The Four Principles of Recording Music
by Clay Butler
The recording industry is a very dynamic and ever-changing realm. In today’s fast-paced culture, which is so focused on the “flavor of the week”, it is often difficult (if not impossible) to maintain a grasp on the fluctuations of the music market and the recording industry. While styles, trends, equipment, and even techniques may vary drastically, there are certain principles that remain constant when producing a quality recording.
Know Your Environment
When producing a quality recording, you must be aware of your environment at every stage of the process. Do you understand the acoustics of the recording space? Are you comfortable with the equipment? Are you familiar with the style of music you are trying to record? These are all important questions you must ask yourself before, and during, your project. It is very easy to lose focus, especially during a high-pressure, fast-paced recording session. These questions will not only help you decide how to approach your project, but they will also help keep you on task. When producing your own music, deadlines may not be an issue. However, when you are engineering or producing someone else’s music, the old familiar adage still holds true: time is money. This is especially true if you are renting studio time.
Understanding the acoustics of your recording space is critical to the quality of your recording. A bad room can produce an ugly sound. Conversely, even a good sounding, well treated room can yield unsavory results when combined with improper placement of microphones or the performer(s). The key is in understanding basic acoustic principles in order to correct acoustic problems or to be able to work around the inadequacies of the room. Then, you can maximize the overall quality of your tracks. You can even use an ugly sounding room creatively to produce some interesting natural effects.
Being comfortable with your equipment is equally as important to any project. Recording sessions are not the time to introduce yourself to new equipment. If you know you can get a good sound while using as little gear as possible, by all means, do it! Resist the urge of using that cool new piece of gear just because you have it, especially when you are not familiar with it yet. If you are recording your own music with no time or budgetary constraints, only then do I advise experimenting with new gear. However, on a paid session, save experimentation for those times when you really know the gear and you are looking for a unique or fitting sound. Also (and I’m preaching to myself here too), read the manuals so you don’t get stuck in a rut of using only a small fraction of a piece of gear’s functionality.
Being familiar with the style of music you are trying to record almost goes without saying. Even if you are not well-versed in the given style (which often happens when you record someone else’s music), at least take the time to listen to similar music throughout the project in order to keep yourself focused. Especially if you would like your music to compete on a commercial level (i.e. if you want to make money from your music), you have to listen to your competition. Take notes on particular tricks and sounds that you would like to incorporate in your own music. In fact, almost all professional mixing engineers reference similar artists or songs during the mixing process. This technique is even more advisable to those engineers who are just getting started. Because it is so easy to get tunnel-vision when you are working on your own music, make yourself take a break and listen to those similar songs and artists.
Great Sound is All About the Front End
The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” is particularly true in audio recording. When engineers refer to “Front End”, they are referring to the sound source (the actual sound you are trying to record), and everything that happens to the audio signal (the gear it passes through) before it gets to the recorder. The key to getting a great recording, as imparted to me by Ronan Chris Murphy (whose credits include King Crimson, Steve Morse, and Terry Bozzio), is to “capture the best possible source, and don’t f— it up!” Wise words. Unfortunately, though, many engineers often say, “we’ll fix it in the mix.” The problem with that approach is that the engineer will spend more time trying to make bad sounds sound better, rather than using that time for mixing. Remember, the more time you spend getting the sound right before it goes to tape (or disk), the less time you spend tweaking that sound later.
Obtaining the best possible source is a culmination of many factors. First of all, your instrument should be properly maintained and tuned (e.g. a guitar with good intonation and new strings, or a tuned drum kit with new heads). New strings or drum heads have “brightness” in the upper transient frequency range that cannot be recreated. If you record dead strings or drum heads, no amount of equalization will compensate. You cannot boost frequencies that were not recorded to begin with. Similarly, any equipment used should be functioning properly–no bad, crackly cables or noisy, humming guitar amps.
Microphone technique is another important factor, which we will discuss in more depth in the section entitled “The Tracking Engineer.” Choosing the right microphone and finding what position sounds the best is crucial to capturing the best possible sound coming from your audio source. If you are recording using multiple microphones, pay careful attention to any phase problems. Much like those dead guitar strings, no amount of processing can fix an audio signal that is out of phase.
From an equipment standpoint, try to use the highest quality equipment you can afford on the front end. Use a good quality microphone with good preamps. If you are recording digital audio, try to get the best A/D (Analog-to-Digital) converters that you can afford. Also, try to use the shortest signal path possible. For example, the sound source goes to the microphone, then to the preamp, and finally to the recorder, with nothing (or very little) in between. That is not to say that only expensive, top-of-the-line equipment will make your recording sound great–you can get good sounds with less expensive gear. Just know that the cleaner your signal is, and the less equipment it passes through, the better your sound will be when it gets recorded.
Good Music Begins With a Good Song
Most people who are interested in recording are at least somewhat interested in recording his or her own music. As a general rule, a good production begins with a good song. I know that, due to politics in the music business, there is a lot of junk on the radio. However, for those competing in the commercial music market (i.e. those who are trying to make a living from his or her music), the song is the most important element of the production. A well-crafted song, both musically and lyrically, increases the chances of the song becoming a hit, not the swirling keyboard sound or the trippy effect on the vocal. When you put loads of work into recording a poorly written song, you still result in a well-produced bad song, and people will notice. As I tell my clients, “Sure, you can put a nice, shiny bow on a pile of dog poo. It might make it prettier, but it’s still dog poo!” All of the production and recording elements support the song, not vice versa.
That being said, it really behooves anyone who is interested in recording to learn basic music theory and songwriting techniques. Consider taking some courses at a local college, purchasing some books, or even checking some out from your local library. The more you know about music, the better equipped you are to record it. Remember (and I can’t stress this enough), all of the production elements support the song, not vice versa!
Capture the Performance, Don’t Manufacture It
This principle refers a great deal to the editing process. With today’s technology, primarily the Digital Audio Workstation, it is becoming ever easier to construct songs. Although this is a viable method of creating music (especially in electronic music), this approach has put so much emphasis on editing that some claim it makes music sound more sterile and robotic. With technology such as Antares’ Auto Tune pitch correction software, synchronization software such as Vocalign, beat mapping, and the ability to easily slice, dice, and splice audio files, it is also entirely possible to produce music that is perfectly in time and in perfect tune. Editing products such as these are wonderful tools which are widely used in professional music production, but it is tempting to go too far. The feel of a live performance, which is really the human nuance of the players, is often what really gives a particular track its magic. If the performance needs tightening, it is always best to rehearse the band or players a little more in order to get a more solid take. Then, once the performance is tighter, correct any blatant problems with these handy editing tools.
As far as overdubs are concerned, the more players you can have playing as a band, the better. Obviously, getting everyone together may not be feasible due to schedules, budget concerns, or even available space. However, a good, well-rehearsed band playing together will almost invariably produce a better track than individuals laying down tracks at different times. The players feed off of each other and play with a kind of energy that is often hard to coax out of players in overdub sessions. Most rock and country records, primarily in Nashville, almost always record the basic tracks together as a band.
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