Zen and the art of music recording

Take a deep breath, center yourself, let your ears and instincts guide you through.

Photo By David Robert

The first step in creating a “good” recording is to really define what you mean by good. Since “good sound” is nothing more than a subjective abstract, it can only exist because you have made your own personal distinction between “good” and “bad.”

For example many guitar players listen to records that were done with old Marshall amps, and yet are perplexed when the Peavey they’ve been using records like crap. There is nothing wrong with the sound of any amp, but the moment you create a distinction between good and bad based on what you are used to hearing or not hearing, there absolutely becomes a good and bad amp to use.

This analogy transfers to anything else as well; old bass strings don’t sound new. New is one hour not one week. Broken cymbals sound like trash can lids. An Ovation does not sound like a Martin. The point is if you want a certain sound, don’t expect to get it unless you have it. If you do your homework, you will find many of the artists representing certain products never actually record with those instruments.

Now that you have defined what it is you like, another important step is playing technique. This affects your sound as much, if not more, than the gear you choose. Most “good” sounding drummers hit the drums with a snap of the wrist, most “bad” sounding drummers use no wrist and kill the the drums using only elbow. Take some time to really pay attention to the players you know that have made very “good” sounding recordings, and rather than looking at what they are using, pay attention to how they are using it. As for singers you are S.O.L. You were partially born with your instrument, and the way you feel has a lot to do with how well you can use it. DO NOT QUIT SMOKING RIGHT BEFORE YOU GO TO RECORD! Quitting will for sure have long term benefits, but for the short term it will only make you feel like ?!#% which will make you sound like ?!#%. Now that you have spent all this time defining how to imitate a “good” sound remember; do not to seek the path of the wise, but seek what they sought. Most of what today is defined as “good” was once defined as “bad,” thank-God someone had the self-confidence to do something bad that in turn was badass.

Most of us who think and feel become nervous while the tape is rolling. Sometimes this can add to the spirit of a performance, but most of the time it doesn’t, making otherwise energetic songs sound lifeless. Taking steps to overcome being nervous will always make the recording sound better. For example don’t try too hard, it always sounds so much better just relaxing and letting a performance flow.

And of course right before your singer goes to do a take it is always important to ask the question, “when is it OK to spit in a Italian lady’s face? WHEN HER MUSTACHE IS ON FIRE!” Then immediately hit record and voila, you are on your way to a great take. Be creative, there are limitless ways to achieve this same effect as long as it gets your mind off trying too hard.

Recording is worthless if you can’t hear what you are doing. Most people understand that the speakers you listen through greatly affect the sound you are hearing, but very few understand that the room you are listening in and the speaker placement in that room has just as much if not more to do with what you are hearing. How you ask? Well sit down Grasshopper and take notes. A speaker’s frequency response in a room is partially due to comb filtering caused by its proximity to walls. Any frequency that has a 1/4 wavelength that corresponds to the distance between the speaker and the closest wall will be turned down, as were any frequency that has a 1/2 wavelength that corresponds to the distance between the speaker and a wall will be turned up.

This can be easy to figure out using the equations, 1/4 wavelength = F = 1130/(4d) where d is distance in feet between a close wall and the speaker cone and F is frequency. And 1/2 wavelength = F = 1130/(2d) d & F are the same. Now you understand the basic principal behind comb filtering here is a tip to figuring out the “ballpark” acoustics of your room.

A standing wave will occur between any two parallel walls. The frequency of that standing wave can be determined by the distance between the walls and the equation, F=1130/(2d) where d is the distance between two parallel walls and F is the frequency. What this means is every frequency which has a standing wave will be louder. So your average rectangular room has three main standing waves as well as its harmonics which for our purposes is just the first octave up of each standing wave.

Applying this seventh grade algebra is easy even for drummers. First measure the dimensions of your room and figure out each standing wave and its first octave. You should now have six frequencies, look to see if any cross over or are very close. The frequencies where your room has multiple standing waves in close proximity will sound louder, and likewise the areas that have no standing waves will be quieter. Now plug a bass into your speakers and play up and down the scale. You will notice that some notes are louder than others are. This inconsistency in your room will trick you into turning down those frequencies when it’s not actually the recording, but the room that’s too loud in those areas. A way to combat this problem is to use comb filtering to work with your room. For example, if I found a room to be too loud at 120hz, I could then use comb filtering and the equations explained in the previous paragraphs to figure out the distance of the wavelength of 120hz (120=1130/(4d)=around 2ft 4inches). Placing my speakers that distance from a wall causing them to react with that wall will effectively turn down the speakers’ volume at 120hz and even out the frequency response of the room. The goal is to help balance the sound of your listening environment so you hear the music evenly. These type of acoustics control will only help get you closer. The most important thing is to be aware of the imbalances in your room so you don’t overcompensate for the room in your recordings.

It is important to understand that there is more going on acoustically in any given environment than what can be explained with the information I have given you, or the most modern acoustical modeling software made for that matter. So taking this in to account, also use your ears, use the math to help you get close, but also move your speakers around the room to see what happens.

Photo By David Robert

You will find you get the best results when combining the use of the tools I have given you with practical experience. Once you have found a good speaker position that works with, not against the sound of your room, set up your listening position so you and the speakers create an equilateral triangle, this will help dramatically in giving you a semi-accurate stereo image.

Now that we are prepared mentally and physically and we have a semi-balanced listening environment, we are ready to record. Different recording techniques and tricks are as numerous as musicians with stripper girlfriends. So rather than focusing on details, a quick look at the process that often leads to good recordings will probably be more helpful.

When using microphones always move them around and use your ears to determine the best location. Often it helps to use loud headphones while doing this so you can hear the results as they take place. For guitar amps make the headphones loud enough so you can hear the amp noise clearly through the mic. Move the mic around until the noise you are hearing through the headphones sounds similar to the noise you hear coming through the amp.

This process will always yield far better results than just putting the microphone somewhere you have seen it done before. From the moment your sound hits that microphone it is customary to refer to it as a signal. It can be helpful to view the signal as troops you are sending to battle, the further you send them the more tired they will be when they reach their destination.

Likewise the more processing you do to your signal the more tired out it will sound. Be careful when using EQ, if the sound is close wait until you are mixing to do any additional processing. And if you do need to use an EQ, try to consider what can be taken away rather than added. Removing the lows or low mid frequencies can often clear up a muddy sound, and will yield a much more natural and punchy sound than just boosting high frequencies.

Once it is all recorded and you are mixing, try to get your mix to sound as good as possible with just the volumes of the instruments alone. After hearing how something sits in a mix, you are more likely to make better judgement calls on how to process that signal. If something is getting buried in the mix, rather than turning that sound up, try to see what is covering it up and turn that instrument down.

Move around your room when making decisions about how the low frequencies should be mixed. The same acoustical phenomenon that happens to speakers placed in a room, comb filtering, also happens to your ears. Moving about the room you are mixing in will always help the listener to yield a much more accurate low end that will sound good anywhere.

It is important to understand that the equipment people use to record at home is a far cry from that which is used in professional studios. You may like the compressed sound of hard rock records but Waves or Stienberg plug-ins sound as close to real analog compressors as a Peavey sounds to a Marshall. So by keeping things simple, you are usually, but not always, likely to get a recording you are happy with.

Mastering is usually defined as anything you do to your mixes as a whole like eq, compression, limiting, and putting the songs in order for a master CD. With so many toys for the home computer, it is very easy to master your own recordings at home. But for the reasons I described earlier, every listening environment is going to contain imbalances.

By mastering in the same listening environment the recording was made in, you run a high risk of reinforcing any errors that were made during mixing. A way around this is mastering your recording at a friend’s house through a different pair of speakers, or even use a different pair of speakers in a different room of your own house. This will minimize errors made to a recording due to that specific listening environment. When using EQ on your mix once again try to remove unwanted frequencies rather than boosting.

When using plug in compressors and limiters be careful. You will be able to make your recording as loud as professionally mastered CD’s but not without distorting your whole mix. The compressors and limiters used in professional mastering studios are a far cry from what you can down-load off the Internet, so go easy and you are more likely to be happy with your final master. When burning your final master to CD, use slower burn speeds with CDR’s that are made to be burned slowly. Burning CDR’s at high speeds often results in errors on the CDR that make it sound gritty as well as ruining the stereo-image you worked so hard to create.

Appreciating your recording once it is done
Once the recording is done most of us play it a hundred times a day until we are sick of it. There is no way to keep you and your stripper girlfriends from over-listening to your work of art. But I can assure you that once you put it down for several months, then re-listen to it, for better or worse you will appreciate the recording in a very different light.

Eric Broyhill is best known for being the greatest recording engineer in the world as well as his awe-inspiring humility.