Capture the moment with direct to stereo recording

RCA 44-A ribbon microphone
A great microphone is just the beginning of making a great recording. You need to find the right configuration and placement and most importantly some great music to record.

I have written before about the benefits of recording direct to stereo and that post has proved popular so I wanted to go in to a bit more depth about how I decide if direct to stereo recording is suitable to use and what setup I might use in a couple of common situations. The main advantage of recording straight to a two-track setup is, as Joe Boyd points out in the comments to the previous post, that it tends to make the recording sound like events. It creates a feeling of integrity to the preserved moment.

Can the musicians perform the song together?

The crucial thing here is the moment to be preserved. With a direct to stereo recording you are capturing what is happening in the room, the live performance, so the quality of that is vital. There are some genres of music where this choice is easy, classical, jazz and folk all lend themselves to this approach as they are idioms based on performance. It can work well for rock/pop genres too. Indeed it can create a recording of great immediacy, but there is less scope for post-production. This is both the blessing and curse of direct to stereo recording. Continue reading Capture the moment with direct to stereo recording

It’s not about the tools

rusty spanner (or wrench if you're American)
It still works

There is an easy tendency in most disciplines to fetishise the state of the art tools, endowing them with the magical power to make your work (whatever it is) wonderful. Tools are important. If you create things with them and spend a lot of time using them the minutiae of their good and bad points magnify in your mind, but the quality of your work has little to do with the quality of the tools you use.

There is an obvious caveat that the technical quality is defined by the limits of the tool. You can’t shoot HD video on a 1.2 megapixel kids camera, but you can make a good video with one.

There’s a video of Dave Grohl playing on a child’s drum kit after signing it for some promo shindig and the drum kit is a toy but he makes music with it. Sure if he was playing a Drum Workshop custom shiny wonderkit it would sound better, but you can make music on a child’s toy.

Of course it helps if you’re great at your discipline and there is a threshold of quality that helps in learning a skill. It is a lot easier to learn to play guitar on an instrument that stays in tune and you’re not going to play Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song at much of a tempo on a piano with sticking keys but you can make music on poor instruments.

Moaning about the tools seems to get louder the better the tools get. Well, perhaps until you have the absolute state of the art and there really is nowhere to go, but that might be an imaginary land as there’s always something to improve even if it’s your chair or the paint on the walls. Yearning for, faster computers, bigger monitors, more plugins, better lenses, or whatever it is that sticks in your craw that you don’t have is just getting in the way of doing whatever it is you do. Continue reading It’s not about the tools

The perils of modern music making, part 2: Blinded by the light

backlit circular VU meter
Don't stare at the pretty lights!

Music is a sonic medium. As obvious as this is it can be easy to forget when faced with the rich visual environment of modern music creation software. This is, mostly, a good thing but as a card-carrying grumbler I feel compelled to spin a cautionary tale of this land of milk and honey. Don’t let your eyes rule your ears.

Visual feedback is great. It has saved my fat fundament on many occasions knowing that the vocal track is coloured blue and the guitar green and being able to see where the bridge starts from looking at the waveform when I’ve been too lazy to set a marker. The problem comes when you stop listening because you are drunk on visual feedback.

Back in the mythical olden days, when music grew on trees and fell into your lap if you had a nap in the park, this was an issue too. We had VU meters or PPMs in broadcast oriented studios. Even just a twitching needle could be more hypnotic than Dr Mesmer’s glass harmonica. I confess I have spent many hours looking at twitching needles, flashing LEDs and even rotating tape spools when I should have been listening more carefully.

Too much eye-candy

Nowadays there is much more to look at. The very features that aid inputting audio merrily scroll by on playback, virtual faders dance up and down, SMPTE counters tick by and software metering has brought class-A visual distraction to the desktop as well as the dubbing theatre. How can you not stare?

On playback there are two big problems with this. First, it’s just distracting and if you’re feeling a bit tired or a bit bored with the tenth time through the bass and drums checking for timing issues (can those guys actually count?) your mind can wander. Mine does anyway. Secondly, the visual feedback can influence what you think you heard or might hear. If the meter says it’s fine, it must be fine… Right?

The trick is mono-tasking. If you’re listening to the playback then just listen to the playback. Try to use your ears only. If you hear a problem, some clipping or a drop-out, go back and use the meter to check it. You can always bang in a marker to flag up the spot. All those wonderfully beguiling visual tools will be waiting for you whenever you need them.

Those tools can mislead your ears too. Flying faders are big offenders here. If you’re watching the desk, or virtual desk, dance along with the track seeing a fader dip really low can kid your ears that channel is to quiet. It must be too quiet, it’s so low. The big point here is it doesn’t matter what anything looks like it only matters how it sounds. Continue reading The perils of modern music making, part 2: Blinded by the light