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The Byre Recording Studio

How to get Great Sounds at Home

by Andrew Graeme

Oooh!  I can do it!

There are those who will have you believe that home recording and the small project studio are new phenomena. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The first modern hit records were cut direct to disk in small backroom studios. Often only one microphone was used and 'mixing' was simply making the louder instruments stand at the back. Satchmo Armstrong used to tell the story of how he had to stand right at the back of the room, because his trumpet playing was so much louder than everyone else's. As kids Simon and Garfunkel used tape recorders to practise their music and make demos.

When I was fourteen I read 'The Tape Recorder Magazine' and saved up for a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Many years later, companies like Teac and Revox brought out semiprofessional machines so that musicians could record at home. At the time 16-track was the professional standard and Teac (later to be called Tascam) brought out an 8-track machine. By the mid-eighties 24-track was the pro standard and Tascam and later Fostex brought out 16-track machines. Tascam also brought out the Porta-Studio, a 4-track cassette recorder with integrated mini-mixer and they still sell it to this day!

But one thing has changed and that is the cost of audio quality. Eight tracks squashed onto a quarter-inch tape running at 7.5 inches per second (ips) was a very long way away from the quality of 16 or even 24 tracks on 2-inch tape running at 30 ips. Also the quality of the home recording mixing desks was light years away from even the early models built by Rupert Neve or SSL. Early amateur microphones always sounded as if they had been swallowed by the cat, but a good U49 from Neumann cost a small fortune. Plate reverbs and other professional effects also cost a great deal - and their amateur equivalents based on springs, condensers and tape loops sounded pretty dire.

With the advent of cheap 24 bit AD/DA converters and computers that can swallow 24 tracks of audio without getting a nose bleed, home recording became a mass market and there was no huge difference in quality as before. The effects and editing tools within home recording systems are not so very far off professional standard and if you go for some decent plug-ins, they are of professional standard and even carry the same logos as the big-ticket studio machines. That means, when it comes to the mix-down, you will have pretty much the same tools as you would have in a professional post production suite. This democratization of the recording process has put a lot of new tools into the hands of people who now want to learn how to use them.

It's only rock-n-roll

When I did my first session on a large desk, I was terrified. Knobs stretched out to the horizon and I had no idea what they did. But the house engineer, no doubt sensing my insecurity, ran though all the functions and I soon discovered that it was the same as my smaller desk at home, only with more possibilities. It had more effect paths, a larger EQ section and on-board dynamics on every channel, but the principles were the same. There is no great mystery to recording great music and it has always been seen as more intimidating than it should. Getting great sounds in the studio can be very simple, though at first it may not seem that way.

There can be a lot of information to keep in mind, but each individual piece of information is fairly simple. It is basically one idea built upon another, that when added together give you the knowledge you need to get great results. Please don't think that it is incredibly easy either. It is rather like building a house. Laying an individual brick is simple enough, but you have to learn how to build a whole house. First you have to learn to listen to and trust that sound you hear in your head. Then you have to learn how to convert it to the sound coming from the speakers.

I'll give you an example. Learning where to place the mics on a drum kit is one set of bricks to your house. Knowing how to mic up the bass drum is another brick. Learning how to EQ the kit so that each and every component has its own place in the drum sound is yet another brick. And knowing how to set the gates and compressors on the various drums so that you get a big, meaty sound is yet another set of bricks. We could add the use of effects and knowing how to pan the sounds across a stereo pair or in 5.1 surround as more bricks. Once all those bricks have been laid, that part of our house we call the drums has been built.

Learning each and every one of these bricks to our house is very simple. There are however a large number of bricks.

And he knows all the chords

The most important part of making that great recording is having great music played by great musicians. If the tunes suck, no amount of musicianship will rescue them. If the musicians suck, no amount of engineering will make them play any better. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a story.

The first time I recorded anything on my own, it was with a first class Mid-West country rock band. The drummer was spot-on and had a great sounding kit. The lead guitar could play anything and had a haunting sound to his solos. The rhythm player and bass player could rock the house. The keyboard player knew all the tricks and the girl lead singer had an edge to her voice that gave you goose-bumps. She could be a raucous soul singer one minute and sound like Julie Andrews the next. Well, to cut a long story short, I dotted microphones around and we recorded several songs. The tunes were brilliant and the musicianship was first class.

The next band to come in was a soul/rock band from New York. These guys were even better than the first lot. The lead guitar player (who, by the way, came on stage in orange hair, fishnet tights and a tutu) was one of the best I have ever heard, even today. The lead singer, who also wrote all the songs and played sax, seemed to be able to play just about any instrument and in any style.

The mix-downs of both bands were a doddle. It just couldn't have been easier. The drum sounds on the second band were so good, one could have put a mic at the other end of the room and it would still have sounded great. As it was, I just used four mics - bass, snare and overheads. We tickled the overheads on one or two songs with a tiny amount of flanging and kept the EQing really basic. Some of the vocals and sax were doubled and we added reverb and some echo in places - but that was it.

It all went so easily and the results were so good, that I assumed that I was God's gift to recording. I had recorded several songs and the whole process with mixing had taken days rather than weeks. As these were by far the best recordings I had ever worked on, even as a lowly tape-op, it was obvious that I was possibly the best engineer on this planet. For several years afterwards, I used those recordings to play to customers as an example of my work. It was not until I was to work with another set of musicians of equal ability, that I was able to produce anything better.

After that, I worked on a few projects that were - well, OK, but nothing to write home about. Then I came down to Earth with a bump when I recorded the worst band I have ever worked with. The results were so poor that the cutting lab telephoned me to ask if we had not sent them the wrong tapes by mistake. (Read about Ulf on our Funny Pages - People!)

At first I was crestfallen and assumed that I had somehow screwed up. Then that I realised that an engineer can only be as good as the music and the musicians. Or as an engineering colleague said after a particularly nasty session with a sloppy drummer, "I just can't polish a turd."

Getting the best musicians is the most important part of getting the best recording. Everything else palls into insignificance. What you think is a great sounding drum kit, or an awesome sounding guitar, has so much more to do with how the drummer hits the skins, or how the guitar player draws the note out and bends it. In other words, no amount of EQ or effects will make a poorly played drum, bass, guitar or keyboard sound good.

The instrument itself has to sound as good as possible. Get new strings, fresh drum heads, the best sounding guitar, the best sounding bass, the best amp, the best keyboard, or the best drum kit you can find. If you don't like the sound you get before you mic it, you're really fighting a losing battle. The recording won't sound much better.

Make sure everything is tuned properly before each and every take. Remember that old strings loose their tuning faster than new strings. You'll never get the sound you hear in your head, that record sound, unless your instruments are tuned up. Once again, no amount of proper mic placement, etc. will make an out of tune guitar or poorly tuned drum kit sound good.

I can hear music

The right microphone is not the most expensive mic. Nothing will influence the sound more than your microphone choice. Matching a mic to a sound source is only a matter of patience for the inexperienced. If you have a selection of mics to choose from, try them all. If you don't know already, you'll learn soon enough which mics are best for each job.

Have at least one large diaphragm condenser microphone on hand for those elements you want to have that clean open sound. The prices for good sounding condenser mics have come down, but beware of cheap condensers as some of them will give you distortion and 'essing' problems.

Mic placement is the second most influential thing on the sound. If you put the mic up close, it can give you an intimate sound. A little distance can give you a greater feeling of space. There are no rules for what is a good sound, there's just the sound you want. One way to place the mic is to put on a pair of good headphones and move the mic around until you find a sweet spot. If you are not too sure which mic to use and where to place it, ask a friend to play or sing (or what ever it is that you want to record) and place a whole selection of mics around the sound source and record all of them on separate tracks. When you listen to the results, you will realise just how big a difference there is between microphones and positions.

Working on the railroad

The object of track-laying is to get the music down onto harddisk (or whatever you use) as cleanly as possible. Studios usually do this via the mixing desk, but your desk may be virtual (inside ProTools or Nuendo) or a real desk with knobs and buttons to twiddle. It has the task of combining sounds and equalising (EQ) the sound. Large studio desks have on-board dynamics for every channel strip and very sophisticated EQ (typically with four sets of parametric controls and shelving for highs and lows for each channel strip) and six or more auxiliary sends (aux) that send the signal out for headphones and to the various effects. But most of the mixing capacity is only used for the final mix-down.

Because track-laying does not involve any mixing and we only need a handful of channels at any one time, there has been enormous growth in the sale of 19" channel strips. These are sold by just about every pro-audio manufacturer and some have every feature you would find on the very largest and most expensive mixing desks including digital AD converters. Prices range from just one hundred Pounds to many thousands. The BS factor at both ends of that price range is very high, but there are some very good products in the middle, some with excellent tube stages that will give you a warm vintage sound.

But if you are going to do all your mixing inside your PC or Mac, you will not need any of those functions like compression and EQ that nearly all these channel strips offer. A great solution is to feed your break-out box from a portable pre-amp located close to the microphone. Prices start from as little as a hundred Pounds ($150) for a reasonable tube pre-amp, as these boxes are very simple. Check out dbx and ART.

If you are using a PC or Mac system and you want to record several sources as the same time, you will need a break-out box. These usually come with eight inputs, so they are just big enough to record a drum kit. Some break out boxes only have two mic inputs and it is often more effective to get a small mixing desk and use the direct-out sockets to feed your signal into the multitrack. If you are just recording yourself or musicians one by one, a PC system with a stereo input may be enough.

Remember, this is not a concert! You do not need to compress, gate, or even EQ anything during the recording. Just get it down at cleanly as possible. Take great care to not overload any of the inputs. Digital distortion is a truly dreadful sound. Also do not let anything get too quiet, or the incoming signal will be swamped with background noise such as hiss and mains hum. Digital may be quieter than analogue, but no signal path is 100% noise free.

When you are recording, don't try to be on both sides of the glass - if you can help it. If possible, get someone else to engineer for you. Unless you have had lots of experience in total DIY recording, the chances are, you will not be able to obectivly hear your own results. Most people think they are better than they really are, some think they are worse. Very few can identify the take that is a 'keeper.'

In almost every session, a musician will put down a really good track and then say "But I think I can do better next time." The chances are he can't. If there are a few fluffs in the take, record a second take right alongside it and drop it the correct bits, but don't erase the original. Often some of the best and most inspired performances are the first takes.

And last but by no means least, relax. Take your time. Jam out a while before going into a series of takes. Very often I have spent a whole morning getting the sound right in the studio, getting just the right mix on the headphones, making sure that all guitars are in tune. If you take it easy in the morning and run through a couple songs first, you will often find that you can belt out one good take after another in the afternoon.

Boom, wee, yatatatah

Setting up EQ is anything but rocket science or some mysterious process that only a select few can do. It's easier than most people think and is a mixture of common sense and gut feeling.

Just stop all the twiddling for one moment, solo the channel and listen to the sound coming through the speakers. Are there areas of the sound that are too much? Then cut those frequencies back a little. Are there others that are lacking? Boost them. Too woofy? Cut the low mids. Too boomy? Cut the bass. Too piercing? Cut the hi-mids. Lacking in warmth? Boost the low-mids. Need to cut more? Boost the hi-mids. It's not rocket science. When you think it's right, it probably is.

You will sometimes see a would-be engineer carefully adjusting one of the EQ settings on a desk with the kind of pained look of concentration of a TV-soap neurosurgeon performing the most delicate of operations. Either he's got a sore thumb, or he is trying to make the whole process look more scientific or mysterious than it is. BS-factor 5! One thing they both have in common though - they are both acting!

Cutting or boosting a frequency is about as complicated as tuning an FM radio. Go too far one way and the station distorts, too far the other way and it distorts again. So between the two is where you should be. Similarly, you want to cut a frequency, but you don't know which one and by how much, go to the rough area such as low-mids and cut a broad range by at least -18dB. Now sweep up and down until it sounds at its best. Now you can reduce the amount you cut until it sounds even better.

As you later bring the sounds together, try some more extreme EQing to prevent sounds clashing or masking one another. For example, lead vocals are usually given a fuller and more open sound than the backing vocals. Lead guitar needs more upper-mids, rhythm guitar usually needs more lower-mids.

Honey, Honey, Squeeze me

The first use of compression came about by accident. Tubes (valves) do not amplify sound in a totally linear fashion. As they approach the upper limits to their dynamic range (i.e. going almost as loud as they can) they turn a 50% increase in volume into a 20-30% increase. But for the first few milliseconds they allow all or most of the sound to come through. These two effects were compression, combined with pumping and they made everything sound bigger and smoother. Also the tubes, as they worked at their upper limits, created harmonic distortions that gave vocals and horns an exciting, breathy edge to them.

The first generation of popular records were made with equipment that contained only tubes and were cut directly on lathes running at 78 rpm. If the band kept together, the drummer didn't loose his sticks and the singer didn't sneeze, the lacquer was used to make a stamper. This 'direct-to-disc' approach, combined with the five or six tubes that the sound had to travel through, is the reason why many old jazz and rock records sound so good.

At about the same time that tubes were phased out and replaced by transistors, tape was used for the first time. Magnetic tape has a similar effect as tubes called tape saturation, but it does not pump like a chain of tubes. But producers like Phil Spector and labels like Tamla Motown used two new toys to get that big sound, the plate reverb and the compressor.

The first compressors were made by feeding the signal from a simple amp into a three-volt light bulb. This was placed next to a light variable resistor that governed the volume of the sound. And hey presto! You had a compressor. Also, because the light bulb took a little while to light up, the compressor pumped even more than a tube amp.

Although there are engineers out there that think life is not complete unless you compress anything and everything in sight, compression in and of itself is not a good thing. It's only good if it sounds good. There are no simple answers to good compression, but a good compressor is definitely your starting point. Just like microphones, different compressors are best suited for different jobs.

If you are using PC or Mac, you can get plug-ins that reproduce the old valve compressors very effectively. Try experimenting with different attack times (the time it took for that little light bulb to light up). This pumping sound is particularly effective on drums. Try different settings until you get a sound you like.

I want to sit here!

Come together

As I have already stated, the music, the musicians and the sound of their instruments are the most important factors in getting a good recording. Getting a good mix requires practice and trail and error. There are, however, some things you can do to improve your chances of getting a good mix.

Get ready

Five things to do before you start mixing down:

1. Even if the drummer is God's gift to rhythm, use a click track. Firstly, the drummer that does not speed up as he goes along has not yet been born. Secondly, without a click track, you will never be able to do bar-and-beat editing. You will also not be able to move passages from one part of the song to another as they are in different timings.

2. Clean up behind you! Get rid of all the material and out-takes you do not want and take out all the pops and clicks and even out the levels. Also organise the tracks so that the various instruments are on the same track number and label that track. If you are mixing several songs, keep the same track layout. That way, you can use mix-down setups such as automation and dynamics from one song on another, with just minor variations.

3. Get to know all the effects at your disposal and understand what they do to the sound. Do not just hit the presets on the box or plug-in. Start with the basics and understand exactly what they all do. Experiment until you feel confident that you have understood what is going on.

4. Write down everything you did to that track to get good sound. Some PC/Apple based systems will even allow you to add long notes to all your tracks. Use this facility to the full and write down all musical information such as bpm and keys.

5. Before you start mixing, make a complete copy or backup of the project and keep it somewhere safe (i.e. NOT on the same machine you will be using to mix). It is also a good idea to keep a complete copy of the project within the editing system, so that even after you have cut-and-pasted, retuned and compressed all kinds of tracks, if you need a bit of the original, you can quickly and easily go to the copied version and copy-and-paste a bit from there.

No, I never heard them at all

Five things to do during the mix:

1. Have the best monitoring system possible. Always use a proper monitoring system with a sub-woofer and don't use headphones.

2. If it sounds good, stop and print that sound to other tracks within the system. You can still carry on tweaking afterwards, but there is a real danger that you will tweak right past a great sound and not be able to get back there.

3. If in doubt, do wildly different mixes and then mix them together. For example, do a totally 'plastic' mix on the drums using all the gates and compressors and then do a totally open mix using little or no effects. Now you can move between the two during the song.

4. If you retune a track (or do something else to it that changes it for good), for example bring the snare down an octave, or autotune the vocals, keep the originals.

5. Nobody gets a perfect mix first time round. Print a copy to CD and listen to it on different systems (on the hi-fi, in the car, on the Walkman, through the TV speakers, etc.) Get your friends to listen and ask for their comments. Write down all the little mistakes you can spot and all the changes you will have to make. Keep repeating this process until you have a finished product.

I'm rearly, really ready to rock-n-roll

Creating the glass master is done by a specialist laboratory. More and more people try to do their own pre-mastering, not least because there are mastering tools within most computer-based systems, so why not use them? Pre-mastering is basically tidying up the tracks, putting them in the right order, EQing the songs so that they don't sound too different and adding some stereo compression if required. If in doubt, get a mastering suite to do it for you.

But here are five things to do after the mix that are all part of the pre-mastering process

1. Take a break and don't listen to the music for a few days. Then listen to a few commercially successful recordings of a similar type of music on your home stereo. Now listen to your recording. Apart from the music (that's a question of taste) does it sound as good? Does it sound as clean and professional, or do you have to alter the tone controls to make it sound as sharp? Does it need more overall stereo compression, or does it have too much? Don't over compress if you will be asking a mastering lab to give your product a final polish, but whatever the problem, now is the time to fix it.

2. Check for phase by listening to your project in mono. If in doubt (or you do not have a mono switch on your system), take the stereo output from the CD player and wire left and right together into one amp input. If some part of the music disappears, you have phase problems. This usually takes the form of the lead vocal getting faint or the bass becoming quieter. If this happens, you will have to remix that part, keeping an ear open at all times for mono compatibility. If you are doing a 5.1 surround mix, remember to check for compatibility to stereo and mono.

3. Check for exaggerated highs and lows. Rumble and that spitting sound called 'essing' will show up on a really good monitoring system with a big sub-woofer. If there is too much bass (the result of using just nearfield monitors or headphones) you can usually EQ it off without having to perform a whole new mix. You can de-ess the mix by using a de-essing plug-in or a special piece of hardware, but de-essing is best performed during the mix..

4. Arrange all your songs in their playing order. Also check your 'tops-and-tails' i.e. check that the beginning of each song is clean and starts with the first note (and not a cough or a bit of leftover click-track). Check that the reverb tails at the end of songs have not been inadvertently cut off. Try adding extra reverb to fade-outs and take out bass and highs so that the fades sound as if the song is really fading into the distance.

5. If it still sounds wrong, don't give up just yet. Get expert help. If all it needed was putting through a decent tube compressor or having some proper reverb added from a big reverb machine, or maybe it just needed an 'edge' added to it from an exciter, it would be a pity to drop the project for the want of a day in the studio. It might not be the recording, it might be the music. If so, get a professional musician to listen to it. Perhaps it needs a different hook, or verse sung in a different key. If the tunes and the musicians are good, the project will be worth it.

It took me so long to find out

Recording takes time and good mixing down often takes even longer. Most people are shocked at how long the process takes and assumed they could just go in and run through the song a few times and then it's time to mix. The problem is that today's listener and CD buyer has become very sophisticated and expects an extremely accurate and tight product. Whether you agree with that or not is somewhat academic - the record buying public expects it. And as Henry Ford said the secret of success in business is "Find out what the customers want and give it to them."

The secret of success in music is accuracy. The more care you take over your recordings, the better they will sound and the more people will want to listen to them.