Front End, Front End, Front End By
Ronan Chris Murphy
In the hallowed halls
where recording engineers convene to discuss the secret art of recording . . .
well, actually in bars and at parties when recording engineers happen to get bump
into each other and start talking about gear once they have had the mandatory
debate about digital versus analog technology, they usually start talking about
gear they love and it usually revolves around three things: Front End, Front End,
and Front End.
Front end can include several different things, but in short in includes all the
things your sound is going to pass through before it gets recorded. While every
stage of the recording and mixing is important, experienced engineers know that
the secret to great sounding recording is great front end, which is where the
real audio magic happens.
In its simplest form front end can be a microphone to a microphone preamp to an
analog tape machine, or on the other end of the spectrum it can include EQ, compression,
digital converters, and any other number of things. Every time audio passes through
something, the sound is changed. This includes any piece of equipment and even,
to a small degree, the cables that connect that equipment. Sometimes it changes
the sound for the better and sometimes it is for the worse, and the degree to
which the sound will be changed is dependent on the design and condition of the
gear, and of course how you are using it. The important thing to remember here
is that the sound and quality of what goes through your front end
will be part of the recordings forever. If it sounds great at the front end every
other stage of the recording will be easy, if its sounds bad, there may be nothing
you can do to save it later on.
A lot of recording equipment may contain many features packed into one box. Computer
recording interfaces often include mic pre amps, instrument inputs and other features
in one box, and some rack mounted channel strips often combine mic
pres, compressors and EQ into one unit. Although all these features may be combined
into one unit, your audio must still pass through various stages before it is
eventually recorded onto a hard drive or a piece of tape. Front end is anything
your audio will pass through on its way to being recorded. In future articles,
we will closely examine some of the various components of the front end in more
detail, but understanding front end and how it affects the sound of your recordings
is the key to great recording. Lets take a look and the most common pieces of
In the world of great recording, the microphone is king. Microphone technique
or placement and matching the right mic for the sound you are recording is usually
the most important factor in the quality of the sound on a record. Microphones
convert vibrations in the air into electrical energy that can run down a mic cable.
There is a large array of mechanisms and designs that will affect both the price
and sound of a mic and they can cost from the tens of dollars to the tens of thousands
of dollars, but price does not always tell the whole story about a microphone.
Many times the absolute best mic for the job can be one of the least expensive
options, but other times the opposite is true. Even on big budget albums, the
most popular mic for recording electric guitars and snare drums can be bought
brand new for less than $100. Some of the high end mics, especially some vintage
mics are sought after, venerated, and are very much bragged about in engineering
circles, often for very good reason and easily can cost over $10,000. Some of
these classics such as a well-maintained vintage Neuman U47 have a certain magic
that is hard to describe, a musicality and character that many manufacturers strive
to emulate in new designs. Many high quality mics sound good on a wide range of
instruments or voices, the best match can often be unpredictable. This is the
reason commercial studio have such large collections of microphones.
The output level of a microphone is actually fairly low, so before it can
be recorded at a proper level it needs to be raised to line level.
While some designs will incorporate other features, the job of the mic preamp
is to raise a mic level signal to line level. As with
anything your audio passes through, the mic preamp will change the sound of signal,
sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more dramatic ways. The differences
between mic preamps are generally subtler than the difference between microphones,
so much so that novice engineers cannot hear significant differences. Although
the quality and character of a mic preamp may seem insignificant, once that mic
preamp is used across many tracks the cumulative effect can be quite dramatic.
Today it is common for advanced engineers to use a wide variety of mic pres for
different sounds and purposes, but countless classic albums were made using only
one kind of preamp (the ones built into the recording console). The important
thing is to have at least one high quality microphone pre amp. There are many
varieties of good quality preamps and which ones you like is totally subjective,
and in truth many of them could be fine, but be wary of poor quality preamps.
They can really hurt your sound in a way that mixing techniques cannot really
make up for. Just like the advantages of a good preamp can really become apparent
when many tracks are mixes together, the same is true for the negative effects
of poor quality preamps, usually manifest in an overall small and one dimensional
Analog to Digital Converters
This bit of front end is not a part of recording to analog tape, but is a
critical stage in recording to digital formats (computer, digital tape, etc).
Before an analog signal can be recorded to a digital recording format the electrical
voltages need to get converted into a series of ones and zeros, or converted to
digital. While this may not be intuitive to a novice recordist, the quality of
the converters, the conversion algorithms, and the quality of the digital clock
to handle the conversion all have significant impact on the sound recorded.
As with most things in music, defining the characteristics of various converters
is subjective, but the difference between lower and higher quality analog to digital
converters is usually an improvement in stereo imaging, a greater depth in the
audio, improved definition in the low end and better overall detail. Almost all
digital recording interfaces or recorders will have built in analog to digital
converters, but many engineers prefer to use stand alone converters. The quality
of the analog to digital converters will determine the quality of the sound being
recorded to your digital system. All things being equal, the quality of a sound
recorded to a low end digital system through high end analog to digital converters
should be virtually identical to the same sound recorded through the same converters
to a high end system.
The two other common components of front end that are often used are equalizers
and compressors, two tools that are used to contour the sound of the audio and
control the dynamic range of the signal. Both of these while commonly used are
not essential to every recording.
If you have made it through all these dry explanations here is the good stuff!
Recording through high quality front end in a small home studio, is not that different
than recording with good quality tools in a high end studio. Certainly talent
of the engineer is critical, and the actual acoustic space you record in will
always have a big impact, but an investment in good front end tools in a small
studio can significantly level the playing field between the little guys and the
big guys. Keep in mind that if you are recording in your own home studio, or a
small commercial studio, and you record a good performance with a mic that is
a good fit with the sound source, the a good quality mic pre and then through
good quality analog to digital converters, you are running with the big dogs.
Not only will these good quality recordings make the rest of the recording/mixing/mastering
process much easier, but should you have the opportunity to have your songs mixed
by an experienced mixer in a big studio, your tracks will be top quality every
step of the way. Its a way to compete with big budget records at a fraction
of the cost.
These are interesting times for recording. With the explosion of home recording
and small studios, there is a plethora of new gear at every price point. Unfortunately,
there is a lot of poor quality equipment being made to sell to the masses, but
there is also a growing world of boutique manufacturers making equipment that
rivals or exceeds some of the most venerated classic gear. Many larger companies
are making fantastic gear at very reasonable prices. Like fine wines, choosing
gear can be a lifetime of learning and full of subjective debates, but if you
care about your recording it pays to do the research and get a range of opinions.
If you are on a tight budget there are some very good low cost tools available,
but I would warn against just looking at the cheapest options. Sometimes spending
just a little more money can make dramatic improvements in your recordings.
Though are many stages and techniques for recording and the all affect the final
outcome, the secret to great recording starts with three things: Front End, Front
End, and Front End.