Choosing Equipment And Your Sonic Spaces

The sound you get when you’re recording is created by many factors. You start off by deciding what musical equipment you’re going to use. If it’s electric equipment, the guitar, amplifier and electronic effects all put their stamp on the sound you create. A few posts ago we discussed getting a variety of sounds for electric guitar. Picking a specific electronic keyboard has the same effect. Each electronic keyboard will have a slightly different sound – what the brand designates as a ‘piano’ sound will be quite different from model to model. Now throw in amp effect pedals, EQ units and rack mount effect units. For electronic gear the variety available is endless. But you also have this variety available to you when using acoustic instruments. A Martin guitar will have a different sound than a Taylor guitar. To multiply that, each model and style within a brand will sound different. You have the same variety with drums. What size kick or tom you use, what type of drum head are you using?

Now we add another factor. Which microphones ae you going to use to record? We do have a video on our YouTube site with a description of different mics and how they work. That only scratches the surface as the variety of mics with slightly different qualities makes the amount of choices almost endless. Next you have where you place the microphone, what type of pre-amp is it going through. Do you use outboard compression units or the effects included in your mixing board? Multiply all these factors together and the number of choices is staggering. I have found over time that most people who do recording have a number of ‘go to’ equipment items and set ups that they use pretty frequently. It’s a comfort zone where you know what you’re going to get with each set up, so you tend to use it more frequently. If you’re recording, my advice would be to shake things up once in a while and try different equipment combos – you never know quite what you’re going to come up with and it might be a remarkable sound that you wouldn’t have stumbled on if you stayed with your tried and true methods.

Finally, the way you use the sonic spaces available to you adds a final touch to the sound you’re going to get. If your sonic space is one room in the house, you can try different areas of the room. Using the corners of the room for microphones will give you different sound qualities than the middle of the room. Add blankets or other sound deadening devices to change things even further. We’re lucky at ChurchHouse to be able to use the entire house as recording space. Each room has a different sonic signature. The main studio is intentionally a ‘dead’ sound due to sound absorption panels on the wall. We are fortunate to have a large, high ceiling open room that has amazing ambience. All this leads to the video I’m including with today’s post. I’ve shown this video before but it really illustrates the great sounds you can get if you have the right type of space available to you. I call this set up ‘Inspiration Point’ and although it does take some time to set up, the sound you get is worth the work. I was reminded of this on our recent trip, where we hiked in a number of slot canyons and tight spaces and the echoes that occurred even when you are whispering are really amazing. They made me think of field recording an acoustic guitar or vocals in that type of space. Hope you enjoy the video and feel free to send me any questions or comments you have on this subject.

Messin’ At The Highest Level

We’ve returned from our latest adventure. After three weeks at some of the Southwest’s most amazing National Parks – where we had one day of rain and usually days of the most beautiful clear blue sky imaginable we have returned to eastern Pennsylvania. And……shocker……….it’s gray and overcast. Of course this is what makes you really appreciate the adventure time. On our trip I try to divorce myself from the phone news feeds and the usually awful info they contain. I was only somewhat successful. But I also look at music videos and try to find something fun and interesting. I came across this video from Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway. It’s their version of the Jefferson Airplane song ‘White Rabbit’. At the most basic level it’s the idea we try to work in our Messin’ With The Music series of covers. Take a song that began as a more electric or fuller band version and break it down to acoustic instruments. The original version of ‘White Rabbit’ was very much an electric band version in the popular ‘psychedelic’ rock style. This version puts in shades of bluegrass, among other styles, to send the song to a different place. It still retains the original spooky vibe with a walking through a graveyard twist associated with a lot of bluegrass hill music. What really puts this over the top? You’re watching players that are all amazing instrumentalists. Molly Tuttle is an award winning bluegrass guitarist, but the entire band matches her level of playing on their individual instruments. And you’re watching them nail it live, no studio punch-ins or overdubs. Amazing ability to retain the feel playing outdoors in the daytime. And they’re wearing flannel – makes sense when you’re playing in Portland Maine. Hearing this set off the gears in my head thinking of new ideas for songs and covers. Hope it has the same effect on you.

Hearing True EQ: Room Tune Your Monitors

When you listen to music, do you really get to hear the song in the way that the writers, players and studio people do when it is first created? Probably not. The fact is that all stereo systems change the sound in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. They may be heavy at the bass end – think of all the cars that go by with their subwoofers blaring. If you listen on your cell phone you’re hearing it through tiny speakers. Forget about picking up the bottom end of the music. You’ll have some improvement listening through decent earbuds, which is why I suggest that when checking out songs. But all stereo systems alter the sound to some extent. When you’re mixing in a recording studio you have to take this in to consideration. The best way to do this is to make sure the monitors you are mixing on have a flat EQ response. In addition to the speakers themselves, where they are placed in the room will also effect what you hear (this is also true when you set up your home stereo). Are the monitors placed in a corner or against a flat wall? What type of surface is behind them – drywall, blankets, sound absorption panels? When we changed the placement of our Yamaha NS10M Studio monitors the sound that we hear also changed. They were placed further away from the listening point and sound panels were placed at equal distances beside and behind the monitors. The idea was to get a wider stereo feel and to equalize the reflection surfaces around the speakers.


We use several monitor systems during the mixing process, but I like using the Yamahas for the initial mixing. For quite a while you couldn’t see a picture of a recording studio without seeing a pair of NS10s by the mixing console. Some people love them and some hate them. I like them but you have to know their strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly. If you’re interested in more of their history, here’s an article from Sound On Sound that has a good discussion of their background:

Whenever the placement is changed, that means it’s time to redo the room tuning for them. The way this is done is by using a piece of equipment called a real time analyzer. A real time analyzer sends pink noise through your speakers that will be picked up using a microphone and can be seen on a graph showing available frequencies and how much of that frequency is being broadcast through your speaker. You’ve probably heard of ‘white noise’. It’s sounds like static and is usually used to mask sounds in a room. Pink noise is similar except that it broadcasts all frequencies coming out of the speaker. Your goal is to make the pink noise have as flat an EQ as possible. You will accomplish this by running the sound from the mixing boards through a dedicated EQ before it reaches the monitors. You have to be sure that the mic for the analyzer is positioned in the spot where you’ll be sitting – near field monitors have a tight listening field and accuracy matters. The sound from pink noise will fluctuate, so you have to study the levels while it is running then review the peak capture when you turn it off. The picture below shows the running sound and peak capture for the NS10s before the EQ going in to the monitors is set up.


NS10Ms tend to be weak at the low end but depending on the monitor placement you may have peaks and valleys on frequencies throughout the spectrum. The next step is to raise or lower frequencies on the EQ going to the speakers to balance what you see on the graph. The more frequencies you have on your EQ the more accurate you can make the adjustments. The process takes a while since when you adjust one frequency it effects the frequencies around it. After the adjustments are made the final EQ setting looked like this:


Here’s a snapshot of the running sound afterwards. The pink noise does fluctuate and will not look flat at any one particular second, so you want to let the sound run for a while and then look at the static capture lines (the horizontal lines at the top of the frequencies seen here) when the pink noise is turned off.


The final shot of the peak captures gives a good representation of where we ended up:


I’m pretty comfortable with the flatter EQ at the end of the process. One other tip is to make sure you are hearing equal levels from both speakers so you don’t overload one side when you’re mixing. The real time analyzer should let you get actual equal volumes for both sides. I have some volume hearing loss in one ear – the result of playing in bands for a lot of years (fortunately it is not frequency loss). To check on this take one channel of the song you’re mixing and run it straight down the center of your stereo field while sitting in your perfect center listening spot. If it sounds like it’s coming more from one channel or the other, make the adjustment on the volume of your reference amp. It’s at the end of the sound chain so it equalizes volume for your ears without effecting the balance in your actual mix. I also check the final mix of songs through the Real Time Analyzer so I’m using sight as well as sound to get the frequencies where I want them.

After the NS10 mixing is completed we’ll make any mix adjustments and also do the mastering through the higher end monitors set up in a different listening station. It’s always important to take your time, ‘put the mix down’ and come back to it later for review to get the best results possible. A great song will shine through no matter what, but a great mix will always improve your song.

From The Vault 10 – Conduit Plays ‘Follow Me’

As we continue to brush the dust from our song vault, we’re releasing another song from the live sessions recorded by Conduit. As with the song ‘Blinders’ released in a previous post, this song was on the album ‘Superior Olive’ (which, by the way, is still out there for purchase or your listening enjoyment). This was recorded a little different than our other live versions. That means we set up and play in a live format while using some studio tricks to gain separation in sound for a better recording with less bleed through. For this song we recorded live but heard the mix in headphones. Some of the songs we recorded had the amps in room but set up for separation. This time as we had no audience in, the amps were placed in separate rooms and the bass did not go in the PA system, only direct to the mixing board. The vocals were recorded in the same room but we used an old trick that I first heard about from The Grateful Dead’s shows with their ‘Wall Of Sound’ PA setup. The singer has two mics in front of them, stacked on top of each other. We used two identical mics. You reverse the phase on one of the mics going in to the mixing board. The vocalist only sings in to one of the microphones and the second mic is low enough that it doesn’t pick up the vocals. We’ve discussed phase cancellations in mics before (there is a video discussing this on our YouTube channel). Two mics out of phase will cancel each other out, in this case the drums are picked up by both mics so the in room drum sound is cancelled. Since the vocals only go in to one mic, they don’t experience the phase cancellation and will go cleanly in to the mixing board. I always wanted to try this and it’s a little tricky getting it right, but it worked out well in this case.

Variety Is The Spice Of Life

I’d like to share a recording technique that I read about when I started studio work and have used during many sessions over the years. We’ve talked about the overall concept of giving yourself a variety of choices for mixdown in several different posts. The idea is to track one guitar performance and end up with multiple tracks with different sound qualities. One way to do this with electric guitar is to have the guitar going to two separate amplifiers. The first step in this process is to use amps with different sound qualities. For the example in the photo we’re using a Peavey amp on one side and a Mesa on the other side. Both of these amps are tube amps. Another way to add variety would be to use a tube amp on one side and a solid state amp on the other side. You want to make sure the amps have some separation so there is not a lot of bleed through going to the microphones. Here we have the amps pointed in opposite directions with a sound deadening panel between them. For this recording the amps were not at high volume. If you needed to have one or both amps loud to get the overdrive effect you are looking for you could put the amps in separate rooms. Each amp’s sound will be captured by three microphones. In our example we are using two dynamic mics close to the amps and one condenser mic slightly farther away on each side. You could also apply different pedal effects to the amps or use the amps on board effects for variety.

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In our example we split the guitar signal going to the amps with a stereo chorus effect to allow for a greater stereo field when panning tracks left and right. You could also use an A/B box or another type of signal splitter. Each mic will go to a separate track in the recording software as seen in the photo below. You now have six unique guitar sounds you can use throughout the song. You could do as many tracks as your system input and mic collection allows. If you really want to enhance the stereo possibilities for the guitar track you could record the track twice and hard pan the different guitar parts to the left and right channels in mixdown which would give you twelve tracks to work with. We frequently use this double tracking technique in our Messin’ With The Music songs since we are using acoustic guitars and don’t have effects on them to create the variety we have with the two amp setup. If you’re trying to create a stereo sound without making it sound like a different guitar part you have to be fairly accurate when playing the individual tracks. Each track will naturally have a slight difference. The odds of you playing every note with exactly the same timing and volume are pretty slim. The idea is to try to do each track as similarly as possible – the differences will appear naturally.

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In the final photo below you can see how we used the diverse sounds throughout the song. We’ve edited the tracks, bringing in different mics during verses, choruses and breaks. You can now accent different parts of the song with unique sonic signatures while maintaining a consistent guitar performance.

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If you have enough tracks on your mixing console you can enhance these changes further by cloning a track, sending them to different channels on the mixing board and using different settings of EQ, dynamics and effects on each track. This simple set up will provide you with multiple guitar sounds to make your track sonically interesting.