Thursday, December 7, 2017

Thoughts On Recording Music Instruments At Home

My Home Studio
I was recently asked about how to approach home recording of acoustic guitar. How much does the quality of the gear matter? How much does the space matter?

While all of that is important, your most powerful tool is how well you understand what you hear and how you work with that to get a good recording.

People with a lot of critical listening experience will do better with gear that's not so good. You can have the bridge of the Starship Enterprise at your finger tips, but it you don't know where the SUCK BUTTON is, your recordings will suck.
Sony MDR7506

For me, the process normally starts with a good set of headphones that you can come to terms with. I like Sony MDR 7506. Are they flat? No, they are a little bright and the low end is a little big, but I understand them. They make sense in my head. 

I move mics and players around accordingly until I hear what I want to hear. Do a rehearsal of sorts until I'm happy. Provide a good headphone feed for the players and singers and then hit the red button. When I listen to playback, yes, that's what I wanted to hear!

Recording Blumlein with Mike, Dave and Van 
Jazz recording engineers used to make great recordings with the group all playing together in a relatively small space. Yes, there was bleed, but it didn't matter. That's because they understood the sacred geometrical relationship of multiple mics (mostly figure of eight ribbons) placed properly among the players.

Rudy Van Gelder from Hackensack, NJ was one of these guys. He died last year.

Reading about him taught me a lot. I had the opportunity to do some Blumlein recording with a pair of AT4080 ribbon mics a few years back. In one session, with Mike White (guitar & vocals), Dave Mattheiss (guitar) and Van Ertel (pedal steel). I had a pedal steel speaker cabinet, two acoustic guitars and a vocalist all going at the same time to two tracks – a stereo master if you will.

As you can see from the picture, I positioned the players, paying particular attention first to their guitars. Mike, the singer/player was a right hander, so the body of his guitar was a bit to the right. I put Dave, the other guitar player to the left to balance that – so their guitars were physically and electronically "panned" prior to recording. I had to do some experimentation with the right height for the pair of mics to get the voice to guitar balance level right. I also had to deal with relative loudness and had each player move in or out a half step till I got that balance right.

I put Van's Pedal Steel speaker at 180 degrees, directly opposite to Mike's vocal, so it was centered, but on the back side of the mics. I then moved it closer or farther until I got the right level. I recorded each mic to a separate track. Afterwards, I panned each track fully and added some 10k shelf and a little reverb. You can hear the clacking of the pedal steel pedals in the first few moments of the recording. Here.

Additional thoughts:

Square rooms are bad. I think there's data to prove that rooms with a 3:4:5 ratio also suck, but I can't find it right now.

Where you sit in any room makes a difference.

Windows normally are bad unless you are clever with mic placement. And even then noise from the outside can get though most single pane. Even then, enough glass can make otherwise well thought out equipment and placement a futile effort.

Your space should have the right balance of absorptive and diffusive surfaces. I'm not in your space, so I can't really tell you what to do about that here, but simple stuff like where you put a couch, what art and book cases are on the walls and what's on the ceiling all combine to make up the sound of yor space.

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