I have often recorded projects where the musicians came into the studio on different days and
did not get to work with each other. I have even recorded projects where nobody got to meet any of the other musicians and
they did not even know one another. On one occasion we even had a dinner party after the record was released to introduce
all the musicians to one another.
And there we have the essence of modern recording, there is no need for anybody to work with another human
Do you like having your picture taken? The chances are, unless you are a vapid politician or
a professional model, the answer is ‘No.’ There is something about having our picture taken that makes us feel
awkward and insecure. We are being put on the spot. We are being told ‘Now look good!’ when we can only think
of our pimples, spots, warts, wrinkles and funny-shaped nose.
Now you know how a musician feels when you shove a microphone in front of him or her and tell them to perform.
So the engineer has to be able to make people feel at ease. It definately helps for the musician to visit the studio
in advance, so that they know what to expect. Also setting up the night before (if possible) helps, as then the musicians
are fully relaxed and can just walk into a sound check.
I have a video tape of a live concert by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I show that tape to
those people who argue vehemently about which microphone to use. The sound is great. You could not fault that sound. The vocals
are crisp and clear, the kick drum is both sharp and powerful and the toms and the hi-hat bite through the mix. But every
mic used is a Shure SM57, one of the cheapest professional microphones available. Lead vocals, guitar amps, kick, snare, you
name it and it was an SM57.
The point I am trying to get across is, `Yes! Choice of mic is important, but where you put
it and what you play through it is far more important.` The kick drum sounds sharp and powerful and the snare is big and meaty
because a great drum kit is being played by a great drummer! Tom Petty`s vocals bite through the mix, sharp and clear, because
that is how he sings.
On the other hand, famous engineer Bruce Swedien (`Thriller` was the biggest hit he ever recorded,
but he has done hundreds of others!) once remarked `Good mics are an engineer`s secret weapon!`
So, just chucking any old mic at a task will never do and a good collection of different types
will go a long way to getting just the right sound. A studio is nearly always better off for having standard mics that everyone
is familiar with, rather than something esoteric. The problem here is that it can take a long time to assess the quality of
a microphone and requires a great deal of A/B comparisons. It is a good idea to see what other people are using, though the
Good and Great in the industry are often sponsored by mic manufacturers. So have a look at what jobbing engineers are using.
These are people who have had to un-trouser serious money for their mic collections and their advice will almost certainly
be more valuable than the words of some celebrity engineer who gets paid to push a product.
The trick to getting a good sound from any instrument is to have a good sound there in the first
place. A soft and silky sax will give you as soft and silky sax sound. If it is a cheap sax that sounds like a kazoo, the
best mic in the World will only serve to make that dismal fact all the more apparent.
It is often the case that the biggest obstacle to getting a good sound is the musician. For example, there
is a growing tendency (at least I have found it so) for drummers to tune their snares up to the point where it sounds like
a tin can. But the CD-buying public usually prefers big and meaty snare sounds. In the long run, the drummer would prefer
a big, fat snare sound, but all too often bands starting out do not get good PAs and front of house engineers that know how
to get that sound. So given a choice between a flabby snare that falls in the mix and a high-pitched snare that bites though,
they opt for the high-pitched snare. The result is that they insist on the sound of a tin-can when recording as well, as that
is what they are used to.
The worst offenders can be the DIY brigade who bring guitar amps, drums and even guitars into
the studio that they made at home. I have even known one drummer who insisted on bringing cymbals into the studio that he
had made out of some copper sheeting hammered into shape. Needles to say, the cheapest set of cymbals from any kiddies drum
kit would have sounded better.
Other enemies to good recording are those gimmicky digital guitar amps and effects pedals that have every
every bell and whistle, echo and reverb, talk-box and flanger, but not one good, mellow valve/tube sound. When recording electric
guitar, it is nearly always better to use an old fashioned tube amp and leave any effects to be added later. Solid state
guitar amps are seldom suitable for recording, as they just do not sound organic enough.
Timing is everything with the bass. If the bass part isn't 'in the pocket,' it'll always sound
odd and stick out.
Second, don't confuse arrangement with tone. If the bass part isn't complementary with
the drums, especially the kick, it won't sit. This happens way more often than you'd expect, especially if you use drum loops.
Also, remember to have a bass amp or stack that has a mid-driver and mic that driver up separately.
You will need it on the mix!
I find it interesting that those mic manufacturers that have approached me to use their products
on certain projects have never been the those I would have chosen. Only once did I go in for one of these sponsored deals
and only at the producer`s insistence. One particular manufacturer had been spending large sums of money trying to get into
the professional audio market. But the pro market had managed to resist their overtures almost completely; these mics were
nowhere to be seen. Unable to crack the rock-n-roll market, they managed to get a producer of classical music to agree to
have a complete recording made using only their product. The resultant recording sounded thin and unconvincing. Then I knew
why the pro audio market had given these mics the `body-swerve.`
There is a reason we keep seeing the same products over and over again in studios: they do what it says on
the can and many of the others do not!
1. Wooden floors can amplify pedal noise. For this reason recording studios often have
either stone floors for the piano or use a specially designed piano riser that provides near total mechanical separation from
the floor below. Carpets and rubber piano shoes may help a little, but a piano is heavy enough to press these
so flat that mechanical separation from the floor is no longer possible.
2. Many cheap pianos make more pedal and other mechanical noises than pianos using high-grade
mechanics. For this reason (as well as the more obvious and important questions of tonal quality) not many pianos
are suitable for recording.
3. A piano, no matter how good it might be, like any mechanical device, must be properly maintained,
as well as tuned regularly.
4. The pianist should wear soft shoes. Patent leather shoes may look great on the concert platform,
but soft running shoes (sneakers) are better for recording as they are far quieter.
5. There is no great difference in the amount of pedal noise coming from a small or large piano,
small pianos usually make as much pedal noise as large ones - but there is a big difference in the volume, as well as
the quality and purity of the notes. For these reasons, the best results come from large concert grand pianos.
6. Microphone placement has a large effect on the volume of mechanical noises coming from a piano,
as well as the more obvious effects that placement has on the tone of the instrument. Getting the position just right
can take time and requires experience. Moving the mics towards the tail of the instrument generally reduces the dynamics
and creates a richer, smoother sound, but there is also less clatter of the hammers and the thumping of pedals.
7. Leave the lid on, but open it fully! The upper registers of the instrument are much more
strongly affected by the lid, with a strong directivity between 20 and 40 degrees from the horizontal towards the
front, i.e. towards where the audience would be. Moving out of this 'sweet-spot' can halve the volume of the upper
harmonics and also increase the amount of pedal noise. The mechanical noises from the piano are not
radiated in the same way as the musical sounds, and tend to be louder behind the piano.
8. The pianist should leave the foot gently resting on the sustain pedal at all times. Taking
it on and off can make a good deal of noise.
9. 'Sweet' sounding microphones such as the AKG 414 pick up slightly more mechanical noise than the
Neumann M149, which also has a 'brighter' sound.
10. When recording, the microphones should ALWAYS be cradle-mounted on large, stable stands, heavy
enough to prevent mechanical noises being transmitted along their shafts. If no cradle is used, every foot-stomp and
other mechanical noise may be transmitted through the floor and long the shaft of the stand to the microphone diaphragm
itself. The larger the diaphragm of the microphone, the greater the effect of mechanical transmission will be.
I hope that some of my top-ten tips for avoiding mechanical noises when recording a piano are of use to
your customer. The worst case scenario that I can think of would be to record a budget-priced baby grand on a wooden
floor using ordinary small microphone stands without cradles. In a case like that, for example on a 'boomy' and resonant
wooden stage, I would expect pedal and other mechanical noises to be almost as loud as the piano itself!
Synths and other keys
The Dark Art of Vocals
When I think back in the good old days of tape, recording a vocal was a fairly straightforward affair. You
picked a mic that suited the voice and if you got the level of saturation and e.q. to tape just right, then the vocal stood
up in the mix and all was right with the World. Today, we have so many tools at our disposal and so many things that we can
do after the event, that recording vocals has become much more complicated, but also much more fun. But then as now (and yes,
I know this sounds stupid, but sometimes one just has to state the obvious) the key to a good vocal recording is still a good
vocalist. All other considerations pale into insignificance.
Or as a producer friend of mine put it to an aspiring young female singer who did not see the need for vocal
training, "You sound like a frog."
She asked if there was nothing we could do to 'fix' the vocal. "You guys have got all those toys and knobs
and buttons back there. I would have thought something like that would be easy!"
"Darling," he said. "we could align it, autotune it, compress it and harmonize it. But at the end of the
day, you will still sound like an aligned, autotuned, compressed, harmonized frog."
Not only does an untrained voice lack power and the ability to project the song, but it stands a good chance
of damage to the throat muscles and the vocal chords. This is especially true if the singer does not know how to warm up properly
or does not even bother to warm up at all.
In an age where trained voices like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake make an art form out of sounding
'understated' and like the boy or girl next door, many would-be pop stars risk damage to themselves and to their pockets,
trying to sound like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
Love it or hate it, the U87 still seems to be the weapon of choice for most vocal recordings. It just ticks
all the boxes. It works well at between one and two feet distance, which is also the distance at which most rock and pop voices
sound at their best, it has the necessary top end sparkle and the level of proximity effect works for most modern styles.
The U87 has of course spawned a platoon of copies and every time one talks about microphones today, the
'buzz' seems to be about cheap Chinese products flooding the market and the inevitable question arises, 'Are they any good
and can I use them?'
Well, let's get one chestnut out of the way for starters, the cheap Far-Eastern microphone (along with so
many other pro-audio accessories) is no new phenomenon. I bought my first Far-Eastern microphones back in 1979 and they were
nothing new then. And like today, they suffered from varying quality - with established name brands being pretty good and
no-name imports being a case of potluck, some good and some rubbish. The good ones cost more - and those that were much better,
cost much more. When it comes to microphones, there just is no such thing as a free lunch - you really do get what you pay
Another place I have found it makes no sense to try for false economies is in the pre-amps. Good pre-amps
are every bit as important as good mics and I have begun to build my own all-valve pres and compressors just for location
work after a series of solid-state, 19" disappointments. I have to admit that I grew up in a World of large frame mixing desks
whose manufacturers cut their teeth on the wide dynamic ranges of opera and producers with ears like bats and I find that
too many Johnney-come-lately mic-pre-amps may be the bee's knees in rock and pop, but fall over into distortion when recording
an operatic soprano giving it 'full-welly' as we say in Scotland.
And whilst we are on the subject of opera, I have just returned from recording the operetta 'Der Feldprediger'
by Carl Moellicker, conducted by Christian Pollack and on a whim, I used some TLM103's on the vocals, mounted in front of
the stage and looking slightly upwards, so that the closer the singer got to the mic, the more off-axis they were. I now have
a new respect for this little mic, as it seemed to more than halve the distance to the singer to the point where although
the singers were sometimes over two meters away, the sibilants came through clearly. Although the 103 may not work well at
close range, it has now become my weapon of choice for middle-distance vocals.
Talking of sibilance, some engineers tape a pencil to the front of the mic, pointing at the singer to avoid
those spitting sounds of distorted or overloaded sibilants (i.e. essing). My guess is this has more to do with the singer
keeping their distance to avoid having their eyes poked out, than any acoustic properties of a pencil. A simpler solution
is to just place the mic upside-down with the membrane at eye level or slightly higher. As the mouth tends to project the
sibilants downwards, they are naturally attenuated and all 'essing' stops. This has the added advantage of making the singer
stand up straight as they 'reach' for the mic and fill the lungs with air properly.
The sibilance problem can be made worse by a singer wanting to 'make love' to the mic, in which case, you
can give them a trusty SM58 to make love to. There is also nothing to stop you using a little of that sound to add intimacy.
Although in the studio, the U87, the C12 and (my favourite) the M149 gives one the range from warm and intimate,
though to big and open, Neumann's venture into hand-held stage mics, the KMS105, has become a new friend, particularly for
intimate jazz vocals, where the singer alters the distance and angle of the mic, according to which note is being sung. This
is a mic that has that top-end sizzle of a vintage C12 and has remarkably little handling and breath noises.
And it is that sizzle that helps the vocal cut through the mix. But sometimes it just is not enough, particularly
in rock music when everything is going at once and the vocal has to blend with the guitars, without losing intelligibility.
In this case my secret weapon (promise you won't tell anyone!) is the Pod. Feeding some of the signal though the Pod, possibly
adding some flanging or similar, as well as distortion, helps to give the vocal just the edge it may need in a busy mix. This
trick seems to work especially well if the 'Podded' track is taken from a separate mic, like that hand-held SM58 and if Autotune
is used, set to a faster speed than the natural vocals. Some engineers will give each track its own reverb to help the vocals
stand out, typically a vocal plate for the distorted track and a small church for the natural track.
Another very usual trick is to use all the vocal takes to fatten up the vocal track. Typically, one lays
something like five vocal tracks and they won't all be bad, so why not use them! Used sparingly so that one is not immediately
aware that there is more than one voice, this adds a little 'edge' to a rock or pop voice that makes it that much more pleasant
to listen to.
One final trick that seems to be growing in popularity isn't a trick at all, but just a move back to the
roots. More and more engineers are tracking to tape (or at least bouncing to tape and bringing it back into the DAW). Tape
acts as a subtle multiband compressor, an exciter when saturated and can do wonders for drums and other things, as well as
And a 24-track, 2" machine is just such a nice toy to play with - or as a friend of mine put it, "Analogue
is the new digital!"