by Andy Stewart.
When you’re recording, do you have the final mix in mind for each and every sound, or do you just try to capture ‘best sounds’, and worry about all the other stuff later? Some of us try to record ‘context appropriate’ sounds, whenever possible. Others don’t. Often circumstances don’t give us much choice anyway, and some sounds are inevitably recorded with either no plan, or by accident…
But when you do have the headspace, the right room, and the luxury of time, which camp are you in: the ‘best sound possible’ camp, or the ‘context appropriate’ camp? I’m in the latter, I think… except when I’m not.
It’s a much-overlooked engineering concept: making predictive decisions about a sound’s role in a mix, and having the conviction to record it specifically to suit that context.
Some would argue it’s a fool’s game trying to anticipate where a sound might end up in the stereo image of a final mix, and predicting how it should be recorded spatially is therefore pointless. For these engineers, it’s a decision best left until later, or to someone else – the mix engineer, in most cases. Other engineers would disagree, passionately in some cases.
At this more ardent end of the spectrum, engineers and producers go to great lengths to get the context of each sound spot-on during the recording phase. It’s a slower, more labour intensive process, where there are no guarantees that the decisions made will ultimately be the right ones for the final mix.
This approach also makes more demands on the recording spaces themselves – that they be the right ones – and often involves more pre-production and setup time to ensure that mic placements and recording chains are the right fit for the producer’s sonic vision.
The benefits, however, can be profound.
Putting aside for a moment the potential saving of vast amounts of time during the mix, by making so many of the creative decisions during the recording process, some of the greatest sounds in recorded history have been engineered this way.
While there are literally thousands of such examples, one of the more iconic among these would have to be the drums on When The Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin. I doubt John Bonham’s drums would have had the same vibe, or possibly even been played the same way, had they been close mic’d and treated later in the studio with SPX90 hall reverb.
The Middle Ground
In between these two starkly opposed engineering approaches – where, at one end, everything is close mic’d or D.I.’d, and at the other, sounds are captured to fit into a context the moment their faders are raised – there’s a huge grey area. Most of us inhabit this space, floating around in it, sometimes bumping up against the ‘context appropriate’ end of the spectrum – recording a big backing vocal from 40 feet away in a large commercial studio, or country hall – and at other times, close miking things to ensure sounds are captured full-toned and virtually bereft of any spatial context.
Sometimes this decision is a conscious one, at other times circumstance makes the decision for us – there might be no money for studio hire, or rain pounding on the tin roof at home. Occasionally we just throw up a mic and go for it, not too sure of exactly what might be captured. (As we all know, embracing chance and serendipity has its place in almost any production.)
Some producers and engineers also have their pet preferences for context-appropriate sounds: a drum kit recorded in a big, bombastic space perhaps, or loud guitar overdubs that trigger big studio wall echoes. For other sounds, they may always prefer a close mic – like main vocals, perhaps. They might even record lots of quietly spoken, heavily compressed speech, and for that, prefer a very quiet, very ‘dead’ space.
Sometimes an engineer or producer repeats their favourite process so often that it eventually forms their ‘signature’ sound. But to do all this well, of course, producers and engineers need the still air of a recording studio, or extremely quiet surroundings and/or deaf neighbours. But to maintain this level of professionalism, where sounds are manicured as the producer sees fit, requires recording budgets, a clear understanding of the value of a large recording space, and the time and engineering skill to make the most of these precious environments.
Unfortunately, almost none of us have all these key ingredients in place each and every time we produce an album. So while recording with the final mix in mind from the outset may demand great spaces, lots of gear, money, time for pre-production, and a month where every member of the band has no other commitments, for most of us this scenario is a pipe dream. Meanwhile, getting the job done, requires us to fudge our productions, one way or another.
This fudge takes place on many levels, and for different reasons, but mostly it’s through financial necessity – having no money, or at least not enough.
As we all know, album productions usually lack the funds to hire a large recording space for any length of time, though I’m not entirely convinced that it’s always the case. Sometimes people just don’t think there’s value in hiring a big space with lots of great gear, especially when their mate down the road is peddling the idea that his spare bedroom can produce the same result.
Easily convinced, most people record their whole album in a small space, with only a few mics, as one massive collection of solitary overdubs. That’s all well and good, and each to their own, of course. But make no mistake, the albums we record this way, do, in the end, sound very different to the albums we might have otherwise recorded in a big space with lots of mics, time for thoroughly considered setups, and full band performances.
But reality is reality, and if you can’t afford to go into a big commercial studio, you make do, one way or another.
The trick then is to make the most of mic distances wherever possible – never just record everything up close all the time. Try to find spaces around you that sound interesting in some way: be they dry, highly reverberant, or idiosyncratic. If, for example, you can open a door from your recording room into a long hallway, at the other end of which is a tiled bathroom, then perfect! Capture that bathroom’s highly charged response to your electric guitar overdub, with a long lead, a mic, and a compressor pushed hard.
If you make this extra effort now, the bonus room response you capture can make a massive difference to your final mix. Search for these spaces consistently, every time you’re at work. Never give up on finding them, and just remember, if a room mic sounds crap 15 feet away, that doesn’t mean you stop looking… go further and further away. If you can’t, record it regardless and delay it later in your DAW. It’s the combination of both the room sound and the distance in time from the source that’s key here.
Music Never Stops
Some of us record whole albums in our bedroom, others record bed tracks in a big space, then head back home for the remainder of the overdubs. Some of us build studios at home and get thoroughly side-tracked
(for years, in some cases) by that process, while others record in rehearsal spaces and their grandparent’s farm shed while they’re on holiday in Rome.
In the end, the desire to record an album is usually far stronger than the desire to fork out big dollars for a studio, even when the money is there.
Perversely, the good news is that having no money to spend rarely stops musicians forging ahead regardless. How is that good news? Because without this determined, stuff-it-let’s-do-it-anyway attitude, eventually there would be no music industry left. Most great bands start from humble beginnings.
For many of us, our recording preferences change over time, or in some cases, like the wind… Using yours truly as an example: this month at least, I’ve preferred to record tambourine overdubs in a big space, using several different mic placements and tambourine types, until I’ve hit on the one I like best. I’ve had the same vibe lately with electric guitar overdubs and backing vocals… placing the amp, or singer, at specific distances from the mic, so that when the fader is raised the sound immediately appears to be a certain distance from the listener. But last month I recorded everything close-miked. The important thing with any good production is that the engineer or producer is mindful of the choice being made. When a mic is placed two inches from 10 separate instruments, right then and there, that’s a decision being made about the recording, whether you realise it or not.