The same pitfalls present themselves time and again in project-studio recording. Learn to avoid them and your tracking sessions will be transformed!
These files accompany the The 10 Biggest Recording Mistakes article in the February 2016 issue of SOS
The following downloadable resources and links accompany my ‘10 Biggest Project-studio Recording Mistakes’ article in SOS February 06. I’ve grouped them below with the featured recording mistake they’re most relevant to.
Here’s a quick run down of the audio examples for the first ‘mistake’.
Here, a single snare-drum performance was recorded using five different classic snare-drum microphones: (in order) AKG’s C414B-ULS and C451, Neumann’s KM84 and KM86, and Shure’s SM57. Although these changes are significant, they’re small compared with the differences you can achieve by simply swapping out the instrument itself, as you can hear if you listen to the 01_SnareInstruments audio file.
In this audio example, the same Shure SM57 microphone was used to record three different snare drums: an Orange County 14 x 5-inch maple snare (as used in the previous 01_SnareMics example file), a Ludwig Black Beauty 14x5-inch hammered-brass snare, and a Gretsch 14 x 6.5-inch mahogany snare. Compare this file with the SnareMics file to hear how much more difference changing the instrument has than changing the microphone.
For this audio example, I recorded a Fender Telecaster through a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier (with a Shure SM57 microphone six inches from the grille cloth) in four different locations, to show the impact of simple room acoustics effects. The locations you can hear are (in order) the middle of a large empty wooden-floored concert hall measuring 18 x 12 x 5 metres; the centre of a small studio live room, measuring approximately 4.7 x 4.2 metres, with a ceiling sloping from 2.2 to 4.8 metres high; in the centre of the same studio live room, raised a foot off the floor on a heavy-duty podium; and in the corner of the same studio live room.
In this example, I’ve set up an acoustic guitarist in a studio live room and recorded him with a stereo microphone pair in a studio live room — firstly surrounding the player and mics with acoustic absorbers, and then surrounding them with acoustic reflectors. Notice particularly the enhancement of the instrument’s high frequencies when the early reflections become more prominent in the second iteration.
Additional Resources: If you want to read the full interview with Trina Shoemaker from which I quoted, check out Howard Massey’s book Behind The Glass, Volume 2 (www.amazon.co.uk/Behind-Glass-Record-Producers-Craft/dp/0879309555).
Check out these two SOS articles for tips on preparing electric guitar (www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr14/articles/optimising-electric-guitar.htm) and drums (www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug10/articles/drum-tuning.htm) for recording.
If you want to read the full interview with Bruce Swedien from which I quoted, check out this SOS article: www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov09/articles/swedien.htm. The interview with Trevor Horn be found in May 2012’s Tape Op magazine.
If you’re wondering what mic to choose, check out SOS’s shootouts of ribbon mics (www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov07/articles/ribbonmics1.htm) and vocal mics (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul10/articles/vocalmics.htm), and also my shootouts of classic mics for acoustic/electric guitars and snare/kick drums (www.cambridge-mt.com/rs-ch6.htm#AcousticGuitar).
Here’s a link to the Recording Secrets’ Library Of Microphone Positions I mentioned in the article: www.cambridge-mt.com/rs-lmp.htm
The ‘Mix Rescue’ column has featured many unfortunate template-based miking approaches, but here are a couple of particularly striking examples, each with audio demonstrations: www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar11/articles/mix-rescue-0311.htm and www.soundonsound.com/sos/may13/articles/mix-rescue-0513.htm. By way of contrast, our ‘Session Notes’ feature frequently demonstrates how project-studio conditions often demand unorthodox miking methods if you’re going to achieve easily mixable results. For example, check out these articles: www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr13/articles/session-notes-0413.htm and www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan16/articles/session-notes-0116.htm. Again, make sure you listen to the audio files accompanying those articles to judge the effectiveness of the techniques for yourself.
For a detailed case-study of recording and comping a commercial-grade lead vocal track, check out my Session Notes article in December 2014 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec14/articles/session-notes-1214.htm). The audio examples accompanying the article let you compare the originally recorded vocal track with the final rerecorded and comped version.
A general overview of audio editing for comping can be found in this article: www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb11/articles/editing-2.htm. For more DAW-specific information, trying typing ‘vocal’ into the SOS search engine (www.soundonsound.com/search).
If you’d like some practice comping a lead vocal, there are alternate takes available with these raw multitracks of Arise’s song ‘Run Run Run’: www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm#Arise.
Here’s a description of the audio examples for this mistake:
Just because you record an ensemble without isolation booths, doesn’t mean your track has to be swimming in room ambience. Take this recording, for example, where a whole band were set up in very close proximity in a single room, but which still sounds present and upfront because the band were balanced sensibly in the room itself. (There’s very little processing involved — just three compressors and six bands of EQ spread across all 20 input channels.)
Here I’ve soloed the drums channels from the 04_OneRoomBandSpill01_FullMix audio file, so you can hear how little spill has been captured from the other instruments. Bear in mind that the two guitar amps were about two feet either side of the kick drum, and the bass only about six feet from the kick drum.
For this example, I’ve isolated the bass channels from the 04_OneRoomBandSpill01_FullMix audio file, and you can hear how the use of careful close-miking and a simultaneously recorded DI signal has allowed me to maintain a high degree of separation from the drums and guitars.
The isolated guitar channels from the 04_OneRoomBandSpill01_FullMix audio file demonstrate how effectively you can minimise spill using close-miking, improvised acoustic damping, and high-pass filtering. Remember that the drum-kit is only a couple of feet away from these guitar amps.
Here’s another one-room band recording, but in this case the spill was more actively embraced as a means of making the mixdown simpler. Note that the only plug-ins I’ve used on this mix are four simple high-pass filters, yet the ensemble sound blends very effectively without effects or processing — largely on account of the spill components. In the following audio examples, I’ll solo different instruments in this mix so you can hear how much spill there is in each case, and what kind of impact it makes on the overall sound.
There’s plenty of sax spill on the isolated drum tracks from the 04_OneRoomBandBlend01_FullMix, as well as a good deal of piano, which helps enhance the sounds of those instruments in the mix. If you compare this audio file to the full mix, you can also hear that the cymbals themselves gain some width and complexity within the full-mix context, primarily because of their spill contributions on the piano microphones (see 04_OneRoomBandBlend04_SoloPiano).
The upright bass was the quietest instrument in the recording room acoustically, so it was recording with a combination of mic and DI to capture enough dry bass level — the mic alone wouldn’t have provided enough independent balance control over that instrument in the mix. Even so, there’s lots of saxophone level on the bass tracks, which again helps the sax sound more natural in the mix.
Although the piano mics don’t sound too bad on their own (just a touch boxy perhaps), if you compare this example with the 04_OneRoomBandBlend01_FullMix audio file, you can hear how much fuller and smoother the instrument becomes within the full-mic context, largely on account of the piano spill on the drum mics (see 04_OneRoomBandBlend01_SoloDrums).
Because the sax was the loudest instrument in the room, its close mic has fairly low spill levels from other instruments. However, its tone feels rather nasal and constricted in isolation when compared to its full-mix sound in the 04_OneRoomBandBlend01_FullMix audio file. This is because spill from the drums, piano, and bass mics are all catching additional frequency components which are enhancing the instrument’s tone and blending it with the other instruments.
Additional Resources: I’ve talked about dealing with spill in ensemble-recording situations in several ‘Session Notes’ articles, including the June 2015 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun15/articles/session-notes-0615.htm), January 2015 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan15/articles/session-notes-0115.htm) and April 2013 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr13/articles/session-notes-0413.htm) instalments. (Further information about the first of these sessions can also be found on it’s dedicated resources page at www.cambridge-mt.com/rs-ch10-case1.htm, and you can see how the spill helped make the recordings easily mixable in this three-part video series: www.cambridge-mt.com/rs-ch10-case1.htm#Mix.
Do the concepts of polarity and phase leave you scratching your head? There’s a full description of their effects in both recording and mixing in my Phase Demystified article from SOS April 2008: www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr08/articles/phasedemystified.htm.
If you want to increase your experience with handling recorded spill at mixdown, you can download these suitable raw multitracks from my Cambridge Music Technology site:
Dunning Kruger: www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm#DunningKruger
Jesper Buhl Trio: www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm#JesperBuhlTrio
Selwyn Jazz www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm#SelwynJazz
Wesley Morgan: www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm#WesleyMorgan
Here’s are some notes on the audio files for the Condensers With Everything mistake.
The following examples demonstrate how condensers can misrepresent the tone of close-miked instruments. This first file is a spot microphone from a big-band recording, where the microphone’s on-axis treble boost has emphasised the already over-bright instrument timbre. A more distant or off-axis mic positioning might have helped here, but wasn’t practical because of the need to keep spill to a minimum in this instance.
Here’s a violin overdub that has also been miked close with a condenser, leaving the tone extremely abrasive.
Even when the microphone is further away from the source, the mic’s on-axis HF boost can add an unwelcome ‘zing’ to the tone, as in this classical singer’s spot microphone, which was set up about a metre away from her.
In all three above examples, a dynamic or ribbon mic might have improved the captured tone. For example, this audio example demonstrates how a ribbon mic set up right next to the condenser provided a much smoother vocal timbre.
For a final example, here’s a mix of four choir close mics, all of them small-diaphragm condensers. Again the result sounds rather think and harsh.
Here’s the same choir snippet, but recorded with four ribbon microphones set up directly alongside the condensers you heard in the 05_Condenser05_ChoirSpots audio file. A much smoother sound.
Additional Resources: Another good demonstration of the difference in character between condenser and ribbon mics can be heard in the SOS ribbon-mic shootout article (www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov07/articles/ribbonmics1.htm), for which a small-diaphragm condenser was recorded for reference while recording acoustic guitar. Microphone manufacturers Royer provide plenty of other comparisons: www.royerlabs.com/royerdemocd1.html.
For a detailed case-study using a variety of budget-friendly mics to provide different tonal options while recording electric guitar, check out our August 2013 Session Notes column (www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug13/articles/session-notes-0813.htm).
Here’s an overview of the audio examples for the Headphone Headaches mistake.
A lot of SOS readers cast aside the idea using loudspeakers instead of headphones for foldback when tracking lead vocals, because of concerns about capturing masses of monitor spill. In practice, however, phase-cancellation techniques provide plenty of workarounds here. For example, here’s a lead vocal recorded with loudspeaker monitoring. All you’re hearing is the vocal mic signal, so there’s clearly plenty of spill from the speakers in there!
Immediately after recording the vocal take (as heard in the 06_SpeakerFoldback01_VocalTake audio file), I also recorded a pass of just the foldback loudspeaker spill. Although the singer is silent, he’s still standing in the singing position.
If you invert the polarity of the spill-only pass (ie. the 06_SpeakerFoldback02_SpillOnly audio file) and mix that with the vocal take (ie. the 06_SpeakerFoldback01_VocalTake audio file), almost all the spill phase-cancels, as you can hear in this audio example, giving an amazing reduction in the apparent recorded spill level.
Additional Resources: Further audio demonstrations of loudspeaker-foldback spill-management are available at www.cambridge-mt.com/rs-ch5.htm#audio and as part of Neil Rogers and Matt Houghton’s recent SOS article on the subject: www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct15/articles/kick-the-cans.htm. An interesting case-study of loudspeaker monitoring within an ensemble-recording situation can also be sound in the November 2012 Session Notes column: www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov12/articles/session-notes-1112.htm. For an excellent overview of software and hardware options for dealing with monitoring latency in computer systems, try Sam Inglis’ Living With Latency article (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun07/articles/latency_0607.htm).
Want to know more about the audio examples for this mistake? Then read on...
With multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser mics, switching away from the cardioid polar pattern doesn’t just change the pickup directionality — it also changes the tone. For example, first have a listen to this vocal phrase recorded around 20cm from an affordable multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser mic with its pattern switch set to cardioid, and then compare its tone to that of the following audio files.
Here’s another recording pass of the same vocal phrase, this time switching the microphone to its figure-eight polar pattern. If you compare it to the 07_OnAxisTone01_Cardioid audio file, you’ll clearly notice the increased degree of proximity-effect bass boost, but that’s far from the only tonal difference.
This audio example features another pass of the same vocal phrase, now with the microphone switched to its omnidirectional polar pattern, which gives a clearer tonality, not least on account of this pickup pattern’s negligible proximity effect. There’s also more room ambience, however, than when using either of the directional patterns.
Although the omni polar pattern recording in 07_OnAxisTone03_Omni audio captures more room ambience than the preview two audio files, this can be remedied if required by simply moving the microphone closer — there’s no proximity-effect penality for doing this with an omni, as you can hear in this example.
One of the problems with cardioid polar patterns is that they tend to colour off-axis sounds much more than omni or figure-eight pickups. To demonstrate this, here’s me singing about 135 degrees off-axis to the same affordable multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser mic, with the pattern switch set to cardioid. Now compare this sound with the 135-degree off-axis tone when I switch to different polar patterns in the nexy two audio files.
For this audio example, I’m singing in exactly the same position relative to the microphone that I was when recording the 07_OffAxisTone01_Cardioid audio file, but this time the microphone is switched to its figure-eight polar pattern. (I’ve roughly level-matched the two signals to better highlight the tonal differences between them.)
This audio example was again recording using exactly the same physical configuration of mic and singer, but now the microphone is switched to its omnidirectional polar pattern. (Again, I’ve roughly level-matched the signal level to better highlight the tonal differences between all three files.)
Additional Resources: If you’re new to the idea of non-cardioid polar patterns, check out the SOS article called Using Microphone Polar Patterns Effectively, which offers straightforward introduction: www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar07/articles/micpatterns.htm.
For some specific demonstrations of how the deep rejection null of figure-eight mics can be useful for managing spill between nearby sound sources, check out the January 2014 ‘Session Notes’ column (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan14/articles/session-notes-0114.htm) and Sam Inglis’s great article on Recording A Singing Guitarist (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul12/articles/rsg.htm). In addition, you can find out about how figure-eight microphones were used to capture the choir during orchestral concerts in the Royal Albert Hall by reading our article on recording the BBC Proms (www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov14/articles/proms.htm).
To read more of Mike Stavrou’s interesting (and often leftfield!) views on ensemble recording, check out his book Mixing With Your Mind (www.mixingwithyourmind.com). There’s also plenty of comment on the subject in the SOS archive — some personal favourites of mine include these interviews:
In the October 2012 ‘Session Notes’ column (www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct12/articles/session-notes-1012.htm) I talk about the theory and practice of using a band’s rehearsal-room setup for recording purposes, and there’s also a practical example of how cheap lorry wing-mirrors can be used for retaining sightlines in the August 2014 ‘Session Notes’ column (www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug14/articles/session-notes-0814.htm).
Before you discount the idea of setting up your recording system in the recording room with the performers, check out that very setup being used in the professional environment of The Church Studios, both in this video interview with Paul Epworth (www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCZ7cDR1L6c) and the October 2015 ‘Session Notes’ column (www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct15/articles/session-notes-1015.htm).
Here’s a little more about the audio files for this mistake:
These three audio examples demonstrate how the mutual angle of crossed stereo pair of cardioid microphones doesn’t just change the array’s recording angle. In this example, the microphones are set up with a 110-degree mutual angle, and loudspeaker plays a test signal first and the centre of the recording angle, then at the far left-hand side, then at the centre again, and finally at the far right-hand side. In all cases the speaker was placed the same distance from the mics. If you listening to this on loudspeakers, the test signal remains reasonably consistent in terms of level and tone as it moves across the stereo image.
In this example, the mutual angle of the crossed microphone pair was reduced to 90 degrees, and the test loudspeaker once again placed in turn at the centre, left edge, centre, and right edge of the recording angle. By comparison with the 09_CentreVsEdge01_XY110 audio file, notice how the central loudspeaker position now seems louder, brighter and closer than the edge positions.
Finally, the mutual angle of the crossed microphone pair was increased to 150 degrees, with the test loudspeaker once again placed in turn at the centre, left edge, centre, and right edge of the recording angle. Comparing again to the 09_CentreVsEdge01_XY110 audio file, you can hear how the edge loudspeaker positions now appear louder, brighter and closer than the central position.
Additional Resources: For a wide-ranging overview of different stereo microphone techniques, check out Hugh Robjohn’s classic two-part ‘Stereo Microphone Techniques’ series from 1997:
Some practical comparisons of different techniques can be found in SOS’s articles on recording a string section (www.soundonsound.com/sos/may06/articles/recordingstrings.htm) and piano recording (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan08/articles/pianorecording_0108.htm).
If you don’t already have a stereo vectorscope plug-in, Melda do a great cross-platform freeware plug-in called MStereoScope (www.meldaproduction.com/plugins/product.php?id=MStereoScope). Another freeware option is Flux Audio’s Stereo Tool (www.fluxhome.com/products/freewares/stereotool-v3).
Easily my favourite technical resource for stereo miking is Helmut Wittek’s Image Assistant, which has just recently been upgraded to v3 and can be accessed via the Schoeps web site (https://ima.schoeps.de), and there’s a standalone iOS app version too. It allows you to calculate the theoretical recording angle of any two-mic or three-mic stereo microphone array, as well as providing a whole load of additional information about the image-stretching and centre-versus-edge balance issues. It takes a bit of getting your head round, but it’s solid gold!
Whenever I talk about fence-sitting, it immediately brings to mind these the Mix Rescue articles from May 2013 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/may13/articles/mix-rescue-0513.htm) and March 2011 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar11/articles/mix-rescue-0311.htm). In both cases a lack of sonic decision-making during the tracking session cost me hours of remedial work while trying to reach a respectable result at mixdown.
If you make decisions as you go along, your multitracks will tend to mix themselves. I wrote in depth about one example of this in the June 2015 Session Notes column (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun15/articles/session-notes-0615.htm), and followed it up with an article (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul15/articles/mix-rescue-0715.htm) and a three-part video series (www.cambridge-mt.com/rs-ch10-case1.htm#Mix) illustrating the speed and simplicity of the mixing process. You can try mixing some multitracks from this project for yourself too, via the Mixing Secrets Free Multitrack Download Library (www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm#Spektakulatius).
In addition to Mixerman’s thoughts on the subject, I can recommend this online interview with producer Kevin Killen, who also doesn’t mince his words about the need for decision-making: www.prosoundweb.com/article/behind_the_glass_an_interview_with_producer_engineer_kevin_killen