Using the studio

After you've built a studio, you need to use it to record music, right?

Recording guitars

I have a guitar tone I like (be cautioned, I do like warped music) on the 4-track. I do NOT mic the guitar amp. At first, the guitar did sound dumpy. But I found that unless you have a very good amp the sound quality of your recording didn't get any better. I initially got around this by turning the mid-range eqs up when I mixed down, but I found that if you can record using stereo effects (i.e., have an effects processor that gives stereo output (the RP-10 that does), then the sound improves greatly. This means using up two tracks, but it's worth it, IMO.

The other thing you can try is to go direct from your amp out to recording device instead of micing the amp. This I've found produces quite a good sound that is comparable to one produced by micing the amp, but with lower hiss. If you want to be more experimental, you can do both: mic the amp and and record direct from the amp. This leads to some interesting sounds.

Jonathan Epstein says: I've used a few different methods depending on the sound I want to achieve. The last piece I did was a light sorta-love song, I used an Ibanez with 2 humbuckers going with the tones turned way down onthem pacthed through my Fender Concert tube amp out through Line recording jack. The second guitar track was a Tele sent thorugh the same amp in the same way. I mixed the first mid-Left and the tele mid-right. My most common practice for recording my guitar is this: I use my Tele (with 13s!) and go into my amp. Then I mic the amp up close, and also go out through the line recording. I love the tone of guitar/amp and not micing the amp, I get to crisp a tone and miss a lot of the bottom end. This way I get both, the nice deep tone and the crispness with line out. I throw one hard left the other hard right. I am very happy with my guitar sound. For mics I use an Audio Technica ATM41a and (get this) a nice set of digital headphones. It acts like a PZM, and captures the sound very well considering. For bass, I usually send it through my Concert and use the line out, instead of micing. I like to add a little reverb too. Gives the bass a nice, almost fretless sound. I am also very proud of the bass sounds Ive been able to get. My one problem is that, it strats to sound kind of muddy when I have a lot of busy tracks. I need compression, but dont have the cash right now.

Chris IX writes: I use the Hughes & Kettner Tubeman. It is a real tube preamp/cabinet simulator which sounds remarkable. You can plug it direct into your mixer. I makes sounds from clean jazz to shred. I like to record w/o effects because it makes punch in/outs cleaner. Otherwise reverb/echo tails tend to get truncated. Also adding f/x after the fact will help to smooth over and give tracks with lots of punch in/out more continuity.

Lorr Safratowich has this to add about recording guitar direct: I've found that taking a signal from my amp's direct out and running in thru a 1/3 octive eq set to emulate a speaker's frequency response (I use the tech info from a EV 12L) and then into my board has given me consistently good guitar sounds. I think the kicker is to cut just about everything above 7000hz on your guitar signal. One could adjust other freqs to taste for body. Also, to keep the noise levels down, like to zero (other people don't seem to have the passion for the lick I need 20 takes to get!), I've taken a 10 ohm resistor rated at 50 watts, put it in a project box and wired a 1/4 inch jack to it. I then plug my speaker wire from the amp to it and have an effective load box. I wouldn't advocate running a 100 watt Marshall head wide open into it, but for lower level things, it works and is a lot cheaper than the marketed items. I did check this out with an amp tech and its ok as long as one is prudent with the volume knob.

Recording Drums

Jonathan Epstein again: For drums, I've used a couple of techniques. Two Radio Shack PZMs (my best friends!! I wish I still had these, someone swiped them from me a year ago) one over head and one in the kick. Lately Ive just used the AudioTech mic or headphones hanging overhead in my reverb-rich attic. I actually like the sound better from the headphones. Ive been recording thorugh headphones for 6 years now and think it adds a nice true effect. I played stuff I did for my brother and he said he didnt even notice the difference.

Matt Macchiarolo has this to contribute: First, I place the drums in a suitable room, usually my living room, which is the biggest in the house. (I have to wait for my wife to leave, first.) I'm a big fan of close-miking, so I mike each piece separately; bass drum, AKG DA20 (THE mike for bass drum); 2 toms and hat, Shure SM57's, snare, a 30-year old Shure SW55, overheads, a pair of AKG C-408's. The advantage to close-miking is that you can pan each piece for a true stereo effect.

The key is proper mic placement; I don't touch the EQ until I get the best possible sound from each mike, both by itself and in the mix, and the only way to do that is to place them properly. I mike the bass drum by first putting a pillow in the drum to kill unwanted overtones and speed up the decay. Then I put the mike inside the drum, about 2-3 inches from where the beater strikes the drum, then play around with it to get the best sound. After that, I still might have to EQ some highs into it. For toms, I place the 57's in such a way so that leakage from the cymbals is minimized; this usually means placment so that the "rear" of the mike (where the cord is connected) is pionting directly at the cymbals. For hihat, I place the mike at the perpendicular to the very edge of the hat, to make it "cut" more...placing the mike toward the center makes a "brassier", heavier tone. I mike the snare's batter head at about a 45 degree angle. Overheads are pointed over the cymbals, but they still pick up the ambiant drum and room sounds; these condenser mikes were originally designed for close-miked percussion or horns, but they work fine as OH's too.

Once the kit is miked, I assign each of the 7 channels used by the mikes on the Mackie 24-8 console to two submasters, then pan the hat, toms, OH's to approximately match the placement of the drums from the drummer's point of view (Snare and B.D are panned center). The submasters are patched to the inputs of the TSR-8 tape machine...essentially I'm mixing the drums to 2 tracks when I record it. Usually I record everything dry, then add a bit of reverb to the overall drum mix at mixdown to give it a "live" sound. If I want to add an effect to an individual piece (like a gated delay on the snare) when doing the initial tracking, I usually record the effect on a separate track and mix it all together at submixdown (bouncing all the other tracks to 2 track) or final mixdown.

This seems really involved (and it is), but it's worth it when your drums tracks sound as big as life. I know many people don't have seven mikes at their disposal, and that's OK, I've heard a lot of good sounding mixes using two mikes. I think a recording miked well with two good mikes will usually sound better than one miked poorly with 10 crappy mikes. When purchasing, don't skimp---get the best mikes you can afford, because the sound hits the mikes first.

I got a chance to use the Radio Shack mikes, and to tell the truth I was pleasantly surprised. The sax player at last week's gig who up till now used a Shure SM57 said the new mike was a little bit clearer and didn't require as much high-end boost as the 57. (Of course, if he would wear earplugs at the gigs, he wouldn't need to boost the highs toward the end of the show.)

Last night I non-scientifically compared the RS mike to my Audio Technica 4050 studio mike and the AKG C408 mini condenser. With the pre-gain on the mixer cranked, I found that the RS had only slightly more self-noise than the AT4050 and not nearly as much as the AKG. (the AKG was designed for very close-proximity drum miking so you would never have to crank the gain up that much in real life). For a mike powered by an AA battery, I was impressed! It did sound a bit different than the AT, especially in the low-mid range, but it still sounded good to my ears. And it seemed to be about as sensitive as the AT; it picked up the clock ticking across the room!

Granted, my tests were far from scientific, as I don't have any high-end test equipment except for my ears. It's no Neumann, but for 70 bucks, I think it's a good buy! I think it would be a very good vocal and instrument mike; I plan to use them for drum overheads and/or snare/hihat mike. Again, it's Radio Shack catalog #33-3007 Unidirectional Condenser Microphone. It's been discontinued, so you might have to hunt for them.

Frits van Mourik has this to add: When recording/mixing toms, remove the area around 800 Hz. This will take out the "cardboard box"-sound. If you are losing the toms in a mix dominated by fierce guitars, then add some narrow-band eq around 3.5 kHz. The attack will pierce through the mix and psychoacoustics (whatever that may be) will do the rest. Can't find that "smack"-sound in the bassdrum? Tune it as low as the drummer feels comfortable with. The beater now smacks into the drumhead instead of bouncing off and there you are!

Ken Wronkiewicz has this bit of pragmatic advice: Live drums are a pain to record. If you use a synth's drum set (which has come a long way from the old 808s) you'll get a much better sound for most purposes than trying to record a drum set and getting everything just right.

Recording Vocals

For recording vocals, position the mic so you're facing up to it. Use a good mic and make sure you're in a place you're really comfortable working in. Record the vocals last and make sure they mix in well with the music instead of floating on the top (this is actually okay with some songs, but I dislike it in general). I also record vocals with effects so I know exactly how they will sound in the final mix. Also, when you EQ the vocal track, cut the lows (definitely) and the highs (perhaps). This gives clarity to the vocals.

Jonathan Epstein again: For vocals I also send through my Concert just to add a bit of reverb and bit of bottom end (weird, I know, huh?). I usually stand about 8-12" from the mic for singing. You lose the popping p's and b's and s's this way and also get a bit of natural reverb.

Frank E. Fullerton writes: I usually record vocals last. Quite by mistake, I once left the monitors on when I recorded the vocals. The existing tracks were picked up on the vocal track. It was magic. I never realized before how "separate" the vocal track sounded from the rest of the music. Now I always let the monitors leak into the vocal mike. Try it and see if your vocals don't become one with the music.

As I say above, making your vocals become one with the rest of the instruments is important. I accomplish this by recording in stereo with a slight delay, adding a bit of a flange that "slides" in with the rest of the instruments (this might not be the best description, but it is how I view it). Frank's idea of using a distant echo of the vocal track might be something worth experimenting with.

Depending on the nature of the track, you might either want to make the vocals stand out or be buried in the mix. I really think this is a track-by-track choice to make.

Frits van Mourik writes: cut your EQ at 1 kHz about 6-12 dB. Bandwidth (Q-factor) should be a 0.5 octave. This way you take out the "harshness" of the vocals, leaving more room for other instruments. You can crank up the voice in the mix without becoming to loud. Works great on my U87, AT4033, and even SM 58!

From Rob Kirbos: When recording vocals, DO NOT use a foam wind screen that fits over the top of the mic. these wind screens eat up the top end as you print the track, then you have to boost the highs on the EQ in the mix down, which adds to the ever popular (and unwanted) hiss. For a wind screen, do the following: Get a wire hanger. Put a loop in it about 6-8 inches in diameter. Stretch some panty hose or stockings over the loop. Get an old pair from your sister or girlfriend [how sexist! :)] so you don't get any funny looks in the store as you buy them. A clean pair is recomended. The "Pro" windscreens that you buy in a music store will run about $15-$20 depending on the brand, store, etc. the only difference is that these have a nice little clip and goose neck so you can mount it right to the mic stand. for the coat hanger model, duct tape works just fine.

General recording tips

I almost always do two vocal tracks. Since I'm into warped music, I tend to process one track extensively and leave the other one alone. In general, I find that there's a fuller sound with recording things just slightly differently in two tracks. The trade off between this and the decline (though I don't notice it) in sound quality when you bounce tracks is a judgement call you have to make. For every song I've recorded, I usually do both: record everything in mono/one-track (using up only 4 tracks) and then record it in stereo/two-track (using up to 8 tracks) and see how it sounds. People, in general, react better to the stereo sound, even though the mono performance might be superior. My sample is based on 4 songs, but there is some "magic" to doing everything in stereo.

In general, I have found it better to use up 2 tracks to record the full stereo sound of a guitar effects unit or keyboard and do bouncing (see below for how I do my bouncing) than to use only one track.

Be sure to play your tape on other players after you do your final mix so you can see how it is going to sound on different machines.

Important! Make sure you write down everything you do! Especially when you mix down, make sure you have all the equaliser controls marked on a sheet of paper. What I do is photocopy the front page of my manual which has a plain figure of my tape deck console and then I blow it up and use a coloured pen to mark my settings.

Bouncing tracks

Of course, if your compositions require more than 4-tracks (besides the keyboard, which could be a sequencer containing many virtual tracks), you are going to have to bounce tracks. Combining tracks onto a single track on the 4-track is a bad idea, I've found. For whatever reasons, it ends up missing something. A better option is to mix down to a GOOD casette deck (a DAT would be great) and then re-record the mixdown on your 4-track. If you are using a normal tape recorder, then you can take the mixdown tape and use that for further recording, thus saving yourself a generation. Be careful that you're consistent with the noise reduction scheme that you are using.

If I require 6 or more tracks, my usual procedure is as follows: record the keyboard on 2 tracks, record the guitar on 2 tracks, mixdown to a 2 track and then you have 2 more tracks free. And so on. If you have only one vocal track and two keyboard tracks, then depending on the sound of the guitar you want, you might be better off just using one track for the guitar.

If there's a guitar solo you want to add between vocals, and don't want to use up an entire track, use the punch in facility for the vocal track(s)! This is where auto punch in has been the greatest help for me.

At any point, you can always mixdown with some of the existing tracks, but this is somewhat irreversible. For example. I sometimes use up 4 tracks on sequences and guitars, and then add the vocals on mixdown. This means I need to get the vocals sounding right (levels and performance) in one shot. Using this technique in an extreme sense might mean that you don't even need a 4-track, particularly if you do digital overdubbing using a PC.

Noise reduction (NR)

Use high speed recording. This goes without saying, but I tried out it out both (high and normal) ways, and it does result in a better signal/noise ratio. I happen to have dbx NR in my 464, so I always have this on when I record and when I playback. I do not however record with dolby B or C turned on on the mixdown deck when I mixdown. I find doing this results in a "dull" sound. I have pretty much obtained similar results when I don't record using dolby B or C turned on and turn it on when I play the sound back. This might violate everything you've heard about dolby noise reduction, but it's true in my case at least. Try it out.

Michael R. Kesti has this to say about noise reduction: To understand how to use Dolby noise reduction, it helps to first understand how it works. Dolby noise reduction's goal is the elimination of hiss, which is present in any magnetic medium recording process, but is especially a problem with the Phillips cassette format, due to low tape speed and narrow tape width. It's approach is to pre-emphasize the high frequencies during the record process, and to apply a matching de-emphasis during the playback process. Because the hiss is not present in the pre-emphasized signal, but is present in the signal that to which the de-emphasis is applied, the result is a reduction in hiss level (an effect increase in signal to noise ratio), and a flat system frequency response.

It is important to understand this because it shows that the Dolby noise reduction system is a two sided system, that is, its process is applied during both record and playback. This means that if a track was recorded with Dolby enabled, it should be played back with Dolby enabled, regardless of whether that track is being sent to a final mixdown or being bounced.

I will add this technical detail regording NR from my Technics manual: dolby B reduces noise about one-third. Dolby C reduces noise about one-tenth, and HX-Pro is something that allows recordings without drop of the level of the sound source's high-frequency range.

Andy DeFaria: the difference between B and C seem to be that C boosts more treble than B. As a result I tend to use C during record if available and never put any Dolby on during playback. This is probably wrong but sounds best to me (usually).

Bruce McGee: I looked into the dbx issue and I think that db B and db C should not be used with this in recording. The dbx in some circumstances has a very controlled algorithm for current bias, which may in fact result in total cancellation of recorded frequencies when used in conjunction with db C especially. It would be interesting to hear the opinion from the experts.

Steve Shumake: If you happen to be using floor type stomp pedals for effects, I have found that using the batteries is much quieter than using the AC adapters. The adapters cause a lot of hum, but just watch your batteries so that use always have fresh ones. I used to notice that even way before the batteries were out of juice that distortion was audible and increased as the batteries drained. I fixed this by going with a rack digital multi-processor!

Ken Wronkiewicz: if you are doing digital hard disk editing, you can get rid of hum and noise by taking it out by hand. So I'd select when I wasn't singing and then I'd have the sample editor fill it in with zeroes.

Advice from Jason Olson of New Spectrum Sound

Note that using a computer with a soundcard can introduce a lot of noise. Sometimes moving the soundcard around will help (it did in my case---it was sitting right next to the video board and I placed it in another slot and it greatly reduced the amount of noise). Plus if you're recording using a mic, you could have various humming noises (from the monitor and the fan, for example) picked up. The way I solve this problem is to keep my sequencing separate from recording guitars and vocals. I dump a mix of all the sequenced instruments onto my 4-track and I go from there.

Eliminating sources of hiss

I've not mastered this yet, but it can be done if you're clever about how you channel your inputs. I've found the least hiss is when I turn the volume of my instrument up instead of turning up the trim control (though this is by no means absolute) on the 4-track. In the case of the keyboard, I found this very noticable. I keep the trim completely down, and turn the volume of the keyboard up until I get the recording levels I want (the "ideal" recording levels are described in my 464 manual). The same goes for the output of my RP-10. For vocals, unless you are recording from an amp, you probably need to turn the trim up. This is my major source of hiss.

George T. Talbot contributes with: one additional tip about hiss & microphones is that the mixers that manufacturers put into 4-track tape recorders are cheap. I had a lot of trouble getting decent sounds on tape with my Tascam Porta-2. I went out and bought the 12-channel Mackie mixer (~$400). It made a WORLD of difference, especially with microphones. Before I had the mixer I had to use one of those transformers that you plug into an XLR microphone cable to plug the microphone into the unbalanced input of the 4-track. The Mackie (as do the other low-cost mixers) has balanced XLR inputs. The dynamic range I get from the microphones now is better than the tape deck, and the only hiss I get is from the tape and the guitar amp. Having the mixer also makes recording stuff a lot easier. I like to record vocals dry and process them on mix-down, but singers like to hear the effects (reverb, etc.) as they are singing. With a mixer, it's pretty easy to do this.

James Eibisch writes: a way to cut down background hiss is to record with high levels, being careful to balance it against distortion from overloaded circuits, so putting the signal/noise ratio in your favour on mixdown.

Trey Canipe writes: One discovery that I have made is a tape on the market for four trackers: the Radio Shack LN30. It has the high band of the spectrum dampened to hiss. It gives you really quiet recordings and doesn't kill your highs. I used high bias tapes before and i had clarity but still picked up some hiss when I bounced down. I would give up any (unknown to my ear) tiny bit of sensitivity in return for the amount of hiss that is done away with. I use these tapes for four tracking and for copies.

I think that analog can be used for demo purposes and still make impressionable tapes. Some people don't "hit the tape" hard enough on their original track and that makes for hissey recordings after the level is brought up. This is my technique:

I record drum tracks first. I hit the tape hard by hitting kick and snare and trim up until it gets the rattle in the monitor from overfeed. I back down just barely below overfeed while pounding the kick/snare. You can use Dolby but I don't. I find that with the low noise tape and hitting the track so hard, very very little hiss is on that drum track. The reason I say drum track first is because now you can track another instrument at any time you feel like (retake over and over) vocals any time, etc., because now every thing will be in perfect time (guitar player can come in one, singer the next). Also, if the drummer needs the guitar to hear in order to play the song, put the guitar on headphones and and play with him. Now, you need only a real basic "bass and snare" type drum track and you can dub in all kinds of fills on other tracks. The main idea is perfect timing and let everyone else do their thing. I have seen guitars tracke out first with a click track and then drums later but it is hard for me to do that.

Cleaning and demagnetising

I clean at the beginning of every recording session. I use the Radio Shack professional head cleaner. For demagnetising, I use the Radio Shack battery operated tape demagnetiser and I do this every other recording session on all my tape decks.

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala ||