Dry Goods

Guitarists are suckers for flash. We aren’t even the slightest bit comfortable unless our tone is kissed by reverb, delay, or some glitzy modulation effect. But if you slaughter your home-studio mixes with effects—tons of goop on the guitars, oceans of reverb on the drums and vocals, ping-pong delays on the keyboards, and so on—you can subvert the articulation and punch of the instruments, leaving your mixes sounding washy, indistinct, and, ultimately, lifeless.

A tough-love solution to such sonic abuse is to go cold turkey and simply stop using effects altogether. Yeah, it’s a crazy idea. But the educational aspect of going “dry,” is that it forces you to make every element in your soundscape resonate with impact and interest without resorting to signal processing. Punch and dimension must come from the sounds of the instruments themselves, as well as how you arrange those sounds to construct an exciting track.

Each recordist will have his or her own concept of “impact and interest,” of course, but I approach dry mixing by focusing on performance and tone. For a dry vocal to be seductive, for example, it must be almost cinematic in its delivery—which means it must be true to the lyrics, and deliberate in phrasing, timbre, and dynamics. It’s the same with guitars. Lacking the crutch of effects, guitar parts must exhibit very cool melodic, harmonic, and sonic hooks and counterpoint lines to keep a listener surprised and engaged.

Whether you actually release dry mixes, or do them solely as experiments, you’ll find that the process sharpens your ears and spins you out of unproductive comfort zones. This is one of those blissful situations where working with less can actually deliver more.