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Planning Checklist for Recording Your Band

Mike Lawson • Technology • October 7, 2016

It takes more than just plugging in a microphone and pushing a record button to make a good recording. It’s important to understand how sound works and why. How it is shaped, how it is captured, and the entire process is important to making great recordings. It’s critical that you’re thinking about these as you plan and prepare for your sessions if you want to insure maximum quality and professional results every time.

Every link in the chain is as important as the ones before and after it.

• Plan your work and work your plan. When plans change in midstream, reassess the balance of the project to make sure the outcome will still remain in sight.

• Record in as quiet a place as possible. Professional studios all over the world are being redesigned to provide a quieter environment for digital recording. When you record analog, the quietest thing on the record will be the tape hiss. On your new digital recording there will be no tape hiss to cover up the sound of the air conditioner, the toilet flushing in the next room, or the dog barking.

• Recording levels are important. With digital recording you should record as hot as possible without any “over” lights coming on. The “over” light means that you have just clipped your signal. This is an absolute clip, not a gradual limiting. It will usually sound like a large click or a tearing sound.

• Equalize the instruments the way you want them to sound and then stop.

• Digital recording will faithfully reproduce what you capture. Digital recording is a very robust medium. Extra data is stored along with your audio to make sure that if there are any errors on the disk they can be corrected and the signal that comes back out is exactly what you put in to it. If the error rate gets too high and the error correction circuitry can’t fix the data, it turns everything off until it gets good data to put out.

Recording Session Setup

• How many people (musicians) will be in the recording room and how will they be arranged?

• What instruments will they be playing and what special requirements need to be met?

• How big is the room (or rooms)? If sharing an isolation room, consider grouping of instruments for least adverse leakage.

• Isolation between instruments should be considered. Is some of what is being recorded going to be replaced (e.g., a stand-in vocalist, not the real solo, etc.)? Determine how best to isolate the instruments (e.g., baffles, TubeTraps, blankets, foam, plywood, etc.).

Cables

• You can never have too many cables or adapters.

• All cables must have previously been ascertained to be in proper working order. Cables that have

been previously suspect and checked to find nothing wrong should be labeled as such until they been previously suspect and checked to find nothing wrong should be labeled as such until they have successfully worked in a session. (This is in case of a cable problem; the first cable to check would be a previously faulty cable.)

Microphones

• Choice of microphones.

• What microphones are available for the session?

• Are there notes from previous sessions with the same musicians that pointed out a unique requirement or a microphone that worked rather well in a particular situation?

• Impedance must be matched (lo, hi, inline xformer). A thin sounding microphones (reduced low frequency response) usually means that the impedance is not matched properly.

• Connections must be matched (e.g., XLR, 1/4”, DIN, Teuschel). Polarity must be matched (e.g., pin 2 hot, pin 3 hot). All instrument and keyboard outputs will sound better if routed through a good direct box. Most line level keyboards are usually -10 dB high impedance.

• Microphones have different sensitivity patterns. Ascertain whether to use omni, cardioid, hypercardioid, or bidirectional (figure- eight) patterns. There are also specialty microphones such as lavaliere, boundary (PZM), and shotgun microphones.

• Phantom power requirements must be ascertained. If the console or recording interface does not provide the proper phantom voltage, use external pass-through phantom power modules.

• If the microphone has its own power supply, make sure that phantom is turned off to that microphone otherwise distortion and noise may result (guaranteed in some instances). Phantom must be off when using unbalanced microphones.

• Try using a direct box for synthesizers and electric instruments.

• Try different direct boxes (they are like microphones and have a coloration/sound of their own).

• Active (phantom powered) direct boxes may not have ground isolation capabilities and may cause ground loops (which result in a buzz or hum).

• Most recording devices and mixers will let you plug instruments in directly these days (always check for impedance matching).

• If you have the available inputs, record the pickup on the acoustic instrument. This track can be added in with the microphone sound when mixing the instrument.

• Microphone patterns must be chosen properly for the job. Understand proximity effect in microphones. Omnidirectional microphones have no proximity effects. You can aim the pickup pattern of a microphone. You can also aim the rejection pattern of a microphone.

• Microphone placement may not be the same each time you record in a similar situation. It may depend on the individual player or instrument.

• Listen for reflections off of music stands (use foam or towel to cover them if need be) when recording vocals.

• Listen for extraneous noises from squeaky chairs or rattling instruments.

• Microphone placement is determined by the physical properties of the instrument. As a starting point, place the microphone at a distance from the instrument equal to the size of the sound source. With multiple microphones on one instrument, divide the distance by the number of microphones and spread them evenly across the instrument.

Speakers and Monitoring

• What do the speakers sound like? Have you heard these speakers before in a different environment?

• Does the room you’re recording in color the sound of the speakers so that you must compensate for that difference?

• Placement of speakers in a room may affect the way they sound (experiment with different placements).

• It is best not to use speakers (instead of headphones) for monitoring in the studio during recording (some vocalists prefer singing with speakers instead of headphones). The leakage of sound from the speakers back into the microphone will hamper an otherwise good recording.

If this must be done, there are methods whereby two speakers are fed a mono signal and placed out of phase. The microphone is then placed in the phase null between the speakers. Extreme caution should be taken when employing this method. Best to just avoid it completely and use headphones.

• Use a headphone amplifier distribution system for multiple headphones; don’t just parallel a bunch of headphones from the mixer or recording device headphone outputs. MoreMe headphone distribution systems for individual mixes to each musician can help the recording process.

Console/Recording Device

• Trim versus volume control: don’t clip the input. In some situations, it may be desirable to set all faders to zero and establish the initial recording level with the input trims. This provides an instant graphical representation if microphone levels change drastically during the recording (the fader is pulled down or up from its reference).

Check the sound through the console/ recording device and select the correct routing path, with inserts disabled.

Listen with no EQ. Does it sound good, is it muffled, scratchy, far away, or boomy?

Is the microphone facing the wrong way (this happens often) or are you listening to the wrong input?

Watch for impedance mismatch between the mixer/recording device input and the source. Make sure the proper input mode is selected (line, microphone, instrument). Some recording devices or mixers switch input connectors when changing mode, others use the same connector and change sensitivity and impedance.

Check for bad cords, connection, patch bay, patched in wrong hole, patch-bay normal not broken, and microphone signal routed too many places at once.

Check for balance versus unbalanced, pin 2 versus pin 3 (unbalanced pin 3 at one end + unbalanced pin 2 = short).

Check for a bad instrument and change to correct.

Check for bad playing technique or position; try something else, face Mecca. Move the microphone a little. Start with close miking then move the microphone away. Consider the instrument: acoustic guitars, pianos, bass, standup bass, drums, and so on.

Go in the room and listen to the instrument with a finger in one ear.

When recording, monitor through the recording device/mixer (a good idea in case you are overloading the input). Make sure the whole signal path is working right. What you see on the meter may not be what you think is going there.

• Listen for hums, crackles, or buzzes. If the meter is reading something, there is probably a hum or other noise that you didn’t notice.

• What kind of metering? Digital metering is the most accurate. Peak meters are second best.

• The performance of analog-style VU meters depend on what music is playing (click, hi hat, organ, etc.). Percussive instruments should indicate lower on the VU meter for proper recording level.

• Auto-locate is a nice feature. So are auto-punch, cycling, and so on.

• Start the recording in plenty of time before the song begins. This also helps if you later need to extend the intro.

• Set the recording levels a little above halfway on the peak or digital meters. Never record with the meters going into the red. During the first take fine tune the recording levels. Levels can change during the actual recording.

• Let the recording keep running a little while (10–20 seconds) after the take in case you want to add something at the end or cross-fade into the next tune, or…?

• Make backups of your masters. Make safety copies of the session files after the original tracking sessions and then every couple of weeks after that. It sounds like a lot of extra work, but believe me it is cheaper than rerecording the stuff that got lost or damaged.

Effects: EQ

• Equalizers change the tonal characteristics of the audio. They have at least bass and treble controls. Most desirable is four-band sweepable parametric EQ.

• A graphic equalizer is usually 5 to 31 frequency bands, each fixed in frequency. Usually it has slide pots to show a graphic representation of the frequency curve.

• Peak versus shelving EQ.

• Tuning EQ by ear.

Use EQ to:

• Compensate for low listening levels.

• Make the blend between different instruments more pleasing. • Compensate for bad frequency response in some device.

• Reduce noise.

• Create special effects such as a telephone voice.

• Reduce apparent leakage between instruments.

Effects: Compressors and Limiters

• Compressors keep levels more constant by automatically detecting level changes above a set level and riding the gain.

• Use compressors on individual instruments, not a mix. It will be less audible.

• Attack time settings determine the “punchiness” of the instrument. Peaks get through before the compressor actually clamps down. A faster attack will make for a smoother sound.

• Limiters are usually faster than compressors and are there to limit the amount of signal passing. They are normally used to protect equipment such as radio transmitters or speakers from overloading. Effects: Delays and Echoes

• A delay by itself has no effect but to delay the signal. When the delay is heard mixed with the original signal, it sometimes produces a more interesting sound.

• Echo and reverb units control the amount of feedback sent to the input of the delay as well as the number of taps off of the delay line. These signals mix together to form artificial reverberation, as found in different sized enclosed spaces.

• Doubling (recording the same instrument playing the same part twice) can be simulated by using a delay of between 9 and 30 milliseconds. Doubling fattens up vocals and instruments and can make it sound like there was more than one instrument playing the same part. This is a substitute and is not as good as a real double.

• Short delays can add fake ambiance to a recording that was too dead sounding.

• Modulating the delay time causes chorusing. This modulation causes a change in pitch as well as a change in the delay time. It produces a wavy effect in the sound.

• Using a delay of 10 to 20 milliseconds and changing the delay amount slowly between those two parameters create flanging effects. The delayed signal mixes with the original signal and some of the frequencies are out of phase with each other and cancel or augment each other. A change in delay time changes the frequency that is affected.

Mixing

• Mixing cleans up tracks. Erase unwanted material.

• Make a cue sheet/session notes reminding you when and what moves to make when mixing. • Note the levels.

What does “reference level” mean (analog vs. digital)?

• In analog recording, “zero” is a level reference at which there is 3% harmonic distortion. Above this level there will be more distortion but a better signal-to-noise ratio. Audio contains peaks, which may be above this zero reference by as much as 20 db. Analog tape compresses this information and records it with more harmonic distortion, but for the small instance that the peak lasts, this may not be a problem. If recordings are made at a lower level, the distortion figures are lower but the signal is dropping into the noise floor of the tape.

• In digital recording, which is what you’ll likely be doing these days, “zero” is the level above which no additional information can be recorded. This results in hard clipping of the sound. Anything above zero is not recorded. A reference level of 18 dB below zero allows room for peaks in the audio to be recorded without clipping. Because the noise floor is so low in digital (98 dB below zero) having a reference at -18 dB does not really affect the quality of the recording.

• If mixing for video, levels will be 12 dB to 20 dB lower than zero. Beware of hot mixes for TV/video.

• When using echo don’t use too much of a good thing. Use just enough to provide the ambience or effect necessary.

• Record effects on empty tracks to free up processing power in your computer equipment for something else or to save time in remixing.

• Use limiters on record and playback at different ratios. • Effects on vocals should be kept to a minimum.

• Panning and stereo placement should be determined by the final destination of the mix (e.g., TV, video game, surround sound, CD, digital file distribution, etc.). Keep in mind the center build-up phenomenon where too many sounds are fighting in the center of the mix.

• Avoid placing something all the way to one side. Keep in mind the stereo listening experience and being able to hear from opposite side of the room.

Excerpted from The Roger Nichols Recording Method, published by Alfred Music Publishing. Written by Roger Nichols, compiled and edited by Mike Lawson. 

alfred.com

 

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