horrible Recording Engineer
Society seems too quick to celebrate resourcefulness. This is no more apparent than its depiction in countless movies and TV shows over the years. Tales of makeshift battlefield medicine, homespun non-lethal weaponry, and abandoned kid-cobbled home security, all glorify the ability to get out of a jam using nothing more than improbable ingenuity. This spirit of on-the-fly creativity has consequently soaked into the fabric of real life and is quite evident in all of those redneck life hack videos which I tend to view with equal parts distain and admiration. Ahhh…such forward-thinking backwoods engineering that we’d all wished we thought of, but so glad we never had to.
It stands to reason that if there was any place that this type of jerry rigmarole would be embraced, it would be in the recording studio, right? You know, a creative place where lives are neither hanging in the balance nor at the mercy of an unaccredited, duct tape-wielding, so-called “engineer”. Surely the window of negligence may be cracked open just a little wider in this “anything goes” environment. After all, it’s just music…
Or is it?
Lives may not be lost, but livelihoods are affected when we stagger to the shallow well of ingenuity too often. I don’t have issue with the kind of resourcefulness that involves the creative use of the tools around you. Nor do I have a quarrel with the skillful navigation through unforeseen acts of god or third world recording conditions. I’m talking about the regular practice of haphazard studio MacGyvering. It’s kind of like pulling out the good china or using the C-word — it should be reserved for special occasions only. And let’s face it, the better engineer you are, the less likely you’ll need to improvise your way out of a technical disaster on any kind of consistent basis. In many cases you’re going to have to come to terms with the unfortunate reality that your ass-saving acrobatics occur as a result of your own inattention to detail and general unpreparedness. Also, it’s only a matter of time before you paint yourself into a technical corner from which you can’t jimmy rig yourself out.
It Takes One to Know One
So what do I know about this topic? I have a black belt in slapdash engineering from my time in location recording and working from residential studios. Of all people, Rob Zombie is not easily horrified, but that’s what he was while recording vocals for Dragula from a utility closet. For David Coverdale, Trix wasn’t just for kids, but also a quick-thinking engineer who used a flattened cereal box as a circuit board to build a tape machine synchronization adapter. I’m guessing that Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones had seen just about everything by the mid-90s and unfortunately one of those things was a young Frank Gryner extinguishing a console fire using household products. Oh, the memories. I guess the shitshow must go on…but at what cost?
Showboating and Shipwrecks
I know that I can’t distill this down to just “being more prepared” any more than I can unilaterally condemn ones fancy footwork around the inevitable challenges that arise during a session. It’s not that simple. It’s more about what kind of engineer you want to be known as: one who can fashion a microphone shock mount cradle from bubble gum and paper clips or one who anticipated the problem well-before it became a show stopper. You might think there’s a bit more glory in the former, but aspiring to be the best engineer with whom to be stranded on a desert island would be foolish as opposed to being the one who prevented the shipwreck in the first place. The greatest engineers I’ve known make their work appear effortless, with an economy of motion and emotion — plus there tends to be a conspicuous absence of half-cocked Band-Aid fixes for things gone awry.
Turn This Thing Around
My advice? Resist the pull toward a downward spiral of white trash workaround solutions in favor of one's that garner respect for your profession, the artist and music you’re working with and most importantly, yourself. Bad habits like these can have you thinking you’re constantly turning a corner, when you’re really circling the drain.
Reject and course correct…should be a quick fix.