Have you ever been on a road trip and have come across one of those scenic stops where you pull over to look out over a picturesque landscape? We often find a vista so photogenic that it compels us to take out our camera and snap a picture, even though we know that it will be available on a postcard at the next ten roadside shops. It’s as if we have a duty to take the snapshot because it’s there, we’re experiencing it, and we have a camera around our neck. Interestingly, we don’t feel this way about every landscape we see.
This also happens to us in context to an aural scenario. At some point, someone comes up to you after a very powerful worship service claiming, “Our worship team is so incredible. We should be able to buy a CD of their music”. After you hear this several times you begin to realize that they represent a larger group of people that are interested but don’t bother to come forward to mention it. This is when you realize that you have an “aural-genic” musical experience and you start to feel responsible to capture it.
This evaluation is incredibly important. Like everything else you budget for, there has to be an honest assessment of the level of talent, demand, and congregational value that decides how much time, money and resources you should spend on a recording project. This will be the gauge that you will turn to, not the burning desire you have to set up a recording system or go into the studio. In many cases, a live board mix is completely appropriate. Others warrant an investment in recording equipment and/or studio time. With this foundation, you will make many decisions about live and studio recording techniques, equipment needed, as well as what other projects should wait in line so that you can pursue the recording.
Being a sound tech involves plenty of integration with software tools for audio. Surely one of these tools has included some form of audio recording software. Often, you would sport an audio interface that would be typically used for recording. If you decide you want to leap from a live 2-track recording to recording individual tracks that you can later tweak, add to and mix, you are about to face a myriad of choices about the best way to record your group, orchestra, or choir. Even though you may have graduated from recording school, or spent decades in the studio, you will surely learn something new and do something different than in previous experiences. With this open mind, a spirit of service, and a little passion for excellence, you can put together a recording that sounds great. Now that we are founded, let’s take a deeper look at some of the following techniques that will help you decide how to get the best result possible.
The “Dark Room” of Recording- Live, Studio, or Both
In many cases, I find that deciding whether to use live recorded elements is based on several important aspects and trade-offs.
First, the energy of a live performance is enhanced by an excited audience, a spirit-led congregation, or the adrenalin rush of performing alone. This is a benefit, but requires some great musical ability. For instance, many of the jazz albums I’ve recorded through the years were live. This is a no-brainer because these are fine-tuned musicians that can get through an entire night without any noticeable clams. If your group is well-rehearsed, closely connected to each other, and have the talent necessary to get it right on the first take, you can save lots of time and money by capturing the moment- LIVE. You still then have some choices about overdubbing later to embellish the recording, or to simply mix what you have. It depends again on budget and time.
Another live recording trade-off is mic bleed from instrument to instrument. This is even more pronounced when your stage doesn’t have much isolation between instruments, especially loud instruments like drums. With isolation comes the ability to later record replacement tracks that don’t compete with the original live instruments bleeding through other instrument’s mics that have keeper material in them. Usually most vocals, background vocals, any direct instruments (like bass and keys) can all be fixed or re-recorded without a problem. I’ll outline some mic techniques later that vary based on live versus studio situations.
Costing it Out
A major element to face when deciding between live or studio recording is cost. In a live recording that you would do yourself, other than a multi-channel interface or multi-track hard-disk recorder, you already have a space, most of the mics, and a scheduled date for everyone to show up and play. You will need to have or rent a transformer isolated mic splitter with a sufficient number of channels to tap into all of the mics that are shared with the house. This is much easier when you have a digital audio network or snake system that easily provides splitting.
When planning your next installation consider the ease of splitting off for broadcast, monitor mixing, and recording by incorporating products using either CobraNet, Ethernet, A-Net, or MADI based connections. If you have a live-F.O.H. console that has direct outputs that can be pre-E.Q., you could use the mic pre-amps in your console and skip the splitting all together. Not ideal but in some situations it could be an appropriate work-around.
The second live option is to hire an engineer who is experienced in recording live multi-track performances. You can concentrate on your FOH mix and let him do his magic with a higher expectation of getting it right. This is usually more costly than tracking at a studio but offers the live recording advantages aforementioned.
Choosing Your Room
In a studio recording, you need to either hire the studio and engineer, or incorporate your own studio setup. Often, the best of both worlds is to take a portable rig into an environment of your choice to set up a studio-like setting in a great sounding, quiet space that fits the instrumentation. Even if you have a small studio at church or at home, you will need to have an acoustically pleasing room, free of annoying flutter echoes typical of close, flat parallel walls. The smaller the recording space, the more you will hear the early reflections which, without acoustic treatment, could permanently impale your acoustic recordings with a room “ring” that is typical of amateur recordings. If you have all of the walls covered in foam, you have less ring, well, above 500 hz. And your sound will come across dull and often tubby. A pleasing room usually has a combination of pleasing, diffused early reflections, no flutter echoes, and a workable natural reverb time that matches the nature of the instruments being recorded.
Another phenomenon associated with the cost of studio recording is the ability to get the right take. I remember a session where the recording artist was so thrilled about a great guy who was willing to come in and cut the guitar tracks for free. He was very cool and actually a pretty good player but by the time he got the take, we had spent frustrating hours and tons of money in studio time. He wasn’t so free after all. Not every musician is a session player or studio singer. We’ve found that limiting their “allocated” time helps but often still doesn’t yield the desired results. This is also true with tracking (recording the rhythm tracks). Here you have drums, bass, and often rhythm guitars or scratch vocals. It only takes one player to be un-prepared to drag down the momentum and money. Its hard enough to make preparation demands on professionals let alone volunteers. Evaluate your players and, once again, time/budget justification. Even if you choose the live option, you will save on tracking most of the instruments while the costs of optional overdubbing, mixing and mastering remain. The studio provides the luxurious opportunity to perfect performances and tweak existing tracks in an acoustically controlled environment.
If it doesn’t get through the mic, it doesn’t get through.
One element that remains the most important in capturing music in any of the above recording scenarios is microphone selection and placement. The best camera in the world will not capture a clear, clean image without a well made, appropriately selected lens. Most recording engineers would concur that mic selection and placement is the ultimate form of equalization. This is because the microphone is in the acoustic domain, where you still have control of the phase relationships between the direct and reflected sound, between placement, mic response and spectral energy emanating from the instrument, and between microphone polar patterns and isolation. This is technique that, through years of experimentation, trial, and error, brings about a knowledgebase that makes your recordings improve in time.
I often tell a story about this very young guitarist that was watching me place an SM57 on his guitar amp (much like I had over the past 30 years). He stopped to tell me about his experience in placing a 57 on a classic Fender guitar amp. With a refrained chuckle at his apparent naiveté, I listened contently as he told me about how great it sounded when he placed the mic almost on the grill, facing straight in, right at the transitional edge of the speaker and cabinet. I thought back on times when I’ve tried it before so as to remember what I didn’t like about it. But instead, in my effort to move past ego to entertainment, I said, “sure, let’s give a try”. Well, you know the rest of the story. It was great, at least on his classic fender. I always try to remain open to the possibility of learning something new from just about anyone.
In a live recording it’s important that you don’t make compromises that could increase feedback in the main system. Case in point: I tried using a studio vocal mic on a lead vocalist once during a live recording. Not only was it so sensitive that it picked up way too much of the stage ambience, it presented a terrible gain before feedback and was quickly abandoned. I switched to a high-end hand-held condenser mic and let the vocalist go back to performing.
The feedback issues in mic selection are usually centered around low output instruments such as strings, choir, and some percussion instruments. This is because the difference of acoustic amplitude between the ambient sound and the direct sound is so little. Two principles apply here; closer is better, and polar patterns are your friend. You probably have discovered the first principle when using a close, ear mounted Countryman or DPA mic on your pastor; improved direct sound and minimized ambience, even though they are often omni-directional. Carry this principle throughout all of your placement techniques. If you have a mic right on a guitar amp, you will most likely not need to concern yourself with bleed from other instruments. So, in the end, replacing your lead vocal will probably not be hindered by the live vocal being present in the guitar track. In addition, any time you can keep the stage volume low it would help. If the drums are without a shield and right behind your vocalist, you will end up with tons of bleed into the vocal mics, especially when using hyper-cardioid condenser mics that tend to be much more sensitive.
Mic Rejection and Phase
The second principle is to use the mic’s polar pattern for rejection. Be sure that you are familiar with the various patterns of your mics such as cardioid, hyper-cardioid, and Omni-directional. Simply stated, take the side of the mic that is lowest in amplitude towards the area of desired rejection. The back of a cardiod vocal mic should be pointed at the rejection area, such as the monitors. Another great example is using hyper-cardiod mics on the choir. This allows for more side rejection than a cardiod mic. Keep in mind the trade-off (or advantage) of loosing amplitude on the front rows closer to the mics.
One last area of import when positioning mics is phase. This is perhaps the most critical because of how much degradation can be caused by phase cancellation. Here is the mic-phasing 101 rule that can work in several cases: If there is a reflected source that is somewhat near the direct source, they will interact when arriving at the microphone. This is circumvented by the “rule of thirds”. Thinking in 3rds also helps you as you end up with multiple microphones that pick up the same source. You can always check this by soloing both mics and reversing phase on one of them. If low frequency appears louder when the phase is reversed, you have phase cancellation that is caused by the interaction of each combined mic. Keep in mind that you can correct this by sliding your track later in the recording software (provided it offers sufficient zoom features).
I could provide volumes of information describing the various microphone techniques and the characteristics of each type. But I would rather see you experiment with an open mind.
The final stages of recording; mixing and mastering are equally crucial to a great overall sound. BUT, if you get the source right, you will be ahead of the game. As you enter the world of recording, consider your foundation, decide on the scope and expense, then put together a combination that fits your specific musical group. In the end, you will have a snapshot of your music that will be appreciated by many.
As I always say; let the relationships and process be all it can because in the end, you’ll remember and cherish them more than the recording itself.