“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.” Part Two – What’s Gear Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

(To read this series from the beginning, start here.)

In last week’s post, I wrote about how you can experiment with whatever gear you have and discover the best way to capture your performance with your own gear, in your own space.  And I wrote that we would ignore the quality of your gear for the moment.  I know that was hard for some people to read, and it naturally started some debate, because having the right gear is everything, isn’t it?

The short answer is NO, it’s not everything.  It’s not even the most important part of the puzzle, but it IS important.  Here’s the thing.  An experienced recordist can capture a better sound with low-budget equipment than an inexperienced recordist can with high-budget equipment, because it’s more about knowing how to use the tools.

But this post will begin to focus on the gear, about what differentiates consumer-grade (i.e. “cheap”) from professional-grade equipment.  And more practically, how to get the best out of whatever equipment you have available to you.

** This will be a greatly simplified discussion of gear, because an in-depth discussion would fill a book and likely bore you to sleep.  If you want to know more, just ask. **

Let’s begin.

There are many steps between the moment you pluck the strings on your guitar, and the moment in which your fans listen to your finished track.  That sound needs to be captured on a recording medium, processed in order to sound its best, and prepared for playback to your fans.

Let’s attempt to lay out the journey of your sound from performance to your fans, through the various pieces of equipment needed.

Microphone – if we’re talking about a performance in the air, we need a microphone to capture that sound.  This is a device which responds to sounds in its vicinity and creates an electrical signal which represents those sounds.  This electrical signal is often referred to as an ANALOG signal.  Some instruments are capable of generating such a signal without a microphone, but let’s keep it simple for the moment.

Pre-amplifier – in its simplest terms, this device takes the electrical signal representing your sound, which at this point is a very weak electrical signal, and turns up the volume to a level suitable for storage on a recording device.

Converter – let’s keep it simple and go for the most common setup today, which involves recording to a computer device.  Computers speak in DIGITAL signals, so the ANALOG signal representing your sound must be converted into a digital signal representing the same sound in a way that is meaningful to computers.

Recording Device – typically nowadays this will be a computer or tablet.  Using your choice of recording software, your DIGITAL representation of your performance is stored in a computer file, alongside all other performances that make up your song recording.  Anything that you need to play and record will need its own file on the recording device – drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals, bagpipes, whatever you need to fully represent your song.

Mixing Device – often using the same computer or tablet used to record these performances, you will use software to blend all of the individual sounds together, with appropriate attention paid to balancing the volume of each sound, changing the tone of each sound, and manipulating the sounds with echoes, reverbs, and the many other sound manipulations available.  The result of the mixing process is a blended recording, usually in stereo (left and right channels) for playback on most systems, though it might also be blended into a many-channel surround recording.

Playback Converter – who knows where your music might be played back, from a mobile phone with earbud headphones, to a car stereo, to a high-fidelity sound system.  This playback system generally involves converting the DIGITAL representation of your song back into an ANALOG electrical signal.

Amplifier – another device whose job is simply to increase the level of the electrical signal, this time so that it is capable of physically moving a speaker cone.

Speakers – whether tiny (earbud headphones) or huge (concert speakers), these devices use an electrical signal to excite movement in speaker cones, which create sound in the air, just like the moment we first performed it.

Each of these types of equipment attempts to process your sound signal with the best fidelity, and generally speaking, the quality of the equipment available on any musician’s budget is very good compared to what was available just ten or twenty years ago.  However, it is critical to appreciate that each device in the journey from performance to broadcast has the ability to compromise your recording, especially if not used properly.

The journey of sound, again (terribly oversimplified):

Microphone > Pre-amplifier > Converter > Recorder > Mixer > Playback Converter > Amplifier > Speakers

In order to get the best quality of sound out of a recording project, historically it was extremely expensive to purchase the highest quality devices in all these categories, and it is still possible to spend large amounts of money to buy excellent quality devices.  But it is also possible to purchase very good quality devices for a very reasonable price.

In the next post, we’ll begin to look at what each device needs in order to operate at its best.

Next Instalment:  Part Three – Mike?  Who’s Mike?

(with respect to Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, who wrote “What’s Love Got To Do With It” for Tina Turner)

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