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Recording is recording is recording.....
By Mick Polich - 08/24/2009 - 10:38 AM EDT

Recording is recording is recording, even at home.

No, I don’t have the latest add-ons, most expensive condenser microphones, or even a logical recording room for sound, but I’ve been at the game of recording for awhile, in studio and out, and lemme tell ya, kids, it’s always a good time.

I love to read about the early days of recording and arranging music , from Alan Lomax trudging his gear out into some remote part of the American South to record field hollers, to today – digital slice-and-dice, remixes, mash-ups, and re-construction. What I really enjoy is the late 1960’s thru the 1970’s, when basically several technologies were birthed out of the recording industry – the rise of the conglomerate record label, the invention of multi-track recording and special effects such as flanging and phasing, and defining of styles in all music genres. So, perhaps this is part one of a look, my own personal view back to my days as a semi – regular ‘studio rat’, and experimentations in home recording

and D.I.Y. ……

During a recent trip to the beautiful north country (La Crosse, Wisconsin – godson’s wedding, beautiful time – man, I AM getting older…), my plane trips consisted of reading a bio on guitar god Jimmy Page. The sex and drugs parts, yes, I’ve heard and read it before on Led Zeppelin, but I was curious about what peaked Jimmy’s interest in obtaining the knowledge involving the recording process. Any one who has listened to the Zep catalog has knowingly, or unknowingly, had their ears tweaked by some of the studio trickery that Mr. Page had a hand in. Jimmy received many a lesson on where to put microphones, what kind of equipment, and the principles of  acoustics when he did session work for artists such as Jackie DeShannon, Tom Jones, and a host of other where-are-they-nows in London back in the schwingin’ 1960’s.

Let’s throw out one phrase lifted from the Led Zep recording technique: “Depth Equals Distance”. How does this apply to the home studio?

Depth Equals Distance basically applies to where you place a microphone in order to record something. Given how the microphone is suppose to record (it’s ‘pattern’), the results of the theory vary, but since we’re recording at home(and we’ve already given ourselves in to the muse of experimentation in recording our stuff), we can move the mike around to see what happens.

Hey, stats and specs are nice, but put the laptop away for figuring formulas out, and let’s MOVE THE MICROPHONE AROUND!

Who knows what you have for microphones, but for generalities sake, let’s say it’s your $30 SM58 knock-off from Radio Shack (collective groans from the purists – hey, SHADDA UP! We’re havin’ fun here, o.k. ????). Put that puppy right up against the kick drum on your set, yep, right against the front head. Now, record you thumping away on just the kick. We’ll wait.

You done? Good. Check the results. Pretty honky, huh? Well, you might like it if you’re a lo-fi recording geek, but there’s no depth, or fullness there, right. O.k., now move that baby back about 10, maybe 20 feet. Record it – we’ll wait.

What do you think? More depth and fullness, because you’re basically recording the true nature of the kick drum being played. The drum shells are usually made of wood, and that’s what they’re built to do – resonate at a certain frequency when ya hit ‘em.

Are you having fun? You better be, because this is the good stuff in the recording process – the experimenting.

I believe that I’ve said this before: in recording, especially if you haven’t invested in a dedicated and properly engineered recording studio and equipment, GET OVER YOURSELF.  This is one of the first things that Karl Coryat says in his great little book, ”Guerilla Home Recording: How To Get Great Sound From Any Studio”(Backbeat Books). Even if the pros record their albums at home, well, they have had the money to invest in facilities that are going to achieve the BASIC results for their work, only to be remixed and mastered at pro – grade places later on. And, to a degree with digital programs, we can, too. But really, use what you’ve got at this point.

I mean, who gives a shit – just have FUN!!!!

This is why the era of the late 1960s into the 1970’s fascinates me for recording, because at this point, a lot of the effects, processes, and techniques that we now know for recording music today evolved during this time period. Flanging, phasing, backwards recording – it all had to be MADE UP, and discovered. Up until then, it was either one or two tracks, no overdubbing (unless you were crafty like Les Paul, who pioneered a lot of  recording techniques with his early recordings), and engineers that were literally in white lab coats that would say,”No, you don’t want that guitar amp to DISTORT!”. Oh, there were hints of things to come – check out some regional blues and r and b recordings (the Sun and Chess labels we all know, but dig deeper into labels like Excello and King Records…..).

Besides performance and material, you’ve got to have the best microphones that you can afford to achieve some results. Yeah, that cheap Shure might be effective for some lo-fi things, and even beyond, but investing in good microphones is paramount. I don’t know if you should second – mortgage on that Nuemann or Telefunken microphone that costs $10K, but I’ll leave that up to you and the miss’is…..

At this point, I own a couple of different mikes, all under $400. My two trusty Shure SM57’s, a couple of Marshall MXL series models, a Shure SM86 condenser, an AKG Perception 200 condenser, and a Blue Bluebird condenser. I’m a big fan of condenser mikes – sensitive, usually warm, nice amplifying patterns. If you’re a new recording rat to all this, condenser mikes can be had for under $100,but buyer beware – the more money you can spend on a microphone, the better. I’ve been become a fan of Blue Microphones – cool approach, names, plus the proof is in the pudding, at least with the Blue Bluebird mike that I have in my studio.

So, let’s say you’re only got one condenser mike, and a Shure SM57, and you want to mike your drum kit. Well, a good place to start would be to put the 57 near, or between, the hi-hat and snare drum. 57 are the ‘go-to’ mikes – guitar amps, vocals, drum kits all benefit from the 57 cardioid pattern.

The condenser mike can be experimented with as an over head (above the drum kit), or an ambient mike (placed in the room at an angle to the kit). The ambient setting will take some experimenting on placement – what captures the drum kit evenly and fully? It can be done (think John Bonham, think Led Zeppelin and those powerful rhythm tracks). Depth, distance, depth, distance…..

This combination of close and ambient miking – placing mikes up close to the source, and farther away for recording – is a nice set-up. You can take two, three, four, or how many tracks you wish to try this on (and if you’re old – school, meaning reel-to-reel or cassette, this technique still works). After recording, manually move some faders to see what combination of recorded sounds works. You can read all the how-to books in the know universe, but it basically boils down to you doing the grunt work and experimenting. Personally, I think it’s a blast!

When we lived in Columbus, Ohio, I would trip down to the Ohio State University campus, and pursue the indie record/CD/tape stores for my music jones. There was an article in a local alternative press paper regarding a local music producer – he had recorded a lot of punk, indie, and alternative bands around Columbus. One thing that he stated in the article was the ‘it’s –so-simple-it’s- stupid’ moment regarding recording with a 4 track, and the great results, sound - wise, he was getting to tape(digital home recording was in it’s infancy then). Basically, it boiled down to good microphones, which really, to any medium (even field recording with a portable digital recorder) – the better the mike, the better the recording outcome (sans a crap performance, of course – ain’t no mix fixin’ for THAT…).

Now comes knowing ‘when to say when’ in recording….

I just got thru mastering my latest EP/CD – in between family duties, trips, and puppy poop clean-up, I had a mix that I know I’ll revisit again to work on soon, but for self-imposed time constraints ( wanted to have copies ready for my upcoming Friday coffeehouse gig), I had to say, ”This is going to work for now”. I’ve been home recording since 1985 for multi –track, earlier for just having some recording device in my paws. I do all my own cover art and CD label work, and for the past several efforts, playing all the instruments myself.  For my new EP – 5 songs – I would spend maybe a week on the work station, then for other duties, lay off of it for a month or so. With my station ( Roland’s 2480 model), it’s like going to flight school for a jet, flying once, then laying off it for several weeks. But that’s life, and you work around it – far worse situations to be in, I tell ya…….

Music is usually a reflection of thoughts, emotions, a concept, or a document in sound.

We live in an age where technology kicks in the door for everyone to record and store music, share it, stream it, file it. There’s good, and there’s bad to this, but for recording enthusiasts, there is no better time to be able to sculpt whatever sounds you want for your music. You can make it lo-fi, or sound like the song is out of Motown from 1965. You can tech it out for the club dance floor, or take a portable field recorder to Pakistan to capture some street musicians jamming. All this is accessible to YOU. Right in your home, too – what better way?

D.I.Y. recording offers so much to modern musicians, and there’s a lot to cover, so we’ll revisit this topic in future blogs. Until then, there’s some recording equipment with your name on it, so get goin’ and check it out!

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