Intro to Music Production-Assignment 4/30

To my regular readers, of which there about 5, over the next weeks I will be publishing assignments for my online course in music production. You might find them useful. Thanks for understanding:

Hello fellow producers. My pen name is Will Servant. Sorry, but I don’t reveal my true name on this blog. I’m an old, white, male. I was a performing musician for several years and have a AA in Sound Arts from Minneapolis Community and Technical College. I have produced some demos and one album of original material. However, I need to learn much more about how to produce music recordings.

My topic today is recording an acoustic instrument. Recording an acoustic instrument involves several basic processes, and I’ll be covering them roughly in the order I like to follow.

Most home studios don’t have a professionally designed and built room to record in. Because of this you often record in your bedroom or garage, rooms that have far from the best acoustics. Vibrations and noise from nearby trains, passing vehicles, noisy neighbors and even your computer can introduce unwanted sounds that affect the clarity of your track and raise your frustration level. Some of these problems can’t be fixed. But there are things you can do to help. For one, if you can record late at night, without waking up your roommate, you can reduce the chance a passing truck or that guy downstairs will make it impossible to record your sensitive mandolin part.

You can also improve your room itself. The physical properties of the room influence your recordings. Rooms with hard surfaces, or of certain sizes, can make it difficult for you to record the sound you want. You might have to hang a blanket on the wall or scatter some chairs around the room. You might even stick one of those huge stuffed panda bears in the corner. We’ll talk about standing waves and live rooms later in the class.

The type of microphone you use and where it is placed will influence any recording, and not just that of an acoustic instrument. If you have a bare bones studio, with only one large diaphragm condenser mic to use, moving the mic around and/or changing the microphone’s polar pattern will assist you in getting the desired sound quality. It might take awhile, but it’s definitely worth it. Remember, and this is important, the best production tools in your tool belt are your ears. Listening critically and constructively is the best way to find the sound you want.

If you can afford several mics I recommend getting one or two small diaphragm condenser mics. These mics can help you record sounds from a particular small area, while rejecting other close by sounds. A good example is recording the sound from the fretboard of a guitar, while avoiding the sound coming from the sound hole. These mics can also be useful for recording a natural stereo, or adding useful ambient sounds, such as the sound from the corner of the room. Having a decent dynamic mic can come in handy when recording acoustic instruments that can cause sensitive condenser mics to distort the signal. In general, experimenting with different microphones and placements is the best way to capture your ideal track.

We have talked about the actual recording of acoustic instruments. Now let’s spend a little time on signal path. Using quality equipment is as important to getting the best possible sound as a good performance. Besides the instruments themselves and the microphones, everything in the signal path has a significant effect on the quality of your recording. Using the best devices you can afford, such as cables, direct boxes, pre-amps, mixing boards, or interfaces, will give you the best recordings possible. It is important not to skimp on any piece of equipment along the signal path. A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. This is true in all recording. Try to balance your spending, regardless of your budget.

Some of these issues aren’t as critical as others for recording acoustic instruments, but always make certain the signal path  is as quality as you can make it. Double check to assure everything is working and set up properly. Something as simple as a condenser microphone with phantom power turned off can drive you crazy. Before recording your track follow each point in the signal path, starting with the source, from component to component, all the way inside the computer. This will help assure you can record the track successfully without any unnecessary hair pulling.

Finally, there is a factor that is often unknown to, or forgotten by, the home producer/recordist. I previously mentioned unwanted noise created by external sources. There are also sources of noise right inside the studio. The dreaded “60 cycle hum” created by grounding issues somewhere in your signal path, can be maddening, hard to find, and difficult to reconcile. Poorly shielded cables can allow radio frequency interference into the path. And what about unwanted noise created right in the studio by the performers themselves? A squeaky chair, or bracelet hitting the guitar, or a foot unconsciously tapping on a mike stand can ruin a great performance.

In summary, although there are plenty of “experts” who will tell you the right way to record an acoustic instrument, the best way is to listen and find the way that gives you the sound you want. You might have to experiment or think counterintuitively. Your studio may have limitations. But your ears and creativity can overcome those obstacles, and your acoustic guitar part will come out clean and crisp. With some feeling, technique, skill and a good performance, a well recorded acoustic instrument will add just the right touch to your mix.

Next we’ll talk about what happens once the recorded signal gets inside the computer.

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