The Myth of a Thousand Little Choices (The 80/20 Rule as Applied to Audio Engineering)

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Erica Zabowski; Licensed via Creative Commons for Commercial Use

Image courtesy of Flickr user Erica Zabowski

We often make hundreds or thousands of decisions on any given project. How many of them really count?

Most of us like to tell ourselves—and others—that although any one of our little tweaks may be too small to be heard, it’s the net effect of all of them together that really makes the difference.

There may be some truth to this idea. And so, we feel justified going back and forth, boosting and cutting a vocal by a quarter of a dB, or obsessing about whether to center that EQ around 1kHz or 1.2. We might move a mic a quarter inch one way or the other or wonder about whether we should have used that other preamp instead.

But as important as it is to care about the little details, it may be even truer that for every thousand decisions we make, several hundred of them might not really matter at all.

The Pareto Principle

In the early 20th century, an engineer with Western Electric, named Joseph Juran, took an absorbing interest in the relationship between efficiency and quality. He wondered endlessly about how the two could move in tandem, reinforcing one another.

In 1941, Juran came across the work of the pioneering Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had, among other things, gone around Italy measuring stuff. He had noticed a striking pattern: In Pareto’s country, 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people. In his garden, it turned out that just 20% of the pea pods produced 80% of the peas.

To Juran, all this seemed eerily familiar, and he went on to popularize these kinds of observations throughout his career as a consultant and author on quality and efficiency. He called it “Pareto’s Principle of Unequal Distribution.”

Since then, countless others have added their observations to the pile: 20% of a company’s products account for 80% of its sales; just 20% of nations account for 80% of the world’s GDP; 80% of health care costs come from 20% of patients; 80% of the computer crashes come from 20% of the bugs; 80% of the crimes are committed by 20% of the criminals, while 80% of complaints come from 20% of customers, as do 80% of the profits. (Though presumably, from a different 20% of customers.) Even sound waves in the air behave according to this kind of “power law.”

And so it is, so much of the time, in the world of audio. We make 80% of our revenue from 20% of our clients, we we spend 80% of our time on that stubborn 20% of the project, and perhaps, 80% of our choices make very little difference at all.

The 80/20 Rule in Audio

At first, this idea can be discomforting. A belief in the crucial importance of each of our thousand little choices serves as a welcome and ego-enriching crutch.

To think: You might have settled on the exact opposite choice for every single one of your smallest tweaks, and it would have made no significant difference in how great or terrible your mix turned out. So many of the choices you spent the most time obsessing over may have made little or no appreciable difference at all.

Bah! But who wants to think that way? As far as appearances are concerned, fussing about with differences that are barely audible to others (if they are in fact audible at all) can make you look like some rare and inscrutable mad scientist, hyper-devoted to the project and in touch with something in the ether that mere mortals can not grasp. (This kind of thing is a plus when your field of competition includes, at least in theory, anyone with access to a reasonably powerful laptop or tablet.)

But once accepted, this idea is much more empowering than it is disquieting. It means that 20% of our activities give us 80% of our results. It means that as long as we can identify and do well with those choices and tasks that matter most, we have tremendous leeway to be expressive and to enjoy the process; tremendous power to become faster and more effective.We have tremendous room to make art.

The Biggest Wins

The underlying reality is that great work comes not from the thousand little choices themselves, but from the few big principles that inform them all.

If you can get those key principles right, 80% of the job will fall into place without much thought or effort at all. Focus on improving those 20% of choices and habits that have an outsize impact, and the rest will rise to meet the standard you’ve set.

With that in mind, here are a few of the guiding principles that, if gotten right, will have benefits that ripple through your work. These are the things that we all talk about, but few of us remember to do, each and every time.

1) Take Breaks, Take Notes

We often do our best mixing when we’re not mixing. How’s that for proof of the futility of our tweakiness?

Whether you’re listening to a rough mix in your car, on a walk with some headphones, or on the couch of the back of the room, some of our best and most powerful choices are inevitably made when we can’t touch anything.

Nothing is a better cure for the urge to run circles down the rabbit hole, making a thousand tweaks that don’t need to be made, than a little break to clean the ears and reset the mind.

2) Start With the Most Important Elements

Some of us start a mix, recording or arrangement with drums because… well, that’s just what we do. This is a bad idea.

You should only start with drums, or anything else, because you think they are one of the most, if not the most, important element in this particular mix.

A lot of great mixers in the vocal-heavy pop domain start their mix, not surprisingly, with the vocal. In some styles or songs you could do worse than to start with synths, strings or guitars if those are the elements or relationships that define the mood and purpose of the piece.

Whether recording or mixing, get those central elements in early and let them be central. Each additional element should support these driving forces rather than detract or distract from them.

3) Get The Monitoring Right, and Always Use References

None of the choices you make will be good ones choices unless you know what you’re hearing. Good monitoring environments are crucial, but even in the best of environments, so are great references.

We all know we’re supposed to use references, but do you? How often? Know what your room sounds like inside and out. Deeply understand what’s considered appropriate and edgy in the style you’re working with. Even if you want to break the rules, you’ve got to know what they are in order to break them.

Make sure your clients have a good handle on this as well. Listen to references with them in the production space, and encourage them to bring their own. As often as you do this, you will forget what things really sound like from time to time, as you are not a robot. So refer back to your references.

(Note that some people don’t like the idea of references because they think their project is a unique beautiful snowflake. That’s fine. But how are you supposed to know if you’ve succeeded at being a unique beautiful snowflake unlike any other in the history of creation, if you have no basis of comparison?)

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  • Brandon Drury

    This article could have been one sentence: Put Eddie Van Halen, Mariah Carey, or Josh Freese in front of a mic or 10 and take a nap.

  • Chuck Zwicky

    Great article, Justin. Be mindful of the minutiae but maintain your perspective.

  • Bob Jones

    99% of what results from putting EVH or Mariah Carey in front of a microphone in the last 15 years has been ass.

  • Ian

    Baxandall, not bandaxall

  • Pinki Tuscaderro aka Rachel Gi

    Experimenting with effects always gets me off track (pun intended), definitely going to be mindful to not to deconstruct my work with too much mixing.

  • thatdigiguy

    As a previous pro-audio FOH guy, this concept carries well in a myriad of business..

    A poor idea isn’t going to net an amazing reward, no matter how much time/energy you dump in it. if your local bar band has no talent, don’t obsess with saving their a$$… send them home to practice & learn… or bill them double!

    Getting hung up in the details robs your brain power.

    I used to remind myself that all of Woodstock ran on gear which was lower quality than my pickup’s stereo, that the Beatles albums were recorded on stuff you wouldn’t even use for office dictation, and that your average punk with iPod couldn’t tell you the difference between 200hz and 2.5khz. half the crap we worry about is never noticed by 80% of our audience…

    Don’t sweat the petty stuff.. But make sure you know which is which….

  • Jake Antelis

    awesome write up.

  • nivem

    I mix for 20% of the audience, the audio engineers themselves. So yes, I do obsess over the details and I assume that there is someone else out there with ears as good or better than mine that are going to listen to the mix. I focus on producing the best sounding tracks as possible due to my abilities, no exceptions, I give my 100% to each project no matter how long it takes.

  • Tomboy123

    I agree with the general sentiment of this article, but I think there’s a basic error being made regarding “perfection.”

    Perfection _is_ for this world, and everyone who takes their work seriously should strive for perfection. But one’s _standard_ of perfection must be “this worldly.” I.e., it must correspond to what is actually important in reality.

    The problem with obsessing over half a dB EQ change or analyzing an attack time on a soloed track down to the microsecond, is that this kind of “perfection” is not based in reality-oriented results. These choices make no difference to the listener’s experience, which is the standard by which perfection should be judged.

    I’m not saying there aren’t time, money, talent and other constraints that limit what can be done on any given project. There are. But, these are “the facts” on which one’s goals, expectations and standard of perfection must be defined. If one defines perfection as some pie-in-the-sky dream only possible with infinite resources, time and talent, then of course perfection is impossible. But in this case, it is not the world that is preventing greatness, it’s one’s unrealistic standard of perfection.

  • Lenny Blandino

    Great article Justin!