If you have any experience with DAW-based music production, you will no doubt marvel at what you can achieve ‘in-the-box’ with virtual instruments, audio manipulation and MIDI control. These are wonderful aspects of today’s technology-based production systems, but what about the outside world and the domains of the acoustic instrument or band performance? How do you reach out and record those to blend in with your digital masterpieces? Well, to capture live instruments you need to park the mind-blowing tech stuff for a second and step beyond the cosy luxury of your software environment into the equally impressive but sometimes scary world of hardware, acoustics and performance.
But where to start? Before you can hit record there are a number of things you need to get set up and working, and in this special issue we’ll guide you through this process.
First stop is our eight-point key kit guide that includes everything from interfaces, mics and headphones right through to the less obvious items such as leads, stands and pop shields. Then we’ll look at what this gear does and how it works, and discuss the idea of recording and monitoring at the same time, signal levels, headphone cues and various other aspects to do with signal flow to and from your DAW.
Arranging your recording space is next on the list, from acoustics and isolation to creating suitable, efficient working zones in your room. We’ll then look at prepping the audio interface, before moving on to the specifics of mic cables, phantom power, headphone feeds and DIs.
With everything set, we can now get miking, and here we start by considering how sound is produced. We’ll set out some general rules of thumb as well as techniques for common instruments such as guitar, vocal and piano, and also show you how to record voices and instruments together.
Next we’ll take a closer look at the specifics of headphone cue mixes, making sure the singer is able to hear what they need to in order to perform. We’ll also examine in more detail the techniques available to avoid audio driver latency in the headphone mix.
Finally, we’ll go in-depth with three major workshops exploring – in typical Computer Music step-by-step-style – how you can record popular band instruments into your computer, dealing with drums, both acoustic and electric guitar and bass.
Getting great recordings of instruments outside of your computer needn’t be a chore, and we hope this Recording Masterclass issue of will prove that. Time to hit record!
Key recording kit
All computers include some form of onboard sound and coupled with your DAW this may be all you need to listen to your computer output. Once you start using a mic, however, you’ll need a mic preamp to amplify its level, possibly phantom power (see below) and most likely separate headphone and master outputs. The simplest way to get all these elements sorted is to buy a dedicated audio interface. This typically connects to your machine using USB or FireWire, and once installed, its inputs and outputs appear within your DAW as physical connections.
If you’re recording everything individually and in mono, your best bet will be a large-capsule cardioid condenser mic. You can use this for both delicate and full-on vocals, on intricate sounds like acoustic guitar, and on guitar amps and piano. If you want to record two things at the same time (guitar and voice, say) or in stereo, you’ll need two mics, and for best results these should be of the same type. Note that a non-valve condenser mic will need phantom power.
Analogue tape may be a thing of the past, but sticky tape certainly isn’t. With leads knocking around and various things to keep in place, you’ll find a roll of gaffer tape helpful, and if you need to label things, masking tape is easy to remove afterwards and can be written on in pen. Obviously pens and paper will come in handy for quick notes.
It may be stating the obvious, but your mic will need a decent stand, preferably with a boom for easy positioning. Large-capsule condenser mics can be heavy, and a decent stand not only protects your investment but helps isolate the mic from ground rumble and shouldn’t have any annoying rattling bits. Of course, if you’re using two mics together, you’ll need two mic stands. Less critical but also useful are music stands for propping up lyrics, chord charts and so on.
Some of the most annoying problems you can encounter when recording concern pitch. Obviously you’ll need all instruments you use to be in tune as much as possible, and in tune with each other, and your best point of reference is a tuner. You’ll find that humidity and temperature can cause tuning problems, so it’s often best to retune every few minutes or even between takes. This will also give you enough consistency when compiling the best performance from different takes. Some DAWs include handy tuner plugins, so check in with yours before shelling out.
Connecting your gear up will require a selection of specific leads. Mics and preamps typically use XLR connectors, so you’ll need a female-to-male XLR lead for each mic. Most headphones use standard quarter-inch jacks that are balanced for stereo operation, so this will be important if you want to extend your headphone feed. Bear in mind that you’ll always need longer leads than you think, particularly once you tuck them out of sight to avoid tripping over them, so overestimate the mic lead lengths and coil up the excess if you have to.
Assuming you already have your DAW set up with monitors, when it comes to recording, the emphasis shifts to headphones. In an ideal world these should be the closed-back type as this prevents your cue headphone mix from bleeding into your microphone. The other thing to bear in mind is that if you’re recording in the same room as your DAW, anyone else you’re working with will need headphones too, so you can all listen with the monitors cut. If this is the case, and you only have one headphone output on your interface, consider getting a headphone splitter box.
Pop shields and wind shields
Miking things up close can cause various air-related issues. The most common is caused by the plosives in speech and singing, which cause a low-frequency boom. This is particularly problematic with cardioid condenser mics, so hand-in-hand with that purchase should come a pop shield. They’re not too expensive and can be bolted onto the mic stand itself – much easier than fiddling around with homemade efforts. In a similar vein, if you’re recording anything else that creates strong air movement, you may find a more typical foam wind shield helpful.
The simplest form of recording involves setting up a microphone, routing that signal to a recorder and hitting record, but this allows you no means of listening to how things sound before you actually record them. In contemporary recording we work on the assumption that we can listen to our microphones to see how things sound and adjust them accordingly, and that we will continue to listen to them during our recording process.
What’s more, with multiple tracks and the option to overdub, we create a need to hear what’s already been recorded at the same time or ‘in sync’ with our new recording. These considerations are what we call our signal flow, and getting this concept clear helps considerably when you’re trying to get each aspect of the process to work properly.
As you’ll see from the diagram below, our microphone is the starting point, with its signal passing through a mic preamp (either external or built in to the audio interface) and its analogue to-digital converters and into our DAW. At this stage the DAW routes the digital signal to an audio track, ready for recording to the hard drive. At the same time our input signal, combined with any other tracks we have playing, can be routed back out of our DAW, via the audio interface to our monitors and our headphones. Even if you use a more complex input setup with multiple mics and separate preamps, the basic signal flow is roughly the same, but is simply made more complex by the number of channels involved.
With this concept understood, the next thing to consider is signal levels. Microphones produce low signal levels that need to be amplified to a useful level for transfer and recording. This is done by a mic preamp, which will be the first signal process in the chain.
Historically this was handled on a recording desk that also included faders and group gains, effectively giving the producer three points at which to change levels. With an all-in-one audio interface things are much more straightforward as you only have one gain level control to deal with. Even so, setting how much gain you need still takes some skill, as you need to make sure the loudest signals don’t overload the input amplifier or input converters.
A good technique is to adjust the gain during a loud bit of the performance until it’s just peaking on your mic preamp or DAW meters, then back it down a little. If you’re working alone, this process may be trickier, so leave more headroom.
The other thing you’ll find on your interface’s mic preamp is a phantom power switch. Check the spec of your mic, but non-valve condensers typically use phantom power. Turn your mic gain down to zero before pressing the phantom power to avoid loud clicks damaging your monitors.
The final job your hardware needs to carry out is to provide not only a monitoring output but also a headphone cue. In a simple setup these two tasks will be dealt with by a single signal, as you’ll just rebalance your DAW output so that you can hear what you need to hear in your headphones when recording.
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