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Audio [Issue #22]
: The Art of Making Records
By Pat Mavromatis

Part I

The Art of Recording

live and breathe music. I also play and sometimes record music – as a hobbyist nowadays. And yes, I’ll admit it, back when I was a teenager I would have liked - whom am I kidding, loved! - to “make it” in music as a . . . cough, cough, clear throat . . . rock star, whatever that means! All kidding aside, recorded music always fascinated me. How do you capture that sound into a medium that will let you listen and relive that experience over and over again?

Recording was for the very few a few years ago, but with the advent of technology and social changes that increased access to the music gear and at an affordable cost, that has changed drastically. Finally, the hoi polloi can experience recording in a way that no one thought possible.

I spend quite a bit of time “messing with it” and reading countless books, trying countless tricks, spending countless hours online looking for the best tips, even considering a recording school, yet whatever I record ends up sounding like a cheap demo (like a lot of DIY CDs out there nowadays - I guess one negative consequence of the “liberation” of recording technology).

So, you’ve written a couple of songs you’d love to share with your family and friends (and who knows, the whole world perhaps). Does your recording have to . . . suck?

“Absolutely not!!!” said Ronan. We had met a few months back at a mutual friend’s get-together and we started chatting about all this. “Come down to my studio one day,” he said, his eyes glowing with confidence, “and I’ll show you how to get the sound you have in your head.” I was intrigued to say the least! “Recording is simple,” he said, and I promised that I would take him up on his offer one of these days.

Ronan (Ronan Chris Murphy is his full name) has been making records for a long time. He has worked on hundreds of records with artists like: King Crimson, Terry Bozzio, Steve Morse, and Tony Levin, to name a few, plus he runs his own small hub of creativity called Veneto West Records where he produces and records artists, including his own work, who will definitely deserve a place in avant prog heaven. So he must know something, right? I figured I’d take him up on his offer and go down to the studio. It took about three minutes, literally, for me to put to tape (just an expression these days - put to hard disc is more like it!) a guitar sound I was after for years! I was definitely impressed. “And that’s just the beginning,” Ronan said and invited me to join a class he teaches every so often. “Absolutely,” I said. This was exciting!

Six Days at the Home Recording Bootcamp - Before the sound hits the mic

nter the Home Recording Bootcamp - Ronan’s intensive six days of living and breathing recording with him and a wide array of guests from star engineers like John Rodd to music recording gear manufacturers like Peter Montessi of A-Designs, and Dave Pearlman of Pearlman Mics. Five to six students max, starting at ten o’ clock in the morning and ending at seven or later usually in the evening. All recording, all the time! Here we go.

The first thing that has become so clear to me now is that recording and making records is an art as much as it is science. However, it is really simple, as Ronan mentioned. “85 per cent of what one needs to know about making records can be discussed in three minutes,” says Ronan. “It all starts with finding a sound worth recording, placing a microphone in front of where the sound comes out from (we’ll talk about recording “direct” – meaning without a mic – in the next part of the series), running the low level signal produced by the microphone through a mic cable into a mic preamp to get it up to line level (meaning the signal level the recorded can “understand” and work with), and then taking that into your recording medium – analog or digital (4-track, Pro-Tools, Logic, Sonar, etc.) Now the only things you need to do are figure out if you want the sound loud or quiet and if you want it to be coming out of the left, the right, or both speakers (we’re only going to mention standard stereo recording here, but pretty much the same applies for 5.1 surround recording). That’s it. Pretty simple, huh? There’s a lot of hype out there about complicated gear of all sorts that adds to the confusion and takes away from the simplicity of it. But again, it’s really simple! Inspiration, to expression through a song, to honing your skill as a musician, to the instrument you use, to the mic, through the cable, to the mic preamp, into the recording medium.

Having said that the next obvious question would be “well, how do I get that sound that’s in my head into the recorder then?” “First, listen and evaluate” says Ronan. “Put on your favorite CDs and LISTEN.” And make sure you throw away any preconceived notions about what something is supposed to sound. For example, vocals are supposed to be clean (no distortion), rock records should have a lot of low end (bass), etc. Ronan explains: “many of the records we grew up with and love might not be what you thought they were. For example, in Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’ the vocal is distorted, and early Black Sabbath records have no low end!” Keep in mind always that the recording aesthetic changes, like the music changes. “A lot of the drum sounds are now replaced or ‘enhanced’ by samples, there’s very little reverb on guitars and vocals, tone/pitch correction of vocalists is almost standard (at least in popular music), and most pop records are compressed to the limit.” There’s no wrong or right really on how you approach recording. “Unless you really screw something up, like use a busted cable or a faulty piece of gear” says Ronan, “everything you do, like how far away you stand from the mic when singing or what mic you use, is a creative decision.”

Tune in next issue when we’ll discuss microphone and direct recording techniques for recording guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards, drums and percussion, and more.


The Art of Making Records

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