“The high hats are too loud. We can’t hear the guitars very well. It doesn’t have to sound super-professional. Can you do anything?”
He handed me a recording. The band recorded it in their practice room to put online as a “fun” extra track for their fans, but were having trouble getting a good sound. Everything was muddy, midrangey and indistinct.
“It sounded a lot better when we played it in the room. Why is is so bad?”
No matter what kind of gear or mics are used, a lot of garage-style recordings end up this way. You CAN get pretty good results recording in a garage with very little equipment if you know how. To find out how, let’s travel back in time a bit.
Back in the stone age of recording, long before there were zillions of tracks and millions of sound options available, engineers would struggle to create good recordings with minimal mics and limited control. A lot of the responsibility was given over to the musicians, and they had to be very, very good to pull it off. Balancing sound was a matter of moving a player closer or farther away from a microphone, or playing louder and softer. There was no such thing as “fix it in the mix”. If someone made a mistake the engineer would either have to splice together multiple takes or scrap the whole thing and start over.
Most professional recordings in those early days were made in very large acoustically-treated rooms. The whole room wasn’t always used – rooms would be tailored to the size of the group by surrounding and separating the players with acoustic baffles. Interaction was minimal, yet the musicians could still hear one another. If they played loud the excess would just bleed out into the larger space, never to return. This created a clean, uncrowded sound. Engineers got very good using this extra “bleed” between mics to help create a larger-than-life sound. A lot of the best stuff in old recordings (and some of the most unpredictable) happened BETWEEN the mics.
As multitrack recording and small project studios gained popularity, fixing and re-doing parts became a lot easier, but new recording problems began to emerge. With all the extra tracks available, projects took a lot longer to finish. Adding more and more mics often created weird problems in the mix. Engineers also found it harder to get that old ‘big sound’. A small room fills up quickly with sound, and having nowhere to go, the resulting sound is often muddy and indistinct. The louder the band, the worse it gets, until all the mics begin to sound the same!
Engineers tried to solve this problem by isolating musicians into separate rooms, using headphones to hear one other. While this helps clean up recordings, a lot of the natural blending and interaction between instruments and musicians is lost. Each room also adds it’s own particular “tone” to the mix. This makes it more difficult to make everything sound “as one” when mastering.
In Part Two we’ll take a look at some of the ways even your own brain can fool you when recording, and describe a few “old-school style” recording tricks that can help you with your projects.
© 2014 Leo Bidne