Friday, December 4, 2015

Creating Space

One of the many things recording engineers (a grossly abused and debased title if there ever was one) talk about is “creating air” in recordings, especially vocal recordings and double-specially background vocals. Most recordists (a more accurate and humble word for what we do in recording studios) use EQ, delays, and misunderstood plug-ins to create “air.” Most recordists understand that there are a limited number of dimensions we have to work with in reproducing a musical performance: left-right (or all the way around in surround), louder-softer, and higher-lower frequency spectrum. There are, however, at least two other possibilities: front-back and lower-higher. Of course, phase distortion provides even more space-creating possibilities, but they are unpredictable and, often, weird. These additional dimensions are only available if the recordist knows something about acoustics and psycho-acoustics.

Acoustic_Guitar_Img_AIn a possibly hopeless attempt to convince a friend that her vocal group could benefit from a little microphone application knowledge, I went looking for some artwork to help with my descriptions. Luckily, Sterling Audio had exactly what I needed. The illustration at right is one of the points I was trying to make. My friend’s group is a fairly large women’s vocal group and their bandleader semi-wisely selected a collection of six low cost large-element condenser microphones with which he lines up in even spacing across the stage, randomly distributing the microphones across 11 performers. The original intent was something like the above illustration. Obviously, 11 into 6 produces a significantly different dynamic, but the flawed concept is the same.

Performance-wise, the problem is even more dramatic. During a recent show, I solo’d up each vocal mic and discovered that the vocalists could be counted on one of two possibilities: 1) some singers naturally gravitated to grouping around a mic and singing “together” and 2) some naturally filtered to an abandoned mic and sang “solo.” If you’ve never sang in a group this might surprise you, but if you have this will be a no-brainer: the solo vocalists were consistently off-time and key and the together vocalists consistently delivered stronger, tighter, more in-key performances. So much so that I found myself naturally fading-out the solo mics and blending the group performers by ear, as I pulled down disagreeable faders and pulled up the performances that blended well.

Most recordists think the best way to record any signal sources more complicated than one voice is to distribute as many mics across the various sources as possible. Hell, hip-hoppers put two mics on one voice to optimize phase distortion and tonal weirdness. Here’s where I disagree with “common knowledge,” regarding the best way to record/reproduce/reinforce a group vocal. Sterling Audio’s article suggests, “There may not always be enough resources for separate microphones or recording tracks” as a reason for simplifying the number of microphones involved. I think the recordist better have a damn good reason for using more than a stereo pair in this kind of situation. “Depth of field” comes from the various time delays caused by the distance of the sound source from the mic. Vocal groups, horn players, and ensembles are often perfectly capable of figuring out where they should be, physically and sonically, in the mix and allowing them to perform for the microphone as a listener often produces incredible results.

beatles recThe fascination modern recordists have for vintage recordings, oddly, doesn’t seem to extend to vintage recording techniques. Due to the lack of console and record media channels, the old-school guys were forced to learn something about microphone polar patterns, acoustics, and music. Today, “more is better” and too many recordings have the spacial characteristics of a pair of headphones.
Beach-Boys-Bruce-Johnston-Carl-Wilson-Al-Jardine-Dennis-Wilson-Mike-Love-Pet-Sounds-session-19661c93ef2c484b038aa03e60bc261bdb13fThe Righteous Brothers. Courtesy Polydor.

POSTSCRIPT: A friend and ex-student, Steven Sullivan, took all of this to heart and produced a record limiting himself to no more than 8-tracks and very few effects. 

A Beginner's Guide to Self Immolation

is the record and it well-deserves your attention. Steven says the idea behind this record was, "The original idea for this album was to go back to basics and record things very simply. I had grown tired of modern recording and mixing techniques and decided to put some self-imposed limitations on the entire tracking and mixing of the album. It changed a little as the process went on, but basically I only used one mic, a long ribbon mic, through a 1950s design preamp and opto compressor, and that was it. So I'd go in the tracking room, point the mic at the piano, play through the tune, scoot the mic closer to the drums and play the drums, go sit down with the acoustic guitar and move the mic closer to it, stand up and sing, and it really allowed me to focus on the music instead of the technology. Part of my concept was that it would end up sounding kind of home made and low-fi since I'd limited myself so much, but to my total surprise it ended up being maybe the highest fidelity, most organic, best feeling record I've ever done."

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.