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Every composer knows that adding a real musician or seventy to a track really brings it to life. Samples just don’t have the nuance and expression of real instruments. But if you aren’t trained as an engineer or haven’t done a lot of recording in your studio it may be daunting to bring in a player to record in your project studio. Let’s look at some of the factors that contribute to getting a good result.

The sound of the recording space

When recording an acoustic instrument, the sound of your room plays a roll in the way that the instrument will sound in the final recording. Treating your space with acoustical material will not only make it sound better for accurate monitoring but will make instruments sound better in the recording space. Applying acoustical treatment does not require a PhD in acoustics. There are lots of good articles available on the internet about treating rooms for sound and Focal Press recently published a fantastic book, The Studio SOS Book, that demystifies the process.

Most rooms in which we set up project studios are box shaped. This presents acoustic problems because sound waves bounce back and forth between parallel surfaces and cause certain frequencies to be either too loud or too quiet. We need to use acoustic treatment in order to combat these parallel waves and reflections that create an unflattering acoustic environment for listening and recording. Companies such as Auralex sell complete room treatment packages for taming problematic acoustic spaces.

Microphone preamps

A microphone preamp amplifies a microphone signal so that it is loud enough to be audible in a recording. Your audio interface has a microphone preamp built into it but most studio owners will buy a dedicated mic preamp so that they can control the level of signal being recorded as these preamps have a gain knob while many audio interfaces do not. High-end mic preamps also color the mic signal in a pleasing way. I’m sure you have heard of the much sought after preamps made by companies such as Neve and API.

Now I am going to suggest something a bit radical here. In the context of project studio recording, the preamp you use doesn’t matter that much and the one that you already have (provided it has level controls to change the incoming signal level) is probably fine for your purposes. Don’t get me wrong, at some point you will want to invest in a high quality mic preamp, but the differences between less expensive mic pres made by companies such as ART and the expensive ones made by Grace Designs and Rupert Neve are subtle. You can hear the differences when ABing them, but when mixed in a track with other sounds, the mic preamp will play less of a role than the microphone you use or the way that that instrument was miked.

The microphone

The microphone you use to record the instrument you are tracking plays a big role in the sound you get. One of the benefits of going to a professional studio is being able to choose from the large collection of mics that most studios own. For the project studio owner, purchasing a good quality, versatile microphone is an important investment. This is a great time to buy a microphone, as there are many good microphones that can be found for less than $1000.

If you are buying your first microphone, you should look for a large frame condenser (also known as capacitor) microphone, ideally one that has multiple polarity patterns to switch between. The polarity pattern refers to the direction in which the microphone picks up a signal. Most mics will have a cardioid pattern. A cardioid pattern means the microphone picks up signal from one direction and rejects it from others. It is the most common microphone pattern because it allows relative isolation of the sound source.

Some microphones have a switch that allows you to choose different polarity patterns. The most useful polarity pattern after cardioid is omnidirectional, which means that the mic will pick up a signal from the back and sides in addition to the front. The omni pattern is very useful if you want more of the sound of the instrument in the context of the space you are recording. For example, I have got good results using an omni pattern on violin because that is an instrument that we typically hear more room sound on the recording.

I recommend investing in at least one good quality condenser microphone. If you are planning on recording a number of different instruments look for one, such as the AKG 414, which is versatile and gets good results on a variety of sources. On the other hand, if you are a singer and primarily planning on recording your own voice, then find a microphone that sounds best with your voice. The microphone that sounds best on a specific singer can be highly variable and some singers have found that an inexpensive microphone works best with their instrument.

The recording process

When you are recording in a space where the instrument is in the same room that the speakers are located, it is important to turn off the speakers and monitor on headphones while recording. You don’t want the recorded signal to come through the speakers and get rerecorded onto the track.

Make sure you adjust the input level on your microphone preamp so that it doesn’t exceed 0 db in your DAW, as this will cause the signal to distort and there is no way to rectify that after it has been recorded. I recommend setting the level between -12 and -18 db, as this will give you enough headroom for most instruments. You need to look at the meter on the track’s channel strip in your DAW to see what the incoming level is. Once you have set the mic pre so you have a good level, don’t change it between takes. Otherwise it will make it difficult to comp between different takes.

If you haven’t recorded a particularly instrument, doing a little research is very helpful. An internet search can yield a lot of great ideas for approaching miking the instrument. It isn’t always obvious where the best mic position will be. For example, you might think that sticking a microphone in the bell of clarinet would be produce a good result, when, in fact, a clarinet is generally sounds best when miked about a foot above the player’s hands.

Players can be good resources for miking their instrument. They have been on a lot of sessions and have seen where engineers will place the microphone. Many players also do their own recording and have experimented with what sounds best with their instrument. I find this to be a good starting point from which I can make adjustments as needed.

Ideally, I will adjust the microphone position by moving it while the player is warming up and listening to how the change in position is affecting the tonal quality. In a small studio in which you are tracking and recording in the same space it can be difficult to make adjustments while the player is playing, since you are listening to the signal through headphones and hearing it acoustically at the same time. In that case, making a recording, then listening and making adjustments is the way to go.

I like to think in terms of adjectives to describe the sound I am looking for as it helps focus my attention on what I am hearing. Does the instrument sound natural? Does it sound warm? Is it thin or brittle? Is there enough of the room sound in the recording or is there too much? These assessments will inform where you move the microphone. Moving the microphone closer to the instrument will typically give you a warmer sound with less room reverberence, because a microphone with a cardioid polarity pattern will emphasize lower frequencies the closer it is to the instrument and pick up less of the room.

I like to record most instruments in my studio using two microphones. Though I sometimes do this to create a stereo recording, I often use the two mics to take advantage of tonal differences found from different mic positions and different mics. On violin, I have used a cardioid mic close to the player and an omnidirectional microphone placed about ten feet away. I can get a great balance between the focus of the close mic, and the more ambient sound of the omni. This technique also works well with woodwinds. I found a great flute sound using one mic near the player’s mouth and another a foot or so from the footjoint of the flute.

Another benefit of recording with two mics is that I am able to get an idea of what microphone sounds best on each instrument. Sometimes I record two signals and end up using just one of the mics. It all depends on what sounds best in the context of the music.

I always take photographs and notes at each session so that I learn from my experiments. I use a note taking application called Evernote for this purpose and have a folder called “Recording” where I keep all my notes. This gives me a self-generated resource for future sessions.

In conclusion

I am not formally trained as an engineer and wouldn’t be comfortable setting up the microphones for an orchestral session. I leave that to the talented and experienced engineers that we have here in Hollywood. But there are many projects in which I am bringing in players to my studio to work their musical magic and replace my sterile samples. With a little knowledge and a willingness to adjust and experiment, I have been able to get great results. You can use these basic principles as building blocks for enhancing your tracks with live players. For further reading, I highly recommend The Studio SOS Book from Focal Press.