An Introduction to the Art of Recording

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Another look at the individual angles of both the pro and home recording process, and an overview of the gear and mentality you need to get started.

Making professional quality recordings has become more and more feasible at a lower price point in the last decade than ever before. On the other hand good gear does not make a great recording. Many people jump on the “home recording” bandwagon thinking that all they need to do is bust out their instruments, throw down some tracks, adjust a few levels and… POOF! It sounds PRO! This is not the case. If they do make it past the stage of the getting everything hooked up and working in the first place, this is where some people give up and discover why it is that there are professionals getting paid to do this job.

Alright, maybe that was a little bit too critical, but it all too often happens. It is more than possible to get a great sound at home with gear from your local Guitar Center, but it comes down to the knowledge and ability of the people who are making the recording more than the capabilities of the gear itself. If you want to get into recording, you’ll have to be willing to learn a lot and learn from a lot of poor recordings before you start getting results you’re happy with. Like anything, it requires a great deal of patience and practice. If you love it, like I do, it’s also a lot of fun! It’s an art, and you’ll learn to both love and hate it. In my opinion, the most important aspects of a great recording come down to this:

  1. A great artist and song
  2. A great producer
  3. A great recording engineer
  4. A great mixing engineer
  5. A great mastering engineer
  6. Good gear

Three engineers you say??? Well, that’s how it’s generally done in commercial recordings, and it’s ideal in that everyone has something a little different to contribute to the project. Different ears and different minds hear things differently. Of course, you can learn how to do all of these things, and do them well, if you take the time. A quick explanation of the different jobs should give you a better idea of what goes into a recording and what you should know to do it yourself.

The producer is the man on top. He is involved in both the technical side and the artistic side, as well as the commercial side in some cases. He works with the artists to develop a vision for a song or project, and oversees the entire recording, including tracking and mixing. During tracking, he may help to coach the instrumentalists and/or vocalists. The producer tells the recording engineer(s) what he wants for a sound, and it’s up to this engineer to get that sound through the use of different gear and miking techniques. The recording engineer is in charge of setting up and operating the gear and microphones, and making sure it all works. Once everything is tracked, it goes to the mixing engineer, who sets levels, EQ, panning (placement in the stereo field), and uses effects such as compression and reverb to give each instrument it’s auditory place in the recording. This is a job that can take hours and is very, very crucial to the quality of the final product. After mixing, the recording goes to the mastering engineer. The mastering engineer uses special tools, both analog and digital, to improve the mix further by smoothing the entire frequency spectrum, adding compression and limiting to boost the actual level of the recording, and using other tools such as stereo expansion and small amounts of harmonic distortion to liven the sound, if necessary and desired. Ultimately, the goal of the mastering engineer is to make sure that the mix will “translate” well to (sound good in) all types of stereos and music players. After this, the recording(s) are put on whatever media they are destined to be heard on (CD, cassette), which is the second stage in mastering.

So, what about the gear? Do you want to know what you need to accomplish all of this to some degree on your own? Well, it depends on a few things. Do you want to record all the instruments together, or separately? Many studios have separate tracking rooms that are sonically treated and soundproofed so that, for example, the bass player, drummer, and guitarist(s) can each play in their own room and listen to one another through headphones, while remaining sonically separate on their individual tracks. Tracking can also be done individually, where the drummer records first, either to a click track, scrap guitar track, or both. This is how I generally operate. Next, usually the bass and guitar are recorded. In either meathod, the vocals are recorded separately from the band, since they usually require multiple takes and splices. Either way, any track can be redone if the original performance was lackluster. If you choose to track separately, the requirements for gear are less, because you will obviously need fewer microphones, cords, stands, and tracks. Now you’ll have to decide whether to record to tape (analog), or to a computer or hard disk recorded (digital). I highly recommend the computer route, which gives you limitless mixing and mastering potential with a wide variety of software packages and plug-in effects. Plus, you have a visual, hand-on approach to the process. You can drag and edit audio with the click of a mouse. Most professional studios are now operating on computers, most of which use the popular Digidesign ProTools system. ProTools is a software program and hardware line which gained its popularity by being one of the first of its kind. Many studios prefer to use Apple computers with their history of reliability. Nowadays, however, there are numerous multitracking software options on the PC which are arguably equivalent or better, for less cash. I use a PC, and find that there is much more by way of recording software options on the PC platform than the Mac.

So here’s what you need if you go the PC computer route:

  1. A PC with at least 512 MB RAM, a hard drive with, at the very least, 50 GB of space, and a processor of 1 GHZ or more. I have 712 MB RAM, two 160 GB hard drives (I recommend two of the same so you can do backups!), and a 1.8 GHZ processor.

  2. An interface/sound card. This is how you get your audio into the computer. Most built-in computer sound cards have low quality recording capability and will only take 1 or 2 tracks at once. A good sound card will extremely low self-noise and have a very accurate analog-to-digital conversion. I use the Echo Layla 3G, which gives you 8 channels of audio. Before I bought the Layla I had an M-Audio Delta 44, which is a 4 channel card. It is excellent as well, but if you’re looking to record live drums, I would recommend a 6-8 channel interface, even though you can get by with only 4 channels in a pinch. Some interfaces work with firewire rather than a PCI card, which makes them more versatile.

  3. Multitracking software. Examples of some good professional multitrackers include Cakewalk Sonar and Steinberg Cubase SX. These usually run about $500. There are less expensive packages as well if you don’t care about some of the features. I personally use Sonar, but have limited experience with the other packages, so can’t say much about them. Your multitracker is where you record, edit, and mix all your audio tracks.

  4. Mastering software. You may want to purchase a package like the ever popular Steinberg WaveLab, but this is not absolutely necessary, and is a very pricy route. WaveLab gives you some nice audio analysis features and editing options, but I find that the most important aspects of mastering can be accomplished in your multitracker. I recommend a little program called HarBal, which can be purchased for $100 off of the internet. This program allows you to visually manipulate the frequency spectrum of your mix to correct any major dips or stray peaks. For volume maximization, compression, and effects, I use and recommend a very effective, powerful plug-in called Izotope Ozone, which can be used within your multitracker and runs around $200. The use of theses programs is not simple and requires quite a bit of experimentation and know-how to make the most out of them.

No matter what route you decide to take, you’ll still need a few more toys to play with:

  1. Mixing console or microphone preamps. The role of the mixing console in the home studio has greatly diminished now that all your mixing can be done via software without running the signal back through the mixer, the traditional method of mixing a recording. The main reason for buying a mixer is input preamps as well as output signal routing (to headphones and monitors). If your audio interface has no built in preamps, devices which boost your microphone signal to useable levels, you will either need a mixer or outboard preamps. Behringer makes some of the best affordable mixers in their UB line. How many channels, direct outs, and busses you’ll need depends on how many inputs you have on your interface. Individual microphone preamps can cost you anywhere from $50-$3,000. I have a $180 ART TPS, but a higher quality preamp will allow your microphone to really shine through. I would love to buy something like an Avalon or Universal Audio preamp, which run around $2,000. Some preamps will also include EQ and compression effects built in.

  2. Monitors and headphones. You’re going to need at least 2 pairs of closed back headphones for your studio, the kind that cover your ears and won’t leak any sound out. You may want to buy a headphone amp if you decide you need more than 2 pairs. I have a little $100 PreSonus 4 channel headphone amp, which does a great job. For headphones I use the Audio Technica m40fs. Even more important than your headphones are you monitors. Having a good pair of mixing monitors can make all the difference in the sound of your final mixes because you need to have monitors that accurately replicate what you’re doing to your audio. These special studio speakers are designed to have a “flat” EQ response, unlike the scooped midrange sound that is so common among home stereo speakers. Decent monitors will cost you at least $250. I have a pair of small M-Audio SP-5B’s that serve me well. They retailed for $300 at the time that I bought them.

  3. A compressor. Although you can get by without one, vocals benefit greatly from the use of an outboard compressor. A compressor reduces the amplitude of an audio signal after it crosses a certain point, called the “threshold.” This effect is good for controlling voice, especially for those vocalists who have a lot of volume range (or go in and out of screaming). In addition, the compressor prevents vocals and instruments from distorting or “clipping” on tape or disc. So why not just record softer? The reason is that the louder you can record to disc or tape, the larger your signal-to-noise ratio. If you record softer to begin with, and then raise the level while mixing, you will also raise the noise floor. Compression can also make a voice sound more powerful, up front, and lively if used correctly. The key to big modern “wall of sound” recordings is compression, as it is a very powerful sound shaping tool. Compression can also be applied through computer plug-in effects, which is why I say that an outboard compressor is not completely necessary. You will at least need a software compressor. Something else that I haven’t mentioned is EQ and reverb units. The way I see it, using computer plugins rather than hardware units gives you superior flexibility in this area. For compressors, I own both an FMR Really Nice Compressor (RNC), which goes for $200 on the internet, and a Behringer Composer Pro, which is only $100.

  4. Microphones. You will need a variety of good microphones in your setup. My best advice on a budget is this:
    • 4 Shure SM57’s
    • 2 small diaphragm condenser mics such as the Oktava Mk-012’s
    • A kick drum specific microphone such as the Shure Beta 52
    • A $100-$500 large diaphragm condenser mic mainly for vocals

Using this setup you can do nearly everything. The Shure SM57 is one of the most trusted, reliable, excellent sounding dynamic microphones that there is. Almost every studio has them, and they’ll only cost you $80 a piece. They are the guitar amp microphone of choice for many people (I use two of them on one speaker, one dead center and one off to the side), and they’re also excellent on snare drum (one on top and one on bottom is great), bass guitar, and even voice. On the drum kit, I use two on the snare, and one on each tom. The small diaphragm condenser microphones are great for drum overheads and acoustic guitar. You can place a pair of them above the drum set to capture the stereo image of the cymbals and entire set with great clarity. The price ranges for these microphones vary a lot. Having a dedicated kick drum microphone is a good idea. Kick drum microphones usually emphasize the bass frequencies as well as the higher frequencies, but usually still do not negate the need for EQ on the drum later on, in my opinion. In addition, the kick drum microphone is capable of handling extreme sound levels without distorting or harming the microphone. If you’ve still got cash to spend, then a large diaphragm condenser mic will top off your setup. These things are excellent on both vocals and acoustic guitar. Their prices range from $100 to thousands of dollars, but I would recommend staying within the more reasonable $100-$500 range where you can still get an excellent microphone. Condensers like these pick up everything, loud and clear. You can get by with an SM57 or small diaphragm condenser, but you will often find that the large diaphragm condenser gives you a much better vocal sound.

In reality, this is only a very small introduction to the art of recording. Although I’ve discussed each job’s significance, I’ve barely even touched upon how to carry out the various jobs in the recording process. There’s much more to learn when it comes to the physics of sound and a technical understanding of recording, as well as software settings, hooking your hardware up right, manipulating audio within your software, placing your microphones effectively, and using your ear and your gear to mix and master your tracks. At any rate, I hope this article gives you a good idea of the premise of modern recording and the kind of gear you need to get started.

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User-submitted comments

Jan 02, 2011 05:16 am
Great Intro
This is a great introduction to the art of recording. My band member always wonder why i have to try and record everything and anything. They don't see it like i do. But recording truly is an art.

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