A version of this article originally appeared on Performer Magazine.
Recording music isn't easy, at least if you want it to sound good. There are many factors that play into getting a great-sounding track, and many are all too often overlooked. I want to run through a few key ideas to help you DIYers and a few scenarios that have provoked creativity over the years.
In the title, which is a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, I've already blown it. I focused on the mic! Great sound begins way before the mic. For engineers like myself, it's very seductive to get wrapped up in gear lust. Oooh! Did you use a Neumann U47? What pre-amp did you use? A Neve? But really, a crappy instrument, in a crappy space, with an, um, crappy player, isn't going to be made better for using a $10,000 mic. Really.
Take the guitars to a tech to have them cleaned, adjusted properly, and restrung. Same with basses. Make sure the drums have new(ish) heads that are properly seated on a smooth bearing edge. Tune those drums. Make sure the vocalist is healthy, well rested, well hydrated, and warmed up. As the engineer, even if you're also a member of the band, don't assume that the players know to do this or that they know how to do it themselves.
Proper placement and critical listening
Where you put these musicians in the room makes a world of difference. It's popular to believe that you can do your recording in a home, and you can, but it's more difficult. Studios were developed as places that facilitate making great records. As such, they have controlled acoustics that both sound good and are reliable when listening to the results of your efforts. If you're not going to avail yourself of a great sounding studio (and I believe you should), then at least take some time to figure out the room you're going to use.
This comes down to listening. Make sure you protect your ears in a manner that still leaves you able to judge tone effectively, and then try to figure out what a microphone will hear where you're considering placing it. This means walking around the room while someone is playing, and then moving him or her to find the spot where the instrument sounds best. Then walk around again using one ear to find the exact spot where that instrument will sound best to the microphone. You may find yourself dangerously close the front of a blaring guitar cab or whacked snare drum (please see the sentence above about protecting your hearing).
Then, when you have the best (possible) player, playing the best instrument, in the best room, with the best tone, with the best mic position, then you start to think about… gear. Hear in your mind’s ear what the important elements are of the tone you’ve created in the room, and find the mic/pre-amp combination that emphasizes those aspects. If you have a deep, throaty guitar tone, a standard Shure SM57 might work, but a larger diaphragm dynamic like a Sennheiser 421 might be better. Or a ribbon like a Royer or AEA. Similarly, for a clicky hi-hat, you might want a small diaphragm condenser like a Neumann KM84i.
Let's break some rules
Notice how little text I've devoted to gear (with great personal difficulty)? That's because, in reality, that's how much more important all the preceding stuff is! But now that we've covered the usually overlooked basics, let's talk about breaking the rules. After all, this is music! And rules were made to be, well, bent to our purposes (cue evil laughter).
Did you know that sometimes a guitar amp/cab sounds better from behind? Generally, I'm talking about open-back combos like Fenders and Gibsons. [Fig 2]
So try sticking the mic back there (and remember to flip the polarity on the console). Similarly, you can make a screaming amp sound more out of control by placing it in a hard-surfaced closet, and setting the mic back a foot or two to catch the walls jangling along with the guitar. Loose metal hangers above could be a nice touch!
Finding weird spaces in your home can be great. Bathrooms, shower stalls (watch out for electricity and water), hallways, and stairwells all make creative options. Great edgy distortion can be achieved by placing an amp on its back with a snare drum over the speaker and the mic placed near the snares.
Drums love to be messed with. Embrace mono; it'll make stereo that much more amazing, particularly for room mics. Consider trashy mics for rooms. Use fewer mics. Put them in less obvious places. I love to mic a snare on the bottom and on the side (no top) for a buzzy high end and a deep, woody shell tone. [Fig 3]
By the way, don't do this [Fig 4] – the mic is off-axis to the drum, which is going to sound odd (unless that's what you're going for).
A great stereo technique I was shown years ago by Carl Beatty that I call the Golden Earrings is to place a pair of omni mics on either side of the drummer at ear level pointing toward the kit. The mics hear what the drummer hears! (Reverse their polarity with this approach, too).
Occasionally, as budget, safety, and sentiment dictate, great sounds can be achieved by breaking things. One of my favorites was bouncing a screaming amp off the diving board into the swimming pool at the last chord of the song. Quite a sound and experience!
Knowing how to get killer sounds under less than ideal circumstances will help you make better albums, and let you bend, or break, things in creative ways.
Award-winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston, MA. A large Augsburger designed mix/overdub room with SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments, Tishler has credits including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar. Contact me about producing your next record, or mixing the one you’re working on now! For more, visit www.digitalbear.com.