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Science 101

Paul White's Leader
By Paul White

Recording music has always been a mixture of art and science, but from talking to a number of musicians who have their own recording systems, it seems that the science part of the deal is in real danger of being neglected. It's easy to see why, as a lot of the music software out there has a mission statement to put the musician — the artist — in control.

Of course, in the early days of recording the balance leant too far the other way: towards engineers in white coats who seemed to spend more time calibrating tape machines than actually recording with them. But however musician‑friendly the modern studio may seem, it is still firmly based in technology and some understanding of how that technology works ultimately means that you can coax better results out of it. So the theme of this column is to look at some of the things you really need to learn about if you're going to get the best from your own studio, and which would be considered essential in any commercial studio where you might get to work as an engineer.

It never ceases to amaze me that I can walk into a musician's project studio to find that they don't even possess a soldering iron, let alone the knowledge to use one. When I started out, this was the most used piece of kit in the studio and I built much of my gear myself. So firstly, learn how to solder. Specifically, get to the point where you are able to make up or repair your own cables, swap out guitar pickups and so on. It isn't difficult and it isn't expensive, so treat yourself to a decent soldering iron, ideally a thermostatically controlled one of about 50 Watts, and keep practising on old cables and bits of wire until you can get it right every time.

Another useful bit of science is understanding ground‑loop hums: what causes them, how to minimise them, and the role of balanced wiring in doing so. You need to know how to interface balanced gear with unbalanced gear, and how to match gain levels between different pieces of analogue equipment, and you need a rudimentary grasp of the concept of impedance and its implications when interfacing.

This is all basic stuff that any house engineer must know alongside all the digital issues that have an impact on the modern studio — such as what's the best way to connect and sync up various bits of digital gear? Do you need a separate master clock, or will one of the existing units work as a master clock source for the rest of the system? Do you have the right type of digital interconnect cable? (Cable of the correct impedance is critical in moving digital data from point A to point B without introducing errors, which in turn can cause clicks and pops on your recordings.) At what point should you introduce dither, and what does it achieve? How can you check that your monitors are reasonably accurate in your room, and how can you improve the acoustics of both the mixing and listening spaces?

These are all subjects that we've covered in the past, and there's plenty of material free to view on the Sound On Sound web site, so instead of spending this Christmas complaining that TV is rubbish yet again, maybe it's the perfect time to brush up on your technical chops.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published January 2009