general approach

Audio recording is a field riddled with persistent myths and fanciful assumptions. While it is most certainly a convergence of technical knowledge grounded in scientific fact and artistic skills based upon refined listening habits, it is also rife with personal preferences akin to epicurean fanaticism. Debates about the best techniques and technology are at times passionate and at other times utterly ridiculous.

The changing nature of audio technology (accessibility and affordability) has completely altered many of the traditional verities of recording that many musicians and listeners still propagate. The truth is that there is no “right-way” to engineer a recording. There are only recordings that sound bad or good according to divergent criteria, preferences, and prejudices. Grammy Award winning recordings have been made using 32 channels of digital audio, a dozen or more precision microphones, and thousands of dollars worth of extremely high-end preamps and converters to record a string quartet on a world-class sound stage. It is also true that Grammy Award winning recordings have been made by someone in their bedroom with a $100 microphone, $100 preamp, and a laptop computer.

The legendary attributes of many vintage microphones are well-deserved and proven countless times over. However, there are excellent sound engineers who have “cashed in” their extremely valuable vintage microphones to collectors and purchased consumer knockoffs that can be modified by knowledgeable and creative technicians or new excellent boutique designs that are handmade by individual designers. All of these can be as effective as their priceless vintage counterparts in the proper circumstances. Money does not guarantee the effectiveness of a tool only its manufacturing cost and resultant price point.

There are certain qualities that can only be achieved by certain tools. Some are expensive and some are not. What is most important is the music being recorded, the expertise of the performers, the acoustics of the recording space, the knowledge of the engineer about all of the above, and then comes the technical characteristics of the recording gear as a final consideration. Too often what is being hyped are fanciful assumptions based upon brand name recognition with exaggerated price tags–not to mention absurd or dishonest claims based in something akin to magical thinking rather than scientific knowledge–and not what creates a successful recording. The manufacturing and sale of audio hardware and software tools is a brutally competitive world where claims for the extraordinary performance or sound quality of a given tool may merely be sales gimmicks. They are ultimately meaningless if not considered within the context of why and how they will be used.

There are an immense variety of approaches to location audio recording but most have traditionally fallen within two general camps. Many engineers and general listeners prefer a somewhat diffused “soft focus” soundscape where room ambience is clearly present and a certain coloristic character–often referred to as warmth–that is associated with accentuating the expressive qualities of the music. The other school of thought tends to emphasize clarity, accuracy, and detail of sound but is often described as having a colder and more technical sound quality. These differences in approach are not merely aesthetic choices, they also determine preferences in the engineer’s selection of tools–microphones and preamps–that convey their own unique qualities or those that give the most accurate and therefore neutral representation of the sonic reality. The technical limits of the past have-of necessity-framed this as a dichotomy from the very beginning of stereophonic recording techniques: articulation vs. spaciousness. Each approach gained something that could be compromised by the other.

A more contemporary approach is to combine these techniques in order to capture both a highly accurate representation of what is present in the acoustic space but to also include a sense of spaciousness that conveys a sense of cohesion. This is achieved through live multi-tracking where these elements can be later combined to optimal effect. This is not because it is aesthetically preferable in itself but rather because it provides the greatest flexibility for achieving a full range of aesthetic choices. One great advantage of the digital sound world is how it provides an immense and ever proliferating array of tools that can change a highly accurate sonic representation towards different color options or spatial qualities. However, it is very difficult or impossible to add more detail, clarity, or natural ambience to an already highly colored and unique sonic representation.

Traditional recording studios (especially for pop music production) often neutralize the spatial acoustics of the room and concentrate upon using microphones, unique preamp circuits, and signal processors that provide a range of coloristic qualities that we associate with various kinds of commercial music production. They sacrifice real space for control of color and layering of the mix but add virtual space to achieve certain effects and an ultimate illusion of physical space through “panning” monophonic signals into a stereo field with added electronic reverberation.

Our approach largely inverts this process in order to heighten and explore the unique spatial qualities of the real world and architectural spaces. Using a combination of very accurate high-end condenser microphones in coincident and near-coincident configurations with a variety of large and small condenser and ribbon microphones used as ambience and spot mics–chosen for their accuracy and mix compatibility–we can later select the best sounding options and combine them to add further color and warmth.

Decoding of encoded stereo/surround formats and mixing of separate tracks occurs in post-production with a DAW (digital audio workstation) and/or passive analog summing networks, or through analog tape machine emulation software, to prepare the final edit at high resolution. After editing, the stereo mix can also be transferred to high speed, analog tape formats, passed through vintage tube electronics, before final digital or analog mastering for DVD, CD, vinyl, or compressed formats. These processes are not about achieving greater fidelity but rather adding another potential sonic characteristic (effect) that some listeners prefer.

We find that using all of these processes provides more options–for combining detail, color, balance, aural perspective, depth, and ambience–than simple “purist” two-channel stereo or entirely mixed on-site recordings, especially for remote locations, but we can always easily provide these solutions as well.