Recording music today

Recording the old-fashioned way

Recording the old-fashioned way

Nowadays one can purchase all the equipment necessary to make a professional-sounding recording. But it was not always so. Before about 1970, equipment of this quality was to be found mainly in the hands of the large studios — like Abbey Rd, where I worked. The equipment was mostly designed and built in-house: EMI and other large companies manufactured tape recorders and mixing consoles for their own use (and in the early days of digital recording even built their own digital systems). An individual could buy a Revox tape recorder and it worked well, but it did not have the heavy duty reliability of the Philips or EMI tape machines, and tape editing on a Revox was definitely not fun.

Good microphones were expensive and were made by specialist companies like AKG and Neumann — both still in business today. They needed to be fed into high quality preamplifiers, which were not something one could buy in the high street.

Fifty years ago, it was not possible for small independent record labels to cut a master LP themselves, and pressing and distribution was done under contract by major companies. Nowadays anyone can cut a CD at home, or upload an MP3 file to the Internet, and money can be made out of both, though manufacturing and distribution of CDs on a large scale still has to be contracted out.

The analog equipment that the major studios used demanded regular and careful maintenance by specialists. Abbey Road had an army of such experts, each of whom knew all about the insides of microphones, tape recorders, mixers, or cutting lathes. With current digital recording tools, maintenance is an outdated concept — the equipment either works or it doesnt, and if it doesnt you throw it away and buy new.

The equipment is, however, cheaper today than 50 years ago; a microphone that sells for $500-1000 today can be the equal of those that were used in the golden age of analog recording. There are many more companies selling such microphones — often incorporating critical parts manufactured in China. No mixing console is needed, as a virtual console can be constructed in software on the same non-specialist computer on which I am now writing — which also has a built in CD burner as standard. Some of this powerful software is legitimately available free on the internet.

One does need a means of converting the audio signal from the analog output of the microphone to the digital format manipulated by the software. This is where money may be needed. A good A/D converter with two high quality microphone amplifiers built in for minimalist stereo recording (by no means a pejorative description) can be purchased for around $1000, but if your recording requires a large number of microphones to be used simultaneously, a correspondingly large number of converters is needed, and probably a more powerful computer with a fast hard drive to keep pace with all the digital data. Throw in a few stands to hold the microphones off the ground and some cables with XLR connectors (actually, high quality cables can be very expensive these days) and you are in business.  Nearly all of the equipment can be bought at the local shoppping mall, Best Buy, Radio Shack, Conrad or Thomann, depending on where you live, or on the Internet.

Now we come to the tricky part…

How do you use all this gear?

Ahem… This part has not changed much. Or rather it has changed: curiously, as modern high quality digital recording equipment has become available to more people, the knowledge of how to use it for capturing acoustic sounds has correspondingly diminished. Knowing how to make a recording is still as necessary as it ever was. Yet, sadly, many people spend money on audio equipment without bothering to acquire the skills needed to use it to its best advantage.

What does this knowledge comprise? For the purpose of illustration, let’s keep things simple and assume that one is wanting to record music played on a single instrument — say a piano.

Firstly one needs the ability to recognise how the music should sound, as influenced by these factors:

— Any instrument sounds different when played by a different musician.

— Physical sound with the same player can vary greatly according to

        * the size of the hall

        * the time of day

        * how far one is into the session

        * the physical and mental state of the player

        * how long (s)he has been playing the instrument

        * the ability of the player to hear him- or herself

        * the repertoire

        * the acoustics of the hall
            (which vary with humidity and temperature)

One needs trained ears to listen carefully to the acoustic sounds.

One needs the ability to place the microphones advantageously. This implies a good monitor system that will reproduce what the microphones are picking up. (Since good loudspeakers and a good listening room are expensive, the ability to make these decisions with a pair of headphones is sometimes necessary and valuable.)

One needs patience and ingenuity to experiment with different positions and combinations of the microphones, and a good memory for comparing these sounds.

Having established where the microphones are to be placed, the real work begins: that of guiding the pianist to play at his or her highest level. You cannot find instructions about this in a book.

If you have got so far, the rest is largely mechanical. Once one has decided which takes to use and where to join them, the editing just takes time, depending upon how many joins there are, and the burning of the CD is the easiest job of all.

Still confused? Then get in touch

Read more of my thoughts on Music and Audio here


© David Pickett and davidpickett, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Pickett and davidpickett with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.pment

Published in: on 10 June 2009 at 17:58  Leave a Comment  
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