A continuing theme amongst the requests for help we get from our readers, and through the various seminars we attend during the year, is that of audio quality, both at the tracking stage and the mixing stage. An obvious complication when someone approaches us with such a problem, however, is that we usually have to rely on descriptions, which can be rather more difficult than hearing the problem at first hand. So one of the advantages of dealing with these kinds of issues in the Studio SOS visits we make is that we're able to listen to what's going on and then try devising a suitable solution.
Although the Studio SOS series of articles is still in its first year, it's clear that many people are having problems recording vocals and other sounds using microphones, and we often find that they're not discovering the most appropriate solution. In many cases, if the sound is unsatisfactory, the perceived solution is to look for another microphone or a better preamp, and while this may be appropriate in some situations, it's actually possible to make superb-sounding vocal recordings using relatively inexpensive microphones and non-esoteric preamps. Indeed, in most cases the problems can be traced to the environment where the sound is recorded, and also to the type of processing that's applied during or after the recording.
For example, in my experience, a boxy vocal sound very rarely turns out to be an equipment-related phenomenon. Indeed, the first thing to look at if you're having this kind of problem is the recording environment itself since many small rooms sound inherently boxy, and ad hoc attempts to 'damp down' the room by fixing carpet or other lightweight treatment to the walls usually makes the problem worse as only high frequencies are absorbed, leaving the bass and mid frequencies to dominate. The fix can often be as simple as changing the mic position and hanging up a duvet or two, and before you ask, SOS doesn't hold shares in any bedding companies that I know of! Once the room problems have been identified and remedied, that's when it pays to check your processing chain.
Never before have we had so much audio processing power available to us — but, as everyone knows, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this is just as true in sound recording as it is in politics. I generally advocate adding a little compression during recording, but if you apply too much compression, you can emphasise any boxiness present in the original sound, and you may also compromise the sound quality because of the side-effects of over-compression. Similarly, using gear that lets you overdrive valves, or that simulates valves, can have a congesting effect on voices that already have a pronounced lower mid range.
So what am I really trying to say? Before deciding to use your credit card to solve the problem, try getting the signal right at source and recording it with no effects and processing. The same advice applies to mixing too: if you're doing things correctly, you'll get a natural sound that you can polish with a little subsequent processing. It's important that processing is used in the context of improving something that's already good, rather than relying on it to fix up something that sounds wrong in the first place.
In this era of processing plug-ins, knowing how to use all these processors is of course essential to getting the best out of them, but perhaps even more important is the ability to know when to leave well alone, and that takes more experience than you might initially imagine.
Paul White Editor In Chief