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Source — Player, Room, Instrument

From Zen and the Art of Recording:
© All Rights Reserved

A while back I posted an article titled Source, Source, Source, which comes from Zen and the Art of Recording, and which you may want to review. The following post contains the  continuation of that critical lesson.

The Source is the totality of the tone, and can be broken down into three components. The player generating the source. The source instrument itself. And the room in which the source is performed. I will refer to these from this point forward as Source Player, Source Instrument, and Source Room. Make no mistake, all three of these Source Components determine the overall quality of the source itself. At that point, it’s all about the capture.

 

Source Player

The player has the greatest impact on how the source sounds in the room. An act as simple as striking a drum is directly affected by the person hitting it. A great player will make that drum sing. It’s almost as if they pull the tone from the instrument itself, such that it excites the room in an optimal manner. A masterful musician is capable of making quick adjustments to a Source Instrument in order to achieve the desired sound within the context of the space surrounding her.

It literally takes me 10 minutes to get tones with amazing drummers like Jim Keltner, Matt Chamberlain, or John Robinson (just to name a few). Yet your average band drummer, even a relatively good one, can require a full day for tones, regardless of the quality of instrument or room. Were I to put an average drummer on Matt Chamberlain’s kit, I would likely have to engage in numerous processing and placement calisthenics in order to shape the tones and overall internal balances of the drums.

That said, this does not automatically make the player and the room more important than the Source Instrument itself. If I seek a kik drum tone with the identifiable thud of two closed heads, I’m going to have difficulty capturing that sound on a kik drum sporting a hole in the resonant head, regardless of who’s playing the instrument. And if the feeling I seek from the drums is one of almost infantile abilities, then I’ll probably need to fire Matt and hire someone capable of playing in such a childlike manner. Sorry Matt!

Further complicating matters is the fact that no professional musician, no matter how good, is the perfect player for any given situation. Matt is one of my favorite drummers around, but if I want just stupid aggressive, in-your-face rock drums, I’m more likely to seek out someone like Chad from The Red Hot Chili Peppers. If I want beautifully detailed jazz drums, I’m more likely to reach out to Steve Gadd. Does this mean that Matt couldn’t do a convincing job in both situations? Certainly not. He’s amazingly versatile. But if I want to make my life easier, and I do, then I’m going to attempt to hire the player that I feel best fits the requirements for a particular production.

As a straight recordist, one who is being hired by an artist or producer, you don’t always have a say in the hiring of players. This is especially true with bands, in which the unique lineup of personnel dictates the overall sound of the band. Replacing band players is fraught with problems politically, but musically too, as changing out a band player can have a significant impact on the musical dynamic. You don’t always get to choose your Source Players. Fortunately, there are two other Source components that you can control, starting with the room.

Source Room

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just play an instrument, and then have it magically reproduce for us exactly as it sounded in the room?

The problem is that defining “exactly as it sounded in the room” gets a bit sketchy. Sounded to whom? You, as the player, who is being influenced by the physical vibrations of the instrument at the time of recording? The person on the far side of the room? The person sitting three feet away?

Sound does not live in a vacuum. Sound moves through, reacts with, and dissipates within a space. Therefore, the source of a sound is wholly dependent upon the space in which it occurs. How you perceive that sound has everything to do with your proximity to the Source Instrument as it relates to the space. You can’t separate the source sound from its space. You can ostensibly reduce the size and reflectivity of a space in order to alter how the sound travels and dissipates, but in practical terms there are limitations that you can’t overcome. At the end of the day, you need a space that is appropriate for the recording itself.

Were you to cover all of your walls and ceiling with heavy moving blankets, the cloth would absorb many of the higher frequencies, thereby preventing them from bouncing throughout the room. This will have the effect of attenuating (reducing) how the high frequencies are heard in relative balance to the low frequencies within the space. In other words, you’ll suck up all the high end, but the low end will continue to resonate unabated throughout the room.

The cloth from moving blankets don’t absorb the lower frequencies, and if your space is inadequate in size for the large waveforms of the low end, knocking down the high end will negatively impact the tone of the room. If you were to place a singer in a small closet-sized room covered with an absorptive material like carpet, “boxy” would be the most likely adjective for the tone. The only reasonable way to extract that boxiness from your recording is to remove the singer from that atrocious room before you record her. Should you choose to deal with that boxiness after the fact, I predict a very long and tiring day as you learn a valuable lesson in the limitations of removing resonant frequencies from a source through processing.

Next time you’re in your shower (or my favorite, a large concrete parking garage), belt out a low note and sweep up the scale as you evaluate the reaction of the sound within that space. At some point in your sweep, you’ll notice one or more frequencies that resonate considerably louder than the others within the room.

This sort of resonance is perfectly acceptable for showering or parking your car. It’s not so great for recording. Resonant frequencies will be picked up by the mic no matter how closely you place it to the source. And while some mics are better at rejecting ambient room information than others, a resonant frequency that causes you to feel as if your entire head has been engulfed will most assuredly be captured. This is true regardless of the mic and its placement.

Suppose you determine your bathroom has an obvious resonance at 98 Hz. What do you think is going to happen when you try to record a bass cabinet in your shower stall? Every time the bass player hits a G (which just so happens to sound at a fundamental of 98 Hz, go figure), that frequency is going to increase greatly in amplitude (volume), causing a swell every time a low G sounds. Your microphone will pick this up perfectly. Clearly, this is not optimal.

Amplitude has a great deal to do with how sound reacts within its environment. If you and I were to stand in the middle of a large field and have a normal conversation, there would be very little reflectivity perceived from our position. Were I to increase the amplitude of my voice by yelling, I could very well excite the sound sufficiently to reach a building 100 yards away. This would result in an audible slap-back of my voice to our position in the field. Amplitude affects just how far the sound travels before complete dissipation occurs.

Amplitude is what excites a room. Drums, being generally loud in nature, tend to reveal the sonic maladies of a room. A kalimba, on the other hand, doesn’t have enough amplitude to adequately excite a room, which greatly reduces the room’s influence on the capture. As a result, you can record a kalimba just about anywhere.

Directionality of sound also comes into play. If you’ve ever watched a marching band perform towards the opposite side of the stadium just before they turn around to blast you with everything they’ve got, then you have experienced the directional properties of sound firsthand. You will lose an exceptional amount of high end brilliance as the horns face the opposite direction. If the sound isn’t traveling towards us, then we’re not perceiving the direct waveform of the sound, but rather the return of that sound, which will have an attenuated high end.

High frequencies are extremely directional and a trumpet facing us, even from many yards away, will send the waveform directly to our ear, thereby reducing the relative level of the ambience in relation to the direct signal. Low frequencies, on the other hand, are long, slow-developing, and insidious in nature, as they do not travel directionally. This is why you can place a subwoofer anywhere in a room.

High frequencies are also more readily absorbed and reflected than low end. All objects have absorptive and reflective properties at different frequencies. Thunder can sound like nothing more than a low end rumble from a position five miles away. The high end from the initial crack was likely absorbed by several miles of foliage. Yet if lightning strikes just 100 yards away, the high end of the crack will be nothing short of earsplitting.

Low end tends to travel along walls and floors, and is absorbed by solid objects. With the kinds of distances we deal with in the studio, bass frequencies tend to be trapped rather than absorbed. If you sit on the couch in the back of the room of most studios, you will be enveloped with all the low end that’s getting trapped against the wall and the couch. The couch and the back wall are acting as a bass trap.

Position, distance, amplitude, directionality, and frequency, along with the exact properties of the environment, cause an acoustic reaction within a space, all of which affects the sound as it reaches your position. The good news is, no matter how large the space, and regardless of the makeup, sound will react according to known laws of physics. Theoretically, we could predict with absolute accuracy how a sound will react in a room based on the laws of physics. Practically speaking, there are far too many variables to forecast beyond an educated guess. Even a slight change in environment and our position can significantly affect how the sound travels and what we hear from our location.

The room, and how you adjust it by placing absorptive and reflective objects within it, is critical to how the microphones pick up the tone. If you place a drum kit in the middle of a rather sizable concrete room, you will collect an enormous, perhaps overbearing, amount of room information. The drum sound will slap off any solid material, excite the room, and return to the microphones. Even your close mics (that is, microphones placed in close proximity to the sound source) will pick up that returning ambience. Without some treatment, your drum recording could offer you nothing short of an undefined mess.

Surrounding a source with absorptive baffles can help tremendously towards cutting off the returning room information. Even if you seek a rather bombastic tone, you’ll still likely want some control over the balance between the direct attack of the drums and the ambient tone of the room. Those close mics are there so that you can control just how immediate your drums sound.

Surrounding the drums with too many baffles can be equally undesirable, as you can effectively choke their tone. You’ve gone too far. At least you’ve determined where the line is. Once you have the close mics performing their intended duty, you will have some control over your ambient information through balance.

Room reflection folding into the microphones, no matter how short in absolute time, can’t be removed electronically—certainly not without significantly degrading the audio with obvious artifacts. This is no great revelation, and it’s why so many recordists often capture tones as dry as possible (a dry sound being defined as a sound with minimal reflectivity). The conventional thinking is that space can be added later through digital reverbs and delay tails. And while certain genres call for this treatment almost as a matter of course, an organic room tone is difficult to mimic convincingly through digital reverbs. When you’re looking for an organic room tone, the only effective means is through the capture. This requires choosing a room that fits the needs of the recording.

What matters here is intent. If your intent is that of a natural space, it’s far more effective to actually record in the appropriate space than it is to mimic a space after the fact. If your intent is that of unnatural space or a space much larger than you can reasonably achieve, then you will likely want to reduce the apparent ambience in the room. Thus, called neutralizing the room.

This is not to suggest that digital reverbs are a sum negative where drum tones are concerned. It’s just that the ambience of a natural room manifests a more honest feeling than the illusion of space does. And that statement has nothing to do with personal preference. This is about how a recording makes you feel within the production itself. I’m far more likely to use a digital reverb on a pop recording than on a straight rock production.

Ultimately, it’s the music itself that evokes a reaction from the listener. But how that music is recorded and presented will influence how a song makes us feel. If the recording and all the decisions that go into that recording don’t fully serve the song in how it affects us emotionally, you will only mange to dilute the overall impact of the track.

Microphone placement will directly affect the nature and level of the room information. A room mic placed 10 feet into the air will collect far more high-end room excitement than a mic just a foot off the floor, where the low end information travels. Over time you begin to figure these things out, particularly if you get into the habit of placing your microphones purely by ear.

I frequently witness recordists and producers placing microphones by eye. I’ve even had producers ask me to move microphones that didn’t look right despite how they sounded. Moronic, I know. It’s also stupidly common. The listener never sees how you record. All the listener can react to is what they hear. Given this, I fail to see the logic in worrying about what a mic placement looks like. If it sounds right, it is right.

That said, if you pull your tones out of context by getting a snare drum tone, and then a kik drum tone in isolation, without ever considering how the mics work on the kit in context, you could have a big surprise later when you realize there’s more hi-hat coming through your snare mic than the snare drum itself. Having a drummer whack a snare in isolation is useful. Isolating a snare in the context of a beat is far more informative, particularly as it relates to discovering potential problems.

Using the room to your advantage requires forethought, and it can be treacherous to record a part with too much ambience. You’ll be stuck with it. Your best option is to record the part again. Unfortunately, if it’s a great performance, that quickly becomes the worst option. So, if you’re going to err, it’s often best to provide yourself some latitude to increase room information later.

A relatively small room with significant absorption will give you less latitude for acoustic adjustments than a larger room. It’s easy to add absorptive baffles to knock down a live room. It’s not so easy to start tearing the carpeting off the wall, and such a solution could cause the studio owner some marked consternation.

There are ways of extending the apparent size of a room without using reverb. Compressors are quite handy for increasing your space. A compressor, especially one set with a fast attack and a fast release, will effectively bring up the ambience information relative to the direct signal. This, of course, can also work against you, as compression used for dynamic purposes can increase the apparent ambience. Yet another reason to record with intent.

Many of you reading this book will have general access to one particular recording space, whether that’s your own studio, a studio you work for, or your home. Let’s face it, any space can be used for recording. Really, the most critical difference between a designated studio space and one in your home is isolation. It doesn’t do you much good to record a beautiful violin part if you can hear ambulances driving by, children screaming, or the low-end rumble of an air conditioner that hasn’t been decoupled from the room. So, as much as any space can be used for recording, there are a number of factors that must be considered beyond the sound of the space itself.

I can promise you, I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a snob when it comes to this. I like any room that’s a perfect fit for the production, regardless of its usual purpose. Interesting spaces can offer unique results, which is why we often prefer to record in the controlled environment of an acoustically purposed recording room—it removes surprises from the equation. When I operate as a freelance recordist, I’m almost always involved with room selection.

A multiroom facility, one in which you have a variety of spaces with which to work, is often ideal. Those of you with but one recording space available will be restricted by what that space has to offer. Musicians are often far too willing to spend copious amounts of their time dealing with a fucked-up room with poor results. And while I understand you’d rather not ask your client to pony up anywhere between $500 and $2000 a day for your tracking session, the time savings alone could make it worthwhile. When it comes to recording, there is little to no difference between time and money. In life too, really.

The sooner you accept the room is just as critical to the recording as the Source Instrument and player, the sooner you’ll find yourself recording with a plan. If you want to be successful at recording, recognize the space as an extension of the player and instrument itself.

Source Instrument

Recording a fucked-up instrument, particularly one outside the intent of the production, can be exceptionally frustrating for both the player and recordist alike.

Setting aside instruments that should be taken behind the studio and shot, the overall tone of an instrument will greatly affect how it works within the production. In simple terms, a relatively clean guitar tone will create an entirely different feeling in a production than a distorted one. There are literally hundreds of guitar and amplifier models, each with their own unique sound.

If you’re looking for the distorted tremolo twang of a James Bond-style lead guitar line, you’re going to have a difficult time getting the tone with a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall cab. A Telecaster through a Supra will get you much closer, and a baritone guitar might bring you closer still. Of course, if you don’t have a Supra, a Tele, or a baritone guitar available, and most of you don’t, your choices are limited. Either you spend your time trying to locate the right guitar and amp combo for the job, or you get as close as you can through copious amounts of processing and mangling. The latter is an exercise in futility. Even if you come close, you will have invested a great deal of energy to achieve a tone that is nothing more than a pale imitation.

When it comes to a tone as iconic as a James Bond-style guitar (and nearly all of you will have a sonic picture in your brain as to what that sounds like), you can’t get there using the inappropriate instrument and amplifier. The part has to correlate to some degree as well. The feeling that a James Bond-style monophonic electric guitar lead line provides will never sound similar to a part that’s chordal in nature. If you find my use of the words “feeling” and “sound” incongruous, I can assure you, they’re not. When it comes to music, they are one and the same.

Too often, instruments are recorded almost haphazardly, and then mangled to somehow fit the track. For starters, this rarely works for anything aside from electronically driven tones found in EDM tracks, which are often characterized by their uniquely uber-processed sound. As a fan of electronic music (which might have something to do with the fact that I don’t produce the genre for a living), I totally appreciate the nature of electronic musical tones, which is more about production and mixing than actual recording.

There is generally no skill involved in recording electronic music. The skill is in the manipulation of the tones to create constant sonic motion in conjunction with its definitive pulse. Anytime you’re looking to create a sound that doesn’t exist in nature, the organic quality of a tone is rendered nearly irrelevant. If you make electronic music exclusively, much of the information contained in these pages won’t necessarily correlate, and you’d be well served by Zen and the Art of Mixing.

There are so many variables that affect how a source sounds that we are often dealing with a slightly hit-or-miss process. While it’s true that I can make an educated guess as to my desired guitar-amp combinations, I must actually hear the tone in context of the production in order to cast judgment. Even string gauge will make a significant difference in the tone of a guitar, although string choice often has much to do with the comfort and performance needs of the guitar player. Putting 14-gauge strings on a guitar for a player who routinely performs with 10s will likely prove problematic, as they could be far too heavy for her to perform well. The comfort of your musicians as it relates to their performance shouldn’t be ignored.

There is no substitute for experience where Source Instrument selection and alteration is concerned, particularly when you start to get into tones as varied as electric guitar. You can’t really comprehend what a Marshall amp sounds like until you’ve experienced one, and even then you’ll only understand its tone in relation to the guitars you have available. And no, the plug-ins aren’t going to help you much to understand the overall tone of the real thing. You never have any guarantee that a plug-in sounds like its graphic suggests, and the illusion is rarely all that convincing when you’re familiar with the analog model it’s meant to emulate.

That said, if all you have available are amp simulator plug-ins, then eventually you will learn how to get the best out of them. You’ll recognize patterns, which will speed up the selection process as you pull tones with less guesswork. And that certainly has some value. Unfortunately, those patterns won’t correlate to analong amplifiers, which push both electronics and air.

The bottom line is this: You can mangle parts, you can manipulate them, change their timing, alter their tuning, distort, modulate, EQ, compress, limit, extend, etc. You can certainly alter how a particular source sounds through all sorts of processing. Everyone does this, and I don’t begrudge anyone the technique, as it certainly has its place and time. But anyone who records with some regularity will soon realize that no matter how aggressively you manipulate a part, you will never eradicate its overall sonic fingerprint. Therefore, it’s far more effective to capture the right tone than to alter a generic tone later through electronic mangling—sometimes called “fixing it in the mix” (a phrase that I would ask you never to utter). And since time is money, and budgets limited, it behooves us to record in a manner that’s both effective and efficient. Unfortunately, recording a sound with the intention of manipulating it later is neither of those. Once you have this particular “aha” moment, recording will come much more naturally.

The closer you can get your recordings to the desired end game throughout the process, the more successful you’ll be at accomplishing the goal for your clients, yourself, and hopefully millions of fans.

Zen and the Art of Recording is the third book in my ongoing Zen and the Art of series. The digital versions (Kindle, eBook) contain loads of supplemental videos. You can purchase any and all of these books HERE.

If you’d like to discus these concepts further, join me and my knowledgable friends at Mixermania and The Womb Forums

Be sure to read my newest book! #Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent – a satire of the Modern Music Business through the prism of US Politics and vice versa.

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