Transparency vs Coloration
This year at NAMM, Maor Appelbaum's talk "Transparency vs. Coloration" used mastering examples to illustrate the topic, but the main philosophy behind the concept applies to almost all steps in music production.
Usually you want to stay as faithful to the instrument/source/mix as possible, but in some cases, some coloration can give a new life to the material, in ways that enhance it.
In Maor's words, "When you are coloring it, you are 'degrading' it, hopefully in a 'positive way'”.
When you are coloring it, you are 'degrading' it, hopefully in a 'positive way'
When thinking about coloration, you might picture the valve / solid-state sound from a compressor or EQ, but coloration in this case is being used in a broader sense. It is not simply adding harmonics, or changing the balance among the different areas in the spectrum.
Some pieces of equipment appear to bring some kind of 3D or depth to anything that passes through them, and that can be considered coloration too. Subtly changing the balance of the instruments or bringing up the room tone with processing is also coloration.
Some of those coloration instances are more "transparent" than others, but when you start thinking about coloration in that way, a whole new world of creative options opens up.
Options being the keyword here, because you don't want to worry about numbers, like XX frequency range on an EQ or YY attack and release times on a compressor. Maor didn't mention a single digit during the talk, because those change from song to song and from gear to gear.
The important insight here is to understand what options you have in your toolbox and how to apply them to the workflow. You don't want procedures with specific numbers or steps, but the concepts of work.
For example, when listening to a song for the first time, you want to pay attention to how it makes you feel. Is it warm, cold, intimate, distant, peaceful, or energetic? After this, think of what you can bring to the table to enhance or complement those elements in the song.
The outcome of your work comes from how you understand the music, and from the creative tonal ideas you can bring to the table that support and enhance the song.
While on this topic, a nice tip when processing any material: when processing, it is common to AB the result by first listening to the original material, and then to the processed version.
However, our ears are usually more sensitive to things that get taken away than to those being added, so a nice way to hear what a certain processor is doing is to first listen to the processed version, and then to the original.
What goes missing will immediately become apparent, and a cool twist about this technique is that, sometimes, things you weren't paying attention to will jump to your attention.
For example, you might have been focused on how the attack and release time affected the drums, but you didn't notice that the added make-up gain brought the instruments on the sides a little too much, changing (again, coloring) the existing balance.
We cought up with Maor after the talk, to have a private Q&A with him.
You mentioned some pieces of equipment add depth or dimension to the song. In which instances would you NOT want to use that?
In the case where a mix is exactly where it needs to be in terms of the balancing (tonal and dynamic) and has the vibe in it already embedded in its fullest form. (it's already so perfectly colored that adding color just changes the whole feel in a negative way)
How do you approach coloring gear?
All gear that colors have their pros and cons. Not one thing can be so bad or so good on anything unless you impose it on a track.
Even the worst gear can be a secret weapon in some cases. It's rare, but I have seen it happen.
At the same time, I've also seen amazing gear that just didn't make any positive benefits to the sound.
You build your setup based on your personal flavor and what your clients like to hear from you.
Could you elaborate on what you said about good mixes being the trickiest?
Good mixes are not easier to work in terms of coloration because they are easier to ruin if you apply the wrong color or process them in a way that changes their feel.
If the mix is well balanced, you need to make sure you are not skewing it and it stays intact.
If you had to summarize the talk in one sentence, what would that be?
Connect to the emotional impact of the song and try to find what enhances it. It might be opening a coloring box and trying to paint with it, or leaving it all as transparent as possible.