Why fewer knobs are better
I’ve gone down the path of chasing perfection enough times to know that it’s a game without winners. I can recall instances where I’ve meticulously dialed in tracks from a song, fine-tuning every knob with expert precision, to only later realize that the tracks didn’t balance with each other and start over. Other times I’ve EQ’ed and automated every second from an audio clip for a video with incredible scrutiny, only to have the clip cut from the final edit.
I’ve also spent hours perfecting audio that aired on radio or television, only to find that the audience simply didn’t enjoy the content. I learned in my slow, stubborn way that either audiences don’t care about audio perfection, or that what I told myself was ‘perfect’ was a combination of mediocrity and wasted time.
I’ve worked with and trained enough people to see that the placebo-like effect of knob-tweaking makes us feel like we’ve done something even when we haven’t. If I’ve spent more time on it, then it must be better, right?
Being an audio professional means working on any project expediently, getting a clean, polished sound, then moving on to the next project. If you can get 95% the same results as the knob-fiddler without anyone knowing, why do in multiple mouse clicks what you can do with one?
I encourage those of you partial to knob-fiddling to try a simple experiment. Try using a compressor with two knobs, like the Native Instruments VC-2A (or other Teletronix LA-2A emulator) side-by-side against a compressor with far more knobs, like Avid Dyn/Comp (eight knobs total, if you count the sidechain filter). Make each plug-in sound its best, match the gain/loudness as closely as possible, then flip back and forth between the two. This isn’t a blind test so it’s still subject to personal bias, but close your eyes and flip back and forth to tell them apart. If you strain to distinguish between two compressors in a side-by-side shootout of your own making, then your client certainly won’t notice the difference. Dialing in the perfect settings on one plugin for a single audio track has isn’t a problem, but done repeatedly this time adds up. Is it worth an hour of your time to gain a 5% overall improvement in sound quality? Will this improvement help you gain a proportional amount of money or listeners the additional time spent? If so, then have at it. If not, you’re likely better off with fewer knobs, not more.