Sound Recording Practice
Generally regarded as 'The Bible' of the recording world, David Mellor reviews this handbook of recording techniques and equipment produced by the Association of Professional Recording Studios.
David Mellor reviews the handbook of recording techniques and equipment produced by the Association of Professional Recording Studios.
There tend to be two schools of thought amongst professional sound engineers. The first group believe that 'knowledge is power'. The more you know about the nuts and bolts of your profession, the better equipped you will be to handle its rapid advances in techniques and technology. The second group seems to have the impression that if 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing' then a lot of knowledge must indeed be deadly! They work on a 'need to know' basis. If they can get by from day to day, then they will be OK.
Since you are a Sound On Sound reader, I'll take it that you subscribe to the former option and find it difficult to believe that anyone could not want to find out more about the science of sound recording. Me too, although I could almost accept the argument that if you can keep your mind focused on the end product, then technicalities become irrelevant. That's OK for today, but I'm convinced that people who operate according to this philosophy will find themselves slipping further and further behind as the frontiers of the technology advance.
The big question is, how do you find the things you need to know in a nice neat package, precisely tailored to the recording engineer's requirements? Bookshops and libraries are full of technical literature which contains the essential knowledge, but in a highly diluted form - too many irrelevant details. What the sound engineer needs is the 'hard stuff'. Information concentrated into a package which will ideally suit the man or woman at the controls. It may not come as a surprise that there are few good books available, and even those are often out of date.
Ten or so years ago, the Association of Professional Recording Studios had a brilliant idea. They decided that a comprehensive book on sound engineering was required, but instead of getting some learned academic to write it, they got real sound engineers and equipment designers to do the job. People who really knew what they were talking about, and more importantly, what was worth talking about. The first edition of 'Sound Recording Practice' hit the nail squarely on the head and became required reading for anyone bent on a sound engineering career. The book had 20 or so chapters, each about an aspect of recording technique, each written by a specialist in his particular field.
If there was one fault with the first edition, it was that each specialist had only one perspective on the topic - his own. It was quite possible to read the book and think that each chapter told you the only possible way of approaching the subject, whereas in reality there is a multiplicity of approaches in any field of recording endeavour. One could also have made the criticism that many chapters were not too well written, but they were always clear in their meaning, and in a technical subject the content should always come before the quality of the prose.
'Sound Recording Practice' is now into its third edition. Note that is third edition and not merely third reprint. The new book is completely new and up to date, so there is no risk of spending time learning about yesterday's technology. There are 28 chapters by 25 experts, edited by John Borwick, who was until recently the Senior Lecturer in Recording Techniques at Surrey University. I have picked out a few typical chapters to comment on, to give a potential purchaser an idea of the scope of the book.
There are five sections in the third edition of 'Sound Recording Practice': Technical Introduction, The Equipment, Recording Techniques, The Consumer Product, and Allied Media. There are also useful appendices and a glossary of technical terms.
The 'Technical Introduction' covers basic electronics, digital theory, acoustics and, most interestingly, a chapter by Andy Munro (of Windmill Munro Associates, the studio design company) about studio planning and installation. Planning, it could almost go without saying, is the first essential of setting up a studio. But how many would-be studio owners really know how to plan? This is where the benefit of using acknowledged experts as writers comes in. Andy Munro has the experience of having helped dozens of owners plan and build their studios from the ground up, and this chapter presents that experience in a readable form. Points covered include the design brief, market research, contracts for architects and builders, acoustic construction, installation, and checking that the final result is up to scratch. Following this is a chapter by Alex Burd on studio acoustics, which presents the essential facts in a way that is easily understood - acoustics is a subject which can become unbelievably obscure very easily.
Chapters under the heading of 'Equipment' include a very comprehensive account of the design of the mixing console by Richard Swettenham - the man behind the much respected Helios console. If you want to know why you get distortion when you turn up the EQ boost, this is the chapter to read. It must be said here that if you have no experience of mixers, as yet, then you will probably find the chapter heavy going. Once you get started, however, you'll find yourself coming back to it time and again to pick up titbits of information.
'Recording Techniques' is a definite improvement on the first edition, where the information given was often too specific to the author of each chapter. 'Popular Music' as a chapter heading is a potential recipe for several pages of limited usefulness, but whoever picked Mike Ross (a name I have not come across before) as the writer certainly made the correct choice. This chapter describes a big recording session which includes strings, brass, woodwind and percussion, as well as the more normal rock and roll instruments. This makes it possible to say something sensible about most aspects of the popular music recording process, rather than the 'well we laid down a click track, man' style of writing I had expected. There is none of the all too common 'use a U47 on the piano, or else' style either. Comments about microphones here are not excessively personal, although a list of suggested mics for different instruments is given.
'Electronic Music' is not quite so successful, basically because it concentrates on synthesizers and MIDI (which of course deserve a chapter) and doesn't get round to saying how you use them to make music. The writer, Jonathan Gibbs, is a member of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop so he must have a wealth of information to impart. It's a pity there isn't more of it here.
The final two sections, 'The Consumer Product' and 'Allied Media', are not strictly in the province of the recording engineer. Still, sticking to my 'knowledge is power' philosophy, I am convinced that an awareness of related fields is a valuable asset. Disc cutting, for instance, is often awarded the status of Black Art. If you expect your recordings to end up on vinyl disc, then it is essential that you have some knowledge of the process from cutting to manufacture to get a good result. Cassette and CD production are covered in their own chapters too.
I could go on, but suffice to say that this new edition of 'Sound Recording Practice' is an improvement on the first and second editions (which were pretty good anyway). Whether the expert writers have been better selected, or (as I suspect) more attention has been paid to the editing process, this book covers a wide range and covers it well.
This may come as a shock if you are more used to buying paperbacks to read on the train. The third edition of 'Sound Recording Practice' is priced at £39.50 (£30 for APRS members). It's a lot for a book, but it is a lot of book for the money. To put it in perspective, it's less than the cost of three 10½ inch reels of tape - 90 minutes of recording. This book will last for years as a source of useful reference on very nearly all aspects of the recording process. It's not the only source of information. You will still need to subscribe to reputable periodicals (such as Sound On Sound!) to fill in the details and to keep up to date. But as a solid body of information, 'Sound Recording Practice' is essential.
'Sound Recording Practice' is published by Oxford University Press and is stocked by major bookshops. It may be ordered direct from the APRS for £42.00, including UK postage.
APRS, (Contact Details)
Review by David Mellor
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