As a musician, I’ve had experience with the whole gambit of recordings – the good, the bad, and the ugly. With the assistance of books, the Internet, and friends, I’ve been able to distill a basic guide of what it means to make a good sound recording, and just this week I released an EP with my band YelloCake to iTunes by using these skills.
In today’s world, there are many times when one may be called upon to make a sound recording of his/her voice, an instrument, or otherwise (particularly in the field of PR where anything is possible), so it helps to be prepared.
- Have a Good Space:
This one is arguably the most important. No matter how good you are at editing, you can’t make up for a bad recording space.
So what makes for a good or bad room? Imagine for a minute a music-recording studio. What do you see? Probably the little vocal booth that has a microphone and egg-crate foam on the walls. Now we don’t all have the access and money for a real studio (I know I don’t at least!), but what is it that this room is trying to accomplish? Isolation. That is the most important word for a recording space. I’ve made recordings (and edited others) that have great music, but you can hear a car in the background, someone yelling, or something like that, and that sort of takes the listener out of it. Similarly, if one records in a room that has hardwood floors or something similar, the room will be very loud and reflective – that is to say the recording will have a lot of reverb (which may make the recording disorienting or sound far away).
Even though we don’t all have a recording studio available, we do probably all know one place that is quiet, fairly soundproof, and is not too reflective for the sound.
The next thing is to know what you’re recording for. A vocal recording is best done in a studio, but a choir is better recorded in a church (because the reverb in the room makes the sound more realistic).
- Know your microphones:
This one is almost important as having a space to record, because without a microphone, it’s pretty hard to record anything. Not all microphones are created equal, however! So how does one know the difference?
- Dynamic Microphones: This is probably the first type of microphone that comes to mind when I say “microphone”. These are the classic microphones that you see on a stage (probably a black handle and a silver top, right?).
Pros: These are probably the easiest microphones to use – plug them into an amp or mixer and they’re ready to go. They’re fairly cheap and very hardy, and there are stories of using them as a hammer before a show and still working (but I’d probably not recommend this). As their name suggests, they have a very big sound.
Cons: These microphones are usually the lowest quality in terms of sound, and may have a sort of grainy high-end.
Uses: Again, these are very often used in live performance and for recording instruments with a large dynamic range like electric guitar and drums.
- Condenser Microphones: Probably the second-most common type of microphone, these microphones have the unique need for phantom power (an electrical current that is fed into the mic by a mixer, computer, or phantom power generator [essentially a battery]).
Pros: Condensers are largely used in studios for their clarity and exaggerated high end.
Cons: The requirement for phantom power needs to be accounted for (at a gig once, I didn’t have a microphone, and someone happened to have one – which turned out to be a condenser. We didn’t have phantom power, so we couldn’t get the mic to work despite how nice the mic was).
Uses: These mics are used in live and studio settings for just about anything- vocals, acoustic guitars, and overhead drum mics.
- Ribbon Microphones: Usually the most expensive type of microphone, the ribbon microphone is often used to record vocals because of its very clear sound.
Pros: This microphone will probably create the clearest vocals of any type of microphone, so for voice-overs and singing, if you can get your hands on one of these, you won’t regret it.
Cons: As I said before, these will probably be the most expensive. Aside from that, they’re also the most temperamental because as their name implies, they have a thin ribbon of metal (aluminum or otherwise), and if not handled properly, this ribbon could be damaged. For this reason, they are not as versatile as dynamic microphones; care should be taken when recording loud/dynamic instruments like drums.
Uses: Again, these microphones will make for very clear vocals and voice-overs. They may be used for less-dynamic instruments like a ukulele (although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t record a didgeridoo with one). Guitars and drums can still be recorded with ribbon microphones because they are not too harsh on the high end of the sound, which is much more similar to what we hear every day.
Ultimately one cannot get a good recording out if one does not put a good recording in, so make sure you know which type of microphone is best suited for which task. The placement of the microphone also has a huge effect, so be sure to experiment with where you place the microphone! Having a pop filter on the mic (like in the picture) can help too, by stopping “pop”s from plosive consonants like “p”.
- Use a DAW Program!
DAW (or digital audio workstation) programs are the final step in a recording. Basically like Photoshop for sound, DAW programs can do seemingly impossible things. This is how you can fix (or at least diminish) any errors that occurred in the last two steps too. DAW programs can clip out small sounds (like if someone fidgets), add clarity to the voice or instruments, and change the sound from someone talking into a tin can into something realistic. They’re useful because microphones don’t pick up exactly what our ears do, much as cameras don’t pick up all of the nuances that our eyes do. DAW programs can help bring the recording to life to life.
There are many DAW programs with a huge range of prices. ProTools is the industry standard, but it is very complicated and expensive. Programs like Reason, FL Studio, and Logic Pro (the program I use) are less expensive, but still have cost considerations attached to each of them. For Mac users, GarageBand comes free, and anyone can download Audacity from http://www.audacityteam.org for free. As cost increases so do the features and complexity.
For most recordings, Audacity or GarageBand will be perfect. For multi-layered songs with all sorts of effects and editing, a paid program will yield the best results. From there, these programs are able to export any type of sound file that you would need. In my personal opinion, the most important control in any DAW program is “EQ” (or equalization). This allows the user to boost or diminish high, low, and mid frequencies, which does a huge amount for the track. It’s not a science; try moving some things around in the EQ until you find something you like! You’ll notice it makes a huge difference.
Ultimately a good recording gives a certain amount of credibility (think of the last time you were on YouTube and a video had really bad sound?). If you have good quality sound, the perception of your video or your music will increase. Now, it is possible of course to buy all of the materials, but my personal advice is to rent or borrow as much as you can. You never know who might have a good place to record, a spare mic, or can work a DAW program!