Analog  and Home Recording Tips and Techniques


Bass  Compression

Found Sounds/ Field Recordings



Pan Mic Placement  
Drums Headphones and Speakers Rehearsing and Recording
4 vs. 8 EQ Balance and Symmetry
Levels Processors and Pedals







Bass    Top


Bump up the bass a little when recording the bass and the drums.  You can always back off when mixing down later.  This will add a little punch to the low end, especially if you are using a cheap mic or a 57.  Some people like to plug their bass directly into the recorder.  This will achieve a cleaner sound with little noise.  I like to mic the bass amp to feel the warmth of the amp and subtleties of the amp sound.  By the way, guitar amps work just as well, so don't run out and buy a bass amp.  Just don't turn up the guitar amp too loud, or you'll blow the speaker when you hit the bass string hard.  Let the fader on the recorder do the volume work for you.


Vocals    Top


When recording the vocal, add a little treble if you have tone controls.  This will help give a bit more clarity to the vocal sound.  The extra treble works well for a dry vocal sound, or a walkie talkie sound as well.


Drums    Top


When recording the drums, I like putting the mic down low and a few feet away from the drums to capture the low end.  Use a larger diaphram mic if you have one.  All of the books say to mic up high and point down, but I have found that in lo-fi recording when using one or two mics, it's better to capture the low end down low to the ground.  You'll still get plenty of snare and cymbal. 


You can use two mics for the with a Y adapter run into one input on the recorder.  Or, you can plug both mic cables into two mic inputs on the recorder (if you have multiple inputs) and either record to one track, or record to two tracks and ping pong them to one track, to provide for extra available tracks later.


4 vs. 8    Top


It was a landmark day, when I purchased my 8 track cassette recorder and miked the drums with two mics to have stereophonic drums!  I just couldn't justify using two tracks when recording drums to a 4 track recorder.  With the 8 track, I usually record two tracks of drums, a bass track, rhythm guitar or keyboard, lead guitar, lead vocal, back vocal and percussion or samples on the eighth slot with no ping pongs!  Ping ponging, or bouncing two or more previously recorded tracks onto a new track, will diminsh the quality of a track.   But I did it all the time when I wanted to add back vocals, percussion or lead guitar to a 4 track recording.  You have to "work with what you got". 


However, The 4 track recordings that I have heard on are some of the coolest and purest forms of music out there.  I am completely inspired, every time I surf through listening to unknown artists and radio stations featuring music that is not influenced by popularity or dollars (soapbox).  Nothing can replace the homespun simplicity and quality of a 4 track recording.  Believe it or not, some of the early Beatles albums were recorded on 4 track recorders!


Levels    Top


With analog tape recording, you can push the levels fairly hot, one of the great advantages to analog recording.  With digital recording, if the level peaks, the signal "craps out" (engineer term) and some of the sound distorts unfavorably, bounces or disappears.  When the signal is pushed in an analog recording, the maximum sound is achieved to a point.  It can be pushed over the edge to achieve a distorted feel which sounds like it's run through a guitar distortion pedal.  This is one way the engineers muddied the vocals or guitars in the "olden days" before pedals or processors.  One vocal that comes to mind is Mick Jagger's sound in the Rolling Stones version of Not Fade Away.  Getting off on a tangent, the guitar players in the mid 1960's used to cut small incisions in their speaker cones and turn their amps up all the way to get a nasty distortion, prior to the advent of  pedals.


Compression    Top


What a scary word for an amateur home recording artist.  I didn't use it for many years, because I couldn't afford more than a second hand recorder (borrowed), a mic and cable (borrowed).  It can make a big difference for vocals though.  I go back and listen to some older 4 tracks that I made, and it is easy to hear the vocals coming in and out.  You can almost picture my head moving around the microphone as I sing. 


Compression for a lo-fi home recording is almost a dirty word, too sophisticated for the task at hand.  I finally found one in a pawn shop at a good price.  It was a dual compressor, so you could run two signals through  at once.  I made the purchase based on things I had read and sound guys whom I had talked to.  Now I'll dare not record a vocal without it (mainly because of my lack of vocal ability or training)…rambling.. 


Simply put, a tiny bit of compression when recording vocals makes them sound so much more even and smooth.  I have had friends comment on how my singing had improved, but I knew that it was as a result of using the compressor.


Don't use it on the drums when recording.  It messes up the sound of the cymbals and snare too much.  If you are worried about an occasional unwanted blast of a drum, let the mastering take care of it.  If you are not going to master the recording, try a tiny hair of compression on the stereo signals when mixing down.  Compression is a bad thing when  overdone, especially through cheap compressors like mine.


I also use a little compression on bass recording, again, mainly because of my lack of ability in playing fluidly.  Even if you are a great bass player, it may be a good idea, like the vocal recording, to achieve an even sound.  The compressor will limit the noisy buzz when you hit the fret wrong, and lift the signal when you push too lightly on the string.  It made my bass tracks sound 100% better.


For the dial settings, you won't need input or output gain if you set the levels on your recorder properly.  I set the attack and release at low levels, so the limits or expansions of sounds won't be dramatic.  Set the compression level so that only the over the top peaking sounds will be "lightly squashed".


The indie recording heroes like Steve Albini won't even use the "C" word in interviews, but believe me, everybody uses it to some extent and at some point of the recording and mastering process.  I use it as little as possible, and only on vocals, bass and sometimes on experimental noise compositions.  I use it also for home mastering, which of course the pro's advise against.  But for you 4 track enthusiasts, all you need to master at home is an equalizer and compressor. 


One last thought on compression, too much compressing or limiting can ruin a recording.  Remember, "when in doubt, leave it out."   


Pan    Top


Most technicians refer to pan settings as times on the clock.  Straight up would be 12 o'clock with no pan for example.  The pan knob allows you to move the sound from a track more to the left or right channel, creating stereophonic effect.  The settings can be stationary for an entire song, or moved around during the song for a psychedelic effect (i.e. the guitar at the end of Ramble On by Led Zeppelin). 


The conservative approach for a full sound is to balance the vocals, drums and bass near the middle of the mix, around 12 o'clock.  Lead guitars are often panned from 1 or 11 o'clock to hard pan left or right.  If you are using two or more drum tracks, you can get creative with the panning.  I use two tracks for drums, and pan each mic hard for separation and natural reverb between the mics (see Mic Placement).  Using pan is one of the most fun parts of mixing a recording.  Keep in mind the overall sound of the final product, and don't hold fast to extreme panning and sacrifice having a full sounding recording.


 Hard pan is fun when using minimal tracks in a recording for a very clean and separated sound.  It's also fun to pan a Jimi Hendrix,  Beatles  or Lenny Kravitz song hard left or right with the balance knob on your car stereo and hear individual instruments playing and removed.


Headphones and Speakers    Top


Digital studio quality headphones or garage sale clunkers?  Whatever you can afford or get your hands on is the answer.  I like three sources for previewing and mixing: tabletop speakers, headphones and my car.  I've even used a jambox for getting ideas for a mix.  I've found that the vocals always sound louder with headphones than with speakers or in the car.  My philosophy is that most people don't listen to music with a set of  five thousand dollar studio monitors, so why mix with them in the first place?  I picked up a pair of wood tabletop speakers at a pawn shop, cheap.  Just make sure they aren't blown before you buy them.  For headphones, I have a good pair and a shitty pair.  The good pair has lots of high end, so I can hear how much noise is in a recording.  The crappy pair I use to hear more low end bass and drum sounds.  Using several listening methods will give you the right perspective on the EQ and mix.


EQ    Top


If your recorder has individual track EQ, then consider adding or removing after the recording.  If  it doesn't have individual track EQ, do a couple of short, quick takes experimenting with adding or taking out frequencies if you hear something weird.  TRUST YOUR EARS!  I usually tweak EQ after a recording during mix down, adding some mids to guitars to fatten them up or some lower mids to bass to warm it up.  You can experiment with different EQ styles for the vocals to find settings that complement the vocal style.  The sweeping EQ is fun because you can easily locate a specific frequency by turning a dial, and enhance or diminish that frequency.  You can create a wah wah effect by turning it during playback.


A parametric EQ, the one with all of the knobs that are usually arranged in a wave formation, is handy for mixing and mastering.  When using cheap equipment like mine, I usually bump the lower mids, take out a bit of the mud in the middle and add a little clarity with the upper mids.  I'm talking very slight movements for mastering.  Too much of anything takes away from the natural sounds of the instruments and vocals, unless of course you want that for some extreme creativity!


Processors and Pedals    Top


Are you gonna keep it real or make it psychedelic?  Both are great ideas and there's lots more.  Multi-effects processors can be used for so many things such as adding delay or reverb to a vocal, distortion or flange to a guitar, or phase shifting a drum sound.  Guitar effects pedals can be connected to an effects loop of your recorder or in-line from your mic or instrument to your recorder.  The sound from a guitar pedal is not very crisp when used for a vocal, though.  I have used guitar distortion pedals to add a fuzzy, jagged sound to a vocal.  Technicians have told me that less is more, but I enjoy experimenting by putting a lot of effects together and turning knobs and seeing what happens.


Found Sounds/ Field Recordings    Top


There are so many types of tape recorders out there, from old cassettes or reels to pocket sized digital message pads.  Anything recorded can be added in line or miked.  Found sounds and field recordings are innovative and unique additions to a home or professional studio recording.  Many artists create loops with samplers from their captured sounds.  Others simply intersperse quirky clips and soundscapes with their music.  Thinking out of the box, music is much more than notes from instruments and voices.  What do you think are the most commonly used found sounds….crickets, applause, footsteps….


Mic Placement    Top


Placing mics is a cool way to get natural sounds from an instrument and the room around it.  I like to let an instrument or amp "breathe" by placing a mic  two to four feet away.  With multiple mics and different room sizes and configurations, you can get great room reverb sounds.  Experiment with two mics for a vocal, putting one in front of you just below your mouth (so the P's and B's don't puff too much) and one 10 or 15 feet away.  Try different positions, record and listen back panning the mics away from each other in the mix.  You'll discover some amazing sounds, especially as your voice starts and stops.


With my drums, I used one mic with the 4 track, placing it about three feet away from the kit, three to four feet off the floor facing the the kick drum.  You'll capture plenty of low end and just enough cymbal sound. 


If you are able to use two mics on the drums, place one about three feet away from the kit between the snare and the kick drum close to the floor facing up at a 45 degree angle towards the snare and hi-hat.  If you have a larger mic, place it about three feet away from the kit between the kick and the floor tom close to the floor facing up also to capture low end sounds.  These two mics will give you great contrast in warm and  higher pitched sounds and great separation and natural room reverb when panned in the mix.


Placement depends on how your drums are situated in the room.  Experiment and listen back to find the optimal positions for your drums and mics in the room.


If several members are recording together to get the "live" sound, it is probably best to spread out to achieve some separation in the mics.  In a home recording session, there will inevitably be bleeding of the sound, where the guitar mic will pick up the drum mic and vice versa.  Pro engineers sneer at this idea, but it can be a cool effect if you are in a larger room.  You can achieve some natural room reverb and hear the live sound. Keep in mind, though, that your ability to mix the tracks will be easier, the more isolated the instruments and the mics are.  It's best to overdub the vocals, because the instrument noise in the background will be a nuisance when you are mixing your vocal sound.


Most professional studios are "dead" and dark with carpet from floor to ceiling and no windows.  I don't know about you, but I like a comfortable setting and natural light.  Wood floors and windows will keep your spirits up and give you a more lively sound.  The home recording environment is the best, because you are comfortable in your own setting without a clock ticking and dollar signs mounting, and you can start and stop at will.  The reflective sounds of a home or garage studio are perfect for the quintessential indie sound!


Rehearsing and Recording    Top


Keep the record button on and the tape rolling while you are rehearsing, because some of the most magical performances are created when you're not expecting it!  Don't worry about messing up the tape from a zillion attempts at getting a performance right.  I've been there, and haven't noticed a change in the sound after many takes. 


Most indie artists don't worry about getting the performance exactly perfect either.  The imperfections add to the flavor.  Ask Steve Malkmus or Jon Spencer.  Besides, there's nothing more agonizing than wearing out your voice or fingers and getting in a bad mood trying to get a part perfect for tape.  If you can't live with it and feel like throwing something out a window, walk away from it for a while, work on another part, go to the bathroom and come back to it later!


Balance and Symmetry    Top


Not only do the instruments in a standard rock band ensemble each encompass great frequency range, but the collection of the instruments make up a perfect sound and frequency spectrum.  Starting with the guitar, electric or acoustic, most of the listening range in rhythm playing patterns is heard in the middle frequencies.  However, smooth lows and crisp highs are available up and down the neck in chord arrangements and especially in lead playing.  One might think that the bass guitar mostly offers low frequencies.  This is true, but think of the high percussive sounds achieved in the slap styles of funk and punk, i.e. Flea in the Chili Peppers.   These sounds come from tone control and fingering or picking styles.  On the other end of the spectrum, how about the warm low mids of a fretless, sliding fingered jazz bass line which blends into the cool, improvised rhythms of the piano and drums.


And finally drums: the standard trap kit is my favorite example of the sonic spectrum.  What a perfect arrangement of percussive instruments!  The low thump of the kick sets the pace for the intermittent shot of the snare and mid range toms.  The flowing, metronomic high range rides of cymbals and hats contrast with time and undertones, while the crashes and open hats offer the smooth sizzle and surprise of the highest frequency ranges.


Oh, and maybe add a vocal on top to bring it all together and enjoy the perfect balance of frequencies and orchestration achieved with merely three musicians!


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