I have been recording since the late seventies. Yes, I know, that was just after they invented electricity and disco. In those days we would rub two sticks together to make tape and then use the steam powered whatchamacallit to rev up the Edison light bulb. Ah the good old days. Now all of these funky things are contained on your laptop so you do not need to know anything about all that strange gear from distant days when hobbits roamed the woods. Actually the opposite is true. In order to use all of the little bells and knobs on modern recording software YOU MUST UNDERSTAND OLD GEAR! If you don’t you will never get the great sounds that are possible with modern software.
All of the modern software was created by people that understand the old gear. Not only do they understand it they worship it that’s why–It’s all made to look like old gear. It’s all made to operate like old gear. And most important they try really hard to make it sound like old gear. I don’t think they succeed but I am prejudiced since I grew up recording on classic gear.
In this blog, or it may end up being multiple blogs, I will cover all the boxes and knobs and wires and crap that make a studio a studio. I will attempt to explain things in a way that a beginner will understand at the same time I will attempt to cover things in a way that will allow someone with experience to get some tricks and techniques. We will all see if I can pull it off. I sure hope I can do it since I bragged to a friend recently that I could and he will remind me regularly if I screw it all up and just end up confusing everyone.
Ok enough rambling and prep, let’s get started.
The recording studio is intimidating to most people. It the most common scenarios the only person that seems at home there is the engineer. The reason he is at home and comfortable is he understands what all the boxes do, what all the knobs and dials do and mean. I hope that by the end of this series of blogs you will know most of these too. Then, as you get more relaxed and less intimidated you can settle in and have more fun, and really focus on playing great which is what the studio is supposed to be about. Further if you start to understand the gear and how recording is done you can use the studio to bring out the best in your music.
Here’s a basic studio concept. There are INS and OUTS. In the studio music is turned from music bouncing around the universe into electric signals bouncing down a wire. In the air music is waves traveling through the air. When it is turned into electric signals it is still (in some important ways) the same shape waves. I know this isn’t strictly true but for this section we will assume that the waves bouncing around the room turn into little waves traveling down the wire.
Just like water flowing through a pipe the electric signal has a direction. Once again, get this straight, it travels along a wire in one direction. Because of this simple fact when you plug things together in the studio OUTS get connected to INS and through the dedicated work of little elves INS get connected to OUTS. This is really simple and you know this right. OK, well remember that you know this and this rule doesn’t get broken when you can’t figure out how to wire together a whole pile of kooky boxes together. For example you might not know what a COMPRESSOR TRIGGER INPUT does but….yes, you got it and OUT is going to get plugged into it. Sometimes in an effort to confuse you and piss you off they will change the names of INS and OUTS. Pretty cruel of them huh? Well one way they change them is to call the out a SEND and the in a return. Now the crazy studio math looks like INS=RETURNS OUTS=SENDS. This is the most common way they will attempt to hide these simple words. Believe me studio engineers work really hard and use every ounce of their pea brains to come up with confusing ways to say the same thing. Here’s another clever one — INSERT—. what the hell is that? Well, if we had to take a guess we might say Hmmmm, let’s see its got the word IN in it so maybe its an IN and we would be correct. Ok got that straight? It’ll come up again and again and appear on the final test.(that’s the one that you take a 2:15 am in your buddy’s basement when you’re trying to wire up six mics, a small sound board, a reverb pedal and a computer with recording software)
All of these basics are extremely important. If you are not a beginner you can skip them but you may actually learn something if you follow along. I’m gonna try to surprise you know it all guys ’cause I’m one of those know it alls too.
The studio has hundreds and hundred and maybe thousands of knobs. It is really confusing to look at until someone tells you that all of them are basically volume knobs. Yup, believe it or not all of those billions of little knobs are to turn something up or down. That concept, that idea will get stretched as we go on but in the end they are just volume controls. If you can turn up your car stereo to make your ears bleed and drown out your buddy retelling that same damn story then you can run a studio.
If we look around the studio we see lots of knobs and also buttons. Buttons and switches do one thing. They turn something on or off. So that’s it. That’s all there is in a studio. I know it’s hard to believe but a studio is composed of two basic controls. Volume controls and Switches. This allows you to do all the cool stuff that a studio can do.
These two simple controls control lots of complex stuff. Since there is only these two controls this forces all of the fancy complex equipment that is part of the studio to focus the way they are controlled in very simple ways. This is good for you and me because it allows us to look at a piece of gear scratch our head and think about making it work in a pretty simple system of “try this” not good…. hmm “try that” ohh that’s good. Using this simple trial and error we can figure out all of the gear in the studio. It really is that simple. Whenever you are stuck, it’ll happen often, think of these basics and work up from these couple of ideas. No matter what happens this is the way studio gear works and often in confusing situations it will save your ass…………..Hmmm………….let’s see…. I’m not hearing anything…..let’s look in the back…the main control room monitor OUTput is plugged into the Crown 100 watt studio monitoring amplifier…..oh, it’s plugged into the LinkOUTput.. That can’t be right …Out’s go to Ins…Hmmm Let’s try plugging it into the unbalanced line INput and see what happens….Wow! that was easy.
Now later on I am going to correct myself and explain in detail why the knobs are not all volume knobs but for the moment we will stick with that definition.
Let’s start where all the sound in the studio starts it’s journey the Microphone.
Microphones are the basic piece of gear that are used to capture sound waves from the air and turn them into electrical signals that flow down a wire into the mixing board. Mics are made up of a magnet and a diaphragm. It’s interesting to note that speakers are made up of a magnet and a diaphragm. You can actually use a speaker as a mic. (Just ask the CIA) There is a legend that the Beatles got the great bass sound on taxman by using a bass speaker cabinet as a mic. They placed the cabinet up tight against the bass cabinet that was playing and then ran a wire from the speaker jack to the mixing console. I’ve tried it. It’s tough to get it to not buzz but it does sound amazing. The Beatles also taped headphones to violins and used them as microphones.
There are our basic types of mics. Omnidirectional, Cardoid, Bi-Directional, and Stereo microphones.
Let’s start with Omnidirectional normally called Omni. This microphone picks up sound in every direction. If you point the mic straight at the ceiling it will pick up all sound in the whole room. It’s pattern looks like this
All of this technical stuff is fascinating but what is it used for? Some typical uses are to pick up the sound of the room adding space and depth to a recording. To do this there is usually a mic that is up close to a guitar cabinet and the omni mic is placed out in the room to catch all of the reflected sound and reverb from the room. The two mics are either put on one track or recorded separately so you can monkey around with it in the mix.
Another classic use of this kind of mic is to have a group of people stand around it to sing background vocals. This will often give you a big, blended sound of the voices. Another use would be to place it in the space between the strings and the lid of a grand piano.
Example EV 635A ( a classic, I own two)
The next variety is called the Cardoid. It’s pattern is heart shaped like this:
Here it’s shown like an upside down heart. This is the most common kind of mic out there. They are everywhere. The reason that they are so popular is that they sound great, they are NOT THAT SENSITIVE so they only pick up what’s close to the mic and in front of the way it is pointing and they can be built to be bulletproof.
Now there is an important thing to know about Cardoid mics. They have a neat flaw. It’s called the proximity effect. That’s a fancy name for the fact that the closer you get to this mic the more bottom or bass frequencies the mic generates. It’s not picking up these frequencies it’s actually creating them. So why is that so cool? Well if you get close to this mic and sing IT MAKES YOU SOUND LIKE GOD! These are common stage mics and often people skip over these mics in the studio to use a more expensive mic. This is a mistake. Lots, and lots, and lots of hit records have been sung on Cardoid mics. Specifically the Shure sm58. They also sound great on guitar cabinets, bass cabinets and snare drums. Another nice feature of these mics are that they can handle tons of volume without falling apart. If you had to pick one mic to own pick a sm58. Another great choice is an EV RE20 or EVPL20 they are basically the same mic. I don’t know why they have different letters.
Bi directional mics have a pattern that looks like and 8 like this:
this mic is most commonly used for background vocals with two people. They stand on either side of the mic. Many microphones have a little switch that lets you pic which pattern you would like to use and they usually include this pattern. This kind of mic also works well on Leslie Cabinets and near twin floor toms.
So now we come to stereo microphones. Stereo microphones pick up sound while preserving the stereo image. What the hell does that mean? Well when you hear with your ears you can sense direction. If you turn your head you can tell that the sound has moved. Engineers say that it has a place in the stereo field. Basically you’ve got two channels side by side in your head. As you move your head the sound gets louder in one channel and softer in the other. Stereo mics do the exact same thing. They are recorded on two channels and are extremely realistic. These kind of mics are used for vocals, drums, acoustic guitars, background vocals and many more things. They are also very expensive.
There is an easy way to fake a stereo mic using two standard Cardoid mics. If you point two Cardoid mics towards each other and make sure that the angle between them is 90° then record them on two channels when played back they will create a type of stereo recording. This is called x,y stereo and is very common in pro recordings.
Well that covers the basic classifications of mics there is still a little more to finish in the basics. If you go to buy a mic the salesman will say “Are you looking for condenser? Does your board have phantom”. Yes he is trying to sound important but he is really asking something important. condenser mics are mics that require electricity to function. They must be plugged in in order to pick up sound. Any mic that needs that is called a condenser. This can be done in two ways. One is to have battery in the mic or a power supply that comes along with the mic. All mics require 48 volts. The other way is to get power from the mixing board. This is referred to as phantom power. All mics use a three wire XLR cable. When you turn on the phantom power using the button on the board labeled “Phantom Power” it send juice down one of those wires so the mic gets power. Unpowered mics just ignore the electricity and the condensers come to life.
Some closing comments on mics. Mics are extremely important in recording. Expensive mics can sell for $10,000. A really great mic sell for about $2000. You do not need to spend that much money to make great recordings. By far the most important thing to make a great band recording is FOR THE BAND TO SOUND GREAT. I will say this again and again. To sound great in the recording you must first get a great sound with your instruments. A simple Gibson plugged straight into a marshall or fender amp that is adjusted properly will sound great. Almost any mic will capture that sound. If your guitar sound is not so hot the greatest mic on earth won’t fix it.
Lots more on studio gear and recording in coming weeks. I’m just getting started and it’s a big topic.
Learn to make a great recording and you are on your way to Succeeding at Rock.
©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010