Recording Music

The art of recording music is filled with information that is mostly technical. There is loads of information on miking techniques, what microphones and preamps to use, and how to process them. What is less often talked about are the fundamentals that underly those techniques and choices. The acoustics of the recording space and the quality of the musician will define the sound of the recording more than any mic technique or processing chain ever will.

Behind the techniques lies the real foundation of making great recordings. It's the information you don't often get because most are not keenly aware of its existence. Many have only worked in professionally treated acoustic spaces designed for recording and can often forget that their audience is not working in the same conditions. Many work through the problems that arise with intuition rather than taking the time to really understand what lies underneath all the technical choices they make.

In reality, it usually takes years to become great at recording music. During that time, allegiances to different pieces of gear will come and go and solutions will be based mostly on experience. When problems arise, it is often easier to blame the studio, available mic selection, recording console or the recording space.

If you want to make great recordings, regardless of the recording space and equipment you are working with, you will have to learn something that is more fundamental. Essentially, no two recording situations are identical and each requires a discerning ear and eye. Most of the great engineers learned by experience, trial and error, and working under great engineers before them that understood how sound works. They learned how to use acoustics to their favor, and learned how to work with musicians to get the best performances out of them.



The 3 Types of Recording


In this article I will break down the art of recording music to its most basic elements. The articles that follow in the links at the bottom of the page will get into details about recording specific instruments and the best way to manage those recording situations

Essentially you can break down the types of recording into 3 basic categories:

  1. Acoustic Recordings
  2. Electronic Recordings
  3. In the Box Recordings

Even though, electronic and in the box recordings are not dependent on the acoustic space, the principles of acoustics are still very much at play because that is the only way we know how to perceive sound. Let's take a closer look at each:


Piano Mics

1. Acoustic Recordings

Recording music in the acoustic realm is all about capturing sound waves through microphones and converting them into an electronic signal so they can be captured and recorded. Today, those recordings are mostly into computers and onto hard drives. Whether you are recording analog or digital, the basic process hasn't really changed a whole lot of over the last century or so. Music, for the vast majority of its history to humankind, has always been acoustic. It is only in recent decades that music has gone to purely electronic sources.

The concept of recording, came into play in late 1800s with the inventions of Thomas Edison. Music recording soon followed, although the capabilities were very limited. Primarily, all recording was acoustic material. The technical issues of capturing music in recorded form have undergone immense development over the last 100 years or so. In years past, the mechanical limitations of recording devices limited the engineer's options. Today, those options are seemingly endless. The irony is that the greater number of options available today have taken many engineers away from the fundamentals of acoustics and focused them on new gear and plugins instead.

As the quality of recording technology increased, so too did the importance of the acoustic recording space. The decisions made about how to manage the recording space became critical to the quality of a music recording. If you want to achieve a very big live drum sound, you are not going to get it by recording in a small dry space. In the end, no mic will make a recording space sound bigger than it is.

Managing Acoustics

When you place an instrument in a recording environment, that instrument will sound different, sometimes radically different, depending upon how and where you place it in the room. This is especially important for recording music in spaces that are smaller than 20 x 20 feet. There is no microphone that will solve all of the problems with a bad acoustic environment. Even with the best gear all you will get is a very accurate recording of very limited acoustic environment.

This does not mean you have to spend thousands of dollars on acoustic treatments. Even professionally treated recording studio environments require careful placement and attention. The most important thing, in any recording situation, is to listen carefully as you move the instrument around room. Find a place in the room that enhances the sound of the instrument without making it sound unnatural.

Acoustics is really the key to capturing great recordings and is often overlooked by most novice engineers. If you just dump an instrument anywhere in the room and throw a mic in front of it, you are basically rolling the dice and hoping that a good sound comes up. If you're a bit more conscious about how you place an instrument in a recording space, then you will get significantly better results, with much less effort, and be much happier in the end, even if you are using inexpensive recording equipment.

How you choose the right acoustic environment, and how you treat the immediate space around the instrument is unique to each instrument and the sound you are trying to achieve. These guidelines and methods will be covered with more detail in the individual recording instrument links at the bottom of the page.


2. Electronic Recording

The second method of recording music is electronic recording. Electronic recordings go back to the invention of keyboards and synthesizers, and also with basses and guitars. The idea of using a direct electrical signal is that you are bypassing the acoustics altogether. For many instruments like bass and guitar, the amplifier is a huge part of the sound you are trying to create. Without the speakers and acoustic environment, you have to count on the electronics you are using to create the sound for you.

The typical method for capturing electronic audio is through a DI box. The DI box will take any signal that comes from a high impedance unbalanced source, like from a guitar or bass and convert it into a balanced signal so it can be plugged into a mic preamp and recorded. The balanced lines help to keep the signal quiet with a minimum of degradation. Long guitar cables will pick up loads of noise and you can end up with significant signal degradation. Always keep unbalanced cables to a minimum in terms of their length.

When recording music with keyboards, you are dealing with electronics that are controlling oscillators to generate synthesized sounds that are sometimes meant to emulate acoustic instruments. The older ones are typically connected to a DI although many of them now have balanced line level outputs. This allows them to be brought directly into a line level input in a recording console. They can then be recorded without having to add a significant amount of gain, thus keeping noise to a minimum.

The only issues from a technical perspective are selecting the sounds and editing them until you get it to sound the way you like. If it is a bass, you will need to change pickups, adjust the tome knobs or switch between picks or fingering methods to get the sound you're looking for. Many direct boxes, designed for bass, have pre-amplification stages that include distortion equalization and tube components that allow you to add some character. The same can be done with guitar using pedals and effects to add warmth and depth to the sound before gets recorded.

Otherwise, the only other issues that you are making sure the signalpasses cleanly, is full frequency, and that there are no buzzes, hums or noises. Most DI boxes have ground lift switches that help to eliminate these problems.


3. In the Box Recording

The third method of recording music is in the box recording. In the box recordings are primarily referencing to computer recordings where all of the recording work is done inside the actual recording application. There is no audio coming in externally into the recording device. Recording music inside the box is most often, or at least to some degree, MIDI recording. Essentially, you are capturing the technical aspects of a performance through a midi keyboard or other midi instrument.

Once you have captured the performance, you have the ability to grab any sound from the vast number of software synths and sample libraries available and edit them till you get the sound you want. A performance played with a flute sound, can easily be changed or adapted to be a clarinet or oboe sound. This, of course, is not possible with acoustic recordings. The art of this types of recording lays in the ability to make these artificially generated sounds seem like the real thing.

When recording music in the box what you are actually recording is MIDI control signals, not the actual audio. This allows you to edit your performance, fix wrong notes or sloppy passages. You can also change the dynamics if you play a note too loud or soft by adjusting the velocity. You can change the length or sustain of notes and countless other parameters until you to get exactly the performance you desire.

When dealing with loops, you may be dealing with audio loops or MIDI loops. Audio loops are essentially acoustic recordings or electronic ones that are premixed and effected. You will have limited control in affecting audio loops, which is why the libraries are typically so vast. MIDI loops, by contrast, can be edited and manipulated in exactly the same way that any MIDI performance can including quantization and sound selection.


Moving On

All these methods for recording music are still primarily about capturing performances. To make great recordings, the goal must always be to capture great performances. Great performances will transcend the recording techniques used. Sometimes a low fi recording captures the essence of a performance better than a squeaky clean full frequency one will. Playing with this concept, is truly the art of recording music.

Select from the list below for the detailed recording techniques of specific instruments.



Recording Vocals Part 1

Recording Vocals Part 2

Recording Vocals Part 3

Recording Vocals Part 4

Return to Home From Recording Music

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