Essential Studio Techniques. Part 2: Recording Basics

Discusses the basic recording technique from an engineer's perspective. Addresses room selection and modification, microphone selection and placement.

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EST. Part 1 focused mainly on the musicians, and how to perform in the studio for a very important reason - no matter what you happen to know, or how much experience you might have in recording, if the band sucks, all your effort will be a waste. Thus I clearly established a heirarchy of importance in the studio; musicians are the most important element, followed by the engineer and other studio staff. After all, without the musicians, what is there to record in the studio?

The Rooms

Drum/Live Room: This should be a relatively large room, about the size of a bedroom, that is as noise-free as possible, and it should have certain acoustic properties that are beneficial to the sound of the drums and other instruments.

Resonances, aka room modes are inherent in the dimensions of the room. If you want software to calculate room modes for you, email me. Unfortunately, absorptive panels, "egg cartons," and other methods will do nothing to help you with room modes. One surefire solution is to eliminate the bass cabinet. Instead of playing with a bass amp in the room, send the bassist into the console through a direct input box, then feed the signal into headphones. No bass in the room = no modes from the bass! Drums, being "whitish" noise, are less prone to mode problems, but modes can still bite you if you're not careful. Generally, the snare (properly tuned) will not do it. If anything, it will be the kick drum or tom toms. Getting a mode? Tune the drums differently. As a general rule, higher frequencies are less of a problem, so? Tune the drums higher. That's the default way to go, but you can also tune down. Tune until the problem goes away, and the right drum sound will "find itself."

The other consideration is the reverberation of the room. A bedroom-sized room should have a pretty nice reverb time, depending on the construction materials. The ideal situation is to start with a room that has too much reverb, that way you can add absorptive "fuzz" to get rid of it if need be. If you have the other problem, a "dead" room, you really can't add reverb. Thus room choice is crucial here. Choose a room with some natural ambience if you can, and don't worry if it's too much. Some cheap absorptive materials are Pink Panther fiberglass insulation, burlap from a fabric store, even stuffed animals or pillows from an old couch. Area rugs are also useful as you can add or subtract them at will. Some people believe in recording in a dead room and adding reverb electronically, but nothing beats the sound of a truly great live room. There's no reverb module in the world that can compete with perfection.

Obviously, the design of rooms can get extremely involved, so I'm just outlining the basic concepts here. Stick the drums in a big room with some reverb, and tune them so there are no errant modes. In short, the drum set and room are together a single instrument. This "live room" is where the foundation tracks will be laid.

I am blessed with a beautiful bedroom in my rental house that has hard wood floors, hard cielings and walls, and glass doors. It's large enough that room modes are not an issue, and the reverb sounds very natural and pleasing. No work, just set up and play in there and it sounds great, better than any reverb machine on Earth, in fact. That's the fun of finding natural environments that work well - it's like playing with million-dollar gadgets.

When I do vocals, I just send them into the living room. Since I don't have a vocal booth yet, I just plop the vocalist in the front room where there are three couches, coats hanging, and plenty of other "fuzzy" stuff to essentially "kill" the reverb in there. It's not a vocal booth, but what do you need, really? You need a good, solid vocal performance with little or no ambience from the room. Find a dead room and go. Noise is also a major concern. Turn off any computers you can, and any appliances. Toss your dog outside for a while.

Microphone Selection

Once you have found the right environments to record in, or if you are fortunate (or rich) enough to be recording in a professional studio, you need to select your microphones carefully. There are three main types of microphones:

  • Dynamic - basically a speaker in reverse. You know that mic that the singer screams into on stage? That's probably a Shure SM58 dynamic microphone. You can drop them without hurting them, scream your lungs out into them, etc. They only pick up sounds effectively that are less than three feet away, and are generally intended to pick up sounds that are within a few inches of them. That's why the vocalist jams it halfway down his windpipe when screaming into the mic - it sounds good that way. Stick them right on the cones of a guitar rig, or half an inch from a snare head. These mics are for instruments which are loud and proud. They can take a beating.

  • Small Diaphragm Condensers - this is the more sensitive type of microphone. You can put one in the middle of a room and hit record, and the playback will sound almost identical to what you heard yourself in the room - in other words, it's kind of like a human ear. It picks up sounds from a distance, and is best suited for use as a drum overhead, or for picking up the ambience of the live room. Just hang it from the cieling and go. Or dangle two over the drums and pan them. You'll get an unbelievably realistic sound that way.

  • Large Diaphragm Condensers - these mics are just like their small-diaphragm cousins, only they have a slightly different use. This is what you want to put in front of a vocalist in the studio. While SM58's are great for live gigs, or for picking up a guitar rig, the sound of a voice through one is not quite as natural as it could be. The technique for using these is a bit different as well. You generally want to keep your distance. One good technique is to position the mic about a foot and a half from the vocalist, pointing sideways. The reason you point it sideways is that singers will produces "plosives", or syllables like "puh", "buh", "tah", and so on that can produce an unusable crack in a sensitive condenser. Thus, by turning the mic to the side, the explosive puff of air from an ennunciated "t" will pass into the air, and only the sound itself will reach the microphone. To control the vocalist's urge to sing into the mic, utilize a pop filter, one of those funny round things like James Hetfield used in the Nothing Else Matters video. These are designed to prevent plosives, but my favorite way of using them is to stick them in front of the singer so they feel they have a "target" to sing into. They stay roughly in the same area while singing, instead of "playing" the mic, by moving backwards and forwards. It's a psychological trick.

    The other type of mics is the Ribbon family. These are quite expensive and nice, and are used very much the same way as a LD Condenser. Don't worry about them, though, I doubt you can afford one.

    Microphone Placement

    Condensers, just place at a distance. "Placement" is really not necessary with them. They just pick up everything.

    With dynamic mics, solo the channel and crank the mic. Play with distance and location until you "find it." There is always some sweet spot with every source, and no one can tell you where it will be. Concentrate on the sound as you move the mic, with a loose boom stand. Once you find that spot, tighten up the boom. That's it. Dynamics are nice because they generally don't pick up much except what they are stuck in front of. You may hear the snare in the guitar track if you solo the channel, but in the overall mix, this won't matter a bit.

    Recording Process

    It's a pyramid. Don't even record unless you have something to record. Once your band is tight, and you all know what you're doing, record.

    When you do record, lay down the drums and the band at large first. (lacking lead players, vocalists, etc.) Once you do three or four takes in the live room, lay down the other instruments. When the mix is beginning to sound a lot like the song you originally wrote, do the vocals. Also, don't forget to take breaks. You will find that you will do a lot better with a fresh mind than one that is fatigued and irritated.

    Good luck!

  • 45 comments sorted by best / new / date

      SingingSabre
      The reason you point it sideways is that singers will produces "plosives", or syllables like "puh", "buh", "tah", and so on that can produce an unusable crack in a sensitive condenser. Thus, by turning the mic to the side, the explosive puff of air from an ennunciated "t" will pass into the air, and only the sound itself will reach the microphone. To control the vocalist's urge to sing into the mic, utilize a pop filter, one of those funny round things like James Hetfield used in the Nothing Else Matters video. These are designed to prevent plosives, but my favorite way of using them is to stick them in front of the singer so they feel they have a "target" to sing into. They stay roughly in the same area while singing, instead of "playing" the mic, by moving backwards and forwards. It's a psychological trick.
      First: you can get things which protect against that, so you can keep the richness of the vocals. Second: Having the singer target something 6-8 inches in front of the mic is a bad, bad idea. That can dampen the sound of their voice dramatically. Otherwise, everything in this article seems quite sound. Thanks for writing it!
      redrumydoolb
      awesome article, very informative....will be very useful to everybody...messiah, your statements are contradicting.
      xEDGEx
      That sounded harsh against Messiah, but I really didn't mean it like that. I'm just trying to learn all I can, so if you have any knowledge on this stuff, please by all means share it!
      FlyingFuc!<
      can someone write an article more detailed on the requirements for a band to go into the studio? the musicians responsibility. on EST part 1 all i leraned was you have to be on time. How do you use a metrononme? how do you know when you're band is in time? (its' harder than it sounds). What's the order of the recording? what's a scratch guitar? etc.
      Bubonic Chronic
      Modes: the more technical name for resonances. Do you ever walk down a narrow hall talking, and your voice sounds like a low moan? In that case, the hall is acting like an organ pipe, ringing with it's natural frequency. As you talk, you excite this energy that hums along with you. In a studio, that's bad (usually.) It tends to happen in the low end, though. Your live room might happen to resonate at a note you use, like A. My old jam space used to ring like hell when I'd play an A on my bass. The lights would dim! It was nuts. Guitar won't tend to do that as much. Bass is the usual culprit. That's why you probably want to stick your bass amp into a vocal booth and record it independently, or just record through a DI box (direct input) that you can use as-is, or feed through your favorite bass rig later. Just avoid bass in a resonating studio. Also, if drums are doing it, tune them higher. That usually takes care of it. Metronomes: You can buy very cheap metronomes at any guitar shop. The cheap ones tend to have a very annoying "beep" that is hard to listen to, but they get the job done. More expensive ones give you more precision (fine-tuning) and a better, more pleasant "click". Each musician in your band should play with a metronome by themselves to get used to it - it's a good idea anyway. For singers, it's not really necessary, but everyone else should be very comfortable playing to absolute time. As good as you may think your timing is, when you play to a metronome it is very humbling indeed.
      Bubonic Chronic
      At least you got the title right this time. Recording "Basics". There is a lot of innacurate things in this article. Too many to list.
      Next time you criticize my writing, make sure you double-check your grammar. PS, I've made a recording thread for advanced topics, beyond the basics. The reason for a thread vs. an article is exactly as I said earlier, each person (artist) has his own take on this, and no one is "right" or "wrong." I can't tell you how to paint a picture, other than how to hold the brush, mix the paint, and stretch the canvas. The rest is up to you.
      Lacquer_Head
      i'm taking music tech and i think the article is pretty good.. and messiah.. he wasn't saying that this is the ultimate way and that everything he said is perfect..
      freebirdisepic
      Very well written and informative. ...and to those who enjoy blitching, if you don't like what people have to say, don't go to the places where people speak.
      Bubonic Chronic
      I would like to make a new statement...I read the article again...this article is bad, I work in 2 different studio's, and travel sometimes to assist at other studio's all while attending college for Visual Communications...I also have a certification in Audio Engineering...and well...this article touches on some very basic things...but other then that...most of what is talked about it wrong and innaccurate.
      It's a matter of experience moreso than knowledge, and the nature of the business is for people to disagree with one another. One professor I had insists on mixing at 120 dB..seriously! But he's over 70 and been doing this all his life. Would I do it? No. I think it's stupid, but it works for him. This is what works for me. Why don't you tell us what works for you. I might learn something along with everyone else here.
      dionysus85
      good article man, i like people who know what they are talking about and you seem to be one of them 5 stars
      systemrules
      one thing, you said to use a "bedroom-sized" room. well in my time i have seen many, many different sized bedrooms so maybe a little more information on the actual size would be helpful. just an idea.
      psychodelia
      Modes: would an example of a "mode" be like when you play certain notes and, say, the snare drum will start buzzing?
      ElectricMonk
      This article is a good attempt at a very difficult subject. It contains a lot of information, but is constructed in a rather haphazard manner. Most of the information, once deciphered, is reasonably accurate. However I feel it is important in order to make this information useable, to very clearly explain the principles being discussed in a simple, well organised manner with relevant practical examples. Messiah Of Rock seems to have an overinflated opinion of his own knowledge, as it is obvious from his posts here that it doesn't count for much. I hope I never have the misfortune to record at a studio where he works...but should he rise to the challenges set down before him and respond with an article in kind, I will redress my own opinions accordingly.
      fahd
      Great "basics". gud for me to "start knowing". even the discussion was helpful. GUD JOB.
      xEDGEx
      As a guy who doesn't know a thing about studio work, this gets my praise. I would like to hear what Messiah thinks is wrong with this article. But I'm sure a lot of this isn't set in stone, that it's personal preference. Could anybody explain the Room Mode thing more? Like I thought at first he meant reverb/echo, but then he covered it so that wasn't what he was talking about.
      beatallica_fan
      Messiah, if you work and study recording then why not write a lesson you feel improves on this one, rather than simply saying this one is bad.
      Bilzzard_of_Ozz
      2nd. Great article! But it seems like our band can get a very fortunate oportunity to get in to a real studio for a VERY low cost or even free. But good article anyways.
      atc228
      hey good article and to Messiah of Rock, who cares what u got, all that matters is that it sounds good...
      gaz12369
      The other type of mics is the Ribbon family. These are quite expensive and nice, and are used very much the same way as a LD Condenser. Don't worry about them, though, I doubt you can afford one./QUOTE] Would be cool to know a bit more about what they do though...
      fishboneul03
      exactly what is meant by a room mode? ie: if i were trying to determine if the problem existed, what am i listening for
      Bubonic Chronic
      On ribbons: This is one of the oldest microphone designs in the world. The jury is out on which came first; ribbons or dynamics. I'm guessing it was dynamics because of the simplicity of the design. Ribbons, though, are the richest sounding microphone family, and perform very much the same way a large diaphragm condenser will - they are a large diaphragm mic. The difference is, a ribbon is a bit heavier, so they respond extremely well to lower frequencies. This creates a very "warm" sound. In reality, you can use any mic for anything, but putting a ribbon on a kick drum is a bad idea. It will sound great...once. They are very fragile and tend to be expensive. Neumann makes some great ribbons. They can be used as drum overheads, vocal mics or room mics, and they sound fabulous on a piano. To the first comment: those "things that protect against that" are called pop filters. It's a bit of nylon (like panty hose) stretched over a ring of plastic. You lose a bit of high end, but proper placement of the mic can compensate (placement from the side.) A good mic will not sound "damp" as you put it. An AKG 414 or similar are plenty sensitive to pick up all the high end you need at a distance of 2 feet or more. Plus, recording from the side (not a 90 degree angle, more like 30 or 40 degrees off center) will even out the dynamics. You will have less swell in your volume. I have used the pop filter "trick" only a few times. Basically, if a singer is trying to play the mic, like it's a live show, I stick that on 'em so they get the idea that this is a studio and that they should stay put. It also looks official (though there are simpler solutions to the plosive problem.) Good comments, though.
      deapcyfer
      can't wait to see if rhcpcure critisizes this one...which btw was appropriate on the last article and Bubonic Chronic, you do need to learn to take critisism better, but this article was a lot better than the last one, since I already knew everything in the last one, it wasn't like that was a best kept secret or anything to be prepared going into the studio, however the mic at a 30 degree angle, now that was what i was expecting from the first one, and good stuff on the panning of the drums and all that stuff, this one is a 4 star article.
      Messiah Of Rock
      I would like to make a new statement...I read the article again...this article is bad, I work in 2 different studio's, and travel sometimes to assist at other studio's all while attending college for Visual Communications...I also have a certification in Audio Engineering...and well...this article touches on some very basic things...but other then that...most of what is talked about it wrong and innaccurate.
      Blackbullet
      you do know a pop sheild/screen is a better way to sort the 'pu' 'tu' etc sounds rather than turning the mike to an angle or whatever. Apart from that, pretty good article- good basics
      ninja-explosion
      I haven't been to a studio, or recorded any albums before so I really don't know whats "accurate". Messiah of Rock, if you're so expirenced in recording studios, why in God's name have you not written an article? You didn't even say what's "inaccurate". In my unexperienced opinion, I say 5 stars.
      Messiah Of Rock
      This just in...I'm officially sick of this website because almost everyone on here is ignorant (notice...I said almost). Either someone says something and everyone "disagrees" and b1tches about it for 200 posts, or someone says something that is just plain wrong...and everyone eats it up and gives it a nerdy "five stars". There is rarely ever anything intelligent or remotely researched on in these articles. It's just a crap load of 14 year olds who accept everything posted on here whether is correct or incorrect. Almost every article I have seen has been nothing but an opinion and basic knowledge. And go ahead...prove my point...que "everyone replying because I am saying something bad about UG" I absolutely love the site for it's tabs...and occasionally some forums...but other then that...pretty sure it's just annoying now. WHINE WHINE WHINE!
      fishboneul03
      messiah of Rock, PLEASE write an article, given your education on the subject, I want to know anything you can tell me on recording. hell with these other guys.
      Prospect
      At least you got the title right this time. Recording "Basics". There is a lot of innacurate things in this article. Too many to list.
      OpeN WidE
      To Messiah: Wow. I thought it was presented well. I'm sure he is not trying to make it sound like he is Metallica or Ozzy Osbourne's engineer. (like you were trying to sound, by the way) I think he is just trying to give tips for bands to record themselves. You don't have to be God to record yourself. Jesus, deflate your ego...
      Cookie Goes Moo
      Haha, notice how Messiah of Rock is the only one "whining." WHINE WHINE WHINE Anyway great article
      ozzyant31
      can anybody help me out were new band and were gonna do a demo bbbut i have no idea what were gotta do in the booth is it seperate recordings? and we dont have much money so how many hours would it take to record 4 songs that are about 5 to 4 minutes long?