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.”

Why Recording Musicians Should Also Be Audiophiles

In Setting the Record Straight Colin Symes argues that the phonograph helped democratize classical music by enabling it to be heard at home, away from the concert hall. In a similar way, advances in technology have also democratized the recording of music (i.e. musicians of lesser means/abilities now have the tools to make extremely high quality recordings). Along with an increased availability of technology has come an increase in the use of that technology by new or relatively inexperienced recordists. Questions arise, such as:

“What should be the goal of an art music recording, anyway?”

“Are we trying for something more musical than the typical camcorder audio captured from the balcony?”

“If so, what?”

Below are some of my ideas about common practices in art music recording and the modern culture of simply listening to music.

Recording

Authenticity has been a buzz word in art music recording since the beginning and for good reason. An authentic recording (one that closely resembles the experience of actually sitting in the hall) is almost always going to be fabulous – assuming it involves an elite orchestra in the best concert hall and $200 per seat tickets. I suspect that it was in just such a setting that the standard for art music recording was conceived: the stereo pair. This usually consists of two expensive omni-directional mics up in the air behind the conductor at a variety of spacings. The stereo pair is certainly responsible for many famous art music recordings. And many more awful ones. Authenticity is probably an approach that is at it’s best when someone like Carlos Kleiber is directing a group like the Vienna Philharmonic in a place like Musikverein Golden Hall. An authentic recording of a junior high band in the gymnasium might benefit from some extra… flattery.

Cinematic recording tends to be a bit more adventurous than the purist’s attempt at the authentic recreation of an event. Authenticity certainly has a place in sound for film, but so does exaggerated studio trickery. When one listens to the soundtrack of any movie, you can bet the focus of the audio production team was more on the creation of compelling audio and less about the authentic characteristics of the sound stage where the orchestra performed. Dozens of microphones are used to isolate groups or individual instruments providing more control and offering new possibilities for the sound team.

Even popular music production has influenced the recording and production of art music, because it has redefined what the masses expect to hear when they plug in their earbuds. Pop is very often as inauthentic as it gets. Why? Because in many cases there never was an original performance, so to speak. The studio builds the song one track at a time. Acoustic drums (if real drums are even used at all) are morphed into cannon fire. One guitar is layered upon itself a dozen times. Vocals are stacked and processed and auto-tuned. To the purist this all sounds quite sinister, bordering even on immoral. But there are some very good reasons for such radical “pop” processing – even in art music – which I hope to explain next.

Listening

Most modern listening occurs in the worst possible environment, the automobile. It’s an art music engineer’s worst case scenario. The listener is not equidistant in front of two speakers, the road and engine noise destroy precious amounts of dynamic range, and the speakers are usually designed to accentuate certain frequencies to “help” the sound cut through the din. Cut. Like a knife. Running a close second to the automobile for worst possible listening environment is the laptop or computer. Unless the listener has assembled a computer system with audio in mind, the sound will be exactly what YouTube has trained the masses to accept: astoundingly low-resolution.

The one bright spot among modern listening environments is the mobile device. Yes, they often employ compressed formats, and lots of data is lost compared to the 24-bit master recording. But the ubiquitous earbuds (look around a college campus sometime) are a big improvement in delivery over the average laptop speakers. And for those who care to push the envelope a little further, there are options for even better-sounding mobile files and higher quality ear buds. Still, even this falls far short of a set of excellent speakers positioned well in an acoustically treated room (where every art music engineer would like to believe his mixes are heard).

Pop music positions itself within the very top few decibels of the dynamic range, ensuring that all but the very tail end of the fade-out is audible at 75 mph. Even with radio station compression, a listener loses the softer sections of a symphony orchestra performance around 35 mph, and may be blown out when the triple forte section hits. Because it has been juiced to sound as big and full as possible, pop music translates better over those anemic little laptop speakers. Even cinematic music exploits the advantage of  being balanced over speakers by an engineer (the way listeners will eventually hear things), as individual sections and soloists are mic’d up. The natural blend may be spot on in the hall, but the question is – does it translate to the user’s listening environment? An engineer lacking in purist ethics can help ensure that it does in many cases.

The Musician

It would seem reasonable that a competent musician is one of the prerequisites of a good art music recording. Presumably a musician cares about musicality, tone, technique, dynamics, phrasing and so on. Presumably a musician has spent countless hours working to obtain a command of those elements. Musicians, however, are not all audiophiles. But I think they should be. Wikipedia tells us that an audiophile is “a person with a strong interest in high-quality sound (usually music) reproduction.” Audiophilia is entirely insignificant if a musician is such a purist as to only ever listen to live music in a real concert hall. If, however, a musician makes the foray into sound reproduction – especially for her own performances – it would follow that she would desire a level of care in the treatment of that sound reproduction reflective of the level of care she took in learning to create the live sounds being recorded. In other words, it makes sense for a musician who listens to recordings (or makes them herself) to be an audiophile, don’t you think? If people are going to listen to the recordings we make (and we hope they do) those recordings should be made with the listening environment in mind. It may even be that in order for some performances to translate “authentically” they might require judicious intervention from the audiophile musician and her trusted side kick: the audiophile art music engineer.

Back to those earlier questions. What should be the goal of a good art music recording? Well, yes, we are trying to improve upon the camcorder in the balcony approach. Several things come to mind. How about clarity (but not so much as to put the listener in the first trumpet’s lap). Then there’s depth (which might be considered spatial clarity or location). And ambience (but not so much as to destroy the clarity and depth). Tonality and detail is largely dependent upon the character and placement of the microphone (after the performer has created the sound, that is). The stereo image (how wide the ensemble sounds) depends on the angle or spacing of the microphones in relation to the ensemble, and the size of the ensemble, and the size of the room. 

There are several parameters that can be tweaked, and if you start to develop an ear for those things, congratulations! You’re becoming more like a recording engineer or an audiophile musician – which I think is probably what God intended for you.