Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The right mic in the right place...

Valuable lesson time. Stuff you cannot learn from books. Here are three adages I've adopted that have shaped me and my engineering skills. Otherwise known as wisdom and experience. Learn from them, young grasshopper, for they do not come easily.

"A good song starts with the songwriter"

I forget where I heard this. But, it makes perfect sense. As engineers, we are lead to believe that we can make or break a song by how well we do our jobs. I submit we cannot. A good recording of a bad song is still a bad song, no matter how we polish it. Furthermore, how is it someone can be moved to tears by a song they heard on an AM radio with an inadequate 2" speaker? It's the song.

Of all the elements in the recording chain, we as engineers are last. In order, they are: songwriter, musician, instrument, room, microphone, preamp, all the other equipment, engineer. Our jobs as engineers is to capture the performance and not get in the way. Sometimes, we have to step in and offer our opinions. We can also become an additional member of the group. However, we cannot make a bad song a good song.

"The right mic in the right place"

Something a professor of mine taught me awhile back has stuck with me. Yes, Keith. You. The proper mic in the right place beats any EQ and compression. Anyday. It's the reason I will spend half a day (or more) setting up microphones and getting tones. Reaching for an EQ or a compressor is the last resort. If I can't get the sound I want with the mic and preamp, I'll switch mics. Switching preamps is also not out of the question.

So, what is the right mic? There isn't any single answer to that question. There isn't one magic mic that will fit every application. Every mic has its purpose. I've used everything from a $2 mic from a garage sale to vintage mics worth tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes both at the same time.

Allen Sides, owner of Oceanway Studios (a.k.a Mr. Microphone), was once asked if he was limited to one microphone, which would it be. He responded with, "an AKG 414." While an AKG 414 is extremely versatile, it is not always the best mic in every application.

For example, I like the 414 as drum overheads occasionally. Depending on the drummer, the room, the kit or the music genre, I could use Neumann KM84's, AKG C12's, or in several instances, Royer 122's and Coles 4038's.

A good engineer has experience with many different mics and will pull from his/her experience which mic is best suited for the application. Several rules still apply. I wouldn't use a ribbon mic for a rock kick drum for instance, unless I really didn't care for the mic in the first place and needed a door stop.

If I'm recording a bright instrument and want to tone it down, there are mics better suited for the job. The inverse is also true. Some microphones are adept at accentuating harmonics to brighten a dull instrument.

Placing the mic in the right place is just as critcal as selecting the proper mic. One method I use is to move my head until I like the sound of the instrument. Then replace my head with the microphone. The other is to move the mic around while listening to the changes. If you have the right mic, eventually you'll find the sweet spot on the instrument where it sings. Experimenting is still the order of the day. We each have our methods for what works for us.

"Take the time to get it right the first time"

"Or it will come back to haunt you", is the second half of this phrase. I gleamed this bit of wisdom from Beno May and Karl Bischof while at Bernie Grundman's. They taught me to take my time and make sure I was doing everything correctly as I was doing it. If proper attention and time is not afforded, it may (and usually does) take longer to repair it. Sure, we all have deadlines to meet. It is still better to stay that extra few minutes to make sure the reference CD's are being made properly, than to come back the next day when the band calls the studio angry because one song was left off the CD and now theyve missed their deadline. And because they've missed their deadline, the replicator will charge them a "lack of proper planning" fee to get the CD's made in time for the release party they've already booked two weeks away. (Insert sarcastic tone here) This rarely happens. So, I wouldn't worry about it.

Actually, at Bernie's, careless mistakes were hardly ever made. Not only were we meticulous, but there were quality control measures put in place.

These lessons are words of wisdom passed along from some very wise people. We can choose to ignore their lessons. We'll still arrive at the same conclusion eventually.

Rock. Roll. Repeat.