5 Keys To Better Recordings

“It doesn’t have to be the absolute best, I just want a good, clean-sounding recording.”

I feel you, brother (or sister). I know you don’t want to get bogged down in recording nerdery. And you don’t want to spend any more time or money than is absolutely necessary either. But you probably shouldn’t lead off with that line. In fact, that statement pretty much guarantees you’ll be getting the bare minimum from your engineer. Knowledge is power, so here are five keys that you should know that will help you achieve your recording goals!

1. Communication

Talk with your engineer in advance. The engineer can give you a good idea about how much time certain approaches will require, what the payoff will be, and whether it’s worth it given your intended audience. Developing a plan ahead of time reduces stress and gets everyone on the same page.

2. Player Position/Mic Position

Let’s assume you have a trusted pair of ears (like the engineer or your private teacher) helping you. Take advantage of the lack of an audience. Move around the stage and see if there is a place where everyone agrees you sound the best. Rooms often have “sweet spots” that may not always be right where you’d stand for a concert. Likewise, try repositioning mics on a stand and see if you can find a sweet spot for them as well. Conduct A/B comparisons between different placements and look for the best possible sound.

3. Microphones

If you are fortunate enough to have the time AND the equipment, audition different microphones. No two microphones hear exactly the same thing, and while position is usually a bigger deal than mic choice, the choice of microphone shouldn’t be completely ignored. The engineer can be very useful in narrowing down the mics to audition if you give him or her an idea of how you’d like the microphone to sound (e.g. fatter, warmer, brighter, darker, bigger, scooped etc).

4. Editing

In some cases (such as contests or auditions) editing may not be permissible. But if it is, enter the session with a plan for how editing will be done. Will you just record several takes and then pick the best one? Will you piece the takes together to create a “super take”? Or will you fix problem spots one by one inside your keeper take? How will the bleed from other instruments (your accompanist) affect your editing plans? Iron all this out BEFORE the session even starts!

5. Post Production

After you get your performance down the way you want it, consider a little post production dress-up. Setting volume levels, ambience and general tonal character can often put a nice bow on the top of your project. For extra critical projects it is not unusual for multiple mixes to be burned to CD, listened to over a variety of playback systems, and remixed based on those observations.

In recording, as with most other things, higher quality doesn’t often come quick and easy. But the difference that a little focused effort makes is usually pretty impressive!

Audio Myths: The Sound-Good Sauce

Maybe it’s because superstition has always played some small part in the world of music and musicians. Some people say Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to become a legendary blues guitarist. Jack Black was questing after the supernatural Pick of Destiny in hopes of dominating the world of rock and roll. And of course it’s never good luck to hire a bandmate’s girlfriend (or boyfriend) to be the band’s road manager (that’s not superstition, just common sense).

So superstition may be one reason why some people tend to believe there is genuine magical mojo inherent in a rare tube microphone or two-inch analog tape or the live room of Basing Street Studios in London. Another reason is marketing. Probably every recording musician of lesser means has at some point thought, “Too bad I don’t have this mic or preamp or channel strip for EVERY channel” …as if the quality of the equipment is the thing that takes music to the next level.

If enough time is spent digging through the audiophile forums on recording magazine websites, one will eventually stumble upon this notion: a talented engineer can make a great recording on a cassette tape multi-track with one $90 microphone. This, of course, flies in the face of the superstition/gear lust mentality we’ve already identified. But it is true. No amount of expensive gear will enable a person with uninitiated ears to create a better musical blend than a maestro with a cheap microphone.

The sound-good sauce is, therefore, largely a myth. In the same way that a runner will do far more to improve his time by shedding 30 pounds of excess weight rather than purchasing more expensive running shoes, an audio engineer will do far more to improve his mixes by listening. A lot.

The best advice a new engineer can receive is this: listen to the frequencies. Listen to the highs, mids and lows. Break out a parametric equalizer and sweep across the whole spectrum with broad and narrow boosts and cuts. Learn what 3 decibels of reduction at 200 Hz sounds like on a guitar, vocal and entire mix. Boost 2.1 kHz on the same sources. Roll off the lows at 80 Hz. Crank up the highs at 14 kHz. Discover how one sound may be masking another and find ways to fit them together without simply turning one up or down. Listen over a wide variety of speakers and headphones. Compare professional mixes with other professional mixes. Compare them to your own mixes.

Given this sort of experience, ears tend to get better over time. This progression also gives one time to learn what one particular microphone sounds like. Then another. And so on. Eventually it isn’t the secret sauce/hot piece of gear that takes things to the next level, it’s the aural experience that prompts a seasoned engineer to choose a particular treatment for a particular source in a particular setting. No superstition involved – unless it’s a Stevie Wonder reference track.

5 Drum Tips for More Tonal Options

 

It is perfectly acceptable to use a minimalistic approach when recording drums (like this). But when you want more options and/or a more modern sound, close mics are the way to go. Lots of them. On everything. Here are some quick tips for tonal flexibility.

1. Snare

Miking the top and bottom of the snare (check for phase issues and perhaps invert the polarity of the bottom mic) gives you body and punch from the top mic AND snare sizzle from underneath. Playing with the blend between these two mics (and EQ) gives the snare a lot of possibilities.

2. Bass

Try using a dynamic mic close to the beater for the attack and a large diaphragm condenser a foot back to capture the deep low end. Blend and EQ to taste.

3. Room

Using a stereo pair of room mics can provide even more flavor. It is common to compress the devil out of these mics and blend the slammed signal together with the rest of the kit.

4. Resonances

Some peak resonances are good and some are bad. Try to find these on the bass and snare with a narrow EQ boost. Sweep the spectrum from low to hi. If you hear a frequency ringing out with a bell-like tone, try cutting that frequency with a very narrow band of EQ and see if you like the sound. This can usually be done one or two places, but if you get too crazy with this technique, you’ll start killing your tone rather than improving it.

5. Buss Compression

Try running the whole kit to the same buss in your DAW, and put an appropriate compressor on that buss to treat everything. I like the Slate Virtual Buss Compressors for this sort of thing.

The main thing is to experiment. Just do it, as the sneaker people say. And compare your sounds with a good target reference sound from your favorite drummer.

Recording the Operatic Baritone

Operatic and bel canto singing present the audio engineer with an unusual challenge. Unlike a pop singer, the classical vocalist is regularly appreciated in concert without the aid of sound reinforcement. In the uncommon circumstance that a microphone IS placed on an operatic singer during a live performance, great care must be taken to retain the acoustic sensibility of the performance when reinforcing the sound.

The experienced classical listener knows that the space in which a singer performs is itself part of the instrument. The expectation is that the artistry of “ringing the room” will not be hindered by the sound system.

Capturing this aesthetic for a recording can be tricky. The inexperienced recording engineer must resist the urge to use a pop vocal approach with an operatic singer, as a large diaphragm condenser microphone at the standard pop vocal distance will sound much too close (even when pulled a foot or three farther away). In addition to choosing an opera-sized venue, here are some ways to retain the sense of space the savvy classical consumer expects to hear:

1. Use a stereo microphone as the primary vocal mic.

r88

Rather than using a standard mono microphone, we chose a stereo microphone in a crossed figure-8 pattern: the AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone. Aside from the increased spatial cues that stereo provides compared to mono, the old ribbon technology is really tough to beat when the goal is a warm, smooth vocal tone. This primary vocal microphone was between 6 and 7 feet away from the singer. Because it is a stereo mic (with each ribbon element facing 45 degrees off-axis to either side of the vocalist), it sounds even farther away. A mono mic aimed directly at the vocalist would sound closer at the same distance.

2. Incorporate an ambient pair.

km184

We added a near-coincident stereo pair (30 centimeters apart at 90 degrees) 25 feet in front and facing away from the singer out into the hall. These mics were small diaphragm Neumann KM-184s, and they were receiving no direct sound whatsoever. These are the clinical, crystal clear mics of the group which makes them well suited for ambience retrieval. It might have been useful to space them wider, but we decided that with the 90 degree XY ribbon approach, it might be fun to keep things a little more in phase.

3. Add definition to the piano.

rn17

Additionally two small diaphragm condenser microphones were positioned over the piano in a 90 degree XY configuration. The position will be evident in the video. The sE Electronics RN17s were the choice here in an attempt to smooth out the potentially edgy piano. With the Rupert Neve designed transformer (that huge thing toward the back of the mic) these mics have a kinder, gentler sound than most other small diaphragms. The sE’s were brought in to add definition to the substantial amount of indistinct (yet spacey – in a good way) piano bleed that was present in the vocal microphone.

4. Finish it off with a little extra ambience.

 

qlspaces

Lastly we added a touch of artificial ambience from the convolution reverb plugin QL Spaces. It wasn’t S.Cal. Hall, as the image above suggests, but rather something a bit more Germanic! This is a fairly common practice, with only the purest of the purists abstaining from such post production flattery. The decay of the real room was essential to the sound (without it the artificial ambience didn’t sound nearly as nice), but the tail end of the natural decay was not adequately defined. QL Spaces allowed us to dial in the reverb tail we wanted.