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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Overlooked Recording Variables

Most recording engineers (both those learning and experienced) place way too much stock in the kind of gear they're using. It seems like if the gear is not vintage, a name brand or high priced, it's automatically shunned, but the major variables that go into making a good recording always lie in other places than the gear itself.

Here’s a list of recording variables that you must be aware of when recording just about anything. While you can’t really quantify exactly how much each variable contributes to the way something ultimately sounds because each situation, even within the same project, is unique, you can generally break it down to something like this:
  • The Player and the instrument contributes about 50% to the overall sound. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less – but always the greatest portion. You can prove this to yourself. Get a player who’s not yet that accomplished and record him with his equipment. Chances are it will sound pretty mediocre. Then get a great player to come in and play on the same equipment. You’ll be shocked how good the gear suddenly sounds. It’s not as dramatic going the other way around sometimes, but you can definitely hear the difference when a mediocre player goes from mediocre equipment to finely tuned studio gear. When I was the musical director for former Rolling Stone's guitar player Mick Taylor for a tour (here's a nice picture of us on the left), Mick didn’t travel with any gear, preferring to use whatever his fans could provide him at each town. He frequently played with some really big stinking heaps of crap gear, but every night he still sounded just like “Mick Taylor.” The gear never mattered.
  • The Room contributes about 20% to the overall sound. Even on close-miked instruments, the room is far more responsible for the final sound than many engineers realize.
  • The Mic Position contributes about 20% to the overall sound. Placement is really your acoustic EQ and is responsible for the instrument’s blend in the track.
  • The Mic Choice contributes about 10% to the overall sound. This is the last little bit that takes a good sound and makes it great.
Therefore, if something doesn't sound right, there are a lot of things to consider changing before you even think about twisting an EQ knob. Try the following in this order:
  • Change the source, if possible (the instrument and/or amplifier you are miking)
  • Change the mic placement
  • Change the placement of the instrument in the room
  • Change the mic
  • Change the mic preamplifier
  • Change the amount of compression and/or limiting (from none to a lot)
  • Change the room (the actual room you are recording in)
  • Change the player
  • Come back and try it another day


Jeff Shattuck said...

So great to see you pointing this out. I totally agree: get a good player before trying pricey gear. This is especially true for home folk who, I think, buy gear more often than they practice! If you can't play, no piece of gear is going to hide that fact (trust me, I know, I suck at guitar and there is no magic gizmo that changes this sad state of affairs).


Bobby Owsinski said...

Jeff, I know some "physically challenged" guitar players that sound great recording. They're brilliant if they stay within their limits.

Jody Wagstaff said...

Thanks, sometimes it's the simple things that we forget..



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