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Quality Matters!

Paul White's Leader
Published July 2006
By Paul White

We often hear stories from readers who have bought lots of good-quality recording equipment but who are still unhappy with the results they are getting. Sometimes the reasons for this are easily diagnosed, but in many instances, it is because the user has lost sight of the fact that the technology is there only to record music, not to create it. Stick up a microphone and it will record what it hears, and if it is a very good microphone connected to a very good preamplifier, then the chances are that it will record what it hears pretty accurately. The problem is that the performance or the sound of the instrument being recorded may not be up there with the quality of the recording system, in which case no amount of expensive upgrades will solve the problem. For example, switching from a £100 microphone to a £2000 mic when the real problem is worn-out guitar strings or a badly set-up guitar with intonation problems, won't help anybody aside from the company that makes the expensive microphone.

During the course of our Mix Rescue series, I've been faced with a number of guitar parts that have been recorded well enough but have had tuning issues. These may have been slight enough to get away with live, but on a recording, particularly where the guitar part is exposed, they stand out like a sore thumb. It can't be stressed too highly that if the tuning and timing of the performance isn't right, there's a very limited amount that can be done to make it sound good. To date, automatic tuning software can only work with monophonic sources such as voices, and not with guitar chords. Guitar tuners are cheap and practice is free, so be critical of your recordings and do them again if there are audible timing or tuning issues.

Another common problem is that rather than get in a bass player, some musicians have a go at playing the part themselves, and while they may hit the right notes, they often don't pick the strings with the required degree of conviction, so the sound becomes messy and unfocused. You can only do so much with EQ and compression — give me a well-played track over a screen full of remedial plug-ins any day.

The other issue of course is that the microphone doesn't just hear the instrument or voice at which it is pointed, but also spill from other instruments, noise from elsewhere in the house, passing traffic and, possibly most serious of all, room reflections. In a small domestic studio, room reflections are seldom constructive and usually serve only to make the sound appear boxy, coloured and difficult to mix. Despite the emphasis on acoustics in our Studio SOS series, it seems that acoustic treatment, both in the control room and in the studio area, receives far less attention than it should. Just by making sure that the room you record in is quiet and that the area around the performer is acoustically absorbent (using foam, sleeping bags, duvets or even proper acoustic baffles), you'll make much better recordings that are a joy to mix, rather than constantly challenging your salvage abilities. It's just like photography in many ways — put something good looking and well lit in front of the camera, press the button and the chances are you'll have a good picture, even if you don't have state-of-the-art equipment. Recording equipment today tends to be very good, even at the budget end of the market, and it all has the ability to capture a musical performance with adequate quality. That performance though, is entirely down to you.

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published July 2006