The same pitfalls present themselves time and again in project-studio recording. Learn to avoid them and your tracking sessions will be transformed!
As a long–time contributor to SOS‘s Mix Rescue column, I’ve tried to demonstrate that, with careful editing and processing, it’s often possible to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when faced with poor recordings. But long, tedious salvage jobs at the mix would be unnecessary if the recordings were better in the first place. A few simple changes while recording could have saved me many hours of post–production purgatory. I wouldn’t expect a well–recorded band production to take more than a day or so to mix to a commercial level, but most project–studio multitracks I receive need three times that amount of work, and some Mix Rescue projects can take a solid week to disentangle. What’s most galling is that the same basic tracking errors are to blame time and time again, so with this in mind, I’d like to help you cut hours (or perhaps days) off your mixing schedule. I’ll list the 10 most common recording traps I hear project–studio producers fall into, and explain some no–nonsense ways to avoid them. To help you understand things better, I’ve put together a media page on the SOS web site (http://sosm.ag/feb16media) which features dozens of audio demonstrations and provides links to a variety of helpful online resources. Also, in case any of the technical terms I use leaves you scratching your head, I’ve included links to the capacious SOS technical glossary and numerous supporting articles from our free online archive. Now, let’s consider those mistakes...
Top producers harp on about this all the time in interviews, so it amazes me how often I see project–studio operators fixate on their technology and completely overlook the fact that the instrument, the musician, and the recording room are far more important. This is especially baffling amongst cash–strapped recordists, as it costs nothing to tweak an instrument’s settings, adjust the way it’s played, or rearrange furniture to change the room’s acoustics.
Work on the source: Listen acoustically to the instrument/ensemble you’re about to record and ask yourself if it already sounds the way you want it to. If not, always try to address this at source — not only before you hit Record, but before you even get any mics involved. As producer Trina Shoemaker puts it: “It’s not about getting a great sound. It’s about capturing a great sound that’s already there.” Clearly, you may never reach your perfect timbre that way, especially when working under typical project–studio restrictions, but the process of striving for the unattainable ideal makes it much more likely that you’ll get a respectable tone through the mics.
Consider the context: Soloing a source can help you home in on technical problems, but a beautiful sound in isolation won’t necessarily fit within the context of a full arrangement. Don’t make hard–and–fast decisions about any instrument’s tone while your solo buttons are lit.
Ask the musician: Whenever your mic setup doesn’t immediately strike gold (and certainly before you start reaching for EQ), quickly record a snippet, play it back for the musician, and ask them to help you improve the sound. They’ll almost certainly come up with half a dozen great suggestions straight away: an electric guitarist might flick a switch or use a different pick; a keyboard player might rearrange his chord voicings or tweak some arcane synth parameter; or a singer might increase their twang or breathiness. No engineer can know how every instrument works, so why not just ask the expert who’s playing it? Besides, encouraging performers to critique their own recorded sound is no bad thing in general, because they’ll often respond instinctively to it and adjust their playing to fit the arrangement — in effect doing some of the mixing work for you!
Help the vocalist: Encourage singers to sip room–temperature water between vocal takes. The time of day you record can make a huge difference to the sound of any voice, and the tone will also change as the singer warms up, hits their peak, and then gradually fatigues. With a little planning, you can turn these things to your advantage.
Work the room: Don’t forget to exploit the acoustic potential of your surroundings. Is there another spot in the recording room that might sound better, or another room entirely that you could decamp to? What if you removed the comfy chairs and rolled up the carpet to enhance an acoustic–guitar sound, or hung up bed quilts to tackle some harsh spill between two instruments? These things are free, for Heaven’s sake, and often alter the sonics more profoundly than your mics ever could, so don’t squander them!
Check tuning often: Check the tuning before every take. (Pretty please?!) Honestly, it’s only a minute’s work and it can save countless hours of soul–crushing corrective editing later on.
You don’t have to Google very assiduously to find dozens of miking diagrams for anything you’d care to record, but such templates don’t half wreak havoc in the project studio! Indeed, the very worst recordings I hear submitted to Mix Rescue always seem to arise from people treating some prescribed setup as gospel — despite copious contradictory evidence from their own ears!
One big problem is that few templates are accompanied with unprocessed audio examples, so there’s no way of knowing whether the suggested mic technique will actually suit your music. Furthermore, some templates seem also to have been inherited from practices in large commercial studios (and indeed from the heyday of analogue tape recording), and frequently crash and burn when you’re working in more domestic acoustics, typically in a smaller space and with a limited amount of affordable gear. I can’t tell you, too, how often I see on–stage miking setups being transferred unthinkingly into the studio, even though these tend to heavily prioritise feedback minimisation over sound quality!
Irrespective of the suitability of any miking template, a basic truth of mic technique is that it’s not fundamentally about where you put the mics in the first instance. What really matters is how you adjust those initial guesses in response to what you hear through your monitors.
Always tweak your mics: I’d estimate that 90 percent of the initial mic choices and placements on typical project–studio sessions would benefit from some adjustment, so changing and/or moving each mic before recording should be the rule, not the exception — whether you start from a miking template or not. Avoiding EQ while recording can help with discipline here. I also prefer to remove all chairs from in front of the recording workstation while I’m setting up for recording, simply because it’s a lot harder to motivate myself to keep moving mics around if I’m having to get up out of a comfy seat every time.
Make comparisons: Always make a point of listening acoustically to any sound you’re recording. This is something that celebrated engineers stress repeatedly. “Don’t just sit down there in the control room,” says Bruce Swedien, for instance. “Go see what it sounds like in the studio.” One of the best weapons against template–driven complacency is the discipline of comparing your monitored signal with acoustic reality. It can be a bit depressing at times, but there’s nothing else that’ll hone your recording chops as effectively.
Fix it before the mix: One of the biggest danger signs when people are using templates is the excuse: “well, it does still need to be mixed”. Yes, the purpose of mixing is to make a recording sound its best, but if your rough tracking balance isn’t getting the musicians excited, then you unquestionably need to work harder with the mics. It’s a massive waste of time trying to ‘fix things in the mix’, because you have many more options to manipulate timbres while recording. As Trevor Horn once put it: “The mix is the worst time to do anything.”
Use your ears: But if miking templates aren’t much use, how else can you make sensible initial miking choices for your sessions? Well, the best way is simply to use your ears! If you’re wondering what kind of mic to use, for instance, it’s child’s play to find microphone shootouts on the Internet — for example, here at SOS we’ve done our own carefully controlled comparisons of ribbon mics (http://sosm.ag/ribbonmics) and vocal mics (http://sosm.ag/voxmics). Pure microphone placement demonstrations (ie. multiple instances of the same mic on a single performance) are rather less common, so to put that right, I’ve recently begun building up a Library of Microphone Positions (www.cambridge-mt.com/rs-lmp.htm. This already features demonstration files for stalwarts such as electric and acoustic guitars, grand and upright pianos, kick, snare, cymbals, upright bass and saxophone.
The demise of so many large professional facilities means that few young engineers now benefit from the traditional ‘tea–boy to tape–op’ studio apprenticeship, and hence seldom have first–hand opportunities to watch seasoned veterans at work. Although there’s a lot you can learn nowadays without all that sharpening of pencils and emptying of ashtrays, one thing that’s difficult to convey is just how critical professionals are in the studio, particularly when it comes to the time and effort they take to develop and edit performances.
Top–quality lead vocals are probably the clearest indicator of a professional–grade production in this respect, but I’d say nine out of 10 project–studio mixes fail to deliver that quality level, simply because there’s been skimping at the tracking and editing stages.
Listen, appraise & act: Whenever you capture anything, make a point of listening back to the recording with a critical frame of mind. For example, are there any small errors that could do with patching over? Is the second verse performed as musically as the first? Are there any moments where the groove suddenly seems to hurry or drag? Get to know the keyboard shortcut for adding marker points in your DAW project, and use it to highlight any questionable moments as you listen through to the take, so you don’t forget anything. Acquaint yourself with your DAW’s manual punch–in facility as well (and its associated cue–mix switching functions), because it’s usually quicker to patch over blemishes on the fly than by doing longer takes and then editing separately.
Compare takes: For a lead vocal in any chart style I’d recommend recording a minimum of four takes, and then comping a master take from the best bits of each. Many mainstream commercial productions go way beyond that, though, assembling more than a dozen takes and devoting hours to the comping process. Whatever the degree of depth you go into, though, here’s one time–saving suggestion: don’t just keep recording new takes without listening back to the older ones. Early takes will often be outshone by later ones, in which case they can be recorded over to reduce your editing workload. In addition, I find that comparing takes during the tracking session itself introduces an element of self–criticism and competitiveness that frequently spurs vocalists to up their game.
Resist making do: Be wary of any situation in which you find yourself uttering the words “that’ll do” or “we’ll fix that later”. Another danger sign is if you feel an insatiable urge to add extra overdubs, because that often indicates that the existing parts aren’t yet compelling enough in their own right. Broadly speaking, the better your performances, the easier it is to leave your arrangement sparse. In a similar vein, try to resist sweetening your tracking rough mix with masses of reverb or delay effects, since these make second–rate moments in a performance tougher to spot.
One of the big drivers of the project–studio revolution has been the flood of affordable mass–produced capacitor mics on the market. The high–frequency clarity and overall sensitivity of capacitor designs will give crisp, clean recordings with just about any sound source, so it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. But many people over-use them (perhaps because they assume that a capacitor is always the more ‘pro’ choice?) and end up with rather one–dimensional sonics as a consequence.
Beware bright mics: Be careful of reusing mic setups developed during the heyday of analogue tape, because high frequencies were often pre–emphasised at the tracking stage, using super–bright capacitor mics as a way of compensating for treble losses in the recording medium. “If you’re going to record on a digital medium,” comments producer Mick Glossop, for instance, “you can’t expect to use the same mics you’ve used for analogue.” The recent renaissance of ribbon mics in pro circles is a testament to this, because ribbons deliver a much smoother sound at source, but project–studio owners still seem reluctant to follow suit, despite the recent price crash in the ribbon–mic market. Perhaps it’s because they’re wary of the figure–of–eight polar patterns, which most ribbons exhibit. Whatever the reason, I suspect this is why drum overheads, acoustic guitar, strings, and horns so often sound painfully tinny in home–brew mixes.
Try different mics before EQ’ing: While recording, think like a mix engineer. But rather than using EQ to shape the sound, use your choice of mic, with the aim of contrasting different sounds so that they don’t conflict and obscure each other at mixdown. This is where dynamic designs really come into their own for me, because you’ll typically get a much wider tonal palette from spending a given mic budget on dynamic mics than on condensers. Granted, most recordists usually have a Shure SM57 or SM58 and an AKG D112 or some such lying around, but there are plenty of other stellar performers in the £250–£500$350–700 price range — mics such as the Beyerdynamic M88, Electro-Voice RE20 and RE320, Heil Sound PR30 and PR40, Sennheiser MD421 and MD441, and Shure SM7B, to name just a handful.
Think of the transients: Another thing tape–based recorders have trouble retaining is transient definition, and it wasn’t uncommon to see hand percussion recorded close up with a small–diaphragm capacitor mic to compensate for this. On digital systems, such a tactic can be disastrous because all you end up hearing is the transients, rather than any of the body of the instrument’s timbre. Dynamic or ribbon mics are more understated in this respect, so they’ll usually give you a fatter, more mixable sound right from the outset.
Pick mics for each vocalist: Amateur engineers are particularly prone to choosing capacitor mics automatically when recording lead vocals, which is a shame, since harsh, over–bright vocal sounds are a problem I commonly encounter in Mix Rescues, and the problem could easily have been solved in most cases by using a dynamic mic. Bear in mind that many iconic studio vocal performances were captured with dynamic mics. The Shure SM57 and SM58 have a long history on record with powerful rock vocalists, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Beyerdynamic’s M88 was Phil Collins’ mic of choice for years, for instance, and Michael Jackson used a Shure SM7 for several cuts on Thriller. Electro-Voice’s RE20 has been another perennial vocal favourite, capturing female vocals on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Stevie Wonder’s lead on ‘I Wish’, for example.
Headphone foldback is at the root of many problems I hear on project–studio recordings. For simple solo overdubs, the most obvious side–effect of poor headphone monitoring is floundering pitch, but it can interfere with the tonal and emotional quality of the performance too. On top of this, the unnaturalness of headphone listening can undermine a band’s ability to perform well as a unit, making heavy-duty processing and automation work necessary to stabilise the ensemble balance at mixdown.
Check for cue–mix problems: When a performer is struggling with tuning while overdubbing, it may be the foldback mix at fault, so ask to listen to their headphones. The most common culprits are the backing–track being too quiet, so the performer can’t clearly hear pitch cues from other instruments, or the performer’s own signal being too quiet, so they can’t judge their own pitch reliably. With vocalists, another big factor is monitoring latency, because even the slightest latency delay incurs comb–filtering between the monitoring signal and sound vibrations carried directly to the singer’s ear via bone conduction. The simplest workaround is to encourage singers to monitor themselves acoustically by slipping one headphone earcup off their ear, but it’s usually better in the long run to set up zero–latency (ie. analogue) monitoring, which eliminates the monitoring delay completely.
Look for signs of unease: A tentative performance can signal that the performer is mixed uncomfortably loud in their own cans, whereas a musician who can’t hear themselves well enough will often end up over-projecting, delivering a strained and spindly tone and succumbing more quickly to fatigue. Performers are frequently reticent about asking for headphone mix changes, so stay alert for the sonic warning signs.
Give each performer the balance they need: When recording ensembles, try to resist the urge to give everyone headphones from the get–go. Instead, consider who really needs them (and indeed what each person actually needs to hear) and work from there. If your band wants to use a click track, for example, maybe just give that to the drummer and have everyone else follow him/her, as they would on stage. Or if you have to isolate a band’s singer in a separate room, feed vocal–only foldback to the rest of the band, rather than giving them each their own full–band mix — each player should be able to hear their own natural band balance by using just one headphone earcup, assuming you’ve not set the instruments up too far apart.
Consider losing the cans: Don’t neglect the possibility of loudspeaker foldback when overdubbing, especially with fledgling studio vocalists for whom headphone monitoring can be a bit unsettling. Normally I wouldn’t put any vocal foldback in the monitoring feed in this situation, but if the singer complains that they can’t hear themselves well enough, try reflecting some of their own acoustic sound back at them in the first instance using a reflector on one side of the microphone. (A clipboard on a music stand does the job rather nicely, as it happens.) A similar strategy can help singers hear themselves better in an ensemble–recording situation, too.
Lots of people seem to come unstuck when capturing stereo. Partly to blame is the bewildering variety of stereo recording methods available, leading many people to rely blindly on some prescribed miking template (such as Blumlein or ORTF) and/or the power of prayer! The most frequent undesirable outcome is an over-wide panorama, which not only makes centre–stage images vague, but also inflicts serious tonal damage should left and right channels ever be mixed together — as they will be, for example, if your mix is played through mass–market single–speaker playback devices. The other major pitfall is misrepresenting the natural balance of an ensemble, most commonly by subjectively distancing edge–of–sound-stage musicians too far from the listener.
Don’t mic too wide or too close: To avoid an over-wide image, don’t space the mics in an A–B mic pair more than about 60cm apart, and keep the mutual angle between crossed cardioid mics below 130 degrees. Whichever stereo mic array you choose, be wary of positioning it too close, because the recording angles of many common setups aren’t actually very wide in practice. For example, the useful pickup zone of ORTF is roughly 110 degrees, in my experience, while a 60cm–wide A–B configuration will only suit a soundstage of around 60 degrees. The Blumlein array’s crossed figure–eights often catch people out here, especially when miking large instruments such as drum kits and pianos, because their useful pickup angle is only 70 degrees or so, and any sound source located outside the frontal 90–degree arc will suffer tremendous mono–compatibility problems.
Check references when using headphones: It’s almost impossible to judge stereo width instinctively over headphones, because of the way they stretch the recorded panorama across a 180–degree angle. To improve your decision–making, keep a couple of suitable commercial recordings on hand for comparison and use a stereo vectorscope as a visual confidence check. Plus, don’t forget to switch the mix to mono from time to time to check for unacceptable timbral side–effects.
Move the instruments: Assuming you’re already capturing a suitable image width, the best fix for ensemble imbalances is to adjust the positions of the instruments in relation to the mics. If musicans are set up in a straight line across the sound stage, that’ll cause centre-stage sources to appear about 3dB stronger than those at ±30 degrees, so try to avoid that kind of setup if at all possible — where it’s unavoidable, you may need to use additional ‘outrigger’ mics to support the instruments at the edge of the group.
Understand polar patterns: Using cardioids crossed at right angles will overemphasise the level of central sources, so I’d widen the angle to at least 110 degrees for ensemble recording, which gives a recording angle of about 160 degrees. If you choose a Mid–Sides setup with a cardioid Mid mic, it’ll tend to give its most natural balance across the soundstage if you treat its pickup angle as being roughly 130 degrees, whereas with a figure–of-eight Mid mic, that angle shrinks to around 90 degrees.
One of the most fundamental rules of recording is beautifully summarised by engineer and author Mike Stavrou: “Don’t ever forget — [the musician’s] job is more difficult than ours... If our recording setup ruins his ability to perform, we’re not helping.” Although this seems like common sense to me (and hopefully to you too), I hear way too many horror stories from musicians about engineers putting the cart before the horse, unilaterally imposing some working method which destroys everyone’s ability to perform well. There are few better ways to throw a wet blanket over a session than antagonising the talent in that manner and, on a commercial level, I scarcely need add that it’s unlikely to generate any repeat custom for the engineer!
If musicians prefer to play together, find a way: As a rule, band musicians hate building up productions one overdub at a time. Tracking proceeds at a snail’s pace, and often involves a lot of boring waiting around while other musicians record; it’s much more difficult to play in time and generate natural musical interactions between different parts when you’re not performing in a group; and mixdown is usually a painful process, because earlier tracks need more processing to fit with later additions, and nothing has a natural acoustic connection. Yes, it’s more challenging for the engineer to record people playing together, especially in a small studio, but that’s really no excuse. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Attend rehearsals: Before you record any young band, visit them in rehearsal. Make a note of where everyone has set themselves up and roughly what each player is seeing and hearing from where they’re standing. As you plan your studio setup, think carefully before deciding to deviate from this layout. However, if an otherwise promising session layout jeopardises sight lines, you can sometimes work around that using mirrors. I like to use universal lorry wing mirrors, because they’re fairly cheap (£10–£15$25–30 if you shop around), usefully large, and have rear mounting brackets which fix easily to spare mic stands.
Beware isolating performers: When recording ensembles, try not to distance or isolate players from each other any more than you absolutely have to, because it’s difficult for musicians to perform well if they feel physically dislocated from the action. Whatever initial setup you come up with, don’t commit to it until you’ve asked the musicians how it feels for them. In the grand scheme of things, there’s a lot you can do to manage spill during recording and mixdown, but you’re never going to remedy a shaky performance. “I don’t care whether it’s classical or rock or country,” says producer Eddie Kramer, for instance, “you’ve got to capture that performance, and the hell with the bloody leakage!”
Make communication easy: While overdubbing, it’s a lot easier to communicate with the talent if you’re both in the same room. With amplified electric instruments, a long cable from the amp to the instrument (or, even better, from the amp to the speaker cabinet) makes this fairly straightforward, and also allows the player to monitor over any control–room speakers you may have. With acoustic instruments and vocals, a dry sound can usually be captured fine in any control room (even an improvised one) with the help of a duvet or two, but don’t disregard the idea of setting up your recording system (or just the keyboard, mouse, and monitor of a computer system via a KVM extension unit) in the live room either, if a more open sound is desirable.
In any situation where you’re recording multiple instruments simultaneously in the same room, spill between the mics can add significant complications both during the setup process and at mixdown. Because of this, some recordists seek to minimise spill at all costs, often by unnaturally isolating performers from each other with gobos or isolation booths, and favouring extreme close–miking methods which drastically misrepresent instrument timbres. Other engineers simply fight shy of ensemble recording altogether and record everything as overdubs, which is not only more time–consuming, but also inhibits natural musical interaction and ‘groove’ between the parts. Unfortunately, such tactics frequently turn out to be something of an own goal at the mixdown stage, because spill often ‘glues’ mixes together very naturally, and recordings without it usually require much more work with mixdown effects to reconstitute a coherent ensemble sound!
Point the instruments elsewhere: Some sound sources, such as electric guitar cabinets, woodwind and brass instruments, are inherently quite directional, and you can use this to your advantage while setting up. For instance, just pointing a trumpeter 30 degrees to one side can make a massive difference to the amount of trumpet spill picked up on another mic, without substantially cramping the musician’s style.
Get the balance right: The big trick to getting decent separation between mics is to get the instruments themselves balancing sensibly in the room. So if there’s too much guitar spill on the drums, try turning the guitar amps down in the first instance, or alternatively feed the drums through a PA system in the room. Or if the snare drum’s too loud on your piano mics, maybe ask the performer to try different sticks, or even brushes. Where acoustic guitar or upright bass are struggling to compete with other instruments acoustically (such that their microphones capture more spill), you can hedge your bets by capturing a DI feed alongside the mic signal, because this allows you to add more ‘dry’ level at mixdown if necessary. This is a trick Frank Filipetti used on his Grammy–winning recording for James Taylor’s Hourglass, so there’s no shame in it — although it will sound most natural if you use as little of the DI signal as you can get away with.
Contain reflected spill: Reflected spill is typically more problematic at mixdown than spill coming direct from an instrument, so if you put up acoustic absorbers to reduce spill levels, it’s usually better to put those up around the performers, rather than between them.
Check polarity as you go: As you build up your own monitor mix during tracking, be sure to check the polarity setting for each mic/DI signal you add, because the sonic difference this makes can be enormous. There’s no ‘right’ setting, though — just choose the one that sounds best.
Build from the spill: Try to bear in mind how each instrument sounds in your tracking mix before you’ve added its dedicated mic (ie. when you’re only hearing that instrument as spill from other mics), and adjust your miking choices accordingly. If you’ve already got bright hi–hat spill coming down your snare mic, say, then maybe a meatier–sounding dynamic mic on the hi–hat might make sense. In this context, it makes a lot of sense to start building your rough mix with those mics which capture the most spill, as these will likely have the greatest influence on your mic technique across the session as a whole.
Do you use cardioid mics for everything? If so, you’re not alone, because I only see omni and figure–of–eight polar patterns being used rarely on typical small–studio sessions, despite the affordability of both ribbon mics (which are nearly always figure–of–eight) and multi–pattern capacitor mics. This is a real pity, because non–cardioid polar patterns are much more useful for those on a budget than most people give them credit for.
Work closer to omni mics: The normal home–studio advice for getting a comparatively dry sound out of a cardioid mic is to hang a thick duvet around the back and sides of the performer to intercept room reflections before they reach the sensitive side of the mic. By extension, you need another quilt to defend the back of a figure–eight mic, and a full enclosure for an omni. (My favourite fixing solution here is to secure little key rings to the blankets, and then hang them on cuphooks screwed into the ceiling.) Remember, though, that omni microphones exhibit very little proximity effect and are fairly insensitive to air blasts (such as plosive vocal consonants), so you can also work closer with them to get a drier pickup.
The pattern can affect tonality: Switching a large–diaphragm capacitor mic’s polar pattern doesn’t just change its directionality. It can also have a dramatic effect on its tone, especially with budget–friendly mics — and not just on account of the differing amounts of proximity–effect bass boost (which is greatest for figure–of–eight mics and least for omnis). For example, I was recently helping an SOS reader close–mic an acoustic guitar using their Rode NT2A, and the cardioid polar pattern was, frankly, rather brash–sounding under those circumstances. By contrast, the omni pattern might as well have been a different mic — it was that much smoother-sounding!
Pick a spill–friendly pattern: Wherever off–axis sound, such as room ambience or spill, features heavily in your recording, be wary of using large–diaphragm capacitor mics in their cardioid mode. This will often be the least good–sounding option, as sounds arriving from the back and sides of that pickup pattern typically sound rather unpleasant, whereas omni and figure–of–eight patterns generally provide a much more benign tone from all angles.
If a performer moves, try an omni: An omni mic’s broader pickup angle, more even off–axis frequency response and negligible proximity effect make it a good choice for maintaining an even tone when instrumentalists or vocalists move around a lot while performing — this is something top–name producers such as Phil Ramone, Al Schmitt, Bruce Swedien, and Michael Tarsia have all mentioned in interview. For similar reasons, an omni is also great when you’re recording a comparatively large instrument (such as a piano or acoustic guitar) from very close up.
Choose mics to reject sounds: If you want to mitigate some unwanted sound while recording, whether it’s fan noise from your computer, slapback echo from a nearby wall, or spill from a foldback loudspeaker or another instrument, the rejection plane of a figure–of-eight microphone easily trumps the rear null of a cardiod in terms of performance. A pair of figure–of–eight mics can provide astonishing separation when recording singing acoustic guitarists or duetting lead vocalists, for instance, while a ‘curtain’ of figure–of–eights can be handy for picking up a choir in large–scale orchestral works, because the mics can be angled to reject the brass section blaring away directly in front of the rear risers — a trick Andy Payne mentioned using for his BBC Proms concert recordings in SOS November 2014.
There continues to be a persistent belief amongst home–studio users that the purpose of tracking is to maximise the number of sonic options available when mixing. As reasonable as this may sound in theory, it’s often extraordinarily inefficient in practice. The first problem is that ‘keeping options open’ is usually code for ‘shirking decisions about how the production’s meant to sound’, which makes it well–nigh impossible to choose a suitable recording technique. How can you judge when your mic position sounds right if you’ve no clear sonic goal in mind? The second problem is that every option you keep open spawns a multitude of others. Let’s say you’ve used two mics and a DI on your bass cab without committing to a balance for them. How many mics will you need on each guitar overdub to make sure its sound can be fitted in with the bass at mixdown? Three? Four? And then what about the piano, vocals, egg shaker...? In short, sonic indecisiveness is a recipe for bloated multitrack projects that you end up loathing once you’ve finally trudged your way through the inevitable sweat–soaked mixdown nightmare.
Bounce things down: Here’s a good method for encouraging a more decisive attitude when you’re recording any instrument with multiple mics, or with a combination of mic and DI box: make a habit of bouncing down a representative balance of those signals straight away, to a single mono or stereo track. An additional benefit of this approach is that it keeps the total number of tracks down, which speeds up navigating around the session. It’s also a good idea to bounce the output of guitar–amp simulators and live–running virtual instruments as audio at the earliest opportunity, which will help free up CPU power for running your audio driver at low latencies without glitches.
In both cases, you can always keep the original source tracks archived somewhere, on the off–chance you really do want to revisit them. Just make sure you don’t leave them cluttering up the main recording project.
Edit before overdubbing: Don’t overdub new parts in an arrangement until all necessary editing/comping of the existing parts has been completed. This isn’t just about committing to decisions, as it also invariably leaves you with better recordings. If you don’t address the timing issues of your drum and bass parts, say, before adding guitars and keyboard, you’ll end up having to edit the timing of the guitars and keyboards too, regardless of how good the players are. Get the drums and bass groove right from the outset, and there’s a much higher probability that the guitars and keyboards won’t need editing at all — and you’ll have saved yourself a few hours’ work. By the same token, don’t put a click track in a musician’s mix while overdubbing if there are already enough recorded parts to provide an adequate timing reference. The end listener won’t hear the click, remember, so it’s more important that the musical parts agree rhythmically amongst themselves than that everything lines up exactly with your DAW’s notional bars/beats grid.
Don’t track the vocals last: Consider recording your lead vocals as soon as possible in the recording session, rather than leaving them to the end of the tracking process. You’d be amazed how much easier this often makes it both to select appropriate sounds for the remaining backing parts, and also to mix the final arrangement once it’s complete.
Mix as you go: Another way to maintain a decisive frame of mind (and indeed to improve your mixing instincts) is to keep doing new five–minute rough mixes of your in–progress project every time you record a new part. It might seem odd reinventing the wheel like this, but the advantage is that it encourages you to repeatedly question the role of each existing part in the mix, so you’re much more likely to eliminate dead weight from the arrangement and develop a strong vision for the final product. Eric ‘Mixerman’ Sarafin makes this point strongly in his book Zen & The Art Of Producing: “If, upon completing your last overdub, you have no earthly idea how you want your tracks balanced, then you have been completely ignoring how the track is supposed to make you move and feel... Therefore, you should be toying with your balances each and every time you touch the track.”
Mike Senior has worked with various artists including the Charlatans, Reef, Therapy?, Nigel Kennedy, and Wet Wet Wet. He spent several years in the editorial department of Sound On Sound before leaving to take up work as a freelance engineer. He’s also written a couple of audio–production books that have received rave reviews (Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio and, more recently, Recording Secrets For The Small Studio) and put lots of useful additional resources up on his Cambridge Music Technology web site.