I was recently reading online posts and questions submitted to producer, Steve Albini. Invariably, there were a lot questions regarding situations in which we have all found ourselves early on in our careers.
- “My single mic placed on the sound hole of the acoustic guitar sounds dead and flat, what can I do?”
- “What can I do about the rattle of the snare drum in the room I use to track drums?”
And so on.
Reading these questions reminded me of a joke I had heard recently.
A young medical intern is on her first day at a mental hospital, being given a tour by the head physician.
“How do you know if someone is crazy?” asks the intern.
“Its quite simple really” replies the physician.“We fill a bathtub with water and then give the patient a tea-bag, a cup and a bucket and ask them to empty the tub.”
“Ah, I see!” says the intern “If they use the bucket then they are sane.”
The physician stops and looks at the intern.
“No” he says sternly.
“We expect them to pull out the plug! Would you like a bed?!”
The joke highlights a fundamental lesson that every would-be producer and engineer needs to learn; sometimes, we miss the bleeding obvious!
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In our journey of sound production, we can often find ourselves adrift on a veritable sea of knowledge, information and opinion regarding apparently established and traditional techniques and practices when it comes to the process of recording. We are often led to believe that there are Golden Rules of Recording, laid out by the prophets of producing, in whose footsteps we can but dream to tread. Our trust in these ‘tried-and-true’ methods is immense and almost unquestionable as beginners and journeymen (women). The great names of sound engineering have graciously handed down their secrets, their Golden Rules. Who are we to question them?
As such, there is a tendency to see these methods as hard and fast rules and guidelines to which me must adhere to and obey if we have any hope of achieving greatness; or in the least, a good recording.
Many ‘traditional’ techniques have been lauded for the sound they produce and as such many well-known producers and engineers will recommend ‘this’ or ‘that’ approach. However, it is important to remember that in the end, it is not simply the technique or approach that serves them best but rather, that they experimented, finessed and perfected said technique to the point that it works best for the recording.
The truth is, there is only one Golden Rule of Recording; the rules are there to be broken.
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To be fair, the techniques and methods that have been generously handed down by some of the most influential engineers and producers are a really good place to start. But that is all they are.
Just because someone says this or that microphone or placement technique is best doesn’t necessarily mean it will be so for your recording. Nor does it tell you the whole story of how they arrived at that conclusion.
Every recording session is different. Every space sounds unique.
Remember, the rules can be broken.
A microphone can be moved; a shift of its proximity; a rotation on its axis.[ Pic ]
A microphone can also be replaced with (dare I say!) a different microphone! Or several. The good old ’57 on the speaker is a workhorse and almost legendary traditional guitar cab recording method. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best for your recording.
And there’s only one real way to know.
Just as the young intern in the joke misses the obvious answer to the bathtub exercise, so too do we all too often forget that in the end it is all about how the recording sounds.
The question earlier of “My single mic placed on the sound hole of the acoustic guitar sounds dead and flat, what can I do?” is a perfect example of missing the obvious. Move the microphone.
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Yes, the guitar emits a large amount of energy from its acoustic hole but is that where it sounds best in the space in which it is being recorded. A quick walk around the room and around the player will answer that question. ‘What if you are the player?’ Then walk around the room playing the guitar until you find the best spot and start there. Still not right? Try shifting the mic in proximity. Try turn it on and off axis. Try every possible variation you can think of and listen to them all.
Recording is an equal part art form as it is science. And at the heart of both lies experimentation.
Look at the second query.
“What can I do about the rattle of the snare drum in the room I use to track drums?”
Let’s pull the plug on this one, shall we?
Change the snare. Try a different snare drum. Or try another space.
Can’t get hold of another drum or space? Try baffling the drum (absorption gel, cloth, gaff tape, etc…) or dealing with the acoustics of the space.
Try everything you can possibly think of.
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It’s easy to get caught up in believing that the well-known methods are hard and fast immutable laws that you dare not change or alter. It is simply not true. And the very people who created those techniques would probably say the same thing. The answer to your audio recording quandary is usually found in making changes to the most obvious elements; the source, the transducer or the space.
Whenever someone says to me “Don’t tell anyone, but I actually used a different mic/technique on that than they say you should!’ my response is always “Does it sound good?” usually followed with ” And who the hell are ‘they’?!”
So go on. Pull the plug on this little misconception. Break the rules. You know you want to.