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Tim Hunt - Recording Engineer

Tim Hunt

Article from Home & Studio Recording, January 1986

Tim talks to Janet Angus about his work as engineer at Marcus Studios and gives his views on microphone technique and natural ambience.


Tim Hunt, the house engineer at Marcus Studios in London has some strong views on microphone techniques.


Marcus boasts the luxury of an unusually large recording area in its Studio One, and this enables engineers and producers to experiment with ambient sound as opposed to purely electronic processing.

Marcus' Studio Two, though much smaller, also provides scope for creating different ambient effects and it comes as no surprise therefore to discover that the studio owns a Calrec Soundfield microphone. The use of this, in addition to simpler and cheaper methods forms the basis of Tim's latest obsession: recordings that convey a sense of space.

'This effect of space is missing from a lot of the home recordings that I hear, and whereas a pro studio may have a host of sophisticated processors which can be used to synthesise the necessary effect, the home recordist may have to adopt a more cost effective approach.

The Calrec Soundfield



In Tim's view there are two ways of going about creating a sense of space: by recording it straight or by recording the dry signal and then adding the impression of space by processing at the mixing stage. One of the ways in which it may be captured at the recording stage is by use of the Calrec Soundfield mic.

The advantage of the Calrec microphone is that it gives a very faithful representation of the acoustic environment in which you're recording. Having said that, it's not really an ideal studio microphone because the actual acoustics of a studio are normally secondary to the idea of keeping outside noise out and inside noise in which means a fairly dead acoustic. The Calrec microphone in that environment therefore will faithfully reproduce the ambience of the studio, which probably won't be anything particularly special.'

Ambience is usually something to do with the size of the room and since most recording studios are not that big, there is really no way of compensating for that lack of size.

'If you set up a hall program on a reverb, it may sound like something recorded in a big hall, but you can't get that sort of ambience naturally from most studios.'

Because of this paradox, the Calrec Soundfield is best suited to location work, for example the recording of classical music for which a good acoustic location is prerequisite, and the recording would then be executed straight to stereo without adding anything to it at all.

'That's why you find most classical music recordings are done on location, often in churches, as there are very few big studios which can produce an equivalent acoustic environment.

'There is an enormous dichotomy between pop and classical engineering, and very little common ground. The difference between the modern studio and the modern classical recording is that in the first instance, we will change the signal to get what we want to hear, or what the producer or artist feels is a good sound. The idea of using the Calrec then becomes a bit redundant and that's why I feel that it's a good microphone for using outside the studio.'

The Soundfield is unconventional in the sense that it has four capsules in the microphone assembly: four mics in one. There has been and still is a great deal of research going into the recording of surround sound and there are various solutions, each having one major drawback in common; they cannot be reproduced on a conventional domestic loudspeaker set-up. So called 'dummy head' recording, whereby sound is captured by mics placed in or on the ears of a dummy head has been fairly successful though the resultant recordings can only be successfully played back on headphones, and due to physical differences of listeners, the directional information is sometimes confused, and the height information is definitely unsuccessful. Other ventures in the area include holophonics which, again can only be reproduced successfully on headphones, although the height information is very clear; ambisonics, which is also unsuccessful on a single pair of speakers, and the Calrec Soundfield which is a product of the Ambisonics research team.

Ambisonics



'Basically, ambisonics is being able to record and play back not just stereo (which we are all used to) or quad (which gives left and right, front and back information) but also height information. To play it back you need eight speakers: two at the front (left and right), two at the back (left and right), two on the floor pointing up and two on the ceiling pointing down, all pointing towards a central position.

The four capsules pick up the sound from all directions. There are incredibly complex mathematics involved, but basically the outputs from these four capsules are fed into a processor which converts and decodes it into four separate tracks. By playing those four tracks back through the box, given that you've got enough speakers and amps to set it up, you can hear whatever you have recorded with front, back, left, right and height.'

Functions on the controller enable switching for mono (just front information), stereo (just front), four channel (front and back) or UH J which includes height as well. With the controller next to you in the control room you are able to electronically tilt the listening position without rushing into the studio to experiment with different placements; you can also control the height. Therefore an engineer equipped with one of these microphones is much more likely to experiment with technique and placement than one who is not and who can't afford to waste precious clients' time fiddling around with the mics.

'It's a very flat, uncoloured microphone, even when you're using less than half its capacity such as when using it for stereo, it's the most faithful microphone. On the back panel of the box you can use the stereo outputs which do give a very good stereo picture of what you're trying to record. The steerability is very useful, and you can also steer your apparent listening position when playing back the 4-track recording. Also it reproduces the acoustic of the room more faithfully than conventional microphones (assuming, that the room is worth recording)!'

'The problem with it is that you must be able to record and store four separate channels of information, and that's not a domestic format. It's not even a professional format either; 4-track recorders are not exactly popular outside the studio.'

Lesser applications (ie. the enhancement of stereo recordings) are therefore necessarily the most useful for everyday recording and the results are definitely not to be sneezed at.

The PZM



Apart from the Calrec (which will set you back approximately £2,500), there are obviously other, much cheaper microphones which are more suitable for studio recording, especially home recording, notably the Pressure Zone microphones or PZMs of which much has been said of late within these pages.

'They're not as flat as the Calrec in terms of response but you can get a Realistic PZM from Tandy for £25 and in a home recording set-up, this is capable of excellent results.'

The PZM has a completely hemispherical pick-up pattern and you mount it on a flat surface: a wall, window, or floor. The microphone is sensitive to sound from all directions and the frequency response does not change with direction. The response is similar to that produced if the response of an omnidirectional microphone were cut in half. Even if you're in fairly close proximity to it, it still picks up a lot of information and thus gives a sense of space. The bass response improves the larger the surface you place it on as the plate size is related to the low end response and the wall is in effect an extension of this plate.

'Surprisingly, it makes a very good hi-hat mic when gaffered to the rod that comes out of the top of the hi-hat, giving a very 'studio' hi-hat sound. It's very unnatural but very bright.

'As for placement, there aren't really any rules, it's just ideal for experimenting because you can't move off axis from it. With a couple of bits of gaffer tape you can put them anywhere. With a conventional dynamic microphone, once you move off axis you lose the top end response and the sound becomes duller. With a PZM you don't have to worry about the frequency response changing with placement; you can adjust the amount of direct and reflected sound you get from the mic. It's great for vocals (especially backing vocals where you have more than one singer) or recording percussion. If you have someone playing several percussion instruments at various times throughout a piece of music; using conventional microphones you have to use several mics (one for each instrument being played) and getting spill, or else using one microphone to pickup a useful balance. With the PZM however, you can actually optimise that balance better if you stick it on the wall behind or in front of the player. You'll probably be able to capture the dynamics as well; you just have to make sure that the balance you record is what is wanted by the people you are working with because you're not going to be able to change it. You might possibly pick up extraneous noise but you always pick up a certain amount of page noise and chair scraping and such with conventional mics anyway.'

Ambience



'A lot of work I've heard that has been done on home studio equipment lacks perspective. People say 'Yes, but I've only got one reverb' or 'I can't afford to buy a digital reverb, I've only got my Great British Spring'. Because so many of the instruments recorded these days are DI'd, we're stuck with adding the space when we mix.

'One of the unalterable aspects of the recording studio is the choice of rooms available to you. So many studios record drums in the pool room, guitars in the loo or whatever. These rooms weren't designed as part of the studio and therefore they sound good! Acoustics is still a mysterious art; some of the best guitar sounds I have ever recorded were in the loo downstairs with a Pignose amp; it just sounds more exciting.

'Certainly in a home situation you've got the ability to use the bathroom with all its reflective surfaces and you can record the result using a PZM. You can feed a synth into the room via a speaker, mic it up and then bring it back again to the mixer. Garages also sound nicely live because they're generally all brick with a metal door which gives a good clangy sound. Moreover, you can drive all these rooms with just a small hi-fi speaker, using an omnidirectional wide pickup angle microphone to pick up the sound.

'Hard reflective rooms like the bathroom and the loo will give very hard, short, ambient sounds; a popular treatment at the moment.

'So many people have just one reverb or delay unit, but different instruments and sounds need different treatments. That is one of the advantages of having a portable set up; you're not tied down to recording in one room. Run microphones upstairs and see what the airing cupboard sounds like, or the cupboard under the stairs, or the hall. This way you can add mood, space and depth to your recordings by recording real ambience rather than by using a couple of processors on the dry signal.'

Mics or DI?



In home studios where a large proportion of the recording is DI'd, the importance of microphones tends to get forgotten and they're generally used only for vocals. Tim's case is that with a couple of good microphones: a PZM and a good quality dynamic cardioid for example, you can use the acoustics of your home to create interesting sounds even for purely instrumental or electronic music. There are several makes of PZM available: Beyer, Schoeps, the original Crown, all for professional purposes, but none such good value as the Tandy which is also in use in many professional studios.

'If you feed the sound into a speaker in the bathroom you can make the sound even bigger by delaying the signal. Send the initial signal through a delay unit to the speaker in the bathroom (20 to 250mS delay on a short synth sound), thus creating a gap between the direct signal and the ambience which, psychoacoustically makes the sound bigger.

'Reverb will sound deeper and give a psychological impression of depth if it's wide. If you use two microphones in the bathroom at different distances from the speaker, you get a sound that you can spread across the speakers and that gives more depth than a mono effect.

'By using the acoustics of your home, in conjunction with noise gates or compressors, you can get a very powerful modern drum sound by compressing or gating the ambience you have created. You can start experimenting with the rooms and you can use them whilst recording or mixing which gives you access to a lot of different sounds. It's far cheaper and probably more fun than going out and buying the latest digital reverb.'

Most of the people I know who have a home studio or who potter around with a Portastudio set-up always get everything together in one room and that's where they do everything. It is these people who can achieve significant improvements in their finished results by indulging in a little experimentation.

'Wardrobes are good. Put an Auratone or a small speaker at the top and a microphone at the bottom and you will get a very coloured, boxy sound which could work very well for short synth sounds or a vocal.

'I definitely think it's worth encouraging people, even if they are only recording electronic instruments, to experiment with microphones; everything becomes very one-dimensional if it's DI'd straight into the desk, it's all right in front of you. Even on the professional side, microphone technique is a disappearing art. Because of the cheapness and availability of electronic gadgetry I don't think people experiment with microphones nearly enough. Anything that can be DI'd probably will be just out of convenience.

'The lack of perspective is often what makes a home recording sound like a home recording. Listen to the guitar on 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'; admittedly it was probably all done with equipment in the studio afterwards, but the perspective changes at least eight times in 16 bars and it's very exciting to listen to. Anyway, it's fun. I would much sooner create something I use than buy a box and use a sound which everyone else uses. I'm not knocking The Art of Noise or anything but that sort of drum sound has become very common and cliched. If you get different engineers all using the same boxes, you're going to end up with sounds which are fairly similar. If you use the rooms, you create the sort of effects which cannot be reproduced exactly.'

Because this philosophy is one which Marcus as a studio holds with (after all Tim did train there), the buildings cater for as much variation in sound as possible, given their necessary restrictions.

In the smaller Studio Two, walk through the drum room which itself is pretty live, and you can open a door into what was a storeroom but has recently been spruced up with a lick of paint, because 'It sounds incredible: absurdly live'. So for mixing, that and the drums room give you two additional reverb settings if you like.

'One of the things that I enjoy about engineering is that you never stop learning. I'm constantly experimenting; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.'

Walkmen



Another possibility for experimentation has been presented by Sony whose latest recording Walkman has a pair of headphones with microphones on the earpieces which tuck just inside your ear. Although it is a recent acquisition, he has tried it out at a couple of weddings of friends (defying stern looks from disapproving bride's parents wondering what on earth he thinks he's doing listening to his Walkman during their daughter's most important day)! Other recordings have included a concertina band at the Covent Garden Street Festival, and a Morris Dance Band.

'It gives a very good impression of space and the quality is certainly good enough to use. What I find nice about it is that the only controls you've got are where your head is, so you can't EQ it, you can't twiddle with it at all and I like that. It's great for recording sound effects.'

As already mentioned, most dummy head recordings don't translate well to speakers, but Tim says, although his recordings do sound better on the headphones, they're still very good on speakers. It loses a bit of directional information, but retains a sense of space.

Nothing, however, is going to equal the experience Tim had when he visited Calrec at their home in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, where they played him a recording of the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Di.

'It was the most stunning musical experience I have ever had. It makes everything else sound very artificial and unreal, purely because you are aware of listening to artifice. With the UH J you're in the acoustic; it's all around you and you have a sense of depth behind and above you. In that recording the trumpets were up in the gallery, the participants in the wedding were below you and the choir were all around you. It was amazing.'

Looks like we had better all start saving.



Previous Article in this issue

Fostex Model 80 8-track Tape Recorder

Next article in this issue

An APT Solution


Publisher: Home & Studio Recording - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

Home & Studio Recording - Jan 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Artist:

Tim Hunt


Role:

Engineer

Interview by Janet Angus

Previous article in this issue:

> Fostex Model 80 8-track Tape...

Next article in this issue:

> An APT Solution


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