From preamps to compression, pro music producer gives advice for home studio owners
I remember you recommended minimizing the number of microphones an engineer use when recording an acoustic guitar. What’s the theory behind that?
The artist has to determine what they are reaching for with their music. And if they’re reaching for a “radio-ready” song, then minimize the risk. So I would avoid using three microphones on an acoustic. Yes, a mic behind, one on the neck, and one on the sound hole gives you flexibility, but that flexibility gives you just enough rope to hang yourself. So I recommend you practice safe audio, use a logical position to record it, and minimize your risk.
I also recommend you keep your compression to a minimum, because, you don’t know how it’s going to sound in the mix yet. You might have a vision for the thing, but you don’t know. So why shaft yourself early on and have to try to undo something later? When you’re recording in your home studio, acquire the performance. Then when you’re mixing, you make the critical decisions.
Are you saying avoid using compression when going to tape?
I’m not saying avoid it, I’m saying be cognizant of that fact that the decisions you make are going to remain with that track for eternity. So if you over-compress, or you over-equalize, you’re going to be stuck with it.
Look, if you’re not making pop music or something geared to the radio, then none of this really matters and you should follow your own vision. But if you want the world to hear your music and you’re working in a home studio, I recommend you keep it simple. Minimal equalization, and minimal compression at the time of recording, because you can add that later. You can’t always “undo,” so try not to make unfortunate decisions at the time of recording.
And I mix for a lot of people who do this. I did a mix for a client with a home studio in New Mexico, he sent me tracks with guitars so bright, because he has bad speakers and he didn’t know what he was listening to. He just cranked up the treble – that’s what his knob says, “treble” – so he just cranked that up to 12 and I was stuck with this awful, metallic, nasty guitar that I had to heavily modify to make it acceptable. I’d rather be making something sound fantastic. Give me something that sounds good and I’ll make it sound great.
How do you avoid phase cancellation when you want to close mic multiple drums or use more than one mic on a guitar?
The secret I use is a 3-to-1 ratio: a second microphone has to be three times or more the distance from the sound source than the other microphone. But that doesn’t always work. If you have something close to a wall, and it’s reflective, and sound is bouncing off that wall, it could cause another phase cancellation. If we’re dealing with a gigantic empty space, the 3-to-1 rule generally works. In a small space in a home studio, it also works, but you have to deal with other artifacts – and that’s going to be early reflections, reverberation in general, standing waves, nodes. You have to be highly cognizant of your potential phase problems.
In the computer realm of recording in today’s world, you can get plug ins that will show you the health of your phase in your stereo field. It’s called a phase correlation meter, and most recording apps have those integrated – so crack it open and take a look at it, and you want to make sure you remain in the positive phase, not the negative phase. It doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but an out-of-phase signal can cause instruments to disappear from your mix if somebody’s speakers are wired incorrectly. In a home environment, you have to be doubly aware of that because you’re working in smaller spaces and potentially have greater possibility of phase problems.
If you’re working outside of a computer environment, you have to be able to recognize it, and that takes a set of ears. The secret that sometimes works, depending on your recording system, is to flip the phase on one of the channels in your mix and then put the mix in mono. Most stand-alone units have a mono button, so if you flip the phase on either your left or right channel, and you put it in mono, you’ll hear if things disappear. Typically it’s the stuff down the middle that disappears. “Down the middle” in my world means the stuff that splits evenly between right and left – bass guitar, kick drum, snare drum, lead vocal.
Do you ever track, say a guitar, and record it to two tracks so you can compress it or play with a second track?
I almost always do. One thing I do in the big studio that I recommend to the home recording enthusiast: you want one good solid bass track, you want one good solid drum performance. Guitars? Cut it twice. Cut it three times. But if you have two acoustic guitar tracks and they’re almost identical, and you hard pan them, the listener won’t necessarily recognize them as two separate guitars, but rather as one large guitar with breadth. And it’s a fantastic technique to add stereo field without making things jump out.
If the guitar playing is sloppy, and you have two acoustic tracks that are very different from each other, it really doesn’t work. But if you’re good enough to duplicate that performance, then that can be a valuable asset to the finished mix.
In the realm of digital, if it’s the same track and it’s copied, you can hard pan them and it’ll still sound mono or worse. And if you delay one track a little bit to add some thickness to it, it’ll sound processed. So I recommend you just cut it one more time. Same goes with vocals. Don’t end up with one lead vocal track, end up with two or three lead vocal tracks That way you can have your main lead vocal, and then you can bring in that double lead vocal track on certain phrases, or the choruses, or to differentiate the bridge. It all depends on your vision for the project and the needs of the music.
What’s one piece of gear you would recommend a home studio owner invest in?
A quality piece of outboard gear, a great place to put your money, is in an external mic preamplifier that might be better than your standard preamplifier. Some people go the channel strip route, which is a mic pre-amplifier with an EQ and a compressor. Again, be really cautious with the equalizer and the compression.
A preamp can put a sonic footprint on a recording. A particular preamplifier might represent a certain colored sound, while another represents a very pure and accurate sound. In Philly Sound Studios, in addition to the various pre-amplifiers in the boards, we probably have 20+ channels of other brands of mic amplifiers because each one sounds different. And we might use this one on bass and this one on vocals, this on piano, this to collect room sounds. It’s the best way to optimize sound in your recording.
Any sage advice to close us out?
The home recording enthusiast is best served by developing their vision on a good song. And follow the 3-to-1 ratio of songs. This is what I’ve discovered: for every three songs you write, one is truly worth working on. Don’t put your heart and soul into the recording of all three of them, put your heart and soul into the one that can make a difference. So rather than having 12 songs as a full length, you’re better off putting out three or four songs, because that’s your best. Always put out your best. Have a vision of what you want to do and what you want it to sound like.
And never be afraid to bring in external people to help you record – a little bit of money can go a long way in a pro studio. If you can’t execute the drum part, or you need someone to coach you to record the vocals, find someone to help you out. You do that one time, and from then on, whenever you record at home, you’ll be able to hit that mark.
Headphone image via ShutterStock.com.
Drew Raison is a successful record producer, recording studio owner, and leading expert in studio management and development, producing product for hundreds of successful acts and record labels for over 25 years. He operates two major recording studios, Big Sky Audio and Philly Sound Studios, both in the Philadelphia metro market. His Modern Media Academy offers courses on audio, video, web arts, and entertainment business.
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