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6 Steps for Getting Great Recordings Every Time

Keep It Simple Stupid!

We’ve all heard this adage before. If not, we’re probably familiar with the bastardization of Occam’s Razor — the simplest solution is usually best.

I don’t know, maybe you’re not up on fortune-cookie style sayings. In that case, I’ll put it this way: it’s better to focus your efforts on doing something simple than to divide your efforts doing something complex. #WeissAdvice #WriteTheArticleAlready

When we’re recording we have a primary goal which is to get an accurate representation of the music we’re recording. Sometimes we might be going for something surreal, sometimes we might be going for what I call “emotional realism”, sometimes we’re going for something unnatural. Most of the time we aren’t going to go wrong by just getting a really solid capture of the instruments in front of us.

As engineers, we do like to get creative and artistic. It’s that pull that puts us in the field of music to begin with and it’s a good instinct. However, we can sometimes get a bit carried away. How many mics are on the guitar cab? And one of them is miking the cab from the back? And one of the mics is facing the wrong direction? And we have a pair of headphones wired backward inside the piano bowed out in a makeshift ORTF configuration? COOL!

It’s not that this kind of experimentation is a bad thing. It’s just that it can often lead to thinking more about the trickery than the actual important part: the sound of the instrument.

I call it “Tape-Op Syndrome.” I am guilty of this and you probably are too. We do a bunch of weird-ass stuff so that in our fantasy brains we can talk about it in an interview for Tape-Op magazine. Unfortunately, it can backfire real fast. For example, using unfamiliar techniques in an hourly session can waste time and piss off the clients. It’s also easy to mistake “different” for “good” — and we might not realize this until the next day — or it might just suck and we realize it immediately… with the client sitting there realizing it too!

On the flip side — going for simple, reliable techniques allows a session to move along quickly. And that’s good for keeping up energy and moral. If the musicians are feeling confident and don’t have to wait a long time to get into playing the performances will turn out better.

You know what really makes us look like engineering geniuses: really great performances.

Instead of spending an hour on the drum miking, what if we spend fifteen/twenty minutes on it, and then spend another twenty minutes getting an incredible headphone mix for the drummer. You picking up what I’m putting down?

With all that said — here are some recommendations for keeping your set up simple.

1. Memorize Your Usual-Suspect Microphones

There is a list of microphones that are very common for certain applications. These microphones can usually be found in most commercial studios. If you’re not sure what they are: they’re the ones people call crap on audio forums, even though they actually sound great.

U87s sound awesome as drum overheads. Sm57s are sure-fire for the close snare. RE20s sound very good for outside kick, guitar cab and bass cab. C414s, 251s, and Beyer M88s sound great on piano. While a bunch of folks on audio forums might judge your choices for being conventional, the musicians that are paying you will judge your tracking for being very good.

Familiarize yourself with popular mics and their corresponding applications so that you don’t have to swap mics a dozen times to get a good sound.

2. Have Go-To Techniques

Similarly, there are conventional miking techniques that always produce good results.

A large-diaphragm cardioid condenser placed a foot or two from the sound hole and aimed at the 12th fret will pretty much always produce a great acoustic guitar capture.

An X-Y configuration placed about three feet above a drum kit, bisecting the snare will almost always produce a good representation of the overall kit. There is a lot to be said for having a variety of techniques and perfecting your own preferences. Experiment with conventional techniques, get very good at them, pick the ones you really dig, and when in doubt: do that.

3. Use Fewer Mics and Console Preamps

Seven times out of ten, when I get a multi-mic’d electric guitar capture in the mix I am hitting the mute button on all of them except one. Blends can be cool, but usually, they’re just riddled with comb filtering. SWEET: MUTE.

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If I get a drum kit with two overheads, one close snare, one inside kick, and maybe tom mics — cool, we’re good. Want to add a snare bottom and outside kick — ok, get your phase right. Want to add a front of kit mic … ok … you’ve done this before I assume? Close captures on the cymbals … alright we might be going down a rabbit hole here. Do complex setups work: absolutely —  if you have time to do it right they can be great. But it’s much easier to get a simple set up to fly.

Additionally, if you’re on a large format console, start with the onboard preamps. It’s true, there are certain dedicated outboard preamps that are really great and often better than the onboard ones, but your onboards are gonna be pretty good. Even in the less expensive consoles like MCIs or Tofts, the pres are actually pretty cool and you can get some really great results (I actually really like the MCI onboards, they have a vibey sound).

4. Simple Chains and Channel Strips

On the subject of consoles, one of the great things about utilizing one is that you have a bunch of inline effects. This makes it really easy to dial in sounds. If we’re not using the console and going for external processing I say less is more.

Certain sources really thrive off of the signal process. Bass and compression get along very well. Vocals with a touch of compression and EQ are usually good too. And close drum captures sometimes need some fast compression just to rock. But, many sources don’t need anything at all. Electric guitar, you can get it right at the source. Piano, acoustic guitar, upright bass, strings, room captures, horns … most of this stuff can just be mic choice and mic placement.

It can be cool pulling in outboard reverbs, dialing in very specifically contoured sounds, etc, and if you’ve got the experience — go for it. But again, there’s nothing wrong with just getting a solid capture and going from there.

5. One Unique Sound Can Be Enough

Now, someone reading this article is fuming at their computer about something I’ve said or just the overall philosophy. Let’s relax. I’m not saying don’t get funky — in fact, I encourage it. I just want to veer people towards looking for simple solutions.

If we want to get weird, usually one oddball element is enough to give an entire arrangement the personality you want.

So rock on, stick a mic in a trashcan and set it next to the cellist, or run a secondary vocal mic through a guitar amp. But again, don’t overwhelm yourself with complexity when 90% of what you really need is going to be pretty simple stuff.

6. Focus On “Off Table” Study

When you’re recording you are on your client’s time. If their time allows for experimentation and trying things — that’s a beautiful thing. Most of the time, budget constraints aren’t going to be so liberal. In which case, you are responsible for getting the job done efficiently and effectively. For me, this means perfecting my techniques when I’m not on the clock.

Everyone has a friend who wants the “friend rate” to get in the studio. Cool. Perfect trade off — let them be your guinea pig for taking your time and really getting things perfect. Or just try stuff solo dolo.

Start with simple techniques: SM57 three inches out from the guitar cab, X-Y cardioid for drum overheads, etc. Get these down really well. After you have some simple effective techniques down pat, then try some more challenging techniques like the Recorderman setup for drum overheads, splitting out to two cabs for guitar, grabbing a bass amp and DI blend, high elevation room captures, etc.

This stuff takes more time to setup and can be harder to get right — and it’s worth it to get these techniques down as you grow as an engineer. But remember: your number one job is to get a full and honest capture of the recording as it’s performed.

Therefore, it is better to know the basics really well, than to do the fancy stuff kinda-good. If you can get that honest capture up and running quickly, you are good-to-go and your clients will be happy!

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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