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Recording Secrets For The Small Studio

Book Review By Hugh Robjohns
Published May 2015

Before describing the content of this new book (published by Focal Press, ISBN 978–0–415–71670–3) I feel I should declare an interest or two. Author Mike Senior is a former editor here at Sound On Sound, he remains a regular contributing author, and this book also carries the SOS logo on its front cover, as part of a series of Focal/SOS books.

This, Mike’s second ‘Small Studio’ book — the first was called Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio (reviewed in SOS June 2011, — is a perfectly targeted and very readable mine of technical information, practical advice and real–world home–studio experience. In some ways, it could be considered a ‘prequel’ to his first outing with Focal Press, given that it focuses on the front–end of the music-production process.

With over 400 pages and 12 chapters, Mike covers both the technical concepts and practical techniques necessary for capturing musical performances of all kinds — including the all–important interpersonal skills that are key to helping an artist deliver their full potential. The narrative arc makes it refreshingly different from most books of this kind, though, with a very pragmatic and home–studio–orientated emphasis. Each chapter builds on the concepts, techniques and skills developed in the preceding ones, with a very logical and easy-to-follow progression. As is Mike’s custom, the book is crammed full of tips and tricks gleaned from celebrated engineers and producers across most musical genres, too — people including Elliott Scheiner, Steve Albini, Bruce Swedien, Tony Visconti, Joe Chiccarelli, and many more besides.

Although it’s an unusual approach, the first three chapters are devoted to recording things without using microphones at all! Chapter one covers the essentials of connecting audio equipment together, working with different connectors, signal levels, sample rates and word lengths, as well as tracing signals through the connected equipment, and dealing with common problems like ground loops. Chapter two goes more into the human side of things, such as organising the control room and live space to create productive environments for everyone, suggestions on documenting things sensibly, monitoring arrangements and latency, recording with effects and, most importantly of all, helping the performer(s) to achieve the best possible results, and critical evaluation of their performance.

Recording Secrets For The Small StudioChapter three deals with instruments fitted with pickups (guitars, basses, electro-mechanical keyboards, and so on) and describes using DIs and combo amps, as well as working with the musician in the control room or studio, building a performance through comping and overdubbing, and communicating with the performer, both technically and artistically. Every chapter concludes with a recap of all the salient points and a list of dedicated web–resources including relevant audio examples and web links. Several chapters also offer well-thought–out practical assignments to help consolidate the learning, too.

Having completed 114 pages now, the second section of the book breaks out the microphones, starting with single–mic applications such as recording vocalists and solo instrumentalists. The basic theory of different microphone technologies is covered across three chapters, intermixed with very pragmatic advice on using accessories like pop screens and shockmounts, how to rig microphones safely, and simple ways to improve the acoustic environment. Monitoring/foldback, ‘comfort effects’, compression, preamps and a wealth of techniques to enhance a vocalist’s performance are also described. Moving onto single–mic instrument recording, Mike explores optimising mic placement, dealing with unwanted rattles and resonances, and offers suggestions for miking up a variety of different instruments and drums. There are some less ‘traditional’ ideas too, such as placing mics in pipes or cans to provide some interesting effect coloration!

Again, building on principles established in the previous chapters, part three of the book allocates a further two chapters to the applications of multiple mics on one sound source. Topics here include polarity and phase-alignment, combining polar patterns, practical mounting arrangements, and reamping guitar tracks, as well as various coincident and spaced stereo mic techniques often presenting familiar material in interestingly unfamiliar ways.

The last section of the book moves on to using multiple mics to capture multiple sources — firstly in the ‘classical’ form of combining a main stereo array with close accent mics. There are plentiful case studies to illustrate the concepts and techniques in great detail, throughout. Another chapter details the (possibly) more familiar multi–mic studio approach, but with an unfamiliar take on the topic, and Mike introduces some potentially confusing new terminology here to describe established techniques, such as ‘peer arrays’. Read with fresh eyes it all makes good sense, though, and provides a more integrated way of thinking about mic placement, especially in terms of what each mic or mic array contributes in terms of what Mike defines as the ‘focus’ and ‘backdrop’ sounds. This section also includes useful suggestions for equipment choices and rigging for location working.

I enjoyed reading Recording Secrets very much, and not least because of its very logical progression of knowledge, techniques and skills, and the refreshingly original approach to many topics. The practical insights and tips from the industry illuminati help to underline salient points, and the emphasis throughout on communication skills is most welcome. All of the images in the book are monochrome, which is a shame, but they generally provide clear and effective illustrations, while boxes providing related useful hints, tips and technical information are scattered throughout each chapter. Recording Secrets is structured to be read from front to back, but its index makes it fairly easy to dip back in subsequently to check out and review specific advice, and the assignments are very helpful in putting the text into a practical context.

Recording Secrets For The Small Studio, then, is an excellent follow–up to Mixing Secrets, and it’s a book that I’d be very happy to recommend unreservedly to enthusiasts, students and experienced practitioners alike. Hugh Robjohns