Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tech Speak

This is Ben. Alright. I heard some folks want to talk shop so I'm funna throw down wit the tech talk. Here's what we've got on hand:

-Rode NTK: A large diaphragm condenser. It's a knock-off of a Neumann U87.
-ATK 4033: Another large diaphragm condenser. Famously bitey in the upper mid-range.
-Shure SM 57: The classic dynamic mic. I have a theory that people don't use this mic when they should because they've spent too much on the other mics in their collections.

-I don't know the model number, but it's a two channel-strip thing by Langevin (a division of Manley). Each channel strip has a pre-amp, an eq section, and compression.

-Fender Strat
-Gretch hollow-body (on loan from David Spencer, whose record you should buy when it comes out)

guitar amps
-Bad Cat. No idea what model number. It falls somewhere in that Matchless category of really modern, fat and focused sounding amps.
-Vox Pathfinder. A tiny little amp that I've heard is a good option. We haven't used it yet, so the jury's out. I just remember hearing that Fleming and John (specifically John) would frequently use small amps because you don't have to push as hard to really drive them and obviously you can make up for the volume difference at the pre-amp. I'm sure there are differences (like the way a room reacts to the sound of a bigger amp) but I'm excited to try out the little amp sooner than later.

other gear
-Apogee Rosetta 200. It's a clock and an a/d converter. When you record digital audio, your computer can't create a real, honest-to-goodness analog waveform, so instead, it takes oodles of samples to approximate the waveform. Kind of like how Mario's head is made up of a bunch of squares whether you're playing your game cube or the old 8-bit ride (as my brother calls it.) Anyway, as I understand it, Pro-Tools has a built in clock to time out the samples, but it's not a very good one. So it helps to use an external clock, not just for accurate playback but also for good recording. It makes a very subtle difference, but apparantly an important one. The Rosetta also has great audio to digital (a/d) converters in it. Again, better than the ones built in to Pro Tools. This is an expensive piece of equipment, but anybody'll tell you it's worth it, even if my ears are still too untrained to deeply appreciate the difference it makes.
-a camera to make funny movies.

Here's how we've been using the gear we have:

For starters, let's talk about the pre amp. You probably already know this, but good mics and good pre's are essential for a good sounding record (at least a hi-fi one like this will hopefully be). I know very little about the Langevin, but Gully picked it out with a little help from an engineer that knows way more than me. We've been skipping the EQ section on the pre-amp. I prefer to leave all EQ to my mix engineer, with the occasional exception of really tweaking something out for effect. The mix guy will have better perspective than me, as well as much greater skill at dialing things in. There's not much advantage of EQing to tape when you do it just as well after the fact. We HAVE been using the built-in compression on the Langevin, but only as a limiter, meaning only just enough to keep the signal from clipping when there's an occasional spike. Once again, compression is best left to your mix engineer, even if you're good at it, unless you're going for a really squashed sound. It's all about delayed gratification. You can always listen back through a plug-in compressor and EQ in the meantime to make the vocal sound good when you listen back. But leave permanent EQ/compression to your mix guy. He's smarter than you.

For vocals, we've used the NTK. On the far country we used a 57 and loved it (it actually beat the NTK in a shoot-out), but this time we just went for the NTK. Probably because somebody was borrowing my 57 until a couple of days ago. Also because my friend and guru, Josh Davis, chided me for using the 57, since it doesn't capture the highest of high frequencies. But the vocals sounded good. So who's laughing now? Me, baby. Me.

Let me pause here to make a note about phasing. I'm relatively new to engineering and my current stop on the learning curve is phasing. Whenever you use two mics (or more) at the same time to capture a sound, the sound you hear ends up being the sum of two (or more) wave forms. If the mics are not placed carefully, the math (it IS math) gets tricky and the waves end up cancelling each other out. If you did it just right you could get them to completely cancel each other, but it's more likely that only certain frequencies will disappear and you'll be left with a hollow sound. The easiest way to avoid phasing is to use only one mic on something. But two mics (or more) come in handy for creating a stereo image of a sound or for capturing a truer likeness of the sound by combining the good characteristics of different microphones. The trick is to learn to place the mics. And I regret to inform you that I'm still learning.

For acoustic guitars, we've used a setup that a friend of ours reccomended to Gully a while back. We placed our 4033 straight up and down with the capsule pointed at the sound hole. The NTK we placed perpendicular to the 4033 and about six inches higher, with the capsules of the two mics aligned. I'm always loathe to record guitars in stereo (with two mics) because of phasing issues and because, the way I've always done it, the sound changes whenever the person moves an inch (this problem is also known as "phasing issues"). But this mic setup has worked well. I do, however, love the sound of a single 57 on acoustics. No phasing issues, for one thing. This 2-condenser mic setup has given us a very pristine sound, which I love. The 57, however has a nice crunch to it and I think we may have to redo a guitar or two on this record just to get that crunchiness. Hosea, for example (even though we're thinking about doing away with the acoustics on that song--shocking, I know) would benefit from a crunchy little rhythm guitar.

For electrics, we've placed the amp in the bathroom. We're using both the 57 and the 4033. Again, phasing is an issue whenever you use two mics, but I was recently instructed that for electrics, since you aren't really trying to capture a stereo image--just combining the sounds of the two mics--you can simply place the mics with the capsules as close together as possible. And, in general, I think you want to place them right on the amp and point them near the rim of the speaker. So that's what we're doing. Gully's using a Line 6 delay pedal (the green one that everyone has for good reason) and a Visual Sound Route 66 Overdrive and Compression pedal graciously given to us for pennies by the nice folks at Visual Sound themselves. Between the three of us we're getting pretty good tones. I enjoy searching for guitar tones because I've been using Reason for my keyboard overdubs for a few years and the virtual gear you tweak with in Reason is pretty much just models of real guitar and studio gear. So lately I'm enjoying turning real knobs on a real delay pedal.

Okay, that's enough of that. Please excuse any poor grammar or punctuation that might lurk in the above paragraphs. And now I bid you goodnight.


MIKE P said...

Thanks for the great info (and musik) Ben. Two questions:

1. AO recently mentioned on his blog that TFC vocals were recorded on a SM57. I was surprised, because so many folks use a LD condensor. Anything more you can add on that choice? The vocals (to me) sound edgy and kind of immediate on that record (which sound great).

2. Are you guys running ProTools LE? What interface are you using to get into ProTools? Something like an 002rack or an 003rack via firewire?

Thanks for taking your time to share all this with us.


Gaël Cosendai said...

Thanks a lot for all these details. I was not aware about the phasing issue. I'll be cautious about that. Can't wait to try these tips...

Lance said...


try a Neumann KM184 or Gefell M300 on the acoustic and you will forever forget the 57. try one of those in combination with a large diaphragm condenser or tube and you'll pass out. just put the LD mic on the body and the KM184 at about the 12th fret (move in for thinner sounding guitars). spread them out across the stereo spectrum and you'll love it. to hear an example of this, go to the website below and listen to the album preview. many of the songs use this technique, but the 2nd song "Communion" in particular stands out.

on the phasing, you can double-check it in PT by looking at the waveform. the peaks of both waveforms should match up. sometimes this isn't a simple cancellation, but just slightly off which can cause the loss of certain frequencies only. sometimes it "sounds" ok, but it will very much improve if you line up the phase.

hope this helps. rock on,


Gaël Cosendai said...

Sorry to come back on this one but it has the title "tech speak" so...
Can you please define "Tracking" again? AP said it was recording bass and drums right at the beginning but it seems a bit strange to me. Do the players have a click in the ear, or a pre-recording of basic guitar and voice? Are these recordings kept till the end or are they re-recorded afterwards?
Sorry if these questions seem dumb, I try to improve my methods! Thanks a lot!