There's a lot of talk about what gear choices to make for better sounding recordings and a lot of tutorials that hope to assist people improving the final mix. What if I told you there were 3 ways to improve your mix before you even press record, even better, all of them cost nothing.
The reality is that some of the greatest drum sounds, guitar sounds and vocal sounds were achieved using these three techniques. Sadly many people have become so obsessed with gear that they've missed some of the basics.
These three techniques require two things, time and and a pair of ears.
1. The Room Matters
This week Paul Drew was at my studio and we were recording a new track. My room is an open plan writing studio but the mistake one could make is that the whole room sounds the same.
As Paul was playing the acoustic guitar he walked around the room until the guitar sounded great. You may be surprised it was facing a wall made from pallets at and angle of about 45 degrees. No microphone was set up at this point we were just moving around the room and using our ears. The difference can be startling when you start to experiment like this.
Tony Platt did this very thing to get the drum sound on AC/DC's 'Back In Black' moving the drums around the room until he had the sound he liked.
So lesson one is use the room's natural acoustics and find the part of the room that works best for the instrument and the microphone you are using.
2. Mic Placement Matters
We've talked about this before but mic placement can make a vast difference. Some placements will accentuate the bass, others the top end. Some will add room and other placements can make it sound dead.
There's no right or wrong way, simply find the sound that works for the track. Sometimes you need lots of room and in other tracks you need it to be dry as a bone.
You may not have the luxury of a control room and an engineer asking you to move the mic around, if this is the case then it's worth taking the time to record test takes of the microphone in different positions until you get the sound you need.
You can hear 4 examples of this taking place in the audio clip above.
It's easy with an acoustic guitar because you can simply hit record, shout the position and then move around noting each position as you move.
3. Gear Settings Matter
The test recordings I was doing today were with a new SE Voodoo VR1 mic kindly sent to me by Toni at SE Electronics. A ribbon mic can need a lot of gain and your preamp needs to offer enough but having the facility to change the preamp's impedance can change the sound considerably. I have an Audient ASP880 which I love and it features the ability to change the impedance.
So I spent a few minutes making test recordings with each of the three impedance settings. The difference was remarkable and well worth me taking the time to test. Furthermore I also wanted to test the high pass settings too, to make sure I was recording the guitar and not anything unnecessary like secondary room reflections or the floor!
I'm only talking about one preamp here but I also have an SSL strip, a Maag Preamp as well as a Universal Audio 710D. Will they make a difference to this recording? The only way to find out is to take some time and use my ears.
Getting things sounding right on the way in is so fundamental to what you end up mixing. Do I sound like some purist? Perhaps, but experience tells me that getting it right at the start is both far more rewarding and far less taxing when you come to mix the thing.
There seems to be a propensity towards taking an iPhone camera approach to recording, in other words point and shoot and hope it looks great afterwards. If it doesn't then we can always use plug-ins to do the Instagram filter equivalent of audio. There may be days when we get lucky and capture a moment, I have plenty of those of my daughter captured on my iPhone, no set-up just point and shoot. But when I take time to set up my DSLR and spend time trying to get a great shot then the quality is so much better. There is a place for hit and run recording, but if you have the time and are willing to use your ears then you'll find your recordings are taken to another level.
Some say that recording is a lost art, that's only true if we let it happen.