As a garage musician, what gear do you need to pull off a professional recording with limited budget?
The Mobile Recorder
Present-day recording has become more popular and more cost effective. The novice-recording engineer of today has many options when it comes to selecting a path for quality sound recording, like the personal, transportable mixer/recorder.
There are a few fundamentals that are basic to the recording process to help you determine what is right for you.
First you should know how to produce a session. The recording process may consist of the engineer, a producer, and the talent. Before going into it, you should plan out what gear you are going to need.
Knowing up front how many mics you’ll need, and how many instruments you’ll have to record at one time will help a lot. Some recording devices have various models for different sizes of recording sessions, which include inputs for guitars, microphones, or both simultaneously. You can often record multiple tracks at once and control (mix) them. Some recorders are even battery powered, with built in microphones for true remote recording. This would be best suited for perhaps a solo artist who doesn’t require a whole band.
Some lines of recorders have accompaniment rhythm guides that come in handy for the songwriter that could use some drums for their songs. Look for a recorder with a built in CD burner so you can play your finished project on any CD player.
If you had to assemble a more complicated structure to your material, say people overdubbing material over basic tracks, then you could try a recorder with a sequencer as well as a rhythm guide, and add pitch correction and track control for more sophisticated production.
The top end recorders can handle up to eight simultaneous things being recorded at once. So as you can see, knowing how many tracks you’ll need to simultaneously record can even make a difference as to which recorder you use.
Know Your Mics
You will also need to make sure you have at least a working knowledge of microphones.
Microphones are to the recording process what lenses are to the photography business. Each type of lens has a different way it captures light, as each type of microphone has a different way of capturing sound. This is one of the very important things to learn as an engineer, because if you record something poorly, it may not be possible to make it sound good afterwards.
Know the difference between a dynamic mic and a condenser mic. Dynamic mics are often used for very loud, percussive sources like drums, guitar amps, and loud vocals, and a condenser mic is a type of mic used for very delicate sounds with lots of sonic detail like a violin, flute, or softer vocals. Knowing which one to use is important not only to get the best recording, but to also keep from damaging your microphones. Be aware that not all recorders can use both dynamic and condenser type mics.
Mic placement is another vital component to the recording process. The whole idea of recording is to faithfully capture a sound, then to be able to later reproduce it. If you have a mic pointed away from what you’re trying to record, it may not be the sound you’re looking for.
Everything to Gain
Another big thing is gain structure. This term simply means— record at the right levels. An oversimplified analogy would be cooking. You want to cook at the right temperature. If you’re supposed to cook something for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, and you only set it to 150 degrees for 30 minutes, your food is not going to be cooked enough. If you set the temperature to 500 degrees for 30 minutes, your food is probably going to burn to a crisp. So, recording at way too low a level, or at way too high a level can produce bad recordings. You want to get as much signal as you can without distortion. Some recorders have peak LEDs that can let you know when the level is getting too hot. Often the LEDs are set to light up a little BEFORE distortion will occur. So in this case, a peak LED lighting up every now and then is OK.
You should also have a basic knowledge of sound. Know what are considered low, mid and high range frequencies. Even to the point of comparison to a home stereo’s low, mid, and high EQ knobs, knowing what it SOUNDS like when you turn each of those knobs rather than actually knowing what goes on behind the scenes may more important to the novice.
Live, or Studio?
So, what’s the difference between setting a mobile recording device up for live performance, or studio performance?
The biggest difference between setting up for a live recording versus a studio session would be the difference in environment. You no longer have the peace and quiet that you have in the studio. You also have two things going on in a live environment. You have the person that has the job of live sound, and the person that has the job of recording the performance. While these may very well be the same person, the jobs are very different. The live engineer has the natural volumes of the sound sources (voices, drums bass, guitars, pianos, etc.) to deal with, plus the acoustics of the room. For instance the bass may be loud enough already without being put into the PA, so the engineer may not even mic the bass, whereas the recording engineer needs to record everything. This is why recordings off of the live engineer’s console often sound bad. The best way is to have two mixes going at once, as in two recorder inputs and direct outputs that could go to the live engineer, as well as be recorded.
Also, in a live recording, if you are truly recording the live performance, as a one time event, then that’s all you get. Because you only get one shot, it’s wise to try recordings on some test events before you attempt to record a live event that really matters.
When recording in applications which incorporate blended spoken word and music, the settings should stay with the same concept of getting the most signal without distortion or clipping. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s rock, blues, jazz, or a poetry reading. Gain structure is important to all of those situations.
On many recorders you can capture the spoken word and audio separately, on two separate tracks to be mixed and blended later. This means that you have the microphones placed so that you can’t hear the music bleed so much in the spoken word mic and vice versa. Sometimes this may be best served by distance between the two sources, or a baffle between them, or separate rooms, isolated from each other.
The most important thing for the novice is to listen. Try things and listen to what happens to the sound. Record yourself counting to 25 then apply different effects, listening to what it does to your voice. Did the compressor smooth it out? Did the EQ make it sound more boomy when you added bass, or brighter when you added treble?
A recorder with effects is a great tool for you to use. Experiment. Try different things. There are tons of books on the topic. Hang out with others that are doing the same things and find out what effect combinations they use.
The truth is, if it sounds right, you did it right. Education is very important, and learning as much about your profession or hobby as you can will only make the whole process more interesting and fun. Read the trade magazines, go to in-store clinics.
The best way to learn is through education and practice, just like with anything else you want to do well.