Home Recording Techniques
With a little thought and a few 'tricks of the trade', it is possible to produce top quality recordings at home. David Mellor explains how.
David Mellor explains how, with a little thought and a few 'tricks of the trade', it is possible to produce top quality recordings at home.
I don't usually like to blow my own trumpet, basically because I'm not a brass player and it wouldn't sound too good, but the boss of a company I supply tracks to asked me how I managed to get such a good sound on my recordings. Not that the sound was earth-shatteringly brilliant, but he knew that I worked mainly at home with modest equipment and he couldn't hear that much difference between my stuff and tracks other people had recorded in 24-track studios.
The reason for my 'success' is that I pay a lot of attention to detail in my recordings. I don't just slap it down on tape, and I don't attempt to do things beyond my capabilities. Home recording can cope well with lightly instrumented tracks, not so well with mega productions. You can create a mega demo, but I'd rather stick to miniature masters.
So, if you can do it at home, why do people bother with 'proper' studios, at great expense? The answer is that if you have all the technical facilities available at the highest standard, then it's hard to put a foot wrong. With professional equipment in a properly designed studio, good recordings will come almost automatically. OK, you have to try a little bit harder to get an exceptional recording, but you are almost prevented from making a bad one. As long as the musical input is up to scratch, that is.
Doing it at home, you actually need to know more than if you are a pro studio engineer - if you are to achieve a comparable result. You have less professional equipment, and less of it, therefore the input needed to bring things up to standard has to be in the form of intelligence - about equipment and techniques - and the imagination to use the ear to its fullest. Let's look at some problems and their remedies, and how a little can be made to go a long way.
No, it's not something you get from the pest control department of the local council. If you are recording at home, then the chances are that your acoustic treatment is either rudimentary or nonexistent. No blame attached, of course. Proper acoustic treatment is expensive: some designers charge per square metre of studio floor area, and £500 per square metre is not uncommon for a finished room. Any small room, left to its own devices, will display a series of undesirable resonances and echoes which will 'colour' any recording you make with a microphone. And if you're thinking "Aha! But I only use synths", then you still have the problem of the monitoring environment when you assess sounds, and when you mix. We have to find ways of reducing the contribution of the room sound, or reducing its effects.
Some rooms are actually not too bad. These would be the ones with lots of knobbly bits sticking out here and there, which will diffuse the sound reflections. A smooth-walled square room is the worst kind. But even if you do have a reasonably good sounding room, there is still the problem that everything you record is in that one room. You are getting the same collection of resonances on each track that you record - and the same ones are affecting your judgement when you mix.
There is an interesting album available which throws some light on the subject of home recording. It is of dubious musical quality perhaps, but worth a listen nonetheless. McCartney II is the album. It's interesting because it was apparently recorded by the man himself in a shack situated somewhere among his millions of rambling acres. According to interviews that came out at the time (c. 1980), a 16-track Studer tape recorder was used, but with microphones plugged straight in (via the necessary mic preamps, I assume), and only rudimentary monitoring facilities. McCartney described how he used different parts of the building to get different acoustics to record in. The results are certainly varied and interesting. Not the height of technology - even 1980's technology - but an unpretentious, fresh sounding recording. That's what home recording should be.
If it's not too much trouble for Paul McCartney, then it shouldn't be too much trouble for any home recordist to find different parts of the home environment where a microphone could be set up. It's not just 'getting round a problem', it's a creative possibility in its own right.
Getting different natural acoustics is one thing, but if you want to use digital reverb on a track then it's best to start off with as 'dry' a recording as possible. The sound of a room is hard to get away from.
It doesn't have to contribute much in level to contribute a lot of annoyance value. The solution to this is to use acoustic screens of some sort. Even if you use a directional microphone (as opposed to an omnidirectional), it's important to make sure that only the sound from the instrument or voice you are recording is picked up. Screen off reverberant sound coming from all other directions. "But aren't acoustic screens expensive?" you ask. They could be, to buy, but you can get a good 80% of the effectiveness for next to nothing. Thick curtain material, for example, is a good start. It costs next to nothing in jumble sales, and you won't be too bothered if it's a bit moth-eaten in patches. The scope for ingenuity in finding materials to use for acoustic treatment is enormous. Just think 'soft' and 'thick'! Figure 1 shows a recommended set-up.
Clap your hands. What do you hear? If you are sitting in an average room you will hear the initial sound plus a 'tailing off' effect caused by the reverberation of the room. If we could get rid of that reverb tail, then half the nuisance of room sound could be eliminated. Usually, that's what noise gates are for, which I shall explain in a future article. It's worth bearing in mind also that if you have a sampler, then you could record a percussion sound and chop off the reverb tail in the sample editing process. If you were recording a tambourine track, for instance, then you might think it's easier just to put it straight down on tape. Taking a sample and playing it from a MIDI keyboard may give a more satisfactory result. At any rate, it's worth bearing the possibility in mind.
However you achieve the gating effect, it isn't possible to get rid of room ambience. You only remove the ambience when the sound source is silent. The reverberation is still colouring your recording underneath the wanted sound.
As I mentioned earlier, if you are monitoring in a less than ideal environment, then you can't be sure that any mix you make is accurate. Your judgement is clouded by the room effects. There are two relatively inexpensive ways around this. One is to get very close to your monitor speakers. You don't have to have specialist 'near-field' monitors for this; I use a pair of low-end B&W hifi speakers, which do the job reasonably well.
When your ears are close to the speakers, you tend to hear more direct sound than reflected sound from the room. The distance at which this occurs is quite critical. I can hear a marked change between the 'near-field' and 'reverberant field' sound at a distance of about a metre and a half. I choose to monitor at this distance rather than closer, because getting too close to the speakers tends to simulate being inside a pair of headphones - a monitoring technique I have never personally had any success with.
The other way around an imperfect monitoring situation is to try out your mix in a variety of situations. If you have a portable stereo (ghetto blaster), it's easy to run off a cassette of a potential candidate for a final mix, take it to another room and play it. If it sounds OK there too, then it probably is OK. I'm sure, however, that doing this will focus your attention on some aspect of the mix that you hadn't previously noticed. No problem, just go back and tweak it a little until you have a good compromise, which sounds good on your main system and on your portable. If you have a in-car cassette, that's a particularly good place to try out a mix. I would recommend actually driving the car while you do it. The noise from the car will obscure the more subtle points of the music so that you can then make a judgement about whether these points were too subtle. It's another perspective on a mix, which I think can be very valuable.
The equalisation (EQ) section on your mixer has some handy knobs which can tailor your sound to the way you want it - more or less. Does that mean that it can perform any EQ that you might need? No, of course it can't. No equaliser can, no matter how expensive nor how complex.
Acoustic EQ depends on altering sound, rather than an electrical signal that represents sound. Cup your hand over one ear (use a real cup if you like!). Has the sound you hear changed any? I hope you can hear the difference. By partially enclosing a space around your ear, you have created a resonant cavity which will emphasise certain frequencies - another way of saying "will add EQ".
Following this logic, if you could put a microphone in a partially enclosed space - let's say a metal waste paper bin - it would alter the EQ on any sound you recorded. It may not look elegant, and it doesn't have any knobs to select the frequency or the amount of boost, but it does make a difference. And these sonic differences can be elements which turn a 'straight' recording into an interesting one. Your frequency control, by the way, is the size of the partially enclosed space. The larger the waste paper bin, or plastic drainpipe or whatever you can find, the lower the resonant frequency.
Another possibility is using something which will vibrate in sympathy with a sound source. If you have a piano (a real one), try holding down the sustain pedal and singing into it - with the lid open, of course. The piano strings, left free to vibrate, will respond to the frequencies of your voice. It's a good sound that you will never find programmed on a digital reverb unit.
Once, I recorded a vocal through a Rototom. The result had to be heard to be believed!
In the 'good old days' before digital reverb, one way of simulating the effect was to use an echo chamber. This would be a specially built room with lots of reflecting surfaces to bounce the sound around, linked up with a speaker and a microphone.
Think about the house or flat in which you live. Is there a room with lots of reflective surfaces? Yes! The bathroom! If you have never burst into song in the bathroom, then your singing voice must indeed be bad. The bathroom, because it is usually so reverberant, is flattering to otherwise unlistenable vocalisations.
Even if you have a digital reverb unit, I can promise you that it is worth experimenting with a real echo chamber. Real reverb is so much more dense than the digital simulation, even with today's high technology. And to think that most of the big studios that once had real echo chambers have now converted them to MIDI programming suites! I like to use my bathroom - sorry, echo chamber - to sample drum sounds. I might start off with a dry drum machine sound, feed it into the chamber and add reverb, gating the reverb (or truncating the sample) to get a snappy effect.
So how is it done? Figure 2 provides the answer. All you need is an amplifier and speaker and a microphone. The mic you will probably have already. The amp and speaker could be a guitar amp. It won't matter too much that it doesn't have much top end response, because that gives an interesting effect in itself.
An auxiliary send on the mixer is used to feed signal to the amp. Since the microphone is pointing away from the speaker, it will pick up mostly reflected sound. Adjust the mic position to taste.
The noise problem in< home studios manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, noise gets in that you don't want on your recordings. Secondly, noise gets out that your neighbour doesn't want in his living room!
Incoming noise isn't too much of a problem for the home recordist, unless it is continuous in nature. If the local Gas Board is having a pneumatic drill session outside, then there is little you can do but wait until they stop. The occasional intruding jet engine noise from overhead means you'll have to do the take again. You could, of course, go for sound insulation, but that is outside the scope of this article for the moment as I'm trying to concentrate on inexpensive techniques.
Outgoing noise is usually the biggest problem for the home recordist. Depending on your local by-laws, it might take only three complaints from neighbours to mean that the police will come and tell you to be quiet. Court action is not an impossibility. But how can you keep it quiet when it's a known fact of life that music sounds better when it's loud?
One answer is to have it loud only when you need it loud - usually when you are getting a sound together in preparation for recording, and you want to assess it accurately. The other situation is when you are mixing. At all other times, there is no reason why you shouldn't switch off the speakers and monitor as loud as you like on headphones.
Another possibility is, instead of using the latest in power amp technology, use a valve powered amp for monitoring. One of the reasons music sounds good when it's loud is that our ears distort. We have learned to like this distortion. A low powered valve amplifier, driven moderately hard, seems to generate the right sort of distortion to imitate this effect. By using a couple of second-hand valve power amps (such as the Quad II), you'll get a very good sound, plus that slight valve 'edge' which will make your music seem louder than it actually is. One day, some manufacturer is going to cotton on to the fact that valve amps still have their uses.
Finally, there is one other tip I can give to the home recordist which will definitely improve the results achievable. It has nothing to do with the mechanics of getting a good sound on tape; it's to do with your attitude to the home recording process. A professional studio might cost £200,000 or more to set up. How can you compete with that? The answer is not to clash head on, but to find things that you can do well in your own situation, and be innovative, not merely imitative. A copy can seldom be as good as the original, in music as well as recording. It certainly can't be better.
There are thousands of people working hard in home studio land. Some are going to provide the driving force behind tomorrow's music. Find a new ingredient to add to every recording you make and you'll be on the right track.