Recording

“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.” Part Five – Tearing Sound to Bits

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

So far, this discussion of the recording chain has taken us up to the Microphone Preamp.  The next device in the simplified recording chain is the Analogue-to-Digital Converter, often called the “A-to-D” or just the “Converter”.  The job of this device is to interpret the electrical signal (analogue) which represents our recorded sound, and generate the equivalent digital representation for use within a computer.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

It is useful, but not critical, to understand what is actually happening in this conversion.

An analogue sound signal is an electrical signal with continuously changing voltage that represents the changing nature of the sound that has been captured.  Just as a sound in the air is carried through compressions and rarefactions (vibrations or “oscillations”) of particles in the air, an analogue sound signal carries a wave form of changing voltages representing the changing amplitude of these oscillations.  This kind of signal is useful for triggering the physical movement of a speaker in order to project the captured sound, but does not equate to the language of computer data.

A digital (computer) representation of the same sound is an approximation of the continuous wave form, created by repeatedly sampling the changing voltages over tiny fractions of a second.  By measuring the voltage in the analogue signal thousands of times each second, and by representing each sampled voltage using a huge scale of possible values, the computer can store a very close approximation to the original analogue sound wave.

Itty-Bitty Big Numbers

The Compact Disc standard of audio sampling – the first commercial digital audio standard – utilizes 16 “bits” of computer storage for each sample, and takes 44,100 voltage samples each second in order to create the wave form approximation.  The generated wave form approximation is built using over 65,000 possible values for the analogue voltage at a given moment in time.  This standard was designed based on properties of human hearing, and was agreed to produce a digital version of sound that most people could not distinguish from the analogue source, while requiring the smallest possible amount of computer data to represent audio.

Today, modern recording utilizes 24 “bits” of computer storage for each sample, and while many studios still operate at 44,100 samples per second, some recordists prefer to take more samples per second for a more precise approximation of the analogue sound, sometimes up to 192,000 times per second.  Using 24 bits to represent a sample allows for a wave form approximation which allows over 16,000,000 possible values for the analogue voltage at a given moment in time.  The use of 24 bits is preferred because it allows much greater signal-to-noise ratio, and allows for greater computer manipulation of the wave form using effects algorithms (in-computer calculations) without introducing significant unwanted distortion into the sound.

The Only Bit You Need to Know

Do you need to understand all of that?  Of course not, but you will want to be operating at industry standards within your converter.  Be sure that you are using a converter which operates at a bit depth of 24-bits, and at a sample rate of 44,100 (often notated as 44.1k) or higher.

Most A-D converters on the market today, as long as they are designed for studio recording, will do a more-than-adequate job of converting analogue signals to digital signals.  There are more expensive converters which will perform at an even higher standard.  The converters built into computers, tablets or phones are generally NOT adequate for studio purposes, so be sure you are not relying on the microphone jack in your laptop, tablet or phone for your critical recordings.

 

In the next post, we’ll look at the device used to actually store the captured sound.

Next Instalment:  Part Six – Saving the Day with the DAW

Recording

“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.” Part Four – Giving Mike a Boost

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

Last week we discussed how to choose a microphone, and how you might go about using it in your recording space.  After the sound is captured by the microphone, where does it go?  This week, we look at the Microphone Pre-Amplifier, usually just called the preamp (or even the “pre”).

Bigger is Better

The preamp has one simple job, and that is to boost the volume of the electrical signal generated by the microphone.

But Why so Small?

A microphone uses a sensor (called a diaphragm), which physically moves in response to sound waves in the air.  That movement generates electricity inside the microphone.  As you can imagine, the movement of a diaphragm, in response to sound in the air, is physically an extremely small movement, and the electrical signal it generates is correspondingly very weak.  In order for the signal to be stored on a recording medium, it first must be greatly amplified (made stronger) to a useful strength, referred to as “line level”.

Why should we even talk about a preamp, if all it does is “turn up the volume” on my microphone?  Well, because some preamps do this well, and others do it with a lot of noise.

How Big is Big?

A bit of math:  we’re talking about an increase in volume of about 60dB (or even more).  Every time we boost by 10dB, we are doubling how “loud” the signal sounds.  So an increase of 60dB means that we’re doubling the perceived volume from the microphone, doubling it again, and again, and again, and again, and once more.  That is a LOT of volume boost.  Some microphones (ribbon microphones, in particular) can require even more boosting of the signal.

It takes good quality electronics to amplify a signal this much without also adding noise, or degrading the quality of the signal.

But Wait, That’s Not All!

One other feature of a mic preamp is the ability to send power to a condenser microphone through the microphone cable.  This is called “phantom power”, and most preamps have the ability to provide it.  Look for a switch called “phantom”, or “48V” (since phantom power is usually provided at 48 volts).

Plus, there is an added feature that comes with many preamps, and that is a “coloration” of the sound.  Yes, we’re talking about an intentional change in the sound, which takes us away from a strictly “accurate” capture of the sound, and moves us into an “improved” version of the sound.  For decades, certain electronics have been used inside recording equipment to impart a subtle change to the signal.  Whether it’s for a “weighty” low end, or an “airy” high end, or something we mysteriously describe as “warmth”, certain preamps are loved for the way they change the captured sound.  A preamp may use transistors, transformers, or valves (tubes) in the circuitry to add colour.

A preamp may also have a line or instrument input, for capturing the sound from an instrument or musical device without using a microphone.  The value of such an input is not as much to boost the volume of the sound, but to apply the “coloration” of the preamp to the sound of the instrument.

Keeping it Simple

Here’s the bottom line:  when choosing between the many preamps available to you, understand that many of them will be doing the best job they can (for the price) at boosting the volume without changing the signal in any way (no extra noise, no unwanted distortion).  These are called “transparent” preamps.  Others will be boosting the volume AND also imparting a useful distortion, or “coloration”, to the sound.  These are called “colour” preamps (yes, I’m a Canadian, so get used to seeing “ou” in my words).  The most important job of the preamp is still to boost the volume without imparting unwanted distortion.

Do I Even Have a Preamp?

If you’re looking for a separate box to point at and say “that’s my preamp”, but you just can’t find it, chances are the preamp is built into your audio interface or your mixer.  Follow the microphone cable from your microphone to the other jack that it’s plugged into.  Anywhere you can plug in a mic cable, you have a microphone preamp.  It could be a large device all its own, or it could be hidden inside a channel on your mixer or audio interface.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Preamp

Let’s start with the gain, or volume knob, on the preamp.  You’ll want to increase the gain until your captured signal approaches the “line level”.  There are many ways to describe this, too many to get into at this point (but I promise I’ll get there soon!), but you’ll want to see the signal meters on your preamp, audio interface, or recording software indicate lots of signal when your sound is being captured by your microphone.  Avoid adding too much volume – you don’t want the signal meters showing “red”, or hitting the top of the scale, EVER!  You could try increasing the volume until you see your meters showing just a bit of “red”, then lowering the volume until you see no more red indicators.

If your preamp uses tubes or transistors to add colour (saturation) to the sound, then you might see both a gain control and an output level control.  Try combinations of these controls to push more or less volume into the saturation component, then compensate by adjusting the output control to get the right volume level coming out of the preamp.

Other controls on your preamp might include an impedance control, which will change the way in which your microphone and the preamp function together.  Try this control in different positions and see how much you notice the effect.  If in doubt, keep the impedance low.

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to get the most out of your microphone preamp, and you’ll definitely hear the difference!

 

In the next post, we’ll look at the A-D (analogue to digital) converter.

Next Instalment:  Part Five – Tearing Your Sound to Bits

Recording

 “Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.” Part Three – Mike?  Who’s Mike?

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

So, our discussion of how to get a better-sounding home recording has so far discussed the pieces of gear required to record sound (part 1), and the ways in which we might get the best out of our own gear in our own room (part 2).  Now, we’ll get specific, and talk about Microphones (usually called “mic’s” and pronounced “Mike’s”), and how to help them do what they were designed to do.

A Mic is Not an Ear

We must understand that even the best microphone is incapable of “hearing” the sound exactly as our ears do, so we’d do well to learn to “think like a microphone”.  Each microphone is designed with an ability to “hear” sounds coming from a certain direction, and a lesser ability to hear sounds coming from other directions.  And, yes, there are microphones designed to “hear” equally well in all directions, but these microphones are used much less frequently than directional microphones.  Each microphone also has a limit on how loud the sound around it may be, before the mechanisms in the microphone fail to operate as intended, resulting in a less accurate electrical representation of your sound (i.e. unwanted distortion of your sound).  Try your microphone up close, a little farther away, even pointed in a slightly different direction, to hear how it behaves in those circumstances.  Understand your microphone’s sensitivity to direction, and use this to your advantage.  For example, if your microphone does not “hear” sounds coming from its sides, then you can aim the “sides” of the microphone at sounds that you don’t want to capture (like other instruments or voices in the same room).

Dynamic Condensation on my Ribbon Valve?  What?

Dynamic, Condenser, Ribbon, Valve – All of these words are confusing my microphone choice!  Yes, there are several different ways to build a microphone, but don’t believe anybody’s strict “rules” for when to use a specific type of microphone.  To oversimplify, once again…

  • A DYNAMIC microphone is the most robust microphone design, the best choice for a microphone that is likely to take physical abuse (REALLY loud sounds, possible impact from dropping or being hit by a drumstick, etc.). These microphones generally have a “thicker” sound with less “sparkle”.
  • A CONDENSER (also called “capacitor”) microphone is usually preferred for its ability to capture sound with incredible accuracy, and as such is usually the first-choice in a studio environment. It also captures sounds with (generally) less noise introduced by the microphone itself.  However, this design is not as robust as the dynamic microphone design, so it is used with greater care for its physical protection.  Condenser microphones require electrical current in order to function – this current is provided either from batteries inside the microphone, or from a current provided through the microphone cable itself (called “phantom” power).
  • A RIBBON microphone is a kind of dynamic microphone which uses a very thin (and very fragile) strip of metal, suspended in a magnetic field. This design, while being less “accurate” in the way it translates the sound it detects, offers a very desirable character of sound on many sources, including vocals and orchestral instruments.
  • VALVES (tubes) are used instead of transistors in many condenser microphones, to amplify the signal generated within the mic. The result is a less “accurate” but pleasingly “characterful” capture of the sound source.  Valve microphones typically require more operating power than can be provided with batteries or phantom power, and so they are usually supplied with a dedicated power supply device.
  • Even within the same category of microphone, different models will have a different sound. Some are intended to capture a “neutral” or precise representation of the sound in the room, while others are intended to “flatter” the sound by altering it in a way that is generally agreed to be a pleasing change.
  • An experienced sound recordist will have a favourite microphone for every use, chosen from years of experience (and years of wonderful mistakes). Having said this, there is no “right” microphone for every voice, or for every instrument.  Every microphone has its own unique character, and every voice and instrument also has its own unique character.  Try different microphones before deciding what to use for your recording.  Rent, borrow, and test-drive a few.  You will find some that sound terrible on one sound source, but will be perfect for another sound source.
  • There are microphones designed to work best with certain sounds – like the high-volume and fast-onset nature of drum and percussion sounds, for example – and there are general-purpose microphones designed to work well on a variety of sounds (useful when you can’t afford to buy many microphones).
  • The most important piece of advice I can offer, regarding the different microphone designs, is this: BE ADVENTUROUS WITH YOUR MICROPHONE CHOICES.  Within reason (be very cautious when placing a ribbon microphone near a loud sound source), be prepared to try almost any microphone in any situation, because the resulting sound capture (accurate versus characterful) may be exactly what you’re looking for despite using the least “recommended” microphone for the job.

P-P-P-Pop Music

Microphones used on a vocalist will work their best when used with a “pop filter” – a device which attempts to minimize the explosive puffs of air which come from our mouths when we sing.  These explosive puffs of air will typically cause a microphone to fail to operate as intended.

Closer to the Heart

One important microphone behavior to understand is called the “proximity effect”.  This is the behavior (exhibited by most microphones which are designed to “listen” only in one direction) in which the microphone will “hear” a greater amount of lower frequencies (the “low notes”) when the microphone is very close to a sound source.  With such microphones, you’ll notice a difference in the sound captured when your microphone moves even 12 inches back from the sound source.

Go Forth and Record

So, have fun trying out different types of microphones, listening closely to hear the differences in their character.  Feed your microphone properly – at the right volume, from the right distance, and pointed at a sound which the microphone was designed to “hear”, and you’ll get the most out of your microphone.

 

In the next post, we’ll look at the Pre-Amplifier and what it does for us.

Next Instalment:  Part Four – Giving Mike a Boost

 

Recording

“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)

Recording

“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.”  Part One – What a Mic Wants, What a Mic Needs…

We have all watched, maybe in a movie or documentary, or on YouTube, a video clip of musicians in the studio being recorded by a nerdy engineer, and it sounds like pure magic.  This is so inspirational; it makes us all want to be there, recording music!

Barber Shop Studios, New Jersey, where I recorded my third album

So we buy some recording gear, bring it home, set it up, and press RECORD.  What happens next is, well, something LESS than inspirational, because it sounds awful.  Whether because of noise, distortion, a sound that is either too muffled or too shrill, or maybe a sound that becomes really loud and then ducks quieter, the bottom line is that it does nothing to inspire us to ever do it again.

This leaves the question in our mind:  why is it so difficult to capture a great-sounding recording of myself?

Let’s start with an assumption that whatever you are using right now to record yourself – a tape recorder, a mobile phone, a computer, expensive or inexpensive recording gear – is not part of the problem.  Let’s see how you can get the best recordings using the gear you already have.  Later, we’ll get into the gear and see how it plays into the challenge, and how you might be able to get a better sound out of it.

Flashback – I began recording my own songs decades ago using a four-track tape deck, an Atari ST computer hooked up to several MIDI keyboards, and a cheap dynamic microphone.  I would record a synchronization tone onto one of the four tracks of tape, at which point my Atari and my tape deck would record and playback in perfect synchronization.  All of the instruments were recorded as MIDI performances controlled by the computer, and all of my vocals would be recorded to tape.  For effects on my voice, I had the microphone wired through a chain of chorus, delay and reverb devices before plugging into the tape deck, so that all of those effects were recorded together.  I would create a stereo mix of my song by combining the sound of all instruments and voices playing back simultaneously from the MIDI keyboards and the multi-track tape.

 

This setup offered volumes of flexibility in arranging many instruments together and singing layers of vocals (once I figured out the intricacies of multi-track ping-ponging), but it also gave me something truly important – limitations.  Being limited to only three tape tracks (the fourth being consumed for synchronization) forced me to get creative with my recording techniques, and forced me to learn how to get the best sound out of that cheap dynamic microphone and hissy tape.

As technology improved and I bought my first “real” microphone – a Rode NT1 which stills lives in my microphone closet today – the fidelity of my voice recordings improved, but the studio-quality microphone suddenly revealed new challenges to me.  This new microphone could “hear” all sorts of noises in my environment that, quite frankly, I didn’t want to record.  By learning how this microphone responded to sounds all around it, I could find the best sounding spot in the room, the best direction for the microphone to face, and the best way for me to interact with it as a performer.  My recordings improved, but I still needed to tackle the unwanted noises in my environment.  I tried carpet, upholstered furniture, pillows and thick bedding draped over microphone stands, mattresses leaned up against walls, anything to reduce the noises leaking from other rooms and to minimize the amount of sound bouncing around inside my own room.  My recordings improved even more.

Things became more complicated each time I tried recording something other than my voice and MIDI keyboards, but I had confidence in my ability to make the best out of a poor situation, and to learn from my mistakes.  Since then, I’ve recorded stringed instruments (acoustic and electric), pianos, electronic instruments, wind instruments, drums and percussion, groups of singers, even my foot kicking a cardboard box, and I’ve done so in all sorts of acoustically strange or even hostile environments – concrete-walled hotel rooms with air conditioners and busy traffic outside, small rooms and large rooms not intended for sound recording, even outdoors.  Each time I record, I know that I’m able to consider the variables:

  • The room, and how it responds to sound
  • The everyday sounds that I may or may not want to record
  • Each instrument and voice, how they generate different sounds from different listening perspectives
  • Each microphone, how it “hears” the world around it
  • The complexity of having many instruments and voices in the same room, and many microphones hearing a blend of those instruments and voices

Let’s bring this back to the task of recording yourself playing your own instrument or singing with your own voice.  Consider your room, your instrument and your voice.  You’ll quite quickly find that WHERE you put the microphone makes a huge impact on the sound that the microphone “hears”, both because of the sound of the room and because the sound of an instrument will change depending on what part of that instrument is facing the microphone.  And consider the nature of your microphone; try positioning it a little closer, or a little farther away from the source of sound.  Try aiming it a little to the left or right.  Even try aiming it AWAY from the source of sound.  With some clear thinking and a little creativity, you can capture a range of sounds and you can be happier with the quality of your recordings.

Next instalment:  Part Two – What’s Gear Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

(with respect to Shelly Peiken and Guy Roche, who wrote “What a Girl Wants” for Christina Aguilera)

Performance, Recording

Should I hire a musician to play my instrument?

Whether or not you play cards, perhaps the best advice you can hear as an artist is “play to your strong suit”.

For some artists, their strength is their musical ability, not their songwriting.  For others, it will be the opposite – some artists have greatly developed their songwriting voice, and/or their singing voice, but have only developed their instrumental ability sufficiently to serve their songwriting, or to accompany themselves at an open mic.

This is NOT a weakness!  Many savvy artists choose to specialize, dedicating themselves to excellence in a particular area – often with the benefit of developing a unique style or sound.  That becomes a tremendous strength.

So maybe you wrote your song with a guitar in your hand, and can accompany yourself at an open mic on that guitar.  That doesn’t mean you’re the best choice to play guitar on your recording, or the best choice to accompany yourself at an important live performance.  This concept even extends beyond musical accompaniment.  For some purposes, you may even want someone other than you to be the singer, the FOCUS of the performance, if it better serves the purpose of communicating your song with your desired audience.  This could be in an effort to pitch your song demo to a recording artist, to perform at a showcase event, or even your creative choice of how to prepare your song for public release (MANY songwriters have released records on which another artist is the lead singer).

Consider all your options.  If you can hire a specialist to play an instrument on the record, or on-stage, better than you can do it yourself, it is worth considering, for the sake of the quality of the record.  Do all you can do to make your art remarkable, and always play to your strong suit!

Recording

Can I Record My Own Tracks?

Nowadays, technology allows us considerable flexibility in making records.  Not only are the tools of recording becoming more affordable and available, but the ability to easily share files makes it easier than ever before to record with other musicians and engineers, anywhere in the world.

This includes the ability for you to record your own performance, likely saving on the cost of recording facilities, all without sacrificing much in the way of quality.  Your mixing engineer can then incorporate these tracks into the mix.

Technically speaking, you can competently record your own performance with very little equipment.  Depending on your instrument, you’ll need:

  • one or more microphones, or direct injection boxes for instruments with built-in transducers
  • a device which links the microphone or direct box to a recording device
  • the recording device – a tablet, computer, even a mobile phone
  • basic or advanced recording software (often free or inexpensive)
  • speakers or headphones to play back your recordings

There are many possible configurations, depending on your budget and your comfort level with the technology, but suffice to say that recording is more accessible to musicians than ever before.

Don’t let a salesperson tell you that you need to spend a lot of money on any one of these pieces.  The most important factor is HOW you use the technology.  Where you place the microphone, what you do to control unwanted sounds in your recording room, and the natural quality of your instrument, have far more impact on your finished sound than the cost of your recording equipment.

Having said all this, would I prefer to work with professionally-recorded tracks?  Of course I would, but this is about YOUR music and budget, not mine.  Capturing a great sound comes with a variety of challenges.  While I encourage you to consider recording some of your own tracks, it is entirely possible that these challenges will merely help you decide that going into a purpose-built studio, with an experienced recordist, is the better choice for you.

If you feel confident recording your own performances, discuss this with your recording or mix engineer, who can give you valuable advice on how to get the best result.  If it doesn’t work out to your satisfaction, you can reconsider and try again.  If nothing else, you will gain useful experience and understanding of the process.