A Stitch in Time Saves Nine
by Chris Stamey
This article is based on problems I've encountered over and over again when mixing home-recorded tracks. It may seem full of some super obvious stuff to some of us, but these things come up over and over again and could have easily been headed off at the pass, even by a first-time recordist. If you are a musician starting a record and you are recording it yourself, maybe for the first time, here are some things to keep in mind that will make it easier to mix your record into a great listening experience later on.
1. Use (beg, borrow) the best cymbals you can. Programs such as Drumagog can fix bad drum sounds somewhat later on, but crappy cymbals are not going to improve much in a mix.
2. If you can hear the air conditioner, your mic probably can, too. So cut it off while you are recording. (Then be sure to pay attention to the effect a change in temperature might have on your tuning, of course.) This goes double for the dishwasher!
3. Intonate that bass guitar before the session! (And all guitars.) If the bass is out, even on one string, everything higher is going to get wonky as you overdub, singers included. Your local guitar store can do this for cheap if you aren't sure about which way to turn those little screws on the bridge. Keep a tuner inline with all guitars, and ask everybody to retune after every take if there's time. You might need to check to see that all the different tuners agree, as well - there can be a lot of discrepancy there.
4. If you are recording a vocal in a bedroom or other untreated room with a directional mic, try to make at least the space behind the singer's head acoustically absorbent. Even if you don't have panels up, at least keep away from windows or mirrors.
5. Walk around your recording room with an instrument (acoustic guitar, upright bass, kick drum), playing it and listening to where it sounds the best. If it sounds good to you there, the mic will probably agree. Speakers and mics are only part of the equation; where they are in a room is a huge part of the sound. Generally, avoid mic'ing the center of the room, and also avoid putting the mic exactly halfway between the floor and the ceiling.
6. Consider using a pop filter with a singer, especially if there's a compressor down the line that might think it's just heard a kick drum come down the wire and try to grab it, hard. The metal ones cost more but will let more of the presence frequencies through.
7. If you record the bass (or other acoustic instruments) with a mic and also a DI, don't bounce them together onto one track. It takes time for sound to travel through the air; sound down a wire is almost instantaneous-so the waves cancel out somewhat when combined. Later you or your mixer can zoom in on both tracks and try to figure out the number of samples the mic is late, then adjust this so that the so-called "phasey" sound goes away when they are combined, and the instrument comes into focus.
8. If you are using a click with acoustic instruments, remember to record an extra ending section while everyone is tracking. You just need to get the last chord really. Let it ring while the click is off, so that there won't be any click "straggler" in the fade of the song to drive your mastering guy crazy.
9. Keep everything that was part of the basic take, even if you mute it or make the tracks inactive. Don't assume that the guitars or vocal tracks you overdub will be better than the ones that went down live.
10. A.I.R: "Always In Record." Even if the wires aren't all plugged in, record those runthroughs - they are often golden. Reach over and hit the key command; you can always blow it away later.
11. Beware of memorizing every detail of rough mixes, this will make mixing more expensive as you try to match them later, unnecessarily. (I rarely even make rough mixes any more if I'm going to be the mixer.)
Monitoring: Hearing Is Believing
by Chris Stamey
Setting up your listening situation for recording is vitally important, and it's also usually the step that aspiring recordists skip in their rush to start tracking. Here are some simple tips to help create a good listening environment.
1. To begin, you need to get your monitoring speakers in the best possible position in the best-shaped listening room you have. There are lots of (sometimes contradictory) resources about this out on the Web - read all you can first. "The Myth of the Sweet Spot" at http://weslachot.com/new/articles_bass.html is a good place to start. Allow plenty of time for moving your speakers around in the room and listening - it might take hours or days but it's worth it: once you find a place where they sound good, you'll be really happy about it. All your recording decisions will be shaped by what you hear on playback. There are lots of nearfield speakers that are really pretty okay; most rooms are really flawed. A great speaker in the wrong place is worse than a merely average one in the best position. You can find the best place for the speakers you have if you do some research and experimentation. And chair height--where you put your ears--matters, too! Sitting with your ears in the center of any room dimension (including halfway between ceiling and floor) will create problems due to the fact that the wall reflections will be exactly out of phase with the direct sound, causing deep nulls at certain frequencies. There are room-dimension calculators out there on the Web that can help you find the listening position and speaker locations that minimize the effect of the nulls caused by your exact room dimensions.
2. Once you get them in a good place, three (not four) metal speaker cones under each speaker will help the low end. These are available at audiophile sites. Old rubber mouse pads are a second choice for this. You can make hollow speaker-stand boxes out of wood and then fill them with sand, as well - the mass will help.
3. Try this: Carefully tape a little mirror flat over each tweeter and turn the speakers so you can see yourself in each mirror equally well when you stare at it. This gets the tweeters "looking" at your ears correctly. (Then remove the mirrors!) (The standard is to have the speakers at a 60-degree subtended angle, 30 degrees to each side of the listening position.)
4. As for the low end of your listening position, trust me: it's much wilder and erratic than you have ever dreamed. It's not just a question of the room being bass-heavy or bass-light. You don't have to have precision measuring equipment to show this. Get a synth keyboard with a low sine-wave bass sound and play it through your speakers while you sit in your normal listening position. (Or, better yet, use a disk with tones on it made for this purpose.) As you play up the chromatic scale from the lowest note, write down the notes that either jump out loudly or are very quiet. These are your problem spots - they'll be unfairly represented in the sound of a bass or kick drum. These often sound so dramatic that you don't need to hook up a microphone and "analyze" the low end in a more formal way. Be wary of the musical keys that include these notes as main elements. Next, walk around the room, repeating this test (with a friend playing the keyboard), and try to find places where the lowest octaves seem more even, note to note. It might be near the corner or down the hallway even. Later, you will know to get up out of your chair and walk to these places to get another angle on the low end of your recording or mixing.
5. And last but not least: When reviewing mixes later on other speakers, make sure the speakers don't have blown tweeters (it's surprising how frequently this occurs!).
Thanks to Wes Lachot and Brent Lambert. www.chrisstamey.com