Book Review: Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record


Recordist, producer, and author Eric Sarafin (aka Mixerman) recently released his 6th book entitled Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record.  The book is geared towards musicians recording at home, not studio savvy engineers.

Mixerman's mantra is to keep things simple and avoid obsessing about the minutia of technical details.  Instead, he stresses the importance of having a killer song, a killer arrangement, and a killer performance.  Nail these three elements and, Mixerman argues, you'll be well on your way to having a killer record.  He reminds the home recordist there’s plenty of time to get things right because no one is charging by the hour.  So take the time.  His approach is practical and designed to overcome common obstacles to completing a record — and doing it in such a way that it sounds great.

Despite his overarching philosophy of keeping things simple, Mixerman gives the recordist plenty of ideas to ponder.  For instance, he defines Five Planes of Space (panning, frequency, contrast, reflectivity, and balance) and explains how to use each to create a dynamic and varied production.  As someone guilty of obsessively seeking out symmetry in a mix, I found his approach to asymmetry particularly eye-opening.  I definitely have some ideas to try out!

Mixerman breaks down frequency ranges into easy to digest chunks and explains how too little or too much of one or the other can impact your mix.  Naturally, this discussion leads to topics on instrumentation, arrangements and frequency masking.  He is ruthless in his approach of dealing with parts that do not serve the song, regardless of how an individual band member might feel about the part.  No, his solution is not to turn down the level of the track — it involves the MUTE button!  Band members beware!

Mixerman devotes a whole section to covering the technical basics of recording; from sample rate and bit depth, gain staging, EQ, effects, and everything in-between.  His treatment of sample rates, in particular, might raise a few eyebrows (spoiler alert: his records are produced at 48kHz) but he makes a compelling argument.  Other opinions sure to inflame some are to avoid stereo mic'ing, stereo keyboards, and using two microphones on a single source (such as blending two microphones on a guitar cabinet to achieve the desired tone).  Here again, his rationale is well thought out and designed to help the recordist avoid some obvious, and not so obvious, pitfalls.

Mixerman tackles common deficiencies with home recordings such as a lack of size, depth, and width.  Not surprisingly, his approach to creating a wide stereo image is simple, and he's not a fan of reaching for plug-ins and experimenting for days to create a pseudo-stereo soundstage.  His solution is to hit record and track a second part and hard pan it opposite the first.  He cautions the recordist about sending mono instruments to stereo reverbs.  Why?  Because a stereo reverb eats up a lot of sonic space and washes everything out, resulting in a loss of definition which can make a production sound soft and indistinct.  I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never thought of stereo reverb in this way before.

Mixerman also delves into the specifics of recording various instruments; drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, percussion, horns, strings, and voice.  Here he provides useful information designed to maximum tone, impact, and efficiency.

If you haven't figured it out by now, Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record is a comprehensive work, and Mixerman has strong opinions about how things should be done that can run counter to the established norm.  Depending on where you stand, you'll either find this refreshing, challenging or thought-provoking.  But remember, Mixerman's goal is to help you produce a killer record regardless of what the technique du jour this.

Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record was self-published, and while this is a noble endeavor, there were a few moments of déjà vu when I felt I was reading the same paragraph...but in an earlier rendition.  I can't help but wonder if an editor would have suggested a revision or two.

All-in-all, Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record is an excellent resource for the musician-turned-recordist looking to improve their skills in the never-ending quest of recording a killer record.  For more seasoned engineers, you'll undoubtedly pick up a tip or two along the way, but reading Mixerman's other works, Zen and the Art of Recording, Zen and the Art of Producing, and Zen and the Art of Mixing, might be more appropriate.  Having previously read Zen and the Art of Mixing, I know I'll be circling back around to complete the trilogy.