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Recording Tips

(Engineering comes with guidelines but no rules)


  • When beginning a project it is important to have an idea of how you want the song to sound like, or album. Things to consider are: Instrumentation, Style of music and what kind of processing is needed and suitable.

  • As an engineer, it is good practice to always carry a CD that you are extremely familiar with as a reference to distinguish room acoustics and monitor characteristics.

  • Depending on the style of music you will be recording, familiarizing yourself with current styles, production and instrumentation will help generate new ideas for your project. As an example if you are looking to record your band that is currently alternative rock you might pick up the latest Smashing Pumpkins album or Soundgarden. Both bands fall into the Alternative/Grunge bin of musical labels but both significantly differ in what and how they approach they're music and recording. On the first Pumpkins album some of the songs had 40 guitar tracks per song to create impression of a "wall-of-sound" that surrounded the listeners listening spectrum; Soundgarden's BadMotorFinger used a heavier drum and bass combination to make their sound more driven oriented. Another classic example of the "wall-of-sound" usage was 1960's producer Phil Spectre who credits include ???????. The goal was to multiply the instrumentation to fill the listening spectrum to the maximum.

  • Dissecting your favorite albums is an excellent sou8rce for inspiration. Listening to the different signal processing used such as reverb, delay and other effects (FX) can dramatically alter the texture of your recordings. Your listening "session should focus on the frequency spectrum the album projects. To illustrate frequency spectrum analysis we'll look at the popular album "The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion" by the Black Crows. The first thing to listen for is the driving factor that predominates the entire album. Hip Hop albums tend to boost the lower and higher frequencies to get that guttural feeling of pumping rhythms and the crispness on the higher frequencies. Punk music tends to rely heavily on the use of overcompressed distorted guitar that is very tiny sounding in the overall mix opposed to the Smashing Pumpkins. Overall Punk music focuses the mid-range frequencies as the dominant range. Little low-end and little top-end. Mid-range frequencies tend to fall in the 500Hz - 10,000KHz range. The Black Crows is guitar driven. Guitars fall in the 500Hz - 3,000KHz range.
One of the toughest to mix are the drums and the bass. The overriding problems that tends to occur on independent albums is the incorrect recording and mixing of the kick-drum and bass guitar. Below is a few concepts to remember the next time you enter the recoding studio.

A)If the kick-drum has a "fat" sound, which can be defined as a "Thwapping" sound, the bass-guitar must be very "pointed". Pointed means that rather than a very "round" full sound, the sound becomes very "thin" or "pointed", mid-range frequencies will bring a fat,muddy sound into an audible level. For tight kick-drum sounds a full, rounded bass should be the approach to counter the kick-drum.

The general rule for recording bass and the kick is: IF the kick drum is pointed the bass should have a rounder sound and vice versa, if the bass is pointed (You can hear the frets snapping) then the kick should lean more towards the rounder thudding sound. If both are rounded the result is a mush sound in the lower frequency range that is undistinguishable to the ear. And of coarse, is both are pointed there will be conflicting frequencies that can result in frequency cancellation or phasing. Neither are good for a quality sound recording unless use to create a specific sound.

The guitar tracks where recorded using close-micing. Close-Micing refers to microphone placement. In the case of this album the mic's were placed right in front of the amp to capture the nuances of the guitar and amp. The result is a more in-your-face sound that is dry and raw the same way ACDC's Back In Black's guitar sounds. For a warmer and less raw sound you can move the mic away from the amp at varying distances for different sounds. The further you move the mic away from the amp the more room sound you will

Chris Robinson's vocals were recorded completely dry and dead meaning no reverb and a vocal booth that was padded to stop reflections.

This is a Southern rock album. What does that mean? It tells us that the recording process uses the "Less IS MOre" concept. The mix is simple (sounding). Each instrument is placed in the audio spectrum to be heard with panning on the guitar and harmonica. Typical panning for guitar is spreading out a stereo feed hrad-left and hard-right. This sound creates a dimensional effect of 180*. Tom-TOms on drums tend to be panned left - right to fill empty space.
Panning is a very important element in the mix. Without panning all instruments are trying to occupy the same space which, as mentioned earlier, causes frequency cancellations, phasing and undefinable notation. With panning you are able to spread out the frequency ranges to accommodate all recorded instruments so as not to overlap as result in frequency loss. This should give you an idea on how to approach constructive listening. There are other factors that come into play that will looked at as we continue. Take all of the ideas presented, characteristics and sound treatments and make a list that you can build and always have on hand as a reference.

Starting Checklist:
  • Room Ambience
  • Signal Processing
  • Micing Techniques
  • Instrumentation
  • Panning

This is defined as the total energy present within any listening environment and is determined by 1) the original or direct sound, 2) the early reflections (Echoes) and 3) the later, more diffuse reflections or "reverberation". Churches tend to ne very ambient. Their rooms are cavernous and do not contain many diffusers. This echo effect is generally present when a sound is made. Where as recording studios have sound proof rooms that control reflections by absorbtion. The end result is just the Direct sound without either of the other two characteristics.Room ambience can and is used on everything from vocals to drums and bass and overall mixes to enhance the recording.

Signal processing consists of a wide array of sound treatments ranging from delay and reverb units to pitch shifting and compression, wah-wah FX and more. It is handy to have quick reference guides for your own recordings. (Get to know your equipment and the different characteristics of the amp, tuning, and FX units before entering the studio. By knowing the capabilities of your equipment you will be able to better create the sounds your hear in your head). Additionally, you may find that you want to re-create a sound you heard on your favorite album that you would like to use in your recording such as a guitar effect or snare sound, whatever the desired effect, having a guide handy will free up time as well as act as a reminder on how to achieve them quickly.

Miking techniques are an integral part of the recording process and is considered to be on of the most crucial elements of a professional recording. Factors such as which mic to use with what instrument and what micing positions to use for what sound are a "science" in themselves. Listing to records and picking out certain interesting qualities and trying to recreate them is one of the best ways to expand your idea/reference list and ideas. As used in the example of the Black Crows, the guitar had a raw in-your-face sound that is achieved by close-micing to capture the sonic nuances of the guitar's grit and amp.
  • Drums: 1 - 2 overhead mics positioned on an X Y axis to capture the room ambience and overtones if the entire set.
  • Kick Drum: Placing a mic inside directly level and in the middle of the kick drum will capture the initial "slap" of the kick-pedal. The result is a tight sound.
  • Other Kick Drum micing positions include placing the mic just outside the kick drum to capture not only the "slap" but the air-rush the follows. This produces more of a thump/swosh
  • Snare drum: Standard micing for the snare include positioning a mic (most live and mid-size studios still use the traditional Shure SM57) above the head of the snare. Or placing the mic underneath the bottom snare head or using both.

  • Hi-Hat: The Hi hat is very important to have the right mic placement as it tends to provide the ongoing tempo of the song. Traditionally the mic is placed at one side of the HiHat about 4-6 inches from the top hat at a 45* angle.
  • TomToms: The same technique can be used for the toms as the snare. Placing a mic on the top of the skin about 2-4 inches for each tom. Depending on the sound you are going for a single mic can be placed in between the two toms.
  • Rides & Crashes: Generally these will be picked up by the overhead mics. You do have the option to mic each individually.
Depending on the sound you are going for, various mic placements will be more suitable than others. Much of the earlier recording from ther 50s and 60s relied on only 2 or 3 mics placed strategically to capture the entire essence of the sound. In the 70s the move to close-micing prevailed. If you listen to drum sounds from the 70s on recording such as the Doobie Brothers, Leonard Skynard and more, you will hear a very flat dead sound. Tom Toms tended to be muffled so as to produce a simple "thud" without much tone. With the 80s and the advent of the Drum Machine, tuning did not become much of an issue as the were not alterable.


There are many techniques for getting a great guitar sound. Again it comes down to the overall sound of the song, certain micing will work better than others. One method is placing a mic about 4 inches in front of the amp at the edge of the cone in order to bypass the "air rush" that occurs when the speaker cone is displaced. Another is placing the amp in a hall way and setting up the mic at various distances to capture various room ambiences.

The Bass guitar proves to be a difficult instrument to capture correctly. Special attention should be placed in recording the bass. One of the better methods is to hook the bass up to a "DI" box (Direct In) right to the mixing console as well a micing the amp (much the same way you mic a guitar amp). This gives the engineer the option to use either or both. Using the DI box will give you greater control on the final sound but just micing the bass amp will not as you will be unable to erase or remove any hiss, room ambience or other intrusive elements. If you are trying to generate an old-style feel or "live" performance feel then micing is the way to go as it will capture not only the direct sound of the bass but also the other instruments that are playing live as well which creates more of a "live" or "human" feel.

Piano is another difficult instrument to properly mic. There are many methods of micing and few that capture the true essence on the instrument. One method is to open the lid (grand or upright) and place 1 mic about 12 inches above the lower registers and one mic 8 inches above the high register. PZM mics can be employed as well to capture the higher registers by taping them to the top of the lid on a grand or on the back of an upright.

Horn players either have direct-input ready instruments or they rely on traditional micing which is to place the mic about 12- 24 inches from the bell of the horn. Generally, horn players will know how to play into the mic for recording purposes.

Tempos can be used for general musical style reference. A song may have several different tempos in it that you like and can try. Tempos can keep a song interesting if used correctly. Tempos can also portray the differing moods of a song by slowing or speeding up.

As mentioned previously, panning is an important element in mixing your music. It is a difficult procedure to effectively use it if your not sure what it is. Panning is defined as the positioning of sound in a left-to-right spatial perspective between two speakers. Keep a record of certain typical panning positions for various instruments. As in the Smashing Pumpkins breakout album Siamese Dream, guitar was the driving force with up to 40 tracks of guitar for just one song. In this case the guitars would be spread out over the spectrum to create that feeling that your "inside" the song.

There are no rules when it comes to recording. You can place a cardboard box over the singers head to create a shallow, boxed-in sound or fill up a bathtub to give a room more ambience for recording guitars, vocals drums ..whatever. Knowing how to create those sounds and why the various recording techniques achieve these sounds will allow you to expand on your own sound in hopes of creating a unique sounding recording.



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