I could give you a long account of my chequered musical past but suffice to say that now I am a 32-year-old electronic engineer still gigging regularly and running a home four-track studio based around a Teac 3440 and a Revox A77. Not an entirely original combination but then there aren't that many choices, are there?
When I bought my house four years ago I decided to set aside one room for recordings/band rehearsals and of course the first major problem was soundproofing.
I had the window double glazed and then fitted a detachable fibreboard shutter over the whole window aperture, and covered it with two layers of carpet on the outside and cork tiles on the inside. The door was thickened and again covered with cork tiles. The outside wall in which the window is set is also covered in cork tiles and even after four years the haunting fragrance of charcoal and Thixofix still lingers on.
I haven't had any complaints about noise even though hideous sound pressure levels are occasionally present inside. As the original concept was to rehearse and record my own band in this room, it seemed logical to install all the recording gear in the same room rather than adopt the control room approach, in which case I would have had to get someone to engineer for me and he would then be writing this instead of me. As it turns out I am now doing regular demos for other bands but the arrangement still works OK.
For monitors I have a pair of KEF KIT 3 speakers which are very flat sounding. They are not the most exciting speakers to listen to music on but they always ensure that nothing nasty turns up in the mix when replayed on other speakers of normal hi-fi quality.
Amplification is at present courtesy of Rotel but I intend to change over to a couple of Mosfet modules in the near future. The desk is an MM 8 channel mixer and apart from the high death rate of sliders, I consider it to be well designed, quiet enough when properly used and with bags of headroom to prevent unwanted overloads. Extra FX-Send facilities would be useful though.
For reverberation I am using a Great British Spring stereo unit and for echo, the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, although I have designs (in both senses of the word) on the E&MM digital unit. I also have an E/H Vocoder which works very well but is not used very often. The reverb is fed from the echo-send output and fed back to two channels of the mixer panned left and right when mixing down. The reverb sound of this unit is really very good but even with the input driven fairly hard, the output amps are very noisy! Has anyone else experienced this? The Space Echo on the other hand has a nice quiet built-in reverb but the sound quality of this unit sounds like someone shaking a tin bath full of tambourines. It's really unusable. I don't think this problem is related to my particular Space Echo as I know other owners who have made the same comment. The echo, however, is fine.
For my own music I use two Roland Guitar synths, the GR500 and the GR300. The GR500 is complemented by a Transcendant 2000 expander unit and I have fitted a vibrato depth pedal to this which I have found invaluable.
No issue is complete without a reference to the omnipresent Steve Howell so I'll make his day by saying that I agree with him on one point at least. The sound from even a polyphonic guitar synth is very dry and I, too, go to any lengths to stir it up a little. Add a little echo and chorus to either guitar synth and you have a huge swirling orchestra — turn them off and you have what sounds like a polyphonic kazoo in a padded cell.
The band consists also of bass provided by a Yamaha CS5 synth and drums supplemented by Syntoms and a Synare 3. But enough of this self-indulgent stuff. "How do I record it?" you ask impatiently.
The guitar is miked up about 9 inches away from the centre of one of the speakers and the mic fed direct to the attenuated input of the 3440. Mics are a collection of Shures and AKGs, all wired low impedance and unbalanced. I have just bought a couple of A & F mikes which seem OK, but it's too early to make any definite comments.
The synths (two Roland GRs and a Yamaha bass synth) are direct injected to the line input of the Teac and processed during mixdown which gives the opportunity for stereo echo, chorus, etc. The drums are miked individually from four to six inches away from the top head with the exception of concert toms which may be miked underneath. For bass drum (front head removed or fitted with a hole) I use a Unidyne 3 fed through an MXR noise gate which cuts off the ringing decay of the drum and gives a much punchier sound. The lower mid control on the mixer is turned well down resulting in a very satisfying bass drum sound.
When close miking, I never use overhead microphones, and the cymbals will come through OK without separate mics if the mic positions are well thought out. The phase addition and cancellation effects caused by adding overhead mics have always caused a deterioration in the overall drum sound, and if anyone has had any experience of this I would be interested to hear about it. Balancing the drums is initially carried out by getting the drummer to pummel each drum at a rate of about 2Hz whilst I set up an equal meter deflection for each drum. A test recording is then made and final adjustments performed. Trial and error has shown that damping must be enough to kill overtones, otherwise the bass drum sets all the toms ringing and gives a very muddy sound. On the other hand, never trust an engineer who damps everything down to sound like suitcases and then says he'll fix it on the desk!
The bass guitar is the most elusive instrument to record, as a DI version always leaves the low notes sounding like a lorry driving past and accentuates finger squeaks. I've settled for straight miking at about twelve inches from the cab and with only a small amount of EQ on mixdown the original charisma of the instrument usually manages to struggle through. Vocals are always done last using a Shure SM58 at a range of twelve to eighteen inches to minimise popping and breath noises. The singer can either use cans which give better isolation or use the wall monitors at as low a volume as is comfortable.
My opinion of the Teac recorder is that even with new tape and needles peaking at +5VU, the noise level is not really very good, being quoted at -50dB by Teac. If Revox can get -63dB from their four track A77 running at 7½ips then why can't the Japanese? I have used an Accessit compander system for the past two years in the hope of keeping noise at bay but although it does its job very well, it does have an unsettling effect on the final mix. On reflection I think I will be better off using it on the reverb and echo unit. Even the notoriously noisy Clone pedal becomes very quiet using one of these units.
Of course, to wire up all this kind of stuff without going mad requires some sort of patchboard and I settled for a board covered in jack sockets corresponding with all inputs to the tape machines, the mixer and the amplifier with plugs on dangly leads for the outputs. This method prevents leads getting abducted by the band's roadies and saves getting out of the engineer's chair which, incidentally, must be of the type that revolves, just like famous recording engineers use!
On the subject of bouncing tracks, I prefer to mix the first four tracks in stereo on to the Revox and then bounce back to two tracks on the Teac leaving two tracks for vocals and instrumental overdubs. This is then mixed on to the stereo master. The tape normally used is Ampex Grand Master for which I had to reset the Teac biasing as shown in the Teac manual. This has improved the top but the bottom end on source/output test seems very subtly different. Talking of manuals (which I wasn't), I bought a service manual for both the Teac and Revox machines. They are both similarly priced but whereas the Revox handbook is a lavishly produced tome about as thick as a telephone directory, the Teac manual is like a dialling code book, but thinner and with much left unsaid.
Well, that's about all I've got to say in an article of this length except that the old saying "the customer is always right" applies to recording too. I've had several bands here who have previously paid a fortune for sixteen and twenty-four track recording, only to be disappointed because the engineer thought he was above listening to their opinion of what the result ought to sound like. As far as I'm concerned, if they want to play the whole track backwards at halfspeed through a flanger whilst Vocoding the results with the squeals of a demented pig, then that's OK by me. After all, they're paying.
Feature by Paul White
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