Recording Techniques (Part 1)
What makes one recording engineer better than another, and how can you improve your recording engineering skills? In this introduction to a new series on recording techniques, David Mellor outlines an engineer's role in the studio, and explains why a good engineer is so important.
As with any other art or craft, it takes a long time to learn to be a good recording engineer. But unlike a painter or a musician, the recording engineer has to be content with his work going largely unappreciated by the general public. When most people listen to a record, compact disc or tape, they hear only the music, and the techniques that were employed to record that music do not provoke the slightest interest.
However, if you have what it takes to be a recording engineer, when you start making recordings yourself you begin to hear all sorts of things that on first inspection seem to have nothing to do with the music itself. You hear the ambience of the recording studio, the low 50Hz buzz of a guitar amplifier, snare wires rattling in sympathy with one of the tom toms in the kit - all of these things are part of the music too, to the recording engineer. It is not merely the notes played and sung by the musicians that are important; everything that can be heard on the record is an integral part of the listening experience.
It is in the nature of things that in any field of endeavour some will achieve greatness, some will fail miserably, and the great majority will be average. Consider your record or CD collection and you will find that this is true for recording engineers. The chances are that you will be able to pick out a couple of discs that, disregarding their musical content, sound really excellent. There are almost certainly a couple that, although you like the music, you wish could have been better recorded.
Why is this so? One factor that I believe is very important is that a few recording engineers are much better at their craft than the rest. Another factor is that on certain album recordings, the interaction between the people involved - musicians, producer, engineer and studio staff - results in them all raising their game beyond their normal abilities on that one project.
This also implies that there are a lot of people doing an everyday job, turning out workmanlike but unexceptional recordings. Let's try and improve a little on that - it's time to listen to some music. Take out a really good sounding album, and one that is average. Have a good listen and compare them. Try and pick out all the factors which, in your mind, distinguish the excellent from the run of the mill. Listen very closely to the individual instruments and form an opinion about what they sound like - bright, bassy, fat, thin... an almost infinite number of adjectives could be used to describe sounds. The point is that if you make an effort to put the characteristics of a sound into words, you have to analyse that sound precisely, and in doing so you are training your engineer's ear.
This is not the easiest question in the world to answer. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, just as everyone is entitled to their own taste in music, but if you are in the business of making and selling recordings you have to attempt to make some sort of objective judgement - or else how can you assess whether you are coming up with sounds that people will want to buy?
The cop-out answer to 'what is a good recording?' is 'a recording which complements and enhances the music'. A sound that suits the Amadeus String Quartet is not necessarily a sound that would suit Motorhead. Another easy way to answer the question would be to say that a good frequency response is required, together with low noise and low distortion. But that is a technical answer which is in no way relevant to the art of recording. Great recordings have been made on equipment that is markedly inferior to that which we have available today.
My idea of a good recording is one which exploits the song fully - gets the best out of the music, if you like, and therefore any recording technique that helps the music should be used. Conversely, any technique that works to the detriment of the music should be abandoned. Further than this, I would also say that recording tricks used purely as 'fix-its' - to cover faults - do not help to make a great record. They just bring a below average sound up to par.
So if we consider, as just one characteristic, the clarity of a recording, then the recording needs to be as clear as the music warrants. If the music is complex, then an open acoustic will probably be beneficial, so that the strands of the musical argument are fully audible. If the music is atmospheric, then a reverberant sound may be more suitable to help the musical lines blend together. But neither of these suggestions are rules, and a judgement needs to be made in each individual case.
Bearing this in mind, listen to some music carefully and decide whether the recording is not clear enough, just right, or too clear. Try to imagine how it would be if you could reach into the recording studio and turn down the level of the reverberation, or turn it up.
Another recording characteristic is the balance of the instruments. There is no one right way to balance instruments, rather the sounds of the particular instruments that are recorded will dictate how the balancing should be carried out to benefit the music. Listen, on your chosen record, to the balance between the bass guitar and bass drum. How would it sound if one or the other were louder? Being able to imagine how things will sound before you alter the settings on equipment is an important recording engineering skill - your imagination can take a whole series of twists and turns in the time it would take to try out just one adjustment.
Ultimately, a truly objective assessment of the quality of a recording is impossible. But if you listen critically to a large number of recordings, good, average and bad, and decide what particular features of the recording sound good to you, then you will have as objective a reference as it is possible to get when it comes to deciding whether your recordings are up to standard.
For the purpose of this series of articles, I am going to consider the situation where the recording engineer works directly with the musicians on a project, without the assistance of a producer. Taking the whole spectrum of recording studios into account from garage level up, this probably applies to the majority of cases. Also, in situations where one of the musicians considers themselves to be the producer of the recording, the fact is that the engineer is probably doing most of the real production work, even if they don't claim their fair share of the credit.
The most basic function of the recording engineer is to make decisions: decisions about how to go about the next task in the recording; decisions on whether the sounds they are making are good or bad; and decisions on whether the last take was good enough or needs to be re-taken. Sometimes these decisions are straightforward, sometimes not.
Often, it doesn't matter what the engineer decides, as long as they plump firmly for one of the available options - any decision is better than no decision at all. Of course, they have a series of jobs to do as well, but they are probably the only person present who can tell whether these jobs are being done to the correct standard. Being a recording engineer demands a high level of self-motivation.
As well as making decisions, the engineer also has to know how to get the best out of musicians - especially vocalists. A good engineer has an infinite amount of patience, encouragement, persuasion and tact to offer. It is quite possible that an engineer may be brilliant at working with sounds, yet lack these personal qualities that are essential to the production of a good recording.
"Good engineering can enhance good music, but it can't transmute base metal into a potential gold disc."
So far, the recording engineer is a decision maker and a man manager. Another important responsibility is the planning of a session, and making the best use of a studio's resources. In fact, planning a session is invariably the first thing that should be done, before a microphone is plugged in or a fader raised. The engineer needs to know the overall shape that the session will take - what instruments are to be used, how many tracks will be recorded, and so on. Even if plans are rather vague at first, or if the music is to be entirely improvised with no plan at all, the engineer needs to know as much as anyone else does - more, in fact - about what is expected to happen.
Of course, the engineer needs to be able to operate the equipment, too. But in some ways, technical knowledge is secondary to the factors mentioned above which have a direct bearing on the quality of musical performance. Good engineering can enhance good music, but it can't transmute base metal into a potential gold disc.
I comment on these non-technical aspects of recording because: a) they are extremely important; and b) because the rest of this series will concentrate on recording studio procedures and operating the equipment. If I could include an article on how to develop tact, patience and the other qualities I have mentioned I would, but I am afraid you will have to look to your own resources for these.
Starting at the 'front end' of recording, the engineer is responsible for the selection of the correct microphone for each instrument, and for its positioning. Of course, many recordings are now made by plugging a synth or sampler straight into the mixing console. But the option of going through a microphone is still available, simply by plugging the synth into an amp and speaker, and it has a definite value.
A wide range of sound qualities can be obtained with different combinations of microphone selection and placement. Each engineer learns by experience which mic suits which instrument, although there are no hard rules about this, and opinions differ widely. As far as mic placement goes, there are a few simple guidelines, which I shall be looking into, but the right position is always the position where the mic sounds good, regardless of theory.
If several instruments are being recorded simultaneously, then the engineer will tell the players where to sit, and position acoustic screens where necessary. A symphony orchestra will have some pretty definite ideas on how it likes to be arranged, but nevertheless the engineer is responsible for getting a good recording, and must have their say so that a good compromise can be reached.
There are a number of options for how to record an instrument to multitrack tape - the engineer may decide to add equalisation and effects as part of the track or simply record the instrument 'dry' for later treatment. Each procedure has its merits and demerits. The recording level on tape is vitally important to getting a clean, noise-free recording - perhaps the most mundane task an engineer has is 'nursing' a fader during a lengthy overdub session, but that is part of the job and it must be done properly.
If the studio is making enough profit to employ a tape operator, then the control of the multitrack tape machine may be out of the engineer's domain. But they will still be in charge of deciding which instrument goes on which track, and must still ensure that a written record - a 'track sheet' - is kept for reference throughout the recording. The engineer, whether or not they operate the multitrack, will also be responsible if a track is inadvertently recorded over, erasing something that might have taken hours to create. Needless to say, this is a great responsibility, and generally speaking accidental erasure only happens once in an engineer's career - the session on which it happens may mark their retirement.
As recording and overdubbing proceeds, the engineer is watching out for anything that might be detrimental to the quality of the end product. It could be a combination of sounds that will not mix well later, or a slightly fluffed note - perhaps acceptable to a musician who is more used to live work, but not to an engineer who is attuned to faults that will become annoying upon repeated listening. The engineer, whether a musician or not, will also be continually assessing the state of the instruments' tuning. Although tuning should be the musicians' job, the engineer will be listening very closely to the sound and may pick up a slight tuning problem before anyone else, and since poor tuning can ruin a recording, the engineer must speak up.
For monitoring during overdubs, the engineer must provide a monitor mix, so that both they and the musicians can judge what is being, and has already been, recorded. The monitor mix may sound very similar to the final mix, or it may be purely a working arrangement, with very approximate levels. A foldback mix is also required, for musicians listening on headphones while they overdub a new track, and sometimes two or more different foldback mixes are called for - foldback mixes can often be a bad pain in the engineer's neck.
When the multitrack recording is complete, the engineer will construct a rough mix, probably unassisted. The various parties who have an interest in the recording will then want to have their say, and if all the members of a five-piece band want to have an input, finding the right mix may prove difficult. The most important thing is to consider the requirements of the music, rather than those of a bass player who wants to be louder than everyone else to satisfy his or her own vanity.
For the final mix onto stereo tape, the engineer will attend to changes in balance as the mix progresses, and also make sure the level on the tape is correct. When the mix is complete, they will leader up the tape and, most importantly, label the box. Even if an assistant completes these tasks, it will be the engineer's fault if there is a problem later on - through incorrect labelling, for example.
When the session is finished, the engineer or the engineer's assistant can tidy up the studio, reset all the controls on the mixing console to zero, and count the microphones to make sure none have gone astray. Since it is by now about three o'clock in the morning, it is time to get some rest, ready for an 11am start the next day.
This is just an outline of the recording engineer's role, which I shall expand upon in the coming months as I describe many of the range of recording studio operations. Next month's installment will cover the vexed subject of microphone technique, and hopefully explode a few myths in this area.
Feature by David Mellor