What makes a good Recording?
 
    Put a bunch of musicians and sound engineers
    in a room and they will discuss/argue about it
    all night!!  It’s very subjective, one person’s
    heaven is another person’s hell. I am therefore
    going to raise just a few points to focus
    on for your own thoughts….

 

Let’s break it down into three areas:-

 
  1. Material (songs) and musicianship
  2. Recording gear and acoustic space
  3. Engineering skills

  1. I am not going to put a “percentage importance” on it, but suffice to say the end product will only ever be as good as the performance! Structured, well arranged songs with thought given to harmonic content and interesting dynamics will always shine through. That’s what “demos” used to be about. (…if a song ,recorded in a technically rough and ready way, still captures peoples’ attention then you know the material is good). If you want to end up with a professional sounding product then it has GOT to be in tune and in time. This is where musicianship and rehearsal time will show. (.. yes there are post recording tweaks on tuning and timing that I can do, but it will always sound best if it comes from a quality performance.)

  2. I can certainly improve the “sonic” quality of what we record. Finding the right acoustic space to record in is a starting point. Generally a large space with decent ceiling height is a good start for acoustic instruments. What we are looking for is a room large enough so that the natural modes (resonances) are starting at very low audio frequencies with good, even distribution of those modes. Many domestic houses have at least one large sitting room or bedroom that fits this requirement. (The worst case is a small cube, since the room modes will be at the same frequency in each plane. Ever heard the effect of singing in a small bathroom?). For loud amplified instruments that are “close miked” the acoustic space is much less of an issue. I often isolate the speaker cabinet in a spare room (or as far from the drum kit as space allows). The gain required for microphones on these hi-level sound sources is much less, and good choice of microphone reduces pick up from behind.

    Let’s talk about microphones and pre-amps: Before the signal even gets converted to digits the damage can already be done. Studio microphones are not cheap and this is often the first part of the chain where DIY recordings limit the sonic potential. To record accurately you have to pick the right type and best quality mic you can afford. This is where I can instantly help you leap into the pro-world by using the same microphones that you would find in any top studio. The next stage in the analogue chain are the pre-amps that the mics feed. They are not all equal. I use pre-amps that I have selected for specific tasks, however, they are all super low noise amplifiers with wide frequency response, low harmonic distortion and high useable dynamic range. You have to have them if you have any chance of producing professional quality ie:- clean, open, noise free audio!


    Next comes conversion to the digital domain. This is where it starts to get a little bit technical and also creates huge amounts of discussion amongst purists and engineers. Pretty much everybody agrees that 24bit sampling is more than adequate in terms of dynamic range but sample rate choice varies from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Whatever sample rate you record at the finished CD will only be 44.1 kHz since this is the standard for all CD players. Theoretically 44.1 kHz should be sufficient sample rate to record up to 20kHz (human hearing limit). However, many “experts” claim that they can hear the phase distortion caused by the anti-aliasing filters used to frequency limit the audio before the digital conversion. By moving to a higher sample rate the anti-aliasing filters are working at a much higher frequency, hence further away from the audio spectrum with less steep filters required and less phase distortion. This has led to the trend of recording at 192 kHz in top studios. To be honest, I am still out on this one. I can see the theoretical argument for digital audio processing at higher sample rates BUT at some point it will have to be converted back to 44.1 kHz (for CD) and the difference in high sample rate test recordings I have done is very subtle. There is also a trend of mastering the final mix to analogue tape as some musicians feel the digital recording is “too clinical”. This is in effect adding some "pleasing" harmonic distortion and gentle compression (which can be simulated with plug-in processors)

  3. Knowing how to get the best out of the gear and the setup is where engineering skills can add that extra few percent. Microphone choice and positioning are the starting points. Moving a mic a few cm can make all the difference. For example: the sound from a loudspeaker can vary tremendously by moving the mic from the centre out towards the rim of the speaker cone, or getting the best out of a drum kit by finding the sweet spots on the head and using just the right amount of damping on the skins. As an engineer my job is to listen to what you are wanting and converting that into a setup.The sonic shaping doesn’t end at the recording. There are many tips and tricks I have learnt over the years to achieve a certain sound (some of which are counter intuitive). Having a musical background helps me to help you during mix/master sessions. Using “quality” plug-in processors and efficient use of software gives me the tools to fine tune the dynamics and harmonic content. However, over doing the processing can ruin the vibe. Again, it’s about doing just enough and understanding how to process the recording to achieve a musical effect. I could go on…..
So, to summarise:  I can’t magically turn weak song material into a hit record, (although I can make it sound sonically better). A great recording starts with a great performance of strong material, that’s your part…..  No process of the recording chain can be ignored, but I can’t stress enough how important the analogue front end is! :-
 
Quality instruments, well played, in a nice sounding room, recorded by quality microphones through super-hi-spec pre-amps and you are about 90% there! (Ahhhgh I put a percentage on it…). The remaining polish required to produce professional sound quality comes down to critical monitoring and experienced use of audio processing to achieve "the sound that's in your head".