Blue-Collar Recording

By Justin Patton

fostex

The Fostex X-18 4-track cassette recorder

Take a look at THAT! Now doesn’t that make your 2016 Christmas haul pale in comparison? That is an exact likness of my first “AW” (as in Audio Workstation). It is not a DAW because, as you can see, there is nothing digital about it. This bad boy recorded on both sides of a cassette tape at the same time (using the stereo tracks from side 1 and the stereo tracks from side 2 simultaneously in order to give 4-track playback). At high speed, I would burn through a 60-minute cassette tape (30 minutes per side) in 15 minutes.

I spent 500 bucks of hard-earned warehouse pay on this recorder when I was about 19 years old. Shortly after that, I got a programmable drum machine (because any time I tried to record real drums it sounded absolutely gruesome). I already had a Shure SM 58 microphone; I was all set (although I did have to run my mic through the preamp section of my Peavey guitar amp in order to get a good, clean signal)!

teac

The TEAC 144 4-track cassette recorder

Here is a slightly more uptown 4-track cassette recorder from TEAC. It has channel EQs and overdubbing capabilities. Priced at $1100 in 1979, it also has the distinction of being used to record Bruce Springsteen’s album ‘Nebraska’. While there haven’t been a whole lot of well-known albums produced on such modest equipment, it would be fair to say a whole lot of TERRIBLE albums have been made on much higher-end equipment.

There’s no denying the allure of multi-million dollar recording equipment. If for no other reason, it makes you feel special just to be in the same room with it. And yes, it can and often does make a difference in perceived sound quality. However, top-dollar fidelity is not the most important element in a recording. Many listeners would have trouble distinguishing between a $10,000 channel strip and a $500 strip. It is an interesting scenario to consider: would Nebraska have been any more highly regarded if it had been recorded at Abbey Road with all the buzzword pieces of famous gear?

Top-dollar fidelity is not the most important element in a recording.

I recall the first time I started using “good” microphones on a regular basis. We had been recording with some $100 bargain mics for several months in the Performing Arts Hall at Murray State University. I’d been dreaming of getting a pair of Neumann KM-184s for just as long. Finally, I wrote a grant request and got half of them paid for by the Provost and half paid for by the Music Department. The pair was about $1800 total. When I set them up for the first time I was expecting the clouds to part and angels to sing. Guess what? They sounded better than the bargain mics – but not nearly as much better as I had been expecting. Were they worth it? Yes, considering that these mics would record hundreds of concerts over the next 10 years (and that the bargain mics tended to go bad after about two years of heavy use). But I was surprised, given all the hype about super special audio gear, how the difference in quality wasn’t nearly as remarkable as I thought it should have been.

lauten_eden                     at2020

Over the years I have had people express a desire to come record in the studio because they needed access to “a really good mic.” Now, I love microphones. And I know the first microphone I’d reach for if I wanted to impress someone with a vocal mic. The Lauten LT-386 does warm and silky like nobody’s business. It’s pricey, but in my opinion it’s worth every penny. If you’re going to splurge a little, getting one really nice vocal mic is a great place to do it. I also have a $100 Audio-Technica 2020 microphone (the dumpy-looking little black mic on the right). It was among dozens of high-end mics in a “shoot-out” by Sound on Sound back in 2010, and it fared very well. It was even the preferred mic for one of the female singers, beating out a $10,000 world-famous micophone standard!

So how does one know for sure that a cheap mic just won’t cut it? Presumably one has used it and found it lacking. But in my many years of recording I’ve found that a stellar vocalist sounds stellar no matter what. Sure, a $2500 mic may flatter her voice in a very pleasing way. But it won’t turn an average song (or average voice) into something magical. The magic has to be part of the performance to begin with, and a cheap mic – used correctly – should still capture that magic. The same is true of most solid, yet budget-friendly, recording gear. Will the better mic provide better results? Most likely, yes. But the cheap mic won’t be the thing that stops the record from going platinum!

slate_comp

The Slate Digital FG-MU compressor

Over the last year I’ve been enjoying using every plugin made by Slate Digital as part of their subscription service. When I joined, the deal was $249 for an annual license. There are dozens of different EQs, compressors, preamps and tape emulators to choose from, most modeled after specific pieces of well-known hardware studio gear costing many thousands of dollars. Of course the software versions cost only a tiny fraction of the real thing. Do they sound identical? No. In an A/B comparison at Sweetwater Sound’s Studio A, engineer Mark Hornsby played a group of people, myself included, a drum mix going through a real Universal Audio 1176 hardware compressor, then through a Slate 1176 plugin. Most of us liked the hardware sound better, but it was really close. As Mark said, there’s nothing stopping anyone from cutting a legit record using only plugins.

Why train in a multi-million dollar facility if, odds are, you’ll be working in an entirely different setting?

Simply put, a multi-million dollar studio has always been a luxury – today more than ever! Since record sales have been tanking for years, it isn’t a luxury very many artists (or their record labels) can afford. Without question, more music (film, television, bands, et cetera) is being made in multi-THOUSAND dollar studios today. Or even on laptops. To make up for a waning clientele, many of the “big boy” studios are teaching recording classes in facilities originally intended for something other than education.

This begs the question: why train in a multi-million dollar facility if, odds are, you’ll be working in an entirely different setting? If one is accustomed to the finer things in life, perhaps it is a luxury one can afford. But if Bruce Springsteen could get it done with a 4-track cassette recorder, we can surely do amazing things for a lot less than we’ve been led to believe! Here’s to more great blue-collar recording in 2017! Happy New Year!

Justin Patton messed around with music technology in high school, researched music technology in college, and currently works as the recording engineer for the Department of Music at Murray State University. He also teaches the Recording Techniques course for students in the Music Business program, using kindred spirit Mike Senior’s book: “Recording Secrets for the Small Studio.”

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Recording Workshop: Introduction to Microphones

Here’s a summary in print:

Dynamic Microphones (Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421, Shure SM7b) –

Tough, durable. Largely used for live sound because of their ability to isolate a sound source and avoid feedback (pickup pattern is usually uni-directional, a.k.a. cardioid). Used for recording as well, but are regularly passed over in favor of condenser microphones in the studio. Does NOT require phantom power. Handles very loud sources like snare drums, electric guitar amps, etc.

Condenser Microphones (Neumann KM-184, AKG 414, Avenson STO-2) –

Considered by many to be a bit more delicate than dynamics. Largely used in the studio. Can be used live, but has a tendency to cause feedback. Requires phantom power. May have a variety of pickup patterns (uni-directional, omni-directional, figure-8). Requires greater care when using very close to loud sources. Regularly used for vocals, acoustic instruments, choral and orchestral recording. Considered to have a very “expensive” sound with greater detail than most dynamic mics.

End Game –

It sure helps to know how the sound being recording is going to fit into the final mix. A knowledge of the final function of the sound will assist in the appropriate capture of it. Some mics will make the source brighter, duller, thinner, thicker, et cetera. The choice of microphone is important, but may actually be trumped by the physical placement of the microphone (proximity to sound source, area of focus). The recording environment will play a role, too. If there is a large jazz band on the stage, sonic leakage (e.g. from the drums into the piano mic) will be a consideration in the choice and placement of microphone. A soft chamber group in an ambient hall may lend itself to an entirely different choice of mic and position.

The Rhythm Section

Walk into any concert hall – and look up. How many microphones do you see? Most venues have a stereo pair (that’s two) hanging in front of the stage somewhere. This ubiquitous arrangement can achieve amazing results, and its simplicity allows for a very fast archival of a live event. Choirs, pianists, solo instrumentalists and singers are all usually served well by a stereo pair of microphones.

But when it comes to the drum set, bass, guitar and/or keys, the two-microphone approach is often less than complimentary. Considering that the term “rhythm section” implies there is another battery of instruments somewhere in the vicinity, two microphones begin look even less likely to be up to the challenge of adequately balancing a great diversity sounds.

As soon as the concept of the rhythm section comes into play, so does a long and well documented tradition of what listeners expect it to sound like. Several elements (bass drum, snare, and bass guitar) are most commonly centered in the final mix: equal parts in both speakers. But it’s even more than that. A distant washy equal balance doesn’t cut it. The bass guitar should be centered… AND mostly “dry” (free from excessive ambience). The bass drum and snare are usually treated similarly. If the recording is being made with only two microphones, “centered” means the point in physical space that is equidistant between the the two microphones. And you can’t really have the bass guitar and bass drum occupying the exact same physical space.

In addition to the space issue, there are those other pesky musicians who think the rhythm section is really there just to accompany them. So they’re going to want to be front and center, too, not lurking around only the left or right speaker. Let’s take each group one at a time.

The “Other” Guys

The other guys might be a big band with trumpets, trombones, and saxes. Could be a percussion ensemble full of marimbas and vibes. Maybe it’s a vocal jazz choir. In a recording session, these guys can often still be captured with their own dedicated stereo pair of mics. There are several stereo recording techniques; all of them have strengths and weaknesses, but any of them are capable of producing good results. If space permits, the rhythm section may be able to set up directly behind the other guys. Then any sound bleed from them into the first stereo pair will still be mostly centered – even if it is very faint.

The Drum Set

The most common, simple approach to close miking drums is with 3 microphones. A stereo pair 4-6 feet above the snare (probably in XY position) pointing straight down keeps the snare in the middle, while allowing toms and cymbals to spread across the stereo image from left to right. A third mic on the bass drum provides more control over the low/high drum set balance.

Bass Guitar

Taking a direct line from the pickup is pretty simple and common. So is using one mic on the speaker cabinet. If you have the time and inclination, do both. With two signals from the bass, the engineer can experiment with volume balance between the signals as well as equalizing signals differently. Options are never a bad thing.

Guitar

Yes, the Shure SM-57 on the grill of the amp works for jazz too. The bass pickup trick is less useful with the guitar, because the amp is such an important part of guitar tone. Any amps being used might function best aimed out into the abyss of a big room and away from other microphones. If you’re counting, we are up to either 7 or 8 microphones and/or direct lines at this point. Set levels for each mic and you’re off to the races.

Mixing

I like to start with the other guys’ mics. I want to bring that pair up to a good level and see how much rhythm is bleeding through. Then I’ll bring up the drums until I am confident I have just barely crossed the threshold into acceptable percussive definition. Then up comes the bass to the same approximate level, and then the guitar. After a while I’ll mute the rhythm section, to see how drastic the difference is. I might then see if I can get away with a little less rhythm section than I initially thought. I’ll also do this with the bass by itself. After I’ve played around with levels for a while, I’ll take a long break. Maybe get lunch. Then I’ll come back and see if the balance still strikes me as acceptable after I’ve given my ears and brain a respite.